Trump, Saint Augustine And True Conversion

10/10/2016 01:32 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2016

On Sunday morning, Rudy Giuliani had the unenviable task of defending Donald Trump following the release of a tape from 2005 in which the presidential candidate bragged about the ability his celebrity status afforded him to sexually assault women. In an effort to spin the damning evidence, Giuliani emphasized that, like many of us, Trump had done something wrong in the past and now repented for it having become a changed man. To educate those who would condemn a man for his past sins, Giuliani offered a powerful historical precedent: "I hate to get terribly theological about it, but ever read the Confessions of St. Augustine? I mean, the reality is that men can change, people can change,""

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), arguably the most influential theologian in Western Christianity, is the go-to example for a reformed life. To quote the renowned historian Mick Jagger, “Saint Augustine knew temptation. He loved women, wine, and song, and all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” As many a classically educated youth has been told, Augustine was addicted to sex before finally converting to Catholic Christianity and a life of celibacy. While Augustine’s promiscuity has been greatly exaggerated—he spent most of his pre-abstinence life in a faithful relationship with an unnamed concubine—there is a much more significant aspect to his conversion that Mayor Giuliani seems to forget: humility.

If people know anything about Augustine, they know about his supposed sexual escapades. Although he does describe his struggle with sexual desire as an indomitable internal conflict, he spends much more time discussing the problem of pride. Before his conversion, Augustine was an academic star on the rise. His career as a teacher of rhetoric—possibly the most important skill among the elite of the late Roman Empire—had taken him from the backwaters of North Africa to the seats of imperial power in Rome and Milan. He was, by all measures, a success, preparing for a further career in government, and even engaged to be married to a woman who would improve his social status. (Well, I say “woman,” but the only reason they were not yet married was the pesky need to wait until she reached the legal age of twelve.)

In addition to his meteoric career, Augustine possessed a uniquely keen intellect and a passion for philosophy. As a student, reading Cicero inspired him to pursue truth above all else. He rejected Christianity because its scriptures seemed unsophisticated and its doctrines unworthy of his mental attention. In fact much of the autobiographical sections of Confessions speak not of his sexual adventures but of his efforts to ascend to truth, to the very sight of God, through his own effort.

Augustine’s famous “conversion” comes not simply as a rejection of his sexual past. It comes primarily as a rejection of his pride. He must give up his lucrative career as a teacher of rhetoric. He must give up his socially advantageous—if morally repugnant by our standards—betrothal. In doing so, Augustine gives up the sources of his external pride, those things that would have made him valued, respected, and welcomed among the elite echelon of Roman society. In short, he has to humble his ambition.

More painfully, perhaps, he has to give up his belief that he could discover the truth on his own, with his own mental aptitude. This is a hard blow for a brilliant person, to admit that his mind must submit itself to an external authority in order to come to truth. This, for Augustine, is the key to Christian faith. Our minds have been distorted by sin to the point that we cannot come to know God on our own. Since we cannot rise up to God, God comes down to us in the incarnation of Christ. In order to accept this as the case, Augustine realizes, he has to humble himself as Christ had, to encounter the divine truth in the weakness of human flesh and in the uncouth Latin of the scriptures he knew.

Even in that famous scene in the Milan garden, when he hears a voice telling him to “Take! Read!” and he opens a book to Paul’s letter to the Romans, resulting in that definitive commitment to a chaste life—even here Augustine has been moved to humility. He has come to this garden to weep over his inability to move his own will toward continence. He has come having heard inspiring accounts of Anthony the Great and others who have made such heroic vows, conquering their lusts. He has heard all this. He has been convinced. And yet he just cannot seem to do it. His will is broken, shattered into a million conflicting pieces by sin. As he understands it years later, God has led him to this garden—so evocative of the location of humanity’s original failure—to face his utter powerlessness. He is unable to change, even when he wants to do so, without the grace of God. He must come first to humility, and only then to a new life.

We in the United States love a good redemption story. Yet we also love dragging up garbage from peoples’ past. At times we take such glee in condemning someone that we lose sight of the fact that, as Mayor Giuliani rightly protested, “People can change.” But there is another danger lurking in conversion narratives: stories of redemption are easy to construct and often difficult to verify. After all, we are dealing with a person’s internal life, their soul, their heart. And Augustine had much to say about how inscrutable such dynamics are. How is one to know if a claim to have changed is genuine?

Unintentionally, Mayor Giuliani has given us a clue to this problem by pointing to Augustine as the archetypal case of a changed life. If we are not to be “terribly theological” (as Giuliani suggested) but wonderfully so, we can look to Augustine’s self-analysis within the Confessions and lift up humility as the necessary virtue for true repentance. Without humility, we only repent when the media pressure becomes too intense. Without humility, we deny having said or done things that are on tape or preserved on social media. Without humility, we still see ourselves as the source of our success and everyone else as losers and haters who attack us unfairly.

I am happy to acknowledge that it is possible that someone like Trump (or Clinton, for that matter) can change. But to Mayor Giuliani and all those who are quick to believe his redemption story, I only have one question: “Ever read the Confessions of St. Augustine?”

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