An Augustinian Confession

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 [1], 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.

[1] http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/s/st-augustines-confessions/critical-essays/the-confessions-and-autobiography

About nathanalbright

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12 Responses to An Augustinian Confession

  1. The central theme of HWA’s autobiography is his view of himself as a very small, insignificant person, one who could only do what he did through the help and strength of God. In his later years, he was very frail in person, was nearly blind and had trouble walking, but once he reached the lectern, his voice boomed forth as he was rejuvenated by preaching the scriptural word of God. He really believed–he knew–that it was Christ who lived within him (through the Holy Spirit) and not himself who did the work. Administrative mistakes, such as the hierarchical structure, were made and they left an indelible mark on succeeding generations of COG believers. This lack of understand at that point in time is cause for lengthy, animated and, at times, heated discussion to this day. But I know that all things occur for a Divine purpose. Are we able to forgive the mistakes and lack of understanding of the past? Are we truly the clay of a Master Potter–just as HWA was–when new understanding from God was revealed to him and showed him that change was required? We are to be pillars, building upon foundational truths, and learning to adjudicate righteous justice tempered with mercy and Godly love. This is the greater essence of the law.

    We now realize that the hierarchal structure of church government is not conducive with the principle of true servant leadership because the carnal tendencies within the human heart are its default. We’ve seen and been victimized by its abuse of power. But our Christian calling requires us to forgive to the fullest, which includes viewing with compassion our 20th century heritage from the limited information of that generation and not from the acquired knowledge of our own. While the comparison between Armstrong and Augustine is clearly and cleverly recognized, I submit that the two do not originate from the same state of being. The fruits clearly show that two different trees are involved in this comparison.

    • I think that’s a fair comment to make, about there being two different trees. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking–Augustine did not view himself as self-important either, but viewed his belief system and the organization that he was a leading figure in as being far more important. There are many similarities there, even if the differences are also profound.

      • HWA was never convinced that the top-down structure was the right way to go. This organizational framework was not in place for the first 20 years of the church. It was implemented to mirror the business models of the day (the 1950-60’s), and the decision to do so was not his. He did not know what to do about managing a growing church because his expertise was in advertising, not in administration. He knew that “God is not the author of confusion” so a system of some type had to be implemented. He looked to others with what he believed to have the greatest amount of experience in such matters, and delegated this assignment to them. He naively believed that the ministry felt the same passion for God’s truth and commitment toward preaching the gospel as he did. He publicly admitted that he was terrible when it came to reading people. After his wife died in the Spring of 1967, HWA began to travel far more extensively–sometimes being out of the country more than 300 days per year. He was in Pasadena so seldom that it was very easy to hide things from him. The top administrators became very skilled at gatekeeping. A subculture developed within the church which became its mindset and, although HWA knew nothing about it, the membership was led to believe that all the strict procedures, standards and unwritten rules had his seal of approval. Nothing is further from the truth. By the time the deck of cards came tumbling down in early 1979 when the State of California took guardianship over the WCG, the damage with regard to the hierarchal structure and its inlaid abuses of power had been done. This operational procedure–with its overtones of obedience to authority–was so entrenched in the ministerial and lay membership thinking that most considered it as something akin to doctrine–and it continues in some COG organizations to this day. Some have even splintered off from an original group for this very reason; to the individual leading the division, it is a right or wrong issue rather than a different form of governance. The final years of HWA’s life revealed to him the sad truth about many–if not most–of the men who had once been top ministers and very close to him, who he considered his own sons–including his only surviving one. The increased authority had not been used as a greater opportunity to serve, as HWA, automatically assumed it would, it had been wielded as a source of power to impose their will on subordinates all the way down the line–with the membership suffering the worst of it.

        People only one or two generations removed from HWA appear to have difficulty with accepting the first-hand witness which counters negative and misguided press about him. When those in the know speak of him, they are often perceived as blinded by his charisma or biased for some reason or another, or accused of deifying the man. The childhood experiences of many of my contemporaries in the WCG–myself included–mirror that of a cult, but that was not of HWA’s doing. The issue is about a system put in place that allowed low-level, poorly-trained, inexperienced college graduates to be ordained and then given an extraordinary amount of judgmental latitude–with very little if any oversight–over a large number of people. It’s not hard to see why the attitude of entitlement and power went to their heads; they were not mature enough to handle the job they were given.

        HWA did not give himself a free pass because it happened while he was the Pastor General of the church. However, I believe it can be likened to the example of Joseph; he was taken to Egypt because of evil intent but God brought it about for the good. In this instance, going through 30 years of my life under the hierarchal structure made me the person I am now–and through the grace, power and love of my merciful Creator–I am growing toward the person God has ordained that I shall become. That part of our COG heritage was the mina–the measure of our character. To some, when the shekel was applied, they were found wanting when it was weighed out. I personally believe that for just about everyone involved it simply wasn’t their time yet. To the rest, we have to examine our mina with respect to God’s shekels–what is our worth on His scales? For these experiences did test our metal. And this legacy continues for others in doctrinally-sound organizations. It is my sincerest and deepest hope that God’s love will flow as a living, flowing, transparent and unblocked stream through and within us all sooner rather than later.

        You have all my best wishes for a wonderful Sabbath. 🙂

      • Thanks for your comments. You are right that it is difficult for others to believe the first-hand account of those who wish to exculpate him from issues such as top-down government. He may have never been convinced of its solid biblical basis (most of the post-WCG groups do not have any such concern), but as the person in charge of the organization he has to bear responsibility for what that organization did, because ultimately the buck stopped with him. Augustine gets a lot of grief for his own authoritarian tendencies, but he was never Pope and was, as a bishop, a middle-level manager in his organization, which means that he clearly had more limited responsibility for what the church did at his time. I’m glad you feel more gracious as a result of your experiences in hierarchical organizations; as for me, I found the experience made me very skeptical and suspicious of authorities, and that was probably not helpful.

  2. And loving regards, too. 🙂

  3. Thanks… I’m at home today, so I’ll watch via webcast. Diving into active forgiveness (including the same kind of forgetting God has–the One who has perfect recall) heals the skepticism and suspicion we all felt when betrayed so abruptly and completely. I know it’s easier said than done–speaking to the choir and all that–but it’s mandatory and can be accomplished when we decide to feel the knowledge–not merely believe–that through God’s Spirit we CAN do all things, even forgive that kind of evil. For sin is only against God, even though it affects us. We don’t have the right nor the jurisdiction to hold grudges or justify our invisible walls because of past wrongs. We must always beware of harboring suspicion and skepticism against authorities, for they are in those positions by the will of God. It always boils down to attitude. We might think that we’ll be able to handle it in the future because the ones in charge then will be perfect and righteous. However, God is taking stock of us now. If we, having full knowledge, can’t handle the faulty stuff at this time, we won’t be given the opportunity to do so later.

    • It’s not necessarily a matter of building invisible walls or holding grudges, it’s a matter of recognizing what God considers sin and letting God judge, but all the same discerning right and wrong better for ourselves in the attitudes and philosophies of those who would wish to rule over us.

  4. God allows people with wrong attitudes and philosophies to rule over us in this current life for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not we will use our gift of Godly discernment as justification to rebel against that authority. It boils down to being wrongfully accused, assaulted and maligned and then having to take the punishment without lashing out and treating the offenders the same way. Only then are we in sync with Christ’s example.

  5. Pingback: Ten Books That Have Shaped My Life | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Lord, Have Mercy | Edge Induced Cohesion

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