Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 2

This is Part 2 of two posts on the potential problems in Augustine’s conversion account. To see the post on the first question, see Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 1.

The Question

Our second question tries to sort out the timing of when Augustine first put his faith in Christ. At first, we simply scan for the life-altering moment of a religious conversion and easily locate it in the experience at the Milan garden. But, when we examine the text closer, we realize that there is evidence of faith sprinkled throughout his life prior to his garden experience. To fully grasp the puzzle of this question, we must do a brief overview of his wanderings toward faith.

As young child, he feels drawn to God through the teachings of his mother and the yearnings of his own heart. To avoid beatings at school, he would pray that God would protect him. And when he is very sick as a child, he asks to be baptized, but before the sacrament could take place, he quickly recovers. This yearning for Christ propels him on his search for truth, and he stumbles across Cicero. Upon reading Cicero’s Hortensius, he longs for true wisdom and even begins to turn back to God. He writes:

The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you (et surgere coeperam, ut ad te redirem). [ref]Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), III.iv (7), p. 39. Literally, we could translate the italics as, “I began to rise up with the purpose of or with the intention of returning to you.”[/ref]

The last sentence in the Latin tells us that his intention or purpose in rising up (surgere) is in order that he may return to God. If he intends and plans to return to God, would this not be the beginning of his faith in God?

His desire for God appears unmistakable; he cries out: “My God, how I burned, how I burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you.”[ref]Ibid., III.iv (8), p. 39.[/ref] And yet, his response is perplexing, for though he rises up toward God and burns with desire for God, he keeps falling back into the mire:

For almost nine years then followed during which I was in the deep mire and darkness of falsehood. Despite my frequent efforts to climb out of it (cum saepe surgere conarer), I was the more heavily plunged back into the filth and wallowed in it.[ref]Ibid. III.xi (20), p. 50. Literally, we could translate the italics as, “Although I was often trying to rise up . . .”[/ref]

Despite his repeated attempts to climb, literally “to rise up” (he uses the same verb, surgere, again), out of the mire, he cannot consummate his conversion and instead, sinks deeper into the filth. His turn to Manichaeism, a gnostic religion of that time, reflects another attempt to pull himself out of the mire and hold on to truth. Again, his efforts are in vain, and his restlessness and emptiness continues to plague him.

After finally breaking off from the Manichees, he begins eagerly listening to the sermons of Ambrose. As the truth of Ambrose’s words slowly enters into his heart, Augustine realizes that the teachings of the church are not contradictory and irrational as he had believed; in consequence, he writes, “I was being turned around (et convertebar).”[ref]Ibid., Vi.iv (5), p. 94. Convertere comes from the prefix com, meaning “with” or “together”, and vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus, our word conversion contains this notion of “being turned all together” or, more colloquially, “being turned completely around.”[/ref] In other words, he was being converted by someone or something outside himself, as indicated through the passive voice of convertebar, and not by his own power or effort. Referring again to the passage in Book VII, we find that this “turning around” does reveal some kind of faith, but it is unformed: “But there was a firm place in my heart for the faith within the Catholic Church, in your Christ, our Lord and Savior. In many respects this faith was still unformed and hesitant about the norm of doctrine.”[ref]Ibid., VII.v (7), p. 116. Also, see VII.vii (11), p. 119, where he refers to the “faith which I held.”[/ref]

What does it mean for Augustine to have faith, but for it to lack form or completeness? Is not any kind of faith, even faith as small as mustard seed, sufficient for conversion?

Tackling the Question with Help of Bernard Lonergan

We will again turn to the helpful three-part description of conversion by Bernard Lonergan. (To see an overview of Lonergan’s three types of conversion, intellectual, moral and religious, see Part 1 of this series).

If conversion is a dynamic, ongoing process, as we discussed previously, it makes sense for there to be evidence of faith early on in his life as he is being slowly pulled closer and closer to God’s love. He continually refers to something or someone who is outside himself (hence, the passive convertebar (I was being converted/turned around) is used) to show that this is a passive, gradual yet dynamic process. Like an hour hand on a clock steadily being turned by the wheels hidden behind its face (see image above), Augustine is slowly being turned by a hidden power greater than himself.

Though all of the conversions are connected to one another, the seeds of religious conversion, in a causal sense, must come first and begin this process of being turned around. Religious conversion is a “dynamic state that is prior to and principle of subsequent acts.”[ref]Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 240.[/ref] Prior to any other cognitional acts, there is the gift of God’s love, the beginnings of a religious conversion.[ref]Ibid., 238, 243.[/ref] Such love is what draws Augustine to the wisdom espoused by Cicero, to the name of Christ claimed by the Manichees and ultimately, to the church of Christ. Augustine continues to rise up (surgere) out of his pit because of the pull of this love, but he falls back because he has not received this gift as his own. He reaches for it, but does not put his belief or trust in it yet. He still refuses to beg for help.

In retrospect, he is aware of this: “By believing I could have been healed (et sanari credendo poteram).”[ref]Augustine, The Confessions, Vi.iv (6), p. 95.[/ref] If he had only asked and accepted the gift of God’s love, the Lord would have turned and healed him, opened his eyes and set him free. Lonergan notes, “The acceptance of the gift of God’s love both constitutes religious conversion and leads to moral and even intellectual conversion.”[ref]Lonergan, Method in Theology, 327.[/ref] This gift, which manifests as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer, is what enables true faith and allows the believer to then fully implement the knowledge and values gained from intellectual and moral conversion. Augustine’s unformed faith is evidence of God’s gift of love, but it could not bear fruit until there was acceptance accompanied by unconditional, surrendering, unqualified, unreserved belief.

In summary then, by recognizing that conversion is an ongoing, dynamic process, his early faith and attempts to return to God reveal this gradual process. God’s gift of love early on in Augustine’s life, though not fully accepted until the moment in the garden, compels him to keep seeking until he finds.

Again, Lonergan’s vocabulary gives us further insight into understanding Augustine’s conversion (and conversion in general). However, as we noted earlier, a conversion still has elements of mystery in it that cannot be fully expressed. What exactly happened in the garden when Augustine crossed over from death to life? What does that look like? These questions are perhaps not explainable in words, but only understood through personal testimony and experience.