Barking Against the Truth: Augustine as Catechumen

By the year 384, Augustine had made the long pilgrimage from his hometown of Thagaste to Carthage, then Rome, and finally, Milan—“to Ambrose the bishop, known through the world as among the best of men, devout in your worship” (Confessions 5.13.23; trans. Henry Chadwick, Confessions [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992], 87). The spiritual journey had matched the vicissitudes of the earthly journey, and his nearly decade-long tenure with the Manichaeans was finally over. Faustus had failed. Ambrose had succeeded. Almost.

Augustine remarks that while he would no longer identity with the Manichaeans, he had not yet been fully persuaded of the Catholic truth. So he decided to be (again?) a catechumen of the church (5.14.25; Chadwick, 89). Technically, he was already a catechumen, since as an infant he was signed with salt and the sign of the cross, which was the North African rite of initiation into the catechumenate.

Thus, Augustine’s journey recollected in the bulk of the Confessions can be, as Jared Ortiz describes,

“as one lifelong catechumenate, in which the Divine teacher uses the events of Augustine’s life to catechize him about the mysteries of faith. Or, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, Augustine’s conversion story could be understood as one profound, thirty-three-year catechetical lesson in the first article of the creed” (Ortiz, “You Made Us for Yourself”: Creation in St. Augustine’s Confessions, 159).

 Still, the latter stage of the catechumenate was perhaps the most important moment in Augustine’s life before baptism. It was during this time that he discovered, in Ambrose’s preaching, a vital realization about the Scriptures and the church. He had initially gone to hear Ambrose preach because of his oratorical reputation—which did not disappoint. But Augustine recalls how, as the sweetness of the words seeped into his heart, so too did the content of the Scripture’s message—the Word within the words.

As he continued to hear Ambrose’s preaching as a catechumen, Augustine slowly realized, not yet the truth of Christianity, but the error of his former views of the church. He did not yet make the major intellectual leaps that were his major hang-ups—the reality of a truly spiritual substance, the non-materiality of evil, and so on. But he did make this important step: he realized that what he had thought about the church up to that point was not the full story.

“I was glad, if also ashamed, to discover that I had been barking for years not against the Catholic faith but against mental figments of physical images. My rashness and impiety lay in the fact that what I ought to have verified by investigation I had simply asserted as an accusation” (6.3.4; Chadwick, 93).

“Even if it was not yet evident that the Church taught the truth, yet she did not teach the things of which I harshly accused her. So I was confused with shame. I was being turned around” (6.4.5; Chadwick, 94).

Augustine previously had attacked the church because it had seemed that Christians were uncritical—that they “did not think at all” (6.5.6; Chadwick, 94). Now Augustine began to see that it was he himself who had not done such a thorough job understanding what the church actually taught.

Through Ambrose’s catechetical preaching, Augustine saw that what he had assumed Christians taught and believed was not actually the case. In classic Augustinian rhetorical paradox, his childish understanding of the Scriptures was engulfed in a bloated pride that refused to become truly childlike to see the hidden mysteries hidden in the Scriptures.

 Ambrose was teaching Augustine the hermeneutical significance of the Pauline text: “The letter kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And in the process, “those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching [Ambrose] would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil” (6.4.6; Chadwick, 94).

I wrote recently on Kwame Bediako’s distinction between a truth of “assertion” versus a truth of “recognition.” The kind of truth claims that Christians ought to make, according to Bediako—if they are to emulate the form of Christ-like modes of appeal—are not those that are “asserted” in a supposedly pure Christian world, sealed off from any interaction with non-Christians. Rather, Christian truth claims must be presented in such a way that their validity is one that can be “recognized.” The apologist or evangelist presents the plausibility of Christian truth claims in a way that can be validated or rejected, rather than merely forced down someone’s throat.

It seems that this is just the what Ambrose’s catechesis did for Augustine. Ambrose provided a context in which Augustine could “recognize” the truth, rather than bluntly accept its assertions. Augustine could chew on it for a while before swallowing.

To put it another way, Ambrose’s catechetical style served the appropriate “middling” function that characterized Augustine’s catechumenal stage in life. He didn’t tell Augustine what he must believe if he wants to be baptized (at least not directly). This has its place, and Ambrose is not shy about why orthodox Christians ought to believe. Equally important, however, was they in which Ambrose made it harder and harder for Augustine to disbelieve the teachings of the catholic church. Augustine, as a catechumen, stood between faith and unfaith (fideles being the customary name given to those baptized). Ambrose addressed Augustine in precisely this stage.

Augustine was not yet ready to be baptized. But he could no longer accuse the church of beliefs that it didn’t actually hold.  

I’m reminded of the task of David Bentley Hart’s 2013 book, The Experience of God. It is not a book of “apologetics,” he says (though this is not always a line easy to maintain). Rather, he is simply trying to articulate for “atheists” the historic conception of the God in whom they claim to disbelieve. He is not trying to prove the existence of God, at least not directly. He is not aiming for what Bediako would call a “truth of assertion” (despite his typically belligerent style). Rather he is presenting what classical theism has traditionally held—namely, that the term God classically understood is not a kind of “thing” in the universe among other things but the very ground and possibility of being itself.

Essentially, Hart is trying to make it harder for sloppy opponents of the church to, as Augustine would put it, “bark against the catholic faith.” If you want to deny the faith, at least deny what it actually holds.

This ability to “make it harder to disbelieve” is an important catechetical task. Yes, the catechist aims to build up and edify new believers. The catechist explains and initiates others into the basic elements of doctrine, spirituality, and ethics. And yet the catechist does this work without presuming that everyone is “already there.” In a catechetical context, there will be many who, like Augustine the catechumen, are not quite convinced of the Christian faith, even if they no longer hold to any of the alternatives. Creating an atmosphere in which the truth of the Christian faith can be “recognized” by these kinds of people is an important function of catechesis, one that catechists would do well to cultivate.