I confess: I’ve been reading The Confessions this summer, by St. Augustine. Yes, that Augustine,, the 4th -5th Century bishop of Roman North Africa, to whom are credited such discredited doctrines (by Anabaptists at least) as the just war theory, the right of the state to persecute heretics, a rationale for infant baptism, and a puritanical hostility toward sex. About the latter, Augustine repeats that he’s not against sex as much as he’s really against our enslavement to any pleasure and power, our tendency to corrupt any gift from God by making a god of it. He would know, from the society in which he grew up, and the misconduct to which he confesses in his pre-Christian life. He might agree with my suspicion that promiscuity and prudishness are bound together in egging each other on, that libertinism and legalism exist in childish reactivity to each other in a kind of compulsion and slavery from which the Christian must arise and struggle toward adulthood.

Does reading Augustine, and (Gasp!) liking it make me a traitor to Anabaptism?

I don’t have to agree with everything anyone says in order to find value in anything they say. Otherwise, I would be most steadfastly opposed to myself; rereading my old sermons would be more painful than it already often is. I try to cut everyone enough slack to ask “What strikes me as right about your words, and why?” rather than settling for, “Who’s right?” and “Who’s wrong?” Especially when one is so honest about his own shortcomings, struggles, failings, questions and limits, as was Augustine. How differently his Confessions read from the usual self-marketing of leaders and teachers, who often bathe themselves in the very glory and authority they seek.

What I also enjoy about reading The Confessions is the honest, insightful and yet compassionate way in which Augustine lays bare the movements of the human soul both toward and away from God. Reading about both the hope and desire he expresses toward God, and about the fear, evasiveness, avoidance and distractions of the soul from God (even righteous, religious distractions) is a constant page-turning experience of self-recognition.

In such ways, Augustine is not all that different from Menno Simons, some twelve centuries later, who also gave us an unvarnished image of himself and of his struggles on the way to conversion, and of his life of ongoing conversion. To become a Catholic priest, Menno would surely have read Augustine’s Confessions.

One commonality between Menno and Augustine is in their very sober and realistic (some might say, “despairing” or “dreadful”) understanding of sin in all its facets, as an ugly wound of estrangement that mars everything that was meant to reflect something of God. Both saints are prophetic in that they are deeply aware of and pained by the presence and power of sin, how much it intoxicates and misleads us, of how far we fall short from all that is so divinely beautiful and true.

But they were no mere cranks, who only tirelessly (and tiresomely) point out other people’s sins. The prophet also experiences a degree of hope and joy that neither the crank nor the knee-jerk optimist can know. As dark and dreadful as the power of sin lies in the prophet’s vision, so much greater and more attractively shines the light of God’s grace and truth. Such hope Augustine put to words in a prayer oft repeated in Book X of his Confessions: “Grant me what you command, and command of me what you will.” That is, Augustine trusted God to work in him what God willed, and what Augustine could only wish to will, so divided was his fallen will on its own. As God’s grace had brought him to the point of conversion to Christian faith, so would God’s grace make possible a life of Christian discipleship thereafter. Discipleship and the Christian life, then, for Augustine, are not our gifts to God, offered up by our own effort and sacrifice, but God’s gift to us, by God’s effort and sacrifice on our behalf. We don’t live for Christ by white-knuckling it, as much as Christ lives through us through our trusting surrender.

Menno Simons likewise wrote of the Christian life as a gift. Speaking of the faithful, “…they live no longer in the old life of sin after the first earthly Adam (weakness excepted), but in the new life of righteousness which comes by faith, after the second and heavenly Adam, Christ; Paul says, I do not now live, “But Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” Gal. 2: 20. 

For praying, “Grant what you command, and command what you will,” Augustine became the target of a major controversy, led by an English monk, Pelagius. He feared that Augustine’s reliance on grace would undercut all our responsibility and effort toward holiness. Pelagius and his allies were actually more rigorous, prudish, puritanical and abstemious than Augustine. They were motivated by disgust at the laxity of other Christians, and by great faith in human nature, and our ability to please God with our own efforts. That leads me to suspect that whenever we water down any part of God’s Word, that actually results in greater human bondage, not less. So began what would later be called “The Pelagian Controversy.” Later church councils would side with Augustine over and against the Pelagians. But the spirit of Pelagius lives on.

I thought often of this ancient controversy during the recent Mennonite Church USA delegate assembly in Kansas City, MO, not only in response to delegate discussions around sexuality, Israel/Palestine and sexual abuse (all very necessary discussions, I hasten to add), but also during worship services and some seminars. For all the fellowship, worship, workshops and discernment that I found fruitful and enjoyable, I grew increasingly aware of and disturbed by a constant drumbeat of exhortation to be more radical, more activist, more effective, more demonstrably different from the world, different from the fundamentalists and from the mainstream middle class evangelicals, different from and more effective than…. Well, you get the point.

My inner Augustine had me wondering, Does this drumbeat of demand represent at heart a fundamental anxiety about justifying ourselves in comparison to others? If so, are we Mennonites switching from one kind of Pelagianism to another? Are we trading in the fundamentalist Pelagianism of rigid dress codes, gender roles and “nonconformity” of our parents and grandparents for a new, “progressive” and activist kind of Pelagianism? If so, we may be arguing about politics, sexuality or church structure, but the real problem, which cuts both ways in our debates, is a fear that we must prove ourselves to God and more righteous than others, and a misplaced faith in ourselves and in our own ability to understand and do God’s will, apart from God doing his will in us. And so we may think to justify ourselves, to ourselves, to others, and to the One who justifies us. Menno Simons himself would take us to task for that, as did Augustine, in another prayer, “…first of all you healed me of the lust for vindicating myself, so that you might then forgive all my sins and heal me of all my diseases…” (Confessions, Book X)

The most Augustinian moment of the conference came with the confession on the part of the Executive Board, to the effect that they had trusted too greatly in our good intentions, our organizational skills, our administrative skills and our education to lead us effectively through our differences around sexuality.

My inner Augustine rejoiced at this confession and responded (too late to say anything, alas) with, “Let us all repent and confess, and be silent in prayer.” And let us put our trust in “the God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4: 5).”

In future postings I hope to share the prayers of Augustine in The Confessions (actually, the whole thing is one long, extended prayer) that have most touched me, as well as some of his names for God, which are worth meditating on and praying.