Don’t miss the point

rowan-williams

On Augustine, Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury.

Saint Augustine is a modern thinker, relentless in his inquiring, and insightful on the formation of the self, traits that endear him to the secular as well as religious reader. But in summaries of his thought, over-simplifications and distortions creep in, just as playing a Beethoven symphony on a ukulele may result in the loss of some nuance. Augustine is blamed for the reluctance of Christians to be involved in politics, a long-standing negative view of human sexuality, and the obsession with the self within Western culture. In this collection of linked essays, Rowan Williams aims to correct these perceptions. Though the writing is sometimes heavy going (Williams is a thoughtful commentator but his tendency to take into account every nuance, as well as his assumption that we will follow his sometimes very technical arguments, can be wearying) the book offers plenty of insight, partly due to the breadth of Williams’ familiarity with his subject, which puts Augustine’s better-known views into their proper theological context.

And so, says Williams, Augustine is not arguing for a separation of Church and State, but about the difference between good and bad politics. Rather than being high-minded at the expense of the body, Augustine recognises that our material lives don’t live up to their potential without a spiritual impetus. He is realistic about our limited capacity to know ourselves. And we miss Augustine’s point when we separate what he says about the self from his conception of God and his insistence that the attempt to understand ourselves is not done under our own steam but by God working within us. Along the way we are reminded of how Augustine was grappling with concepts of knowledge and the mind that still grip modern philosophers of mind.

Williams also comments on the accusation that Augustine’s view of evil as a lacuna lessens evil’s impact. Williams takes much time over the thought of Hannah Arendt and others and suggests that Augustine’s views are an attempt to logically explain evil in a wider theological context and that holes can indeed have dramatic negative consequences.

Somewhat on the flipside of this is the fact that Augustine’s theology centres on and always returns to love. His curiosity is not limited to the academic and technical, but he is interested above all in how faith is lived out in community and world.

Worthy as Williams’ book is in itself, hopefully it also points readers to Augustine’s own books, especially the Confessions and On Christian Teaching. There, Augustine’s enthusiasm and curiosity leap off the page. Even though there are moments where he can seem archaic and tedious, they are balanced by many other moments when he seems so attuned to our own querying, questing age.

(Originally reviewed for Crosslight magazine.)

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