Augustine for Baylee

Posted on January 31, 2014

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A treasured student recently posed a couple of serious questions regarding Sophie Scholl’s obsession with Augustine’s works. Baylee, this one is for you!

Excerpted from White Rose History, Volume I.

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Otl recorded that conversation for us, one that had to have caught him unawares. Out of the blue, Sophie asked Otl if he had ever considered suicide. She apparently did not flinch when he conceded that the thought had often crossed his mind. He told her that his thoughts had never been due to a single circumstance. Rather, his awareness of alienation from the larger community had caused him to feel that the battle for survival as a loner was not worthwhile. Those days, he said, he thought about putting an end to his misery.

It is clear from Otl’s rendering of this dialogue that something was eating at Sophie. Otl acknowledged (after the fact – not part of the conversation) that for all appearances, Sophie’s family was relatively stable. She got along well with three of her four siblings – Lisl, Hans, and Werner – and knew that she was loved. He envied her the independence her parents granted her.

For once, Sophie and Otl came at the same problem from slightly different viewpoints. Otl laid out his inner conflicts for Sophie, his failures as a person, his emotional dishonesty garbed as intellectual honesty. He could be driven to despair by his shortcomings, his insecurities.

Sophie’s struggles centered on two interrelated areas: Her perceived inability to love, and her perceived inability to love God. She saw herself as too weak, too miserable, too small, too guilty, to be able to beg favor. She was not worthy of happiness or love. Not from God. Not from a man. Not from herself.

This discussion between two very close friends, along with subsequent diary entries, manifested the results of Sophie’s concentrated study of Augustine’s writings. We cannot tell from the limited number of despondent entries made accessible whether she started reading Augustine because she was depressed, or whether she became depressed after reading Augustine. Though understanding Sophie from a psychological point of view would require knowing which came first, one thing is certain: It had become a vicious cycle. And she could not break it.

Sophie’s theological exploration consisted primarily of a diet of Augustine’s Confessions. “St. Augustine” was the Catholic bishop who introduced the concept of original sin into Christian thought – the notion that all men were born wicked. The first 400 years of the new Christian faith, the Church had stumbled along essentially content to preserve the Judaic idea of a non-dualistic God. In other words, God created all things, good and evil, and evil may or may not have had a long-term plan.

But Augustine was not satisfied with that arrangement. It unsettled him to think that God could create evil. So he invented the doctrine of original sin. Man is naturally vile, terrible, worm-like. God is great, magnificent, unapproachably holy. Tiny worthless man can reach out to Awesome Incomparable God by confessing his vileness. Confession is not only good for the soul, it’s the only thing that’s good for the soul.

Not just any confession. Written confession. Augustine promoted (and practiced) writing down confessional prayers. Dr. James O’Donnell noted that according to Augustine:

Sinful man belittles God’s power at the expense of his own; confession of praise restores God’s place in the sinner’s eyes. Confession of faith declares what has transpired in the community of believers. Seen this way, confession is the working out of redemption itself in the life of the sinner. It is prayer itself. The literary text, prayer on paper, becomes in this way again not a picture of the working out of Augustine’s salvation, but the instrument of salvation itself.

But Augustine was not through with his condemnation of mankind (and his radicalization of Catholic theology). According to O’Donnell, he reached back to Plato’s works to arrive at justification for his new doctrine. In proposing the concept of original sin, Augustine differentiated between suffering and evil. In his theodicy, God caused suffering but not evil. Man alone was responsible for evil. If non-rational beings suffered, e.g. Nature or the animal kingdom, that was all right. That form of suffering was included in God’s plan for purifying his creation. According to Augustine.

Augustine differed from Platonic thought – one of the first examples of blatantly incorporating pagan philosophy into Christian theology – purely in his assertion that Christianity enjoyed the presence of God among men. He pointed to “the Word became flesh” as proof that Christianity existed on a higher plane than Hellenistic philosophy.

If all this were not enough to make the faithful feel unworthy of the least of God’s favor, Augustine unleashed yet another “innovative” doctrine on those who were his disciples. You agree that you’re a worm? Good. You agree that you have to confess, confess, confess? In writing? Good. You agree that you are worthless and God alone is worthy? Good. But it’s not enough.

No, in Augustine’s world man was so debased as to need a knowledge of God before he was capable of confession or praise (in Augustine’s eyes, confession and praise were two sides to the same coin). If man were able to praise God without God showing him how – according to Augustine – by providing a ‘preacher’, then man might be tempted to become proud at having access to God. Augustine took a relatively simple statement and mangled it beyond recognition. In the process, he incorporated an illogical exegesis into standard Catholic doctrine.

Modern scholars have documented abundant shortcomings in Augustine’s works. From fictionalizing actual events for symbolic emphasis, to exaggerations or understatements, his Confession appears to be less of an autobiography and more of a pedagogic maxim. He may have tried to differentiate between Plato’s philosophy and his newfangled Christian doctrine by saying that Christianity alone has a deity who became human, but that is intellectual dishonesty in the extreme. Greek gods regularly “dwelt among men.” “In human form.”

That is small potatoes compared to his other beautiful deceptions. His claim that man could not call on God (the mangled quotation) lest he become proud contradicted Augustine’s own declaration of his conversion experience. He claimed that he called on God and God heard him. That same privilege he would deny others.

And focusing on how Augustine affected Sophie Scholl: Augustine’s insistence on worm-like contrition and confession of specific sins in writing became the basis for much of Sophie’s ensuing self-hatred. Yet he himself glossed over significant sins, such as his affair with a married woman, and chose to include transgressions like stealing pears. Additionally, he endorsed the notion of physical deprivation as good for the soul, while he had no trouble accepting the advantages he gained upon his promotion to Bishop. He did not turn down either the wealth or the prestige.

Sophie was not an Augustinian scholar. She merely read his works. And she took what she read at face value, believing that he practiced what he preached, convinced that his way would lead her to God. Not only did she know too little about the author, she knew even less about the context of his times. She would not have known that shortly before Augustine’s birth, Constantine had made “Christianity” (the Catholic Church) the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Far from being a persecuted minority, Augustine and the clergy he hobnobbed with were instruments of a corrupt Roman government. Constantine had put the Cross on Roman shields. The brutality and horrific bloodshed continued, except now it was in the name of Christ.

Otl had spent more time immersed in study of the Confession than Sophie had. While he thought reading Augustine was worthwhile, he rejected many of his teachings. He pointed out Augustine’s shortcomings, as outlined briefly above. Otl tried to tell her that Confession painted a false picture of God, that the real Jesus was a “small God” – not in an attempt to denigrate the person, only the organization. Carl Muth’s lessons about the separation of church and state had inoculated Otl against illusions of grandeur. He believed the Catholic Church had failed its members with its insatiable greed for power, and always more power. “The great God [Augustine’s God], the God of trumpets and armies, the God of nations and collectives, never appeared in Galilee. The God Jesus was a man with whom one can speak.”

Sophie listened, but she did not hear. She remained steadfast in her conviction that “[God] condemns me if I am not prepared to subject myself to humility. And then the result is pride. I know that I am weak, miserably weak. But I want my weakness to be healed, not handed over to a great God.”

Augustine set an impossible standard for those who wanted to be his disciples. To know God, you had to know yourself. And to know yourself, you had to know God. But it was a Catch-22, and an unattainable goal. Failure fed failure. And led to depression.

It is possible that Otl feared for both Hans and Sophie’s mental health after this conversation. He never stated that directly. But from that autumn on, he went out of his way to hook them up with Carl Muth. Muth’s intellectual stature was surpassed only by his positive and dynamic outlook. He had no time for religious worms who flailed away at exalted deities that played some fantastic shell game with humans. Muth’s sphere of influence included persons as diverse as Sigismund von Radecki, whose laughter belied an utterly practical and healthy approach to life, and the young Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas (who had already left the dangers of Germany and lived to write an ethics standard entitled The Imperative of Responsibility). The people around Muth would have none of the stale air of fear and trepidation.

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The above excerpt is fully footnoted and documented in White Rose History, Volume I, by Ruth Hanna Sachs. To purchase, click here.

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As a postscript regarding Otl Aicher, whose memoirs gave us great insight into Sophie Scholl: Otl was a devout Catholic. He was a devout Catholic in 1943, and he was a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. His argument was not with the church, little c, but with the Church, Capital C, and the political organization he felt it had become.

The great Catholic intellectual Prof. Carl Muth was Otl’s primary mentor. Muth boasted that his periodical (Hochland) had been banned by both the Nazis and the Vatican. He wore that distinction as a badge of honor.

Muth (and Otl) advocated on behalf of separation of church and state. They believed the official churches, both Catholic and Lutheran, needed to get out of the schools, out of the government, out of “official” life. Muth considered himself an heir of Lamennais, the French intellectual who earned an entire papal encyclical dedicated to denouncing his “heritical” democratic notions.

Most especially, Carl Muth believed that the Church with a Capital C had become too focused on power, and not focused enough on changing the world for the better. He advocated for education and culture and education and fine arts and education.

Lest anyone read the above as “proof” that Sophie Scholl considered converting to Catholicism: In these same memoirs, Otl Aicher described how he and Sophie Scholl would debate theology, with her taking the Lutheran point of view, and he the Catholic. He especially remembered one debate about purgatory, which she considered an utterly ridiculous idea. He also remembered that she usually won those debates.

Her fascination with Augustine should not be distorted into a conversion experience that never happened, and would not have happened, even had she lived. Unless she had ended up marrying Otl. And even then, it’s doubtful he would have won that battle.