Augustine begins Book 7 of the Confessions by reporting that his heart has warmed to Catholic teaching and he is ready to believe what the Church teaches, but he has some intellectual questions about God and the nature of evil from his Manichean past that prevent him from entering the Church. Specifically, he cannot think properly about God because he cannot conceive of non-bodily substance and does not understand the nature of evil in such a way that would free God from responsibility for sin. So, he is lost in a myriad of questions that he cannot resolve: “Such questions revolved in my unhappy breast, weighed down by nagging anxieties about the fear of dying before I had found the truth” (7.5.7).

The first-time reader may be led to believe that as soon as he resolves these questions, he will be ready to join the Church. However, after resolving these questions by reading some books of the Platonists, it is striking that at the end of Book 7 Augustine seems no closer to converting to Christianity than at the beginning. Why is this the case?

The author lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Platonist authors who deny the Incarnation, the very same authors who helped him resolve his intellectual concerns. Even though he read in these authors’ texts many truths about God, “that ‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:13-14), [he] did not read there” (7.9.14). But, why is the Platonists’ omission of the Incarnation so important for Augustine?

One answer Augustine gives is that the Platonists’ denial of the Incarnation prevents him from “[obtaining] strength enough to enjoy [God]” (7.18.24). Only through God’s help given to him in the person of Jesus Christ will he have the strength and endurance to take delight in God. Without the Incarnation, the Christian can know things about God, but not worship God with her whole being—heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Another reason why the Platonists’ denial of the Incarnation prevents Augustine from coming to God is that their denial is fueled by pride instead of humility because they think they can arrive at an understanding of God on their own. Why would God need to become a human being to bring people to God when at least a privileged few Platonists are able to rise to God?  Thus, the Platonist texts block Augustine from coming to God, even though they say some true things about God.

Augustine describes the Platonists’ position at the end of Book 7: “It is one thing from a wooded summit to catch a glimpse of the homeland of peace and not to find the way to it, but vainly to attempt the journey along an impracticable route surrounded by the ambushes and assaults of fugitive deserters with their chief, ‘the lion and the dragon’ (Ps. 90:13). It is another thing to hold on to the way that leads there, defended by the protection of the heavenly emperor” (7.21.27). The Platonists’ lack of humility causes them—and Augustine himself at the time—to be unable to get to God because they deny the necessity of divine aid. And, even if they were to get him to God, he would not be able to enjoy God without Christ’s help.

So, the Platonists’ denial of the Incarnation was to blame for Augustine’s plight, but I wonder if the problem is also with the questions themselves and the way Augustine asked them. Intellectual puzzles about how to conceive of non-physical substance and the nature of evil get him no closer to God because these questions seem designed to keep God at a distance. The path to conversion is not through any theoretical questions that the mind wrestles with because these questions do not address the personal dimension about God (Will I submit my life to God whatever God is?), or evil (Will I take responsibility for the evil I have done and submit to God’s cure?) that must be answered affirmatively for conversion. Augustine only begins to wrestle with these questions in Book 8 when he finally submits his will, and not just his mind, to God.