Who Am I?

Augustine and the Apologetic of Identity

by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen

As the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, “No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own.” We are always defining our personal identity in dialogue with our community. Consider, for example, the hero stories our communities and traditions tell us and how we embrace these narratives and seek to live them out. But what happens when our competing national and local stories blow us in different directions?

Saint Augustine, the ancient North African bishop,  was born into a certain kind of incoherence, and thus his early life lacked a larger, unifying narrative from which he could build a secure identity. We might call this Augustine’s disorientation, and it began with his birthplace: Thagaste, North Africa. It was a small, unremarkable town where three worlds, each with its own cultural identity, intersected and vied for space to flourish.

First, the Berbers, originally a seminomadic people, made up most of the native population. They spoke Lybian and valued emotion, spontaneity, locality, and family. The Berbers viewed the Romans as imperialists who justified their law and order with a slanted rationality. Second, there were the Punics, who had colonized the area centuries before Augustine’s birth. They had subjected the Berbers to high taxation and relegated them to less-respected occupations, often involving manual labor. But the sun was beginning to set on them, and by the time Augustine was learning Latin in school, the Punic language was disappearing from streets and homes. Third, there were the Romans. They had invaded and dominated the region after the Punics, administering the area, and especially the large landholdings, with a strong arm. Their language, Latin, was the language of the empire. They valued reason, order, natural law, and, of course, their empire. Naturally, then, they considered the impulsive Berbers to be uncivilized, and their estimation of the Punics was barely higher.

Augustine’s personal identity was not grounded solidly in any one of these cultural stories but rather was pushed and pulled within this cross-pressured local context, where heritages overlapped, competed, and grated against one another in confusing ways. By analogy, imagine growing up in the rural American South, with its festive patriotic holidays and civics classes teaching a glorified national history rooted in the notion of America’s divinely inspired exceptionalism, only to go to university and hear this story deconstructed as a fiction and replaced with one that makes the nation’s history about oppression. It is easy to imagine the effects, which could culminate in a sort of identity vertigo after years of being tossed to and fro. Or consider the modern search for identity spurred on by cycle of competing marketers holding out the promise of significance, status, and even transcendence. Growing up as wandering consumers searching for ultimate identity in the temporal has left so many of us jaded and disoriented. Surprisingly, perhaps, in Augustine we find an ancient companion.

In addition to lacking a single, obvious local narrative to inhabit, Augustine experienced competing cultural and spiritual differences within his own family. His father, Patrick (Patricius), was Roman. He was employed as a Roman official with the responsibility of collecting taxes, which would have made him unpopular with the native Africans. Religiously, he was pagan, only converting to Christianity shortly before his death. Patrick was not a person of means, but—in Augustine’s words—his “shameless ambition” pressured him toward fame and wealth in the Roman world. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Berber and an extremely dominant presence in his life, pushing constantly for his salvation, professional success, and ascent up the Roman social ladder. She was a devout Christian with, above all else, an unrelenting passion for her son’s conversion to the faith. The unhappy result for Augustine was that he felt disoriented and wrangled by these competing expectations of him: Roman and Berber, pagan and Christian, success and salvation. During adolescence, Augustine began seeking the carnal pleasures on offer in a highly sexualized culture. He also made friends with people whose favorite pursuit in daily life was to gain all sorts of social advantages over others. This turned out to be a noxious mix of sexual and social pressure, unmooring Augustine from any sense of wholeness. At the beginning of book 2 of Confessions, Augustine admits to his fragmented life: “I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.”

Augustine’s affections were being pulled in impossible directions. Contorting himself to follow each one left him miserable. Later, he turned to philosophical wisdom but found that this alone did not have the power to heal and integrate his fragmented self. Augustine despaired of ever making meaningful sense of the vast chasm of his complicated desires and mysterious inner workings: “A human being is an immense abyss. . . . Even his hairs are easier to number than the affections and movements of his heart.” During this time a close friend of his died, leaving Augustine’s soul bleeding and tattered: “I had poured out my soul into the sand by loving a man doomed to death as though he were never to die.” Augustine was at the end of himself: “I had roamed away from myself and could not even find myself.” Augustine’s own struggle to find a unifying story and a place to call home while experiencing soul-crushing disillusionment and a disintegrated self makes his voice particularly relevant to us, for we are living through what has been labeled the “age of anxiety”—a society absent a coherent, sustainable, unifying narrative.

Augustine’s Confessions is an account of his finding himself. As the historian Peter Brown puts it, Augustine wrote Confessions to “come to terms with himself.”  It “was an act of therapy” long before the modern “triumph of the therapeutic,” and it used a radically different approach to healing. In contrast to self-actualization through freedom from authority and overconfident trust in oneself, for Augustine the grace discovered through humility before an authority that could be rightly trusted and loved was the path to restoration and thereby to understanding. We might call this his re-coming-of-age story, which began in earnest once he put aside a quest for certainty through reason alone and could confess his own arrogance—his prideful nature and the inheritance of his early miseducation at the hands of teachers breathing the air of Roman glory. Looking back, he realized that all along he had been driven by his desire both to be loved and to know. And in the end, he came to see that these two desires couldn’t be neatly separated. Nor should they be. Indeed, faith has to precede understanding. But so too one must learn to love rightly in order to know rightly. Perhaps more than anything, in our age of anxiety, these are lessons that our disoriented and jaded hearts need to learn.

Adapted excerpt from The Augustine Way: Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2023). Used by permission.

Published September 18, 2023