St. Augustines conversion to Christianity

Aurelius Augustinius, St. Augustine, was born in 354 A. D. in Tagaste, a town in North Africa. Born just over a century before the fall of Rome, Augustine would live his entire life within the Roman empire. Augustine was a great Christian thinker and wrote numerous works which survive today, and offer us a vivid glimpse into the period. His works and thoughts on Christ, the nature of God, the role of the Church, and myriad other topics, shaped much of medieval thought. He would remain a major influence for 1000 years after he died.

Two of his works stand out as possibly the most important of his writings: City of God, and Confessions. Augustine’s Confessions is the first ever autobiography. In his Confessions, Augustine outlines his life and path toward Christianity and the Grace of God. Augustine was born into a Christian household but did not convert to Christianity until he was 32. In Confessions, he traces his spiritual journey of enlightenment through four stages. His religious conversion began with his exposure to Classical philosophy and progressed through a period of involvement with the gnostic Christian sect of the Manichees.

The road to conversion passes through Milan, where Augustine meets Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and culminates with a miraculous happening which allows Augustine to take the final step to complete conversion. With his account of internal resurrection, and a personal relationship with God, the journey which Augustine relates typifies the attraction to Christianity which so many people felt during the latter period of the Roman empire. Augustine was raised in a Christian household. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was devoutly Christian throughout Augustine’s entire life, and his father converted when Augustine was a teenager.

Yet Augustine was not a Christian, he held no particular religious beliefs at all. From an early age, his parents stressed studies, particularly in rhetoric. IN 873 A. D. Augustine was studying in Carthage where he was first exposed to the works of Cicero. After reading Hortensius Augustine became enamored of philosophy. As he put it, “The book excited and inflamed me… ,”(P. 39) and he “… longed after immortal wisdom. ” (P. 38). With this, he had found a new purpose in life, and set out the find wisdom and truth.

Cicero’s writings were eloquent, and as such appealed to Augustine’s intellect. It was a short time after his exposure to Classical philosophy that Augustine joined the Manicheans. The Manicheans believed that spiritual salvation and the grace of God could only be achieved through study and interpretation of the Bible and other works to find specialized, secret knowledge. The Manicheans held a certain appeal for Augustine. The belief that only through higher reasoning and study could one achieve grace, fit with Augustine’s own perception of the value of reasoning, and classical rationalism.

Augustine was a skilled rhetorician and orator, and had a great deal of confidence in his intellectual superiority. The Manicheans also felt themselves intellectually superior, and Augustine was drawn to this sect in part, because of his intellectual snobbery. Though Augustine remained involved with the Manichees for nine years, he questioned certain of their beliefs from the beginning. The Manicheans preached a dualist point of view. They believed the universe was ruled by an evil god and a good god. These two gods fought for dominance over mankind.

Augustine took issue with this dualist belief. He could not rationalize the idea of a good god that was powerless to conquer evil. The Manicheans portrayed a corporeal vision of God. This also displeased Augustine. As he puts it, “… they served me up the sun and the moon, beautiful works of Yours [God’s], but works of Your’s all the same and not Yourself… ” (P. 39). Also part of the Manichean ethos, was a belief that fruits held particles of life which were part of the divine spirit. In Book 3, Chapter 10, Augustine denounces this and other such beliefs as “nonsense. “

During this period, Augustine was often told that his questions and concerns could best be addressed by a Manichean bishop, Faustus. In 383, this bishop went to Carthage where Augustine had the opportunity to study under him. While Augustine was impressed with his oratory skills, he found Faustus’ answers insufficient. As Augustine put it, “… I found at once that the man was not learned in any of the liberal arts save literature, and not especially learned in even that. ” (P. 74) Thought is stint with the Manicheans was not completely finished at this point, he was heartily disillusioned.

Later in the same year, Augustine would explore the works of Plotinus. Plotinus, in the late 3rd century, adapted many of the ideas and philosophies of Plato. Plotinus’ body of work is known as Neoplatonism. Augustine was ever-ready to find a new path and took readily to this new philosophy. Neoplatonism is a philosophy of existence and the nature of the Word. Neoplatonism concludes that evil is not embodied by an outside source, but instead is a state of “non-being” or the absence of good, and that there is one supreme, eternal godhead.

Augustine found that he preferred this rationalist approach over some of the more fantastic ideas of the Manicheans. In 384, Augustine moved to Milan, where he became enamored by the oratory skills of Bishop Ambrose. Early in his studies, Augustine had discounted Christian teachings through the scriptures as being “… unworthy to be compared with the majesty of Cicero” because of “their simplicity. “(P. 39) Ambrose would help guide Augustine and change his views of Christian teachings. Ambrose was an intellectual, well-spoken, well- read, and Christian. He was all that Augustine could hope for in a mentor.

As Augustine describes him, “And he would go on to draw aside the veil of mystery and lay open the spiritual meaning of things which, when taken literally, would have seemed to be falsehood. ” (P. 91). As Ambrose helped him to understand the teachings of the apostles, Augustine saw parallels between Neoplatonism and Christian doctrine. Augustine quickly accepted Christian doctrine and its concepts of salvation. Augustine converted in the sense that he joined the church and took catechumen, but he did not yet feel touched by God. Augustine still felt that he had not completely accepted God into his heart.

This final phase of his conversion, the receipt of God’s grace, still eluded him. He felt that his journey toward God was being hampered by his love for earthly pleasures. He says “I long for the same chance [to completely accept God], but was bound not by the iron of another’s chains, but by my own iron will. “(P. 135) Augustine’s internal struggle continued until, one day he heard of the conversions of two men. These men had found grace through the story of St. Antony. Hearing this, Augustine was saddened by his own predicament, and sought solace in his garden. There, he heard a young child’s voice singing “take it and read it.

Augustine interpreted this as a sign from God to take up the scriptures and read the first passage he saw. The book opened to Romans 13:13. The passage instructed him to forgo earthly pleasures and live as Christ lived. Augustine had at last found absolute grace. Augustine’s path to conversion was long. For 13 years, he sought wisdom, and finally grace. He found his salvation in one miraculous moment of divine intervention. Augustine is writing to an audience of contemporaries. While he addresses his Confessions to God, he is writing for the people of his time.

Augustine speaks as one who experienced a long and tortured path to ultimate grace, and his words are meant to comfort and guide others on the same quest. His efforts are particularly effective because he so clearly outlines, point by point, his reasons for finding faith in the Church and in Christ. Roman society placed a great value on classical thinking and rationalism. Many others also found the same incongruities and inconsistencies that Augustine found. Augustine’s credentials as a scholar and intellectual gave authority to his Christian beliefs, and encouraged many others to follow.

Augustine’s message of self-resurrection also had a particular appeal to independent thinkers. Augustine paints a picture of a youth, sinful, decadent and lustful, who, through struggle and inner strife, is reborn in Christ. Further, Augustine’s story relates a direct relationship to God. God sent messages to Augustine’s mother and brought him to the Church. Unlike other religions, Christianity was offering everyone a direct one-to-one relationship with the creator. By relating his narrative, Augustine was offering a path to the Church and to what he believed to be salvation to everyone.

Leave a Comment