Today I started reading the Confessions of Augstine, and in reading it I was struck by its similarities with other autobiographies. Some of the similarities are structural in nature, as most autobiographies have some sort of chronological narrative around a specific theme. Those autobiographies that have at their heart a religious (or pseudoreligious) sort of aim showing a life that is wealthy by the standards of mankind before a dramatic conversion experience and then an account of growth in the way of faith have even more similarities. Among the autobiographies that share these similarities with Augustine’s Confessions are Rousseau’s Confessions as well as the first volume of the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong. While the similarities between Augustine and Rousseau have been long acknowledged , especially as Rousseau wrote in reaction to Augustine but found his own writing mirroring it, the similarities between the Confessions and the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong are less well-recognized, even among those readers who would know that book.
First, let us account for the fact that Augustine’s Confessions are so little known among those who know of the Autobiography of HWA. On the one hand, the lack of awareness is not too surprising, given the hostility of most within the CoG tradition towards anything that remotely smells of Roman Catholicism. To be sure, there is much to be very critical of in Roman Catholicism. Augustine was an illustrious pagan thinker who quickly rose to power within the Catholic hierarchy after his conversion, using his power to support the increase of Hellenism within the Roman Catholic Church at the behest of the powers that be. Likewise, Herbert W. Armstrong similarly rose in power quickly after his conversion, and set up his own hierarchy that was in many ways not unlike that of the Roman Catholic Church itself. This does not appear to be accidental.
Neither it is accidental that the writing in question for both is an autobiography. A memoir is a writing that seeks to place a life within the context of its times, where the life’s work is more important than the person. An autobiography, though, is a work that is crafted by its author to select from the messy affairs of a complicated life a smooth narrative with an aim and motive. As is the case in all works of art, the selection itself is an active of choice that is a simplification of reality to something that hopefully allows the pattern of reality to be more easily understood. It is, it should be noted, a considerable act of hubris to consider one’s own life to so important as to be the center of that kind of narrative. This sort of hubris is remarkable in that it is limited to those who have reached some sort of high rank and title and consider their own life to be a model for others to follow.
It is the religious aim of these two autobiographies that is also profound. Both stories are written with a desire to convince others about the hand of God working through history. Both use small incidents as being emblematic of a larger importance, whether it is a happy beggar or whether it is a car steering wheel that guides one to a particular sick woman. What may have been small events in life take on a particular resonance as being signs of God’s active involvement in directing the course of a life in order to help lead others to what the authors view as salvation. Although the authors themselves had very different views of salvation, those sentiments are expressed in a similar fashion in both works. Whether that influence of Augustine on Armstrong is recognized or not, it represent the way in which patterns of thought are expressed and form models for others to follow later on, models that still influence us even today.