Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Confessions as "Confessional"

By "confessional" I mean "sectarian"--specifically, whether its approach to scriptural interpretation is more Protestant than Catholic.

I first formally studied Augustine in a medieval philosophy course where his distinctive theological positions were presented as unmistakably proto-protestant. There was nothing dishonest about this approach, since Augustine was undoubtedly the leading patristic influence on the magisterial Reformation: Luther was, of course, an Augustinian monk, and Calvin's Institutes fairly burst with references and appeals to Augustine.

But the issue came up again recently in a chance conversation with an acquaintance--an acquaintance, I should add, with a long, deep, and learned history with Augustine. She found him essentially Protestant because of the freedom inherent in his biblical interpretation. Those who know the Confessions will remember that only about two-thirds of it is what we could consider properly autobiographical. After his account of the death of his mother Augustine launches into meditations on the marvel of memory, followed by a long disquisition on the nature of time. He ends with a penultimate book entirely taken up with the first phrase in Genesis, and a final book engaged in an allegorical reading of the seven days of creation.

Her view was that Augustine was essentially Protestant because of the freedom with which he handled scripture. And it is, to us, handled freely indeed: "Heaven and earth" point more to Neoplatonic entities that the "sky and ground" as literally read. Light is enlightenment, the firmament the scriptures, the luminaries and creatures in the firmament expositers and exemplars. It does indeed seem quite far from any reading that Ezra or Paul might have given it.

But, given the freedom that is there, it still seems to me a bounded freedom, one that recognizes an imperative to stay within the tradition. This, I think, can be inferred from Augustine's earlier narrative of his disdain of the scriptures, his finding them so essentially childish, until he heard them expounded by St. Ambrose. There he was given a view of them that he had never found by simply reading. Once introduced into the tradition, once reading the scriptures in the lived community of the Church, they not only made sense, but opened themselves to a difficult philosophical interpretation which neither extinguished their sense for the simple, nor unmoored them from the defining limits of the tradition.

I think of Augustine's experience when I come across what seems to be a new journalistic form, the reading of the scriptures by one outside of the tradition with astonishment at the bizarre and outlandish. They read, and expound, like the early Augustine, and, not surprisingly, end with disdain. And very seldom is there time for an Ambrose to explain, to interpret, to place in the greater context. That is one of the frustrations of being a Christian after the demise of Christendom, the belief of so many that they know the Christian faith because of their rote familiarity with a set of random propositions and passages.

Another phenomenon is the re-casting of new traditions, possible anytime from the plasticity of any text. I think a good example, a good contrast with Augustine's penultimate chapter in the Confessions, is Joseph Smith's breathtaking King Follet Discourse, where he, too, interprets the first verse of Genesis, and comes up with: "In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the God; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it." This is free interpretation indeed, but rather outside of the Catholic tradition as hitherto lived.

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