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The Doxological Self

To move towards something of a synthesis of my last two reflections on Augustine’s Confessions let us consider:

  1. Augustine’s act of recounting his life and accounting for his past “selves” is an act of self-construction in some sense. Augustine is becoming a person through telling the story of his conversion.
  2. The act of confession, of telling the truth about God and ourselves is ultimately, and in Augustine’s case manifestly, an act of joyful doxology, of delight in God. To confess is to joyfully speak how we have been radically de-centered and dynamically caught up into God’s own life.

As such, for Augustine, his act of “self-construction” is not what we think of in the modern sense of determining ourselves, becoming a pastiche of preferences and judgments on the basis of our desires. Rather, what Augustine is doing in narrating himself in the Confessions is fundamentally doxological (and missionary—more on this later). Thus the “self” that Augustine renders through his personal narrative is a distinctly unselfed self. A person whose center lies not in himself but in God’s radical intrusion radically transformative presence into his life. In short, the self that Augustin construct in confessing is a distinctly doxological self.

Thus, whatever we may make of Augustine’s relation to the rise of the modern self, Augustine himself had very little in common with it. Augustine ultimately discovered his “self,” his personhood through doxology—that is through being caught up in God’s radical grace which elicits the excessive response of praise and thanks in all of one’s actions. That is why Augustine’s autobiography cannot be cast in any other linguistic mode but that of doxology.


  1. Zack Allen wrote:

    Very interesting.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  2. Jon wrote:

    How very Radical Orthodox of you.

    Define doxological?

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    You can’t really define it. It can only be described. I’ve tried to do that in this and a previous post. Doxology is praise, delight, joy in God expressed and lived. It looks different as it takes shape in all our different contingent histories.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  4. Jon wrote:

    See – I’ve just finished some work on selfhood and subjectivity and its seem as though any theological attempt to talk about the self ends up looking far murkier than the standard philosophical accounts. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing but there is some hint of a non sequitur when we theologians simply say – you philosophers are wrong – the self is doxological. That’s not to answer the question rather than to admit the answer is pretty hard to get to.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I think David Ford’s Self and Salvation is pretty helpful on these issues.

    And clearly any attempt to talk about selfhood from a theological point of view is complex. Nor do I find any account of selfhood, whether “theological” or “philosophical” to be simple and straightforward. What I’m doing here is not trying to short circuit the complexity of selfhood but enter into it along the vector that Augstine does, at least for the purpose of engaging with his thought.

    All I’m really saying is that Augustine found his “self” in his experience of being caught up into God’s life of love, and as such it is expressed in praise, adoration, delight, etc.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  6. Jon wrote:

    Well technically you’re repeating Michael Hanby… but lets not be too picky.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Well, as a matter of fact I haven’t read Michael Hanby yet. Always put it off. I hope to read him this week. Right now I’m just going through the Confessions.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  8. Jon wrote:

    So you just happened upon the phrase ‘doxological self’ the week before you read Hanby! Revelation at its best!

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I swear it came to me as I was lying in bed last night! Actually the phrase that came to me was “doxologized self” but when I started typing “doxological” sounded better to me somehow.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  10. Jon wrote:

    Right! I’m just off to work on a systematic theology I just thought up… reckon it’ll be called the Church Dogmatics… Think it’ll go down well?

    Just kidding – good on you for coming up with something someone already came up with! Thanks for the post!

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  11. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Halden, I don’t think Augustine would like the idea of “God’s radical intrusion into his life.” He plays eloquently with the conundrum of God, location, and selfhood in the very first pages of the Confessions. Notice how he moves in the following passage from third person to first person en route to problematizing the very idea that God might enter into his self: “How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling him into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How should the God who made heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God? Even heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me—can even they contain you? Since nothing that exists would exist without you, does it follow that whatever exists does in some way contain you? But if this is so, how can I, who am one of these existing things, ask you to come into me, when I would not exist at all unless you were already in me? . . . No, my God, I would not exist, I would not be at all, were you not in me. Or should I say, rather, that I should not exist if I were not in you, from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things. Yes, Lord, that is the truth, that is indeed the truth” (Boulding translation, 1.2.2).

    I think you want to talk about God’s “radical intrusion” as a way into Augustine’s account of conversion, that is, as a way of describing the transformation, the re-making or redeeming, of Augustine-the-unrepentant-sinner into Augustine-the-repentant-bishop. Problem is, Augustine denies that sin has any ontological purchase. He thinks about sin what Gertrude Stein is alleged to have said about Oakland: “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” So for Augustine, God would never need to intrude or invade the creation that he holds by love in existence, moment by moment, every day. I think this is why he prefers the metaphors of scattering and gathering. Sin doesn’t create rival spaces that God needs to invade and reclaim. Rather, sin, as shadowy parasite, fractures the unities of the created order: “when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces” (2.1.1).

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    “I think you want to talk about God’s “radical intrusion” as a way into Augustine’s account of conversion, that is, as a way of describing the transformation, the re-making or redeeming, of Augustine-the-unrepentant-sinner into Augustine-the-repentant-bishop.”

    Yes, that is what I’m talking about there. It is true that the language of intrusion is not really Augustinian, I didn’t mean to imply that it was.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

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