sermon preached St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The Conversion of St. Augustine/ May 5, 2010
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian who is one of the best-known theologians ever. Anyone who has studied Christian theology has something to say about Augustine, not all of it nice. When they’re not angry with him for coming up with the concept of original sin, people complain about his sexual hang-ups. Meanwhile, in other Christian circles, his theology is almost considered a part of the Gospel itself. As I learned more about Augustine this week, I was pleased to learn that I actually like him quite a bit. He is one of our more human saints.
Augustine was born in 354 in what is now Algeria. Ethnically, he was a Berber: that is, one of the indigenous peoples of North Africa west of the Nile Valley. Augustine’s father was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, was a Christian, but the teenage Augustine decided to become a Manichaean. This Persian Gnostic faith was one of the largest religions in the world at the time. It taught a cosmic, dualistic worldview in which the forces of good and evil, symbolically represented by the spirit and the body, were battling it out, and nobody really knew which side would win.
Augustine threw himself into a life of hedonism. He joined a gang that encouraged its members to brag about their sexual encounters with women, and absent any encounters, to make something up in order to avoid ridicule. Pretty soon, though, Augustine settled into a stable relationship with a young Carthaginian woman. They were together, unmarried, for thirteen years, and they had a son.
The gifted young Augustine became a teacher of grammar and rhetoric, but he was always frustrated by the apathy of his students. As he aged, he began to grow out of Manichaeism. His mother, Monica, kept pressuring him toward Christianity, and when Augustine moved to Milan, Monica followed him there and arranged a marriage for him. What a persistent mom!
But the arranged marriage meant that Augustine had to abandon his concubine of 13 years. Meanwhile, his arranged bride was only 11 years old, and he wasn’t allowed to marry her until she was 12. During the interim, he had an affair with another concubine, and this anguished him so much that he broke off his engagement. Single and heartbroken, Augustine uttered the prayer, “God grant me chastity and continence … but not yet!”
Augustine got to know Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and it was through Ambrose’s influence that Augustine had his conversion experience, which we observe today. In the summer that he was 31 years old, Augustine read an account of the life of St. Anthony of the Desert, a Church Father from the previous generation. Inspired to tears, Augustine lay down under a fig tree and wept openly. He felt that God was angry with him for his many sins. As he wept and prayed, he heard a voice from a neighboring house, the voice of a child at play. The child was chanting and singing, “Tolle, lege, tolle lege,” which means, “Take up and read.”
Augustine thought this an odd thing for a child to sing, so he went inside, opened a Bible, and read the first thing he laid eyes on. It was from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
"Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."
That was enough for Augustine. He entered a process of Christian initiation and was baptized by Bishop Ambrose, along with his son, at the Easter Vigil the next spring. The following year, he returned to Africa, where he was ordained a priest and later the Bishop of Hippo.
Hundreds of Augustine’s writings survive to this day. His theology continues as a primary influence in nearly every Christian sect. But here are a few tidbits you may not know about Augustine. For one thing, he was an early developer of educational theory and the study of different learning styles. He also wrote a lot about the nature of human will, and his innovative writings influenced both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
You may be surprised to learn that, without any inkling about evolution, Augustine spoke out against literal creationism. He did believe that the universe was only a few thousand years old, but he maintained that God had created everything in the blink of an eye—perhaps the first Big Bang Theory? Augustine had no trouble understanding that the Genesis accounts of creation are holy poetry meant to provide us with a logical structure and a deeper understanding of God. In general, he treated Holy Scripture as metaphorical, insisting that if our reason shows us a contradiction between Scripture and the natural world, we should trust our God-given reason.
Augustine also taught that there is a distinction between “the church visible” and “the church invisible.” We should be careful, he wrote, not to assume that those who are members of the Church are more in God’s favor than those who are not. The Church is a crucial sign and a symbol, but we must not confuse it with the City of God itself. Consequently, he taught that the sacraments conveyed by priests do not lose their efficacy if the priest is a sinful person.
Augustine is most famous for developing the concept of original sin. He believed that Adam and Eve sinned first in their pride and then in their disobedience. This self-centeredness was thus woven into human nature and can only be overcome by divine grace. Clearly, Augustine the Christian continued to be influenced by his years in Manichaeism—the dualism of soul versus body speaks loudly. Much of the problem, Augustine argued, has to do with sex. Human sexuality is fallen, he argued, and can only be healed a little bit at a time through the sacrament of Christian marriage.
I find it interesting to compare a person’s beliefs and life experience. This is a situation we all find ourselves in. My experiences lead me to believe something strongly. No matter how many logical proofs you may offer me to the contrary, only a much stronger experience is likely to change my views and gain a new perspective. (I especially try to remember this when I catch myself dispensing sage advice to teenagers. It usually turns out to me little more than guilty nostalgia!) In Augustine’s case, his early sexual experiences led him to believe he was sinful and fallen, and he found his way out of the dark through celibacy rather than marriage, in conjunction with ordination.
I do think it a shame, though, that Augustine’s 13-year stable relationship with his concubine could not be blessed by the Church. I assume that Augustine couldn’t or didn’t marry her because of her social class. He referred to this woman in his writings as “the One” … it sounds like they had something very special. This makes me think about our present-day situation in America, in which many couples never get married, and many others are not allowed to, as much as they would like to. Meanwhile, a staggering number of “legitimate” marriages fall apart. It seems that in every age we have set up structures that choose to bless or curse a relationship with no inside knowledge of it.
Modern historian Thomas Cahill has called Augustine “the first medieval man and the last classical man.” But Augustine was, first and foremost, fully human. Perhaps he never fully understood that God, the one who was incarnated and became a human himself, blessed and loved Augustine’s body as well as his soul. But through his intelligence, wisdom, and failures, Augustine can help us connect with the bright spark of divinity in ourselves. Amen.