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The Confession Impulse: A Synthesis of Old and New

Blas Uberuaga

October 31, 1990

Eng H-111

Dr. Delahoyde

The Confession Impulse: A Synthesis of Old and New

It is about the end of the second century--maybe the beginning of the third--and the Roman Empire is no longer as great as it once was. The economy, under the heavy burden of paying for the enormous army, is starting to fall apart. "Barbaric" invaders from the north are penetrating the Empire and it will only be a matter of time before Rome herself is sacked and razed. The Roman Empire is plagued by incompetent rulers. The Roman people are morally lax, indulging in all sorts of pleasures while neglecting the hard work necessary to ensure the survival of the Empire. Does all of this sound familiar? Some people would have us believe so. They say that the United States is entering its own period of decadence and it will soon fall. At the time of the Roman downfall, Saint Augustine wrote his Confessions. Now, during our own time, a tendency to confess is starting to surface. It seems to be a reoccurring phenomenon that, during periods of extreme change and impending collapse, a confession impulse surfaces. I believe that this is due to a synthesis of the righteousness equals prosperity tradition found in the Old Testament and the absolvement doctrines expressed in the New Testament.

Saint Augustine was born into an Empire that "was about to go down to destruction."1 There are many parallels between Saint Augustine's Rome and our United States. The most obvious is the economic situation. The United States is now in a period of extreme economic trouble. The debt the United States owes to other countries is in the trillions of dollars, the United States imports billions of dollars more than it exports, and other countries are rapidly buying up America to the point that billions of dollars of land in each state is owned by foreign countries. The United States has also been troubled by Presidents who were, overall, very unsuccessful in carrying out their duties, causing these financial, as well as other, troubles (with the help of Congress). Lastly, the American people are in the same state as the ancient Romans were at the time of Rome's downfall. It seems to be the opinion of many of the other peoples of the world that Americans are poorly disciplined, lazy, and care too much about the things of this world.

These conditions in the Roman Empire caused Saint Augustine to write his Confessions. In it, he recounts his early life and his conversion to Christianity. Most of the book focuses on his early life, specifically the sins he committed at that time and now feels guilty for. However, Saint Augustine probably feels guilty for more than just his own personal sins. He says

I was studying the books of eloquence; for in eloquence it was my ambition to shine, all from a damnable vaingloriousness and for the satisfaction of human vanity.2

This remark is in regards to his study of rhetoric and the life he led at that time. Saint Augustine considers that time of his life to be full of sin and wrong-doing, but he was doing it so that he

might get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches (996).

This was the way to become great in Rome and Saint Augustine feels pity and guilt for all of his countrymen because he was once like them and knows how hard it was for him to change. He may also believe that if a confession is made, the public's guilt will be absolved and the condition in Rome will improve. As a result of his guilt and a hope for the absolvement of his country, Saint Augustine feels a need to make a confession.

This need to confess is starting to surface in the United States. Some recent examples are the confessions of sins by major moral and governmental leaders, the spawning of telephone services such as "Women's Secret Confessions", and the apparently out-of-the- blue confession by Carl Lewis that he accepted money for endorsements while in college and thus ruined his amateur athlete status. This is not an uncommon phenomenon and, as shown by Saint Augustine, this tendency is rooted deep throughout western civilization. I think this impulse stems from the basic doctrines of Christianity itself. According to these doctrines, as long as a person feels remorse for and confesses his or her sins, he or she will be forgiven and saved. These doctrines have so permeated western culture that it has almost become part of the human psyche to feel a need to confess.

Why does this impulse grow during times of trouble? It may be that times of trouble are also times of moral laziness and during these times sins and wrong-doings increase so people have more to confess. Some people may feel the weight of the masses' guilt and, as a result, feel a need to confess on behalf of the masses. In any case, since the time of the Old Testament, people have equated bad times and misery with sin. If only people will admit they did wrong, things will get better. This idea is reinforced by the messages of the New Testament which say sin can be absolved by confession. So, people make the connection that the impending doom is a result of the mass' sinfulness and feel that if a confession is made, all of the troubles will be lifted away or at least alleviated. Thus, this confession impulse stems from a combination of a tradition as old as the Old Testament and a doctrine brought by Christ and the New Testament. Whenever times start getting bad, people start to feel a need to confess. It happened during the fall of the Roman Empire and it is starting to happen again today. There are probably many reasons this occurs, but I think that it is primarily a result of a synthesis between the Old and New Testaments. Ideas contained in both are combined and expressed as a confession impulse, which grows as times go bad. People feel that if a confession is made, things will get better. This impulse is starting to grow right now in the United States. Some people seem to believe that the United States is in the exact same condition as Rome was when it was destroyed. Because of this, they predict that it is only a matter of time before the United States falls. Maybe, as this confession impulse grows and more people start to confess, things can be turned around. If this can cause people to reexamine the situation, maybe we can reverse the tide and restore the United States to the magnificence it once had

1 Preface to Saint Augustine, The Norton Anthology of World

Masterpieces, Volume I, 5th ed. (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985), 994.

2 Saint Augustine, Confessions, in The Norton Anthology, 1003.

Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

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These pages created by Blas Pedro Uberuaga.