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Reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing

I will be the first to admit that “reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing” doesn’t have, or most likely will not have, the same allure as the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Still, my guess is that there are some points of convergence.  To begin with, as an English teacher here in China, I never would have assumed that one day I would be teaching Medieval Literature at any high school in Beijing, much less to only two students in a seminar class, and, as a first text, to be looking at Augustine’s Confessions.  Even so, as Augustine had a high doctrine of the sovereignty of God, I should perhaps not be too surprised by any of this.  Indeed, a year ago I taught a part-time English course to a group of young seminarians here in Beijing, at the Beijing National Seminary for the Roman Catholic Church in China — which is funded by the government.  Go figure.  

This seminar on medieval literature, as I indicated, has two students in it, both young women.  Yes, the Confessions is new to them.  Yes, trying to tease out Augustine’s understanding of sin, original sin, memory, sex, temptation, good and evil, the Fall, and the infinite love and grace of an infinitely loving God, and how all this has somehow contributed not only to western literature, but also to a great degree to western thought and psychology, is slow going.  However, it is slow going in the same way that plants, flowers, trees and so on do not sprout overnight.  To be sure, this is a process of cultivation not (yet) of harvesting.  And it is exceptionally enjoyable and rewarding.

One of the things that has not surprised me too much, but which has, rather, delighted me and broadened my sense of wonder, is how well Augustine’s thinking and observations, inasmuch as he is a close reader of human nature, translates into Chinese culture, and, more specifically, into the modern 21st century understanding of two young Chinese women.  On several occasions, for instance, when Augustine is describing his experience with schooling, Roman literature, the Greek language, and doing things to please one’s elders, both of these students find ready points of convergence.  It’s as though Augustine is describing them.  Of course, when the conversation turns to more specifically theological questions, which these two seem eager to understand, the conversations become less animated and more circumspect.  When trying to describe to them Augustine’s conception of God as not only being infinite, but everywhere infinite, that is in indivisible infinity such that the infinity of God exits everywhere infinitely, that became a bit dizzying. Of course, when I think about this on my own, I may feel myself losing my own balance.  

When discussions turn to matters of sin and sex and sexuality, what is surprising is that these two are able to speak frankly and without flinching.  There is a pragmatic matter-of-factness to these discussions which is at once absolutely appropriate to the moment, and yet revealing enough of our humanity to remind us that these are not merely abstract, academic issues, but rather questions of the mind, heart, body, soul and spirit.  Augustine’s Confessions thus far has provided an excellent platform or staging area to deepen East-meets-West thinking about any number of questions.  

In the remaining weeks of this term I hope at least to introduce Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy.


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