If the Confessions were a straightforward autobiography, it would not need a book 10 – or the three subsequent books on the meaning of Genesis 1. Augustine could have chosen to end the work at the conclusion of book 9 with his request that his readers join him in praying for his parents. Such an ending would have brought the text full circle to his question of origin in book 1; it would have been a fitting—though predictable—ending to the work.

But Augustine does not stop there (even if many of his contemporary readers do). So it behooves us to think more about why he keeps going. What do books 10-13 add to the work that would otherwise be missing? Why does Augustine feel the need to connect his creation story to the story of all creation?

Those are big questions, and hopefully our blog authors can help us to think more deeply about them in the coming months as this Reading the Confessions series comes to a close.

What I’d like to focus on now is the opening of book 10 in which Augustine reflects on the meaning of his confession and his audience. Evoking 1 Corinthians 13:12, Augustine writes, “Let me know you, O you who know me; then shall I know even as I am known” (Conf. 10.1.1; tr. Boulding).

The opening of book 10 parallels the opening of book 1 and Augustine’s many observations and questions about how his existence is tied to the existence of God; self-knowledge inevitably requires knowledge of God (or is it the other way around?). In book 10, Augustine reprises the connection between these two types of knowledge and his confession, which plays a sort of mediating role between them. “Truth it is that I want to do,” he claims, “in my heart by confession in your presence, and with my pen before many witnesses” (Conf. 10.1.1).

Augustine’s Latin here is curious. He does not want to speak or convey truth but “do” it; the word he uses is “facere.” His confession is an act of doing truth before God and his human readers.

Augustine’s claim to “do truth” is striking not only because of the oddness of the language but also because as a reader I often have serious doubts about the veracity of some of the details of the narrative portions of Augustine’s conversion. Indeed, this past fall when I raised some of these concerns to my students a few of them became distressed and questioned whether we can trust anything that Augustine says in the Confessions.

While I appreciated their scholarly skepticism, I think it unwise to treat Augustine as a liar. But I also am not sure that Augustine and I agree on what “doing truth” entails. Can one who “does truth” omit names and key details? Can they potentially fabricate timelines and settings – is that still “doing truth”?

Even if I do not fully understand or agree with him, Augustine sees himself as a truth doer. And this matters because he is doing truth before God, who is the Truth, and who would know if Augustine were lying. “[T]he abyss of the human conscience lies naked to your eyes, O Lord, so would anything in me be secret even if I were unwilling to confess to you? I would be hiding you from myself, but not myself from you” (Conf. 10.2.2).

Augustine, like all human beings, can choose not to confess some secret to God, but he cannot prevent God from knowing that secret. One cannot hide from God; Augustine knows that before God he is necessarily “exposed, exactly as [he is]” (Conf. 10.2.2). If that is the case, what is the point of doing truth? Of confession?

Here is where Augustine’s other intended audience comes in: his human witnesses. Augustine recognizes that humans are a “curious lot…eager to pry into the lives of others” (Conf. 10.3.3). He’s also aware that many of his readers might doubt his truthfulness since, unlike God, they cannot peer inside his soul.

But he makes the choice to confess before his fellow human beings because he believes that “[w]hen the confession of [his] past evil deeds is read and listened to…that recital arouses the hearer’s heart, forbidding it to slump into despair and say, ‘I can’t’…It is cheering to good people to hear about the past evil deeds of those who are now freed from them: cheering not because the deeds were evil but because they existed once but exist no more” (Conf. 10.3.4).

Augustine’s willingly exposes himself—in all his sin and ugliness—to his human readers even as he knows they can be quick to judge and condemn. He does so in the hope that they will be buoyed by his story and by the reminder that the lost can once again be found. For these readers, Augustine’s act of truth is also an act of love.

He cannot prove the truthfulness of his confession, but he can hope that “all whose ears are open to [him] by love will believe [him]” (Conf. 10.3.3). In this, I believe Augustine offers a great lesson to us not only in demonstrating a tremendous example of vulnerability and love but in encouraging us to be able to respond with openness and charity in return.