Vocational Wisdom in Confessions

An Interview with Dr. Greg Lee and Dr. Sarah Borden

The Wheaton College community has been reading Augustine’s Confessions as the Core Book this year – the Core Book program exists to “foster a shared experience across the campus community” around themes from the Christ at the Core general education curriculum. Many Wheaton professors from across the disciplines have referenced or assigned the book (whole or excerpts) in their classes this year, and the College has hosted a themed event series, including a symposium with the translator of a recent edition of Confessions, Dr. Sarah Ruden. Ben Norquist, Managing Director of the Wheaton Center for Faith & Innovation,  recently interviewed Dr. Greg Lee, Associate Professor of Theology and Senior Fellow at The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, and Dr. Sarah Borden, Professor and Department Chair of Philosophy, on how Confessions speaks wisdom to our vocational lives.


BN: To get us started, what do you see as the heart of Confessions? What is it about at a basic level?

GL: I take Confessions to be the story of Augustine’s loves. In his early life, his loves were disordered as he pursued satisfaction in lesser things. Though he continued to wrestle with his sins and proclivities throughout his life, through his conversion he come to rest in God in a way that reordered and healed his loves.

SB: I think Augustine wants us to ask today, how do we know what we truly value? What is it that we truly love? Augustine had to go through a process of discernment to recognize the values uniquely shaping his heart. Augustine does think that there is a right ‘hierarchy of values,’ a right way to love things: all values stem from the infinite value found in God and are reflected in things in ways which are meant to imitate God. Each of us—in various ways—however, fails to love things as we ought. And in failing to value something properly, we also fail to love God rightly. Thus, for example, when one fails to properly value a mosquito, it is a matter of sin. Augustine in both his words and example calls us to join in the process of discernment of hearts to recognize what we truly love, and where we have failed to love God and God’s creation as we ought.

BN: What is Augustine’s personal process of vocational discernment at key points in his life?

SB: Augustine emphasized that we have a collective job as people to serve and preserve the values written into this world. When we care for this world, we enable this world to reflect God as it was intended. Part of how we discern our particular areas of need is to see what needs are actually there.

Whereas we tend to separate reason and emotion, Augustine links them. The heart is a faculty of perception, analogous to our ears or our eyes. It ‘sees’ the values in this world and should respond to the full range of values in things. We can be more responsive to certain values than to others, but generally we should respond to the values that are authored into things. There can also be particular realms of value that we can be specially drawn to protect and are rightly called to pursue.

GL: It began with pressure from parents, particularly from his father, to pursue an elite education for the purpose of social advancement. He succeeded in his studies and was attracted to the ideal of a philosophical life with his friends, but become increasingly less satisfied with that vision as he saw a contrast between the eloquence of his rhetoric and the emptiness of its content. He came to see his becoming a Christian as a rejection of the path to external reward. In book 9, he describes moving out of the city to a countryside estate in Cassiciacum to connect with those close to him about things of meaning. He thought that he would return to North Africa to live in relative leisure and reflect on the liberal arts, but then his mother, Monica, died, and he was quickly appointed to church office. During this time in office, he got embroiled in theological controversies somewhat against his will, which lead to his writings becoming much more rooted in the Bible.

BN: Augustine seems to have a complex relationship to the kind of work he practiced before his conversion. Can you talk about how he reflected back on this work as a Christian and what insight we might glean from these reflections?

GL: In Confessions and elsewhere, Augustine spoke dismissively about classical education and rhetoric because he thought they malformed his character. However, there is an irony to this because rhetoric and his training in the classics become incredibly valuable to his further service. It gave him the ability to challenge Roman culture and to have wide influence. He’s one of the most quotable people in the Christian tradition. These skills only became of service to the church after he surrendered himself to God. This is applicable to us as well. As students and professors, our work can only be used to serve others after we relinquish our ambition and come to a place of humility.

SB: I sometimes worry that Augustine was too harsh on himself in certain respects and that aspects of this has harmed the church. He focused on pride being the root of all sin—and there is no doubt that he had struggles with pride and ambition. I worry, however, that he may have underdeveloped the ways in which ambition is not a chief expression of pride for everyone. There are also forms of sin that lead some individuals to want to retreat from society, to fear speaking up when they should, to sins of omission and sins of passivity. I worry that Augustine’s particular forms of pride and struggles with that form of pride have led to greater difficulty addressing, as a church, those who struggle with self-negation, those whose disordered loves differ markedly from Augustine’s own.

BN: There seems to be a lot we might learn from Augustine’s mother, Monica, about vocation and calling as well.  What do you think we should notice about her story?

SB: Monica wanted her son to be a successful public figure. She knew he was skilled at influencing others and casting visions, and she worked to put him on a path to use these skills. Augustine recognized, however, that public life was fraught with temptations that he was too weak to withstand. Monica had to go through a period of relinquishing her ambitions for, and right insight about her son, as he moved to the path God called him to.

GL: Monica faithfully cared for and prayed for Augustine and her husband, who was abusive and unfaithful. Though she can be viewed as overbearing, she models faithfulness to God and others.  

In addition, after Augustine’s conversion, he had a variety of philosophical conversations with Monica and other close friends at the countryside estate I mentioned earlier. In these dialogues, she comes off as the wisest and most intelligent and virtuous individual there. She has the best answers to philosophical questions, particularly in her vision for what happiness is and how to cultivate it through God.

Furthermore, before Monica died in the Roman port city of Ostia, she spoke about not caring where she would be buried. This seems significant. To her, her home wasn’t on earth, as she and Augustine had no connection to Ostia. Instead, she understood her home to be in heaven; she choose to value eternal goods over the temporal.

BN: If you were to draw out one or two vocational lessons from Confessions for our students, what might they be?

GL: The first lesson we can glean from Confessions is that the vocational path involves unpredictable twists and turns, but in the midst of this, we can always pursue wisdom. Augustine trained to be an elite, pursued Manicheism, converted to Christianity, and then found his life as a Bishop to be unexpectedly stressful. However, in the midst of these changes his pursuit of wisdom remained stable. It was first inspired by a text called Hortensius. Then upon his conversion, he came to see Jesus as the very wisdom of God.

Reading Augustine can also remind us that pursuing external rewards as our chief motivation, such as ambition or riches, handicaps our ability to make wise vocational decisions, because our priorities are reversed. Students should pursue things that they feel a sense of calling toward or where they see a compelling need that they can fulfill. I’m not saying that issues such as economic concerns need to be dismissed, but they should not become “the tail wagging the dog.” These are secondary concerns and should stay that way.

SB: It is important that we spend time discerning the state of our hearts. Augustine is brilliant at pointing out the combinations of love we can have, and how difficult it can be to discern the difference between what we think we love and what we genuinely love. Maybe you think you love math, but hate every class. You might actually love the people who love math rather than math itself. Time with and away from the object of our love is important for our discernment.

Also, like Monica, our parents and those who know us should be people that we listen to and seek advice from as we make vocational decisions. But, as with Augustine, there may be certain times where we need to avoid pursuing something we’re good at if we are loving it wrongly.


Interested in experiencing Confessions first-hand? Christ at the Core is hosting an event called “We Create for You: Artistic Meditations on Augustine’s Confessions” on Tuesday, March 26 at 7pm in Pierce Chapel Auditorium, featuring original artistic works by the Wheaton College community created this year in response to the Core Book. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more about “We Create for You.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s