Augustine’s Confessions: Contemplating the Infinite
Book I of The Confessions seems to me to fall into two parts: Chapters 1-7 grapple with the very concept of an infinite and eternal God, while Chapters 8-20 discuss the human experience of growing up and attaining some degree of youthful self awareness. I’ll cover this first half of the book today, and the second half tomorrow, so that each post can be relatively short.
Augustine sets out to tell the story of his own life in relation to and in relationship with God, and he opens the book by addressing God. Right here in Book I, Chapter 1 we run into one of the handful of quotes from Augustine that practically everyone has heard, whether or not they actually know it comes from him:
[T]hou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.
That restlessness will provide much of the matter for Augustine’s story, but here he asks the more basic question of why an eternal and perfect God concerns himself with all too mortal and fallen humans:
How shall I call upon my God for aid, when the call I make is for my Lord and my God to come into myself? What place is there in me to which my God can come, what place that can receive the God who made heaven and earth?
This idea of God being in something while also being both infinite and the creator of all things is something which an inquiring mind must necessarily poke at, and Augustine pokes with a sense of imagination which seems, in some ways, oddly modern:
Do heaven and earth, then, contain the whole of you, since you fill them? Or, when once you have filled them, is some part of you left over because they are too small to hold you? If this is so, when you have filled heaven and earth, does that part of you which remains flow over into some other place? Or is it that you have no need to be contained in anything, because you contain all things in yourself and fill them by reason of the very fact that you contain them? For the things which you fill by containing them do not sustain and support you as a water-vessel supports the liquid that fills it. Even if they were broken into pieces, you would not flow out of them and away.
Clearly, this is not the sort of guy who’d have trouble with the mind games we have in modern physics — ideas like the space of the universe expanding, or the universe itself (which is everything) having somewhere into which it is expanding. Yet Augustine isn’t just playing games with the idea of space, and how God could be infinite yet in things, the creator yet in his creation. He’s addressing a set of points which far too many modern thinkers (both Christian and skeptic) seem to have difficulty grasping.
If the universe appears to play out without any “gaps”, does that mean that there’s no evidence for God? That the physical laws explain everything? No, Augustine would tell you. Something occurring according to “natural laws” does not mean that hit happens without the need for God (as if God only touched creation once in a while when He stepped in to cause a miracle) but rather, what we call natural laws are the orderly playing out of God’s plan for the function of the universe. The universe is not some separate thing, but rather is encompassed and contained by God.
Augustine is similarly fascinated by the concept of God’s relationship with time as we experience it. As he considers that God knows and contains all of his past, and also his future, Augustine describes the “eternal now” in which God, as an eternal being, experiences all time as present rather than sequential:
For you are infinite and never change. In you ‘today’ never comes to an end: and yet our ‘today’ does come to an end in you, because time, as well as everything else, exists in you. If it did not, it would have no means of passing. And since your years never come to an end, for you are simply ‘today’. The countless days of our lives and of our forefathers’ lives have passed by within your ‘today’. From it they have received their due measure of duration and their very existence. And so it will be with all the other days which are still to come. But you yourself are eternally the same. In your ‘today’ you will make all that is to exist tomorrow and thereafter, and in your ‘today’ you have made all that existed yesterday and for ever before.
How far God, seen through Augustine’s eyes, is from the “old man up in the clouds” of whom people ask “how can he possibly know everything that is going on at once in the world, much less hear every prayer. Does he have secretaries?” Augustine sees God in a sort of mathematical grandeur. Infinite and eternal, God is in all things because all things are contained in Him, and God sees and knows all things at once, because as an eternal being He stretches infinitely before and infinitely after every temporal event. The entire temporal timeline, thus, contracts in on itself, with infinite stretches before and after it. All of cosmic history is a point of simultaneous existence, both created and perceived in the mind of God who is it’s eternal Creator.
The edition I’m reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.
You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University.