The terrible fruits of getting bored at church

A couple of my students pointed out a passage in Augustine’s Confessions (III.3) that we all had difficulty interpreting. Outler’s translation is relatively tame: “I dared, even while thy solemn rites were being celebrated inside the walls of thy church, to desire and to plan a project which merited death as its fruit.” The Penguin edition we’re using, however, has the following: “I defied you even so far as to relish the thought of lust, and gratify it too, within the walls of your church during the celebration of your mysteries.”

The Latin is as follows: “ausus sum etiam in celebritate sollemnitatum tuarum, intra parietes ecclesiae tuae, concupiscere et agere negotium procurandi fructus mortis.” It seems to me at first glance that Outler’s translation is more accurate and the Penguin is reaching — either way, though, it’s difficult to understand what Augustine might be referring to. Indeed, in the Penguin edition it seems possible that he’s confessing to masturbating during church.

Forthcoming Augustine article

Several readers have asked about my forthcoming article on Augustine for Scottish Journal of Theology, and I have tended to rebuff their requests. Looking at the copyright information for the journal, however, it appears that I have the right to post the submitted version on my personal website, and thus I am doing so now:

Gift and Communio: The Holy Spirit in Augustine’s De Trinitate

It is not clear to me when it will actually be coming out, as they appear to have a significant backlog. I will anounce it when it occurs, at which point I will also have the right to post the official PDF (hence with correct page numbers, etc.).

As a general note, I am among those who complain about the obstacles to journal access, but few of us take full advantage of the rights that publishers (particularly university presses) grant us to make work available on our personal web sites. I will try to be better about that in the future, as should you!

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?

In this response post, I’d like to address two points: first, the relationship of Malabou’s work to Derrida’s, and second, a potential theological connection with the notion of plasticity. I hope that I can be forgiven for being self-referential in the first part and that it will serve something like the purpose that leads Malabou herself to be autobiographical in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.


My engagement with philosophy has been dominated by two thinkers: Derrida and Zizek. I came to Derrida first, in a Christian atmosphere that strongly emphasized the “transcendent” and quasi-religious element in his thought — the absolute alterity of the Other, the resistence of the “trace” to being taken up into any determinate form, etc. When I began to study Zizek’s work, I found that he gave voice to a lot of my own skepticism about what one might call the “postmodern pieties” that surrounded Derrida’s work in my own setting (and, as it turns out, elsewhere as well).

I found Zizek’s own critiques of Derrida to be rather simplistic and unfair, seemingly motivated more by a young intellectual’s desire to clear out his own space than by an even-handed assessment of Derrida’s philosophy, but I sensed an overall challenge to Derrida that rang true: in essense, I took him to be asking, What can we do with Derrida? From a certain perspective, Derrida’s project seems to be entirely negative, characterized by extreme caution over words and by a need to express one’s own position only indirectly by means of a strange kind of commentary — but what positive task corresponds to this critical moment?

Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?”

Augustine and The Big Lebowski

From Confessions XII.25:

But I will not tolerate their contention that Moses meant, not what I say he meant, but only what they say. It appals me, because even if their explanation is the right one, the arbitrary assurance with which they insist upon it springs from presumption, not from knowledge. It is the child of arrogance, not of true vision.

In other words: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.”

With the law

Reading Augustine’s Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, I came across a strange locution that reminded me of our recent discussion of Paul’s notion of the doers of the law:

41. “We know that the Law is spiritual, but I am carnal” (7:14), indicates clearly that the Law cannot be fulfilled except by spiritual men, who are made such by the grace of God. For he who has become spiritual like the Law will easily fulfill what it prescribes; nor will he be under the Law, but with it [nec erit sub illa sed cum illa]….

I am not a Latin scholar, but the locution “with the law” seems to me to be as strange in Latin as it is in English, and a search through the dictionary does not suggest a different preposition for cum that would be “better” in the sense of more intuitive. Augustine continues:

He is one, moreover, whom temporal goods do not seduce nor temporal evils terrify [is est autem, qui iam non capitur temporalibus bonis nec terretur temporalibus malis].

As the translation indicates, autem is to a certain extent disjunctive, so I don’t think we can say that being “with the law” simply and exclusively means being above the seduction/terror of temporal things — rather, the spiritual man will be both “with the law” and one who is not seduced, etc. (It’s strange to me that the translation doesn’t preserve the passive voice of this sentence — it seems to be part of Augustine’s point that the spiritual man no longer stands in a passive relationship to the temporal.)

I invite any thoughts.


Suppose one were to write an article-length study of Augustine’s use of the Holy Spirit in the De Trinitate, focused on the concepts of gift and communio. If one wished to get said article published, which journals would be the best to try? (Previous advice has yielded New Blackfriars and Modern Theology.)


I know that it’s important to maintain consistent reference systems for ancient texts for a variety of reasons, but still — would it be possible to have an international summit to renumber Augustine’s texts? In many of them, there seem to be two parallel systems of numbering that have no relationship to each other. One system generally counts off smaller portions of the text, but only occasionally does the inclusion of that number in the reference give you any more precision.

Another fun project: shifting around the chapter and verse breaks in the Bible. Romans 8:20-21 jumps out as an obvious case of a verse-break gone awry, and I’m sure there are many others.

Augustine’s Toothache

As I agonize my way through Augustine’s Confessions in Latin, a project I should be able to finish by the time I retire, I continue to find that Augustine is one of the strangest people ever to have lived. Take, for instance, this passage:

dolore dentium tunc excruciabas me, et cum in tantum ingravesceret, ut non valerem loqui, ascendit in cor meum admonere omnes meos, qui aderant, ut deprecarentur te pro me, deum salutis omnimodae. et scripsi hoc in cera et dedi, ut eis legeretur. mox ut genus simplici affectu fiximus, fugit dolor ille. sed quis dolor? aut quomodo fugit? expavi, fateor, domine meus et deus meus: nihil enim tale ab ineunte aetate expertus fueram. (IX.4)

I find it difficult to believe that the biggest drama queen in the history of the world needed to write a message on a piece of wax for his friends to know that he had a toothache — especially the worst toothache he had ever had in his life.

But I do like that he was afraid when praying for its healing actually worked, and that his surprise was partly based on its severity. (“Yes, God can of course heal minor toothaches, but this one was serious!”)

Latin Texts

A wide array of medieval and early modern Latin texts, scanned from standard scholarly editions, can be found here. Augustine and Anselm are well represented, as are more obscure things, such as the Latin translations of Aristotle used in the Middle Ages and texts by authors I’ve never even heard of.


I’m still slowly making my way through the Confessiones as my Latin reading text, usually at the pace of one little section a day (2-3 pages). I don’t think this gives me any special insight into the text; in fact, I’m sure that what I’m about to say is pretty obvious.

It strikes me that the category of substance is really central to Augustine’s inner struggle in the Confessiones — at times it seems like the only thing that is keeping him from becoming a Christian is his inability to get at what kind of “substance” God is. It is very difficult for me to get inside this kind of mindset. My spontaneous attitude toward the idea of substance is that there just isn’t anything there — the “substance” is nothing but the accidents regarded as an assemblage.

Thus, even though I know that this isn’t what the Schoolmen thought they were saying, I can’t get past the view that transubstantiation means that, at bottom, we call the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ and treat it as such. That’s why it makes sense for “Hoc est enim corpus meum” to be the “trigger,” rather than the epiclesis — the priest is saying that from this point forward, as long as the elements survive qua bread and wine, we are going to designate and treat them as the body and blood of Christ (hence the care with which they are handled, stored, etc.).

This mental block is doubtless due to some fault in my education up to this point — I probably need to take a decade or so and immerse myself in Aristotle. (A sidenote: one of my favorite passages in the Confessiones is when Augustine says that he can see absolutely no benefit in reading Aristotle’s “Categories.”) In any case, when I was in Marion’s class on the De Trinitate, he placed a very heavy emphasis on the concept of substance and encouraged people to write papers about it — now I understand better why he had that emphasis, since he was implicitly reading the De Trinitate through the lens of the Confessiones.

Yet another moment when I curse my parents’ lack of foresight in not giving me a proper classical education!