Augustine Avoids a Snare of the Devil

At the age of 29 Augustine is finally starting to figure it out. In Book V he tells us about how he was hanging out with the Manichees, and meets Faustus, a bishop of that sect. Faustus goes from being a snare to becoming the path to Augustine’s salvation.

The Manichees were a Gnostic religion, meaning they were one of the groups that broke with Christianity in the second century, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary. (While I want to focus on the books in the Great Books set as much as possible, I find it necessary to refer to outside works on occasion to help me understand these books.) The Manichees believed that the forces of darkness had invaded the realm of light and caused the earthly mingling of good and evil. So, their sect was divided into The Elect, who could not hold any worldly jobs or possessions, and the HEarers who by keeping moral rulers might be reborn as the one of the elect.

Faustus was one of these Elect few, and Augustine wanted to talk with him because Augustine had heard Faustus was “most knowing in all valuable learning, and exquisitely skilled in liberal sciences.” Looking back, Augustine says that Faustus was surely a snare of the devil because many were entangled by him and pulled away from God.

Augustine gets his chance and manages to talk with Faustus about many things and finds out he knows nothing about the liberal arts except for grammar. Augustine says he was full of questions about the world and the nature of things from his studies and that the Manichees could not answer his questions.

One of the problems for Augustine is that he finds that the Manichees as less knowledgeable than he is about the liberal arts. They don’t know philosophy and physics and astronomy. He decides to separate himself from the Manichees and stop reading their books. In hindsight, Augustine sees the other problem is that what Manichees do know, they claim for themselves and do not give the credit for the knowledge to God. Augustine says that he can tolerate when “any Christian brother” is ignorant of these things, but he uses them to find his way to God.

So, shouldn’t Augustine be arguing for education for Christian people? He does not “see that any ignorance as to the position or character of the corporeal creation can injure him, so long as he doth not believe anything unworthy of Thee, O Lord, the Creator of all.”

Despite the benefits of his education to his immortal soul, Augustine takes no credit for finding his way to the church or God. “For They hands, O my God, in the secret purpose of Thy providence, did not forsake my soul; and out of my mother’s heart’s blood, through her tears night and day poured out, was a sacrifice offered for me unto Thee; and Thou didst deal with me by wondrous ways.”

Augustine takes no credit for anything other than his sins. So at what point will he ever take responsibility for his faith? If he is unwilling to take credit for finding his way to God, it seems that he is avoiding taking responsibility for what that means as well.
This question is related to, but not the same as, whether untested faith is really faith at all. Rather than the faith being untested, however, it is externally driven. Where does Augustine’s faith come from? It seems to be externally driven. Driven by God, that is true, but even then, the question remains, is it true faith, or something else?

In Book V, Augustine says that he found his way to church because he was teaching rhetoric and wanted to hear how well a Catholic Bishop spoke. It is a common intellectual’s argument – I am going to church (or a concert, or a sporting event, or something else that is implied to be beneath the speaker) because I want to study it, intellectualize it, and probably pick it apart. It seems that if the faith is being built or driven or created by God, and not by Augustine’s own works, then it is the equivalent of him still standing around trying to be detached. He is unwilling to say ‘I developed faith in God’ almost as though he is still leaving himself an escape route if something goes wrong with this religion like it did with the Manichees.

Perhaps the next few books will reveal how he comes to find God and take responsibility for his finding.

Next Time: Augustine Debates with His Friends — Will He Ever Graduate?

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