Saint Augustine focuses on three major themes in his autobiography Confessions: sin, time, and the pursuit of truth and wisdom through knowledge. I believe that all three come hand-in-hand throughout this book. According to Augustine, one has to have a clear understanding of them all to somewhat understand God and the world. First, evil does not define God, God does not experience time as we do, and lastly, how to discern truth in a sinful world.
According to Saint Augustine, God cannot be the cause of evil. For God, he says, “evil does not exist.” Evil happens in the absence of good. Evil has no substance, therefore it cannot be good because anything good has substance. Furthermore, anyone who finds a problem with any part of God’s creation is lacking reason. They cannot understand that evilness is not a substance, but the perversion of a perfect creation.
For Augustine, there are many, many more than seven deadly sins. A good portion of Confessions is not only about the sins of humanity, but also about asking why people sin, to begin with. Why does Augustine get a rush from stealing rotten fruit? Why does he like winning prizes for speaking? By definition, sin confines all of the bad things that someone could possibly do. But, at the same time, sin is what ultimately drives Augustine to pursue God. “Who shall remind me of the sins of my infancy: for in Thy sight there is none pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth (8).” We tend to think of children as innocent, however, according to Augustine, ignorance is not an excuse for iniquity. As he points out later, the fact that it would definitely not be acceptable for a full-grown adult to throw temper-tantrum shows that tantrums must be sins for kids as well. The bigger point here is that no human on earth can escape sin, which means that everyone, no matter how good, needs to seek out God’s mercy.
Saint Augustine addresses the nature of time because in the Bible the concept of creation out of nothing is revealed. This, some have said, raised the issue of an absolute beginning, something that human experience simply could not conceive. Augustine responded by explaining that time does not have the same kind of being as events that occur in time. “How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity (246).” It is appropriate to ask particular questions about a sequence of events but not what happened before all events. Time, he observed, has no substantiality outside of its relation to temporal events. Time is nothing except our relation to temporal events. God exists outside the realm of what we call time, and it does not affect him for he is eternal.
Much of Saint Augustine’s life was involved in what he saw as a search for “the wisdom of eternal truth.” He spends years pursuing this wisdom while encountering doubt and temptation. He also is disappointed by the Manichaeans, whom he regards as lacking in wisdom. Gradually, he comes to the understanding that faith is wisdom, and all values stem from God.
Knowledge is the one thing Augustine cares most about, even more than ambition, or fame, or wealth, maybe even more than sex, though we can’t say that for sure. In fact, it seems like there would be very little driving Augustine toward Christianity were it not for the fact that he really, really wants to know the ‘right answer’ of the universe. Yes, his quest for truth in the Confessions also drives him to dabble in obscure sects and philosophical texts. And in the end, he seems to do a complete 180 in his stance toward knowledge, and his outlook on the world.
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