“Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” That was the prayer of a man who was flirting with Christianity, but who was also flirting with a lot of other things. Yet he became one of the greatest, most influential authors the church has ever known.

Who was this complex man? He was Augustinus Aurelius, better known as Augustine. Born in 354 in Tagaste (in what is now Algeria), Augustine had a devout Christian mother named Monica. His pagan father, Patricius, was a Roman official.

Augustine was brilliant, so his parents arranged for the best schooling. He studied rhetoric—persuasive speech—in Carthage. Reading Latin authors such as Cicero convinced him that truth is life’s supreme goal. He couldn’t find truth in Christianity because he saw it as a religion for the simple-minded. In his teens, Augustine took a mistress—a concubine—who bore him a son. In his later Confessions he wrote, “I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of unholy loves was sizzling and crackling around me.”

Restlessness

Augustine’s intellectual restlessness led him to embrace Manichaeism, a popular religion of the day that held a dualistic view of the world as a battle between light and dark, flesh and spirit. (Even after his conversion to Christianity, his negative attitude toward sex reflected the Manichaean position.) After nine years of holding to Manichaeism, Augustine became disillusioned by the failure of a leading Manichaean teacher to answer his questions. He gradually drifted into Neoplatonism. Meanwhile, vocationally, he moved from Carthage to Rome to Milan, teaching rhetoric.

In Milan, Augustine met the Christian bishop, Ambrose, who impressed him with his intellect and answered his objections to the Bible. Augustine also learned about saints who had conquered ...

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