How Augustine’s Confessions and left politics inspired my conversion to Catholicism
Shortly before Easter 2014, my family visited me in the United Kingdom, where I was studying Christian theology. I rode the train to meet them in London, where I planned to deliver the news to dad myself. Mom already knew. Months earlier, I had requested from her a copy of my Presbyterian baptism certificate, which she located and provided without judgment, reasoning that there were worse things a young person could get up to in a foreign country than converting to Catholicism.
It was late when I made it to their hotel, where I met them in an upstairs lounge. We caught up for a little while before I mustered my courage and came out with it.
“I’m converting to Catholicism next week,” I said. “That’s when we do it: Easter.”
At first my dad did not believe me. After all, why? To them, converting to Catholicism did not seem like something I would do. Up until that point my parents had thought of me as most parents of that era likely thought of their adventurous, college-aged children: leftish, radicalized by the 2008 financial crisis, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, no ally of anything establishment or retrograde. They knew I was very religious, but conversion likely made even less sense to them given my strong faith: Why mess with a good thing?
In the Beginning
I was baptized as a child in a Presbyterian church my family attended for a time, but was raised Methodist. I liked my Methodist church, though I was not ever sensitive to its doctrinal uniqueness. I knew we believed in a kind of free will before I knew what sort of theological conviction that belief ran up against. I knew we relied heavily on the Bible, though we were not as thoroughly literal as others. I knew we believed in being kind and orderly and that our pastors were learned and gentle and trusted to guide and illuminate, though each of us went alone before God.
When I left home for college many states away, I intended to keep up with my Methodist churchgoing but didn’t. Our Protestant chaplain was a profoundly humane Quaker with whom I spent a great deal of time, and in the light of our friendship I periodically attended meetings of the Society of Friends. I appreciated the authenticity and earnestness with which the Quakers pursued God and thought it appropriately humble to sit silently under the white beams of a New England meeting house and await Him.
But I was restless. In the quiet of the meeting house I would let my mind circle around threads of Scripture, moving like a spiral, inward toward meaning. But as the spiral tightened toward a kernel of truth, difficulties began to snare the lines. Already I was reading rapaciously about the histories of the biblical texts: their journeys through translation and interpretation; their auditions for the canon and those that did not make the cut; the late additions and redactions. I had not been raised to think the Bible totally bereft of metaphor or allegory, but these were problems of authority, not interpretation. Who could say what was symbolic or literal, what was historical artifact and what was currently applicable instruction?
Not only do individuals change over the course of a lifetime, inclining them to different (though entirely honest) interpretations; people change as cultures change.
Protestantism charges the individual conscience with many, if not all, of these interpretive duties. The trouble, as I came to see it, is that while Scripture must contain at least some meaning that is stable over time, consciences are not. Not only do individuals change over the course of a lifetime, inclining them to different (though entirely honest) interpretations; people change as cultures change. And some of those shifts in society and culture have major ramifications for how (or whether) we understand the things we read.
Truth in Charity
Take, for example, the winding historical journey of charity. The word caritas appears multiple times in the Latin text of the Bible and is usually translated into English as either “love” or “charity”; different translations of the same passages can feature either, as an attempted correction to the problem that follows.
The King James Bible renders 1 Corinthians 13:3 as “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” To contemporary readers, especially those outside the Catholic tradition, that verse may seem a little odd: How is it possible to give all of your possessions to the poor without doing charity? Doing so would appear to be the very definition of charity.
But the word has changed over time. As the scholar Eliza Buhrer points out, the original term Paul used was the Greek word agape; but, inspired by Cicero, Jerome, in the fourth century, translated it into Latin as caritas. That choice, Buhrer writes, “cemented the idea that caritas would forever be associated in some way with poverty,” though it certainly bore no such inherent association in its original Latin usage.
Thanks to Paul’s use of the term agape, early Christian writers (including Augustine, who never used caritas to mean almsgiving) were very cognizant of the difference between caritas and what we would now identify as charity. But throughout the middle ages, Buhrer observes, sermons and homilies on poverty began to conflate caritas with giving itself, and though the church would always distinguish between the two uses, they blurred in the popular religious imagination.
These days, charity in popular usage refers almost exclusively to almsgiving or other activities that support people in need; the less-apt reading of caritas won out. Thus, one often hears the popular talking point among politically conservative Christians that assistance as administered by the state is notcharity, because it is compulsory—an argument meant to refute Christian arguments for state-funded welfare programs. This idea draws from both senses of charity, the antique and the medieval. On the one hand it suggests there is no moral imperative for Christians to pursue a robust welfare state because the Bible actually counsels love, something that cannot be coerced; on the other, it seems to accept that the term charity itself denotes the giving of goods.
It is possible to resolve the confusion: True, love cannot be coerced, and that which is given without love is not given in the spirit of caritas; still, it is entirely possible to build political institutions that ensure humane conditions for the least of these out of caritas. In that case, the charity is not in the transmission of goods to the poor, but in the initiative to create a world where those transmissions reliably take place.
And yet, so much depends on one word and its tangled history. It seems unlikely that the average reader of the King James Bible can be expected to have researched and understood the different uses of caritas—I did not do so until graduate school—yet one would be ill-suited to grasp the full meaning of 1 Corinthians 13, not to mention the political discourse that rests on it, without having done so. We read words as we understand them, but words change over time, and so do we.
As a student, I became increasingly aware of the problems these textual knots posed for the way I had been taught to relate to God: How could I read my way to God by the light of my own conscience if I was not even entirely sure of the meaning of what I was reading, much less my ability to read it reliably? And in the course of all that confusion, as if by divine providence, a professor assigned St. Augustine’s Confessions in one of my classes.
I began to read Augustine compulsively. I devoured the Confessions and City of God, then moved on to his letters, his sermons, the Soliloquies and the Enchiridion and on and on. Some five million words of Augustine’s writings survive, and I wanted to read them all.
I loved his clarity of mind, his incredible intellect, his dazzling charisma. I loved, as a young adult, all that intensity—the strength of his feelings for God and the world, his passion. But I also appreciated the service his writings provided in terms of navigating difficult texts: Without quite knowing it, I had begun to rely on the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tradition provides a chain of provenance beginning with the original biblical texts and extending down into our present year, with scholars and clerics reading their predecessors and puzzling out how to apply their thinking about God and his people to new questions that arise with time. Instead of leaving a single conscience to the knotty business of making sense of ancient texts, the tradition offers Christians a chorus of helpful coreligionists passing down insight over time. An individual’s conscience plays a role, of course, in her own interpretation of the tradition; but the weight of time and expertise are instructive, and they whisper through space and centuries that you are not alone.
The weight of time and expertise are instructive, and they whisper through space and centuries that you are not alone.
I had been persuaded that this method of dealing with interpretation and authority made sense by my experience of Judaism. Early in my career at Brandeis, my predominately Jewish college, I had the privilege of taking a class with a rabbi who approached familiar texts with an inquisitive, demanding intellect, but also the company of several hundred interpreters, whose collective thinking bore weight and balanced the affective prejudices of modern readers against those of the ancients.
College is likely when most people come into Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and though I had read them before I, too, found my interest in left insights into political economy refreshed around that time. And it made me all the more curious about Augustine, who seemed to speak for a manner of thinking that could critique and even reject the aspects of modernity that are corrupt without receding into sterile nostalgia or abandoning the witness of history altogether. The reasoning was just as flexible as it needed to be, and no more. It was beautiful, elegant even.
As a Protestant, I had learned that commentaries on Scripture were just that: the ephemeral striving of mere mortals, bereft of meaning in their own right, useful only insofar as they happened to be correct according to one’s own judgment. But more and more I was convinced I could not carry out a Christian life by myself. I did not want to read and draw my own conclusions; I wanted guidance, clarity, authority. God had not seen it fit to leave Adam alone in Eden, nearer to God than we are now. He needed help, and God gave it to him.
I began to see God had already done the same for me. I just had to accept it.
Change of Heart
Plenty of converts to Catholicism prize the church’s prudence when it comes to evaluating modern conditions. Because the church is a pre-modern institution, it does not take for granted many of the givens of modernity: that personal freedom ought to be endlessly maximized, for instance; that the most important goal in life is finding oneself; that politics and religion are two sharply and rightly separate spheres.
In an essay in 2005 about his conversion to Catholicism from Episcopalianism, R. R. Reno, editor in chief of First Things, wrote that “modern theology is profoundly corruptive. The light of Christ must come from outside, through the concrete reality of the Scriptures as embodied in the life of the Church. The whole point of staying put is to resist the temptation to wander in the invented world of our spiritual imaginings.”
By “modern theology” Reno means the (mostly) liberal theology that rose up after the Enlightenment to defend Christianity from its cultured critics. In those defenses, however, Reno finds a profusion of mere theories—thin lattices of argumentation constructed to prop up denominations whose commitments, if not their doctrines, are compromised. “What my reception into the Catholic Church provided,” Reno wrote, “was deliverance from the temptation to navigate by the compass of a theory.” Instead of the ephemera of ever-generating theories, Reno found he could rely on the solid pre-eminence of the Catholic Church, whose internal life is marked by striking continuity with the past.
Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned.
Ross Douthat, a prominent columnist for The New York Times, described his reasons for converting in similar terms in 2014. While Douthat noted that he could “easily imagine [Andrew] Sullivan, or some of my other eloquent critics, regarding the remarriage-and-communion proposal as an ideal means of making their conservative co-religionists grow up, of forcing us to finally leave our fond medieval illusions behind and join the existentially-ambiguous, every-man-a-magisterium chaos of our liberal, individualistic, postmodern world,” he suspected a reversal on the issue of divorce and remarriage could undercut what drew many to Catholicism in the first place: a long, documented historical integrity that has withstood political and social pressure to change.
Reno and Douthat, both of them sensitive and extremely learned critics of culture, religion and politics, are also (as one might expect of those with a healthy skepticism regarding modernity) political conservatives. I, with equal concerns about many of the conditions that make up the current political and social order, am not.
Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.
Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed, in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”
Property entered the equation with sin. Since people could no longer be trusted to honor the original purpose and use of creation, governing authorities were able to maintain order by dividing it up. But the church remained sensitive to the pre-property purpose of creation, and with its own authority (throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, ecclesiastical courts heard many cases regarding property and contracts) and power to persuade states and subjects, it urged vigilance against the tendency of the wealthy to amass more than their due, to the detriment of the poor. Individual actors departed from the counsel of the church, of course, but never succeeded in altering its doctrine to advance their own purposes.
But that changed after the Protestant Reformation. While Erasmus and Thomas More had each been meditating on the common ownership of all things just prior to the schism, Luther and his adherents took a different approach. Reacting to the radical communitarianism of the Anabaptists, the Reformers took the view that all things ought to be held in common as a thin veil for idleness, debauchery and sloth. With their assault on the authority of the established church, they sapped the moral force from the church’s teaching on property, which was now up to each person to decide for himself; and with their remonstration against the temporal authority of the church, they appointed the regulation of property strictly to the state, which was meant to order human affairs toward sober efficiency, not some final good.
In the years after the Reformation, increasingly strongly articulated and absolute rights to private property gained ground in European thought, finally flowering into “the rights of an individual to resist the extractions of both church and state,” per British historian Christopher Pierson in Just Property. If this situation sounds familiar, it is because it is the rallying cry of almost all those who resist efforts to broaden our country’s support for its poor. Taxes, they say, are theft, and governments have no right to seek the good, only the maximal liberty of its client-citizens.
Property entered the equation with sin.
Yet the church remains firm, unmoved by this current in modernity. And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.
By the time I graduated from college, I knew I was not through with Augustine. I left for the United Kingdom at the end of my first summer out of college, where I would earn my M.Phil. in Christian theology, with a focus on Augustine. I studied under an Anglican priest and Christian socialist whose reading of Augustine deepend mine, and it was somewhere between our meetings that the seed that had been planted some time earlier came to fruition. When I told my tutor I intended to convert, it seemed like something I had already put off too long.
In retrospect I do not remember my confirmation very clearly. I was confirmed during a very early Easter Vigil, around 4:00 a.m., in the Catholic chaplaincy at Cambridge University.
I walked to the chapel in the dark: it was cool and damp, and nightclubs were still releasing Saturday night’s revelers in a trickle into the streets. By the time I reached the chapel I was awake on pure adrenaline, exhausted but alert. I was electrified and dazed throughout Mass, aware enough to remember the dreamy surprise I felt when I realized a professor of mine was holding the chalice I drank from for the first time; too tired to recall what she said to me afterward when we all gathered upstairs to celebrate.
When I went home that morning it was daylight—very bright, and all the mist had warmed to dew. My friends parted ways near the chapel, and I walked home through a few little alleys that rounded gardens where light-colored roses were already in full bloom. It is in my nature to wander, and I had never seen the streets so bright and placid before, but I was too worn out to linger.
I felt changed when I arrived back at my room, though everything seemed the same: a desperate pile of books by my bedside, a stack of xeroxed papers spread over my desk and the Confessions alone on my squat nightstand. I fell asleep contented, following the shape of the letters on its spine. It felt good to rest.