Confessions

by: St. Augustine

Book XI

Having considered memory, Augustine moves on to the consideration of time itself, in which any recollection and confession must take place. Beginning with questions about Genesis and the creation of the world, Augustine expands his realm of inquiry in an attempt to account for the apparent separation of God (who is eternal) from his creation (which seems trapped in temporality). Throughout this Book, Augustine lets us know that these are extremely difficult questions for him, and continually asks God to help keep his mind focused. (This device probably serves at least two purposes: it mitigates the extent to which Augustine might be criticized for putting philosophy over God, and it helps to keep the reader from simply giving up on the intricacies of the argument).

[XI.1-16] Noting that any confession he makes must be ordered in time, Augustine again reminds us of the common ground between the philosophical, religious, and autobiographical material in his book: all are in praise of God.

Following this introduction (and justification), Augustine begins in earnest to determine when time started and the nature of God's relation to this "beginning." The first misconception to clear up concerns the statement in the Book of Genesis that God "made" creation. Augustine argues that God did not make the heavens and the earth in a literal sense (like a craftsman). In fact, God did not make his creation "within" the universe at all, since nothing (including space) could exist before this act of creation.

Turning to the mechanism by which God created, Augustine again puzzles over Genesis: "by your word you made [the creation]...but how did you speak?" As with his reading of the term "made" above, Augustine here shows us that the words of Genesis are not to be taken literally but spiritually (a crucial approach that he learned largely from Bishop Ambrose).

God created the universe with a "word," but this word is not like normal speech. Normal speech is successive--even a single word has a part that comes before and a part that follows. This cannot be the case with God's "word" of creation, because it would require there already to have been time before God created it. God's word cannot have unfolded in time (which did not yet exist), but must be "spoken eternally." It has no "becoming," and does not come into being over time. Rather, it is "spoken" continuously, and never changes.

If this is the case, however, how could it come to be that creation is temporal? If God created all through an eternally uttered Word, how could the things he created succeed one and other and change constantly? Augustine is not yet sure how to answer this question precisely, but he hints at a kind of holism-in- determinism. Things change, but only according to God's whole, unchanging design: "everything which begins to be and ceases to be begins and ends its existence at that moment when, in the eternal reason where nothing begins or ends, it is known that it is right for it to begin and end."


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