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Augustine’s Inward Panting for Truth

This article is part three in a series of reflections on what The Confessions of Saint Augustine has to say to modern educators.

“Today will feel like trying to drink from a fire hose.” We have heard or said (or both) this at the beginning of countless classes, workshops, Sunday school classes, and board meetings. There always seems to be too much information and too little time. We want to warn our students that they are about to drown, and so we tell them that they are going to spend the next hour trying to drink from a fire hose.

At the time he was roughly the same age as our own Rhetoric students, Augustine began to “long after immortal wisdom” as the result of his encounters with philosophy. This was in many ways the beginning of his own journey towards God. Reading Cicero’s Hortensius “changed the direction” of his mind, and even “altered” his prayers to God.

This journey into the realm of philosophy eventually brought Augustine in contact with a “sect of men talking high-sounding nonsense.” Later in life, he was able to see the error of their ways, but Augustine was truly attracted to the Manichees for a time.

This sect would do well today; their central ethos was a conglomerate of various religions and philosophies, including some elements of the Christian faith. Manichaeism in Augustine’s day was a melting pot of religious thought, and, in so being, its followers were not fans of the exclusive truth claims of orthodox Christianity. They were, as so many are today, interested in pursuing truth but not convinced that there is a singular Truth by which the universe is being shaped.

With all of this in mind, we can turn to Augustine’s recounting of his experience among the Manichees:

They cried out ‘Truth, truth;’ they were forever uttering the word to me, but the thing was nowhere in them; indeed they spoke falsehood not only of you, who are truly Truth, but also of the elements of this world, Your creatures. …

O Truth, Truth, how inwardly did the very marrow of my soul pant for You when time and again I heard them sound Your name.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis reminds us that our task as classical educators in a modern world is to awaken and then properly form this inward longing. And we are to do so while inhabiting a world that tries its best to suppress, rationalize, or compartmentalize it.

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

Lewis reveals that this must be our task. Augustine, here in his Confessions, explains why this must be our task. Inside each of our students is an inward longing for truth. For some, it may be more hidden than in others. But it is there. Our task is to awaken that longing for Truth through our teaching of variables, revolutions, ecosystems, and Voltaire.

Though in a limited sense, it was through Manichaeism that some of Augustine’s own inward panting for truth was quenched. Without even trying, the Manichaeistic search for truth awakened the longing for it that was already in the very marrow of his soul.

How much more can Classical Christian educators offer better water to the inward panting of our own students? Our students will have days where drinking from the firehose happens. Can we shape our courses and our own motivations to ensure that the water coming from that hose awakens rather than drowns?

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