On Augustine and Introspection, Syncretism, Language, and Conversion

On Augustine and Introspection, Syncretism, Language, and Conversion

Posted on:Dec 06 2007
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Having read The Confessions, and having read a recent biographer’s work on St. Augustine, I still did not realize the significance of Augustine’s introspective writings. Only recently have I realized the great contribution that he made through his autobiography. It was a first of sorts. Up until this point, self-reference in literature was either obtuse or patently self-serving.

It is hard for us to recognize this point in our shameless society of tell-alls. That Augustine was both a classical thinker and a bishop makes the feat even more remarkable.

It is so hard for us to view men through the lens of history and truly understand them as they were. We encounter them as they are. But “as they are” is a reflection of present tense thinking. It is the yield of cultural filters, documentary gaps, and patent assumptions.

From all that I have read, I may have a glimpse of what St. Augustine is, but it is still difficult to know him as he was. Thankfully, he has left us his Confessions. The book represents at least his own lens (distorted or not) into his life.


Augustine, for a time left the simplicity of his early childhood Catholicism for the more appealing doctrine of syncretism. Eventually, he came full circle. But I think that there is a cyclical tendency in a society towards one version or another of syncretism. Syncretism has the special appeal of apparent profundity. First, because it borrows profoundest of all the disciplines which it assimilates. Second, because it mediates the most palatable of differing views. In doing so it may become some form of reductionism (veiled or not). But regardless, it is a quiet balm for either the pseudo-intellectual or just the challenged intellectual.

When one studies a plethora of different views, one is left with perhaps three options:

  1. To chose a particular view
  2. To reject all views
  3. To compromise/mediate/synchronize these views.

This third option is far more appealing than the other two. But the truth is where you find it. It pays no attention to social constructs. It is.


Augustine’s Greek was weak, while his Latin was sublime. I find this amusing. It is, perhaps, encouraging.

A part of me wants to master many different languages while a more certain part of me knows I must focus on those that are necessary.

There is a trap in mastering new ways to say, rather than new understandings of what is said. Time spent mastering yet another language may be better spent mastering or at least exploring the plenteous messages in the languages I know.


I find it difficult to articulate what seems to be the principal insight that precipitated Augustine’s conversion. But, it would seem, despite his Manichean beliefs and his attraction to Platonic thought, Augustine knew at some level that he was unable to translate knowledge into virtue.

It took the clear prose of the apostle Paul to cut through the complex layers of Augustine’s soul.

Somehow in all of this I find a deeper lesson. One may attempt to impress men with lofty thoughts (either the compelling synchronization of pluralism, or perhaps the “deep seeking” of the classical Hellenist), but in the end, the best way to win a man’s heart is to identify with his truest conviction.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Write the truest word you know.”

Even without considering the inspiration of the spirit, Paul’s description of the human condition in Romans 7 was so true, so painfully true, it connected on a deeper level than the message of the Manicheans or the Platonists.

As I reflect deeper, it seems that the collision of extremes is sometimes necessary for a man to begin transformation. In Augustine’s case, his extreme desperation was met (finally) with the extreme honesty of the Gospel. And at this precise moment, when these extreme conditions collided, something was forged in Augustine’s soul. I think this is relevant because, as Christians, our tendency is to avoid these extreme encounters. We often avoid people in this extreme condition and we often avoid delivering a message with extreme implications. We somehow seek to deliver a tame Gospel to a tame people. But that is not evangelism; that is accommodation.

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