In many Core I, Journey of Transformation classes, students are reading Saint Augustine of Hippo, author of Confessions. Though Augustine lived about 1700 years ago, for the most part in North Africa, there is such honesty and universality in his writing that twenty-first century college students in America find him very relatable. Some parts of his story are particularly relevant to students in our time in a way that perhaps will be surprising to those slightly less familiar with his Confessions.
In observing a class this past Monday, Dr. Alfani's Journey of Transformation, I was impressed by how the students were engaging the text. For example, Augustine speaks about how his friends influenced him to steal pears from a neighbor's yard, an act he probably would not have done on his own. The professor asked if this kind of negative influence had gotten stronger or lessened since Augustine's time. Students responded that it had gotten worse because of social media and globalization, both of which have extended these kinds of influences beyond one's immediate circle of friends. The class also discussed how Augustine mentions that at times he would make up things – "bad things" – he had done in order to fit in so as not to be demeaned as being "too innocent." A student confirmed that this happens today as well, as young people make up having done some "bad" or "sinful" things in order to seem more adventurous. It was an interesting discussion, one that prompted me to think further on the topic. How much is Augustine's text and time like our own? What can it say to young people, especially, in our time?
In fact, Augustine lived in a time in many ways similar to ours. His world, juxtaposed between the classical Roman/early Christian period – in which the two forces clashed – and the early medieval world was an eclectic one, with a wide range of religious beliefs competing for allegiance. Like young people today, Augustine moved from one belief to another. Raised a Christian by the saintly Monica, Augustine had another influence as his father was a pagan for much of his life. His influence by the negative friendships was precipitated by his having to drop out of school because he could not afford the tuition, an issue not exactly alien to contemporary students. Augustine himself also rebelled for a while against his religious upbringing, joining what was essentially a cult, the Manichean sect, and flirting with astrology as well. During this period of his life, between Manicheism and his conversion, he might very well have described himself as a "None," the word so commonly used to describe those who are unaffiliated with any religion. Finally, Augustine moved toward Neo-Platonism and eventually Catholic Christianity, converting completely at the age of thirty-three (as told in Book VIII of Confessions). With this experience, now fully immersed in the God he had long rejected and simultaneously pursued, he felt completely free and redeemed.
Though we certainly do have more extensive influences today, as the students in Dr. Alfani's class rightly pointed out, we also – as they noted as well – have the same nature as people did in Augustine's time. Good and evil, temptation and virtue have not changed over the intervening centuries. Human desires for physical pleasure, status, money, and power still lead people down the wrong paths, as can negative friendships that lead away from good toward evil. For Augustine, the answer lies in following God, that "Beauty, ever ancient, ever new" who will lead the traveler down the right path, no matter how confusing the journey may seem.