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St. Augustine of Hippo

ST AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, born (d: 430) Following the example of St. Paul, Augustine set the standard for confessional literature that was to flourish in the centuries that followed. The patter, of course, is a detailed listing of one’s sins, followed by a narration of some event or events that made one long for salvation, and then an enunciation of the pains and joys of penance with the hope of future redemption.

Augustine confessed not only to having fathered a son, but to friendship that was classically homoerotic. When he was a young man, his closest friend died and Augustine contemplated joining him in death. “I felt that his soul and mine were ‘one soul in two bodies’; and therefore life was to me horrible because I hated to live as half of a life; and therefore perhaps I feared to die, lest he should wholly die whom I loved so greatly. My longing eyes sought him everywhere.” Augustine, of course, cast off all sins of the flesh and becoming one of the great founders of Christian doctrine, admonished us all to do the same. Here is Augustine on sex:

“There seethed all around me a cauldron of lawless loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and I hated safety… To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness.”

Ah yes…the filth of concupiscence. I think the dude had issues.

At the same time, Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. In an important passage on his “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” (early 5th century, AD), Augustine wrote:

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.”

The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408]