Retractions (Augustine’s Humility)

For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity, I am reviewing my works–books, letters, and sermons–and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me.

So begins the Prologue to Saint Augustine’s Retractions, a work that, as the professor of my class on Augustine observed, is unique in literature.  The spirit in which Augustine wrote this work demonstrates for all of us a truer response to life and to the work we do in this life.


Now, Augustine was a man who took  himself and especially his task as Bishop of Hippo very seriously.  But he did not hold onto his own ideas or his own grasp of things; rather, he sought more and more to assimilate himself to the truth of things, more precisely to the Truth who is Christ.  Put simply, Augustine loved the truth more than himself.

And so, Augustine took to heart the words of Saint Paul, “If we judge ourselves, we should not be judged by the Lord,” (1 Cor 11:31) writing whatever corrections he needed to earlier works in light of continued study and insight.  “Hence, it remains for me to judge myself before the sole Teacher whose judgment of my offenses I desire to avoid.”

The Retractions are a very valuable work for scholars who would like to find out the order and the history of Augustine’s writings.  He does the work for us, giving us the history of his mind and helping us to know which writings are really his and which we later attributed to him.  But that is not why this work interested me.  His humility and ability to judge himself inspire all of us in light of two contemporary temptations, not only for scholars by for everyone: relativism and ideology.

What do we mean by relativism?  We could say that relativism is a philosophy or worldview whereby I hold that there is not a solid ground or meaning to life.  Some societies thought this and some societies thought that, but everyone was conditioned or shaped by the time in which they lived.    We do our best to make our way in a world, but we cannot escape these conditions, and so every claim to truth must be taken “with a grain of salt” because “it’s all relative”.

Joseph Ratiznger, in a speech just before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of the fact that our society lives under the “dictatorship of relativism”:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

This dictatorship of relativism expresses itself in my life, and maybe in others as well, in a loss of passion for the truth of my life, of my existence, the meaning of my life.  Why look for the meaning of life if it doesn’t exist, if we just have to make it up for ourselves?  And all my attempts to make up the meaning of life are bound to fail, and end in terrible boredom.  All of my projects or “the things I’m into” cannot fill the need for ultimate meaning that I am.

This brings me to the second temptation: ideology.   We see in the political culture around us how political ideology can make our leaders intransigent, unable to collaborate with each other for the common good.  But we cannot just point the finger at other people; there will always be three fingers pointing back at us (just try it).

Ideology is a false response to relativism, and in fact, goes hand-in-hand with relativism.  Put simply, it is turning our project or our thing into an absolute, as a reaction to “everything is relative”.  Ideology is a form of immorality, maybe the worst form of immorality, because it makes us blind to the true Truth.  We think of the Pharisees in front of the man born blind.  They said that they already could see and thus they were blinded to what Jesus was doing right in front of their eyes (John 9).  We think of it in front of the people we live with.  I already know about him.  I know what he is like.  He could never change.

The temptation to escape relativism (that there is no meaning to life) by constructing “false absolutes” is very real, and affects us more than we know.  Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have spoken to this possibility many times.

Benedict and Francis

They have also spoken about a solution, and  I would like to share just two quotes, before returning to Saint Augustine.

We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, Who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that His hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.  Pope Benedict XVI, 21 December 2012

Our quest for the truth about things, for the meaning of life, is not a solitary journey.  There are two “players” in this journey: the heart of man that searches for God and the heart of God that searches for man.  Here is the announcement of Christianity: life is more about letting ourselves be grasped by Christ than about grasping for a false security that could be “ours” (ideology).

In this relationship to Christ, we also have the key for escaping the dictatorship of relativism.  Pope Francis spoke in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari that truth is always a relationship, because I do not arrive at the truth except in relationship to Christ through the circumstances that are his vehicle:

To begin with, I would not speak about “absolute” truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship. As such each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc.

At the end of Augustine’s introduction to his book of retractions, he says, “Let those, therefore, who are going to read this book not imitate me when I err, but rather when I progress toward the better.” We too have been called to continually “progress toward the better”.  We may feel overwhelmed by all the pressures of the dictatorship of relativism and all the “false absolutes” that are so clearly on offer in this world.  But we have incredible traveling companions in the Saints (like Augustine) and in the Church (through our leaders like Pope Benedict and Pope Francis).

We can go forward, because Christ is still acting and still drawing us toward Himself, the Truth who has become our companion on life’s journey.  “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” (Phil 3:12)


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