Every now and then in the publishing world you hear of discoveries of long lost works. Some of them make big news, some of them are less commented on, but significant none-the-less. The manuscript for professor of church history Henry Chadwick’s study of the life of Saint Augustine was discovered among his papers after his death. It was planned for a series from Oxford that was replaced by the Very Short History series, to which Chadwick contributed a very short work. The longer work was eventually published as a stand-alone title by Oxford in 2009. Still under 200 pages, it is, unsurprisingly, considering Chadwick’s background, a good summary of a topic that has lent itself to vast outpourings and classic works, including Peter Brown’s Augustine (and more recently Robin Lane Fox’s brick of a book), and is a good starting point for reading about this figure who had so much influence on not only the church but the West as a whole.
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.)
J K A Smith suggests in his latest book, You Are What You Love, that the central question of discipleship is ‘what do you want?’. This sounds alarmingly like typical American me-centrism, but thankfully the book assuages that concern by focussing on the communal phenomenon of (traditional) liturgy, and its propensity to habit-forming. This is a deeply thought-out book, unsurprisingly for Smith. In it he makes a case for worship in the churches being an antidote to secular worship, which, in our society, often involves the shopping centre/mall, and the impulsive behaviour that consumerism and advertising cultivates.
He comments on the power of our unconscious motivations and the power of culture to shape our thinking. He ropes in Saint Augustine and apocalyptic literature, which is about unmasking the present rather than predicting the future, criticises the Enlightenment philosophers for being somewhat naïve about our supposed power to be rational, and criticises modern churches’ tendency to try to make worship mirror secular worship (rock concert-like, commodity-oriented, self-fulfilling rather than self-giving). Smith is not immune to using contemporary culture to make his points, but he warns against age-targeted, novelty-seeking, feel-good worship that reinforces the idea that the church is there to serve me, rather than reinforcing the idea that church is about mutual, selfless service. After-all, as he says, you try and compete on equal terms with rock concerts and shopping centres, and the church will not win. The sameness and lameness of much contemporary praise and worship music somewhat proving the point. The church needs to show an alternative.
For mainstream Protestant Christianity, once you’re dead, you’re dead, and the living don’t have anything to do with the dead, until a coming time when one way or another we will be with our loved ones again. With traditional Catholic theology the story is slightly different, and there is some interaction, let’s say, with the dead, mainly the saints. There is a sort of logical problem with saints interacting with us in ‘real time’, considering we are all supposed to be in the afterlife together, rather than the dead being there before us, hanging around until we arrive. But all this aside, a more porous view of the divide between the living and dead is one that saturated the early church, though Peter Brown points out in his new book The Ransom of the Soul that this view took some time to develop, and that for a while competing views coexisted within the church until they solidified into doctrines of what the living could do for the dead, and vice versa.
Saint Augustine responded to a myriad of questions about the afterlife, one of them being whether offerings for the dead actually worked. Augustine’s perhaps Augustinian answer was that they probably don’t but one can do it anyway for tradition’s sake. There is a practical sense buried somewhere here, as with his comment that we should be wary of the idea that dreams tell us of the afterlife (in opposition to those early theologians who thought dreams were something of a portal – or porthole – to the afterlife). Augustine also suggested, against some, that being buried next to a saint did nothing, except perhaps remind one (the relatives of the more recently buried one presumes) that the dead need praying for. And why, considering Protestant views of the futility of praying for the dead, should one do so? According to Augustine, because the dead are, like all of us, waiting for the resurrection. The time issues come into play here too, obviously. (Is heaven in our timezone?) (As Jacques Ellul points out, much of the talk of the Kingdom of God in the Bible is to, rather than make things clear, head off questions about something we can’t comprehend.)
Here, as in his previous book, Peter Brown is concerned with money and the early church, though he points out that the earlier book was about wealth in this life, but this one is about wealth in the afterlife, if that makes sense. He explores what exactly early Christians were thinking when they, for example, gave money to the poor. Augustine in particular targeted the rich, to convince them that giving money to the poor is more beneficial than using the money for circuses and the like. Store up treasure in heaven, in other words. Although this may seem natural for contemporary Christians, it took a while, as Christianity spread, for its counter-intuitive ideas to gain traction over the deeply embedded ideas of the classical world, which included a societal hierarchy. The rich were no longer automatically favoured.
Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, James Boyce, Black Inc.
Are people, at heart, good or bad? Many Westerners would nowadays favour the former, and believe that the Church’s insistence on the latter has distorted our view of ourselves and our potential. Historian James Boyce, though he claims to be objective, seems to hold this view, even while his main aim, he says, is to show how the doctrine of original sin, in our largely secular society, is still a powerful influence. In this history, which is much preoccupied with the fate of dead babies, he traces the doctrine of original sin to St Augustine, rather than the Genesis story of Eden, which, in his view, though it portrays the Fall of the first human beings, still emphasises that humans are made in God’s image. (It might be better to say Augustine makes explicit what the creation narratives imply.) He then follows the doctrine through medieval times to Martin Luther and the Protestants (though the theology is lite), and onto America where it becomes muddied by the emphasis on freedom. In the Enlightenment “a new language [is] found for an old tale”, as the common people’s sin becomes their barbarism. (Voltaire and Diderot believed the common folk were simply too depraved to ever change.) It resurfaces as self-interest in the science of Darwinism (and in Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene idea), says Boyce, and in Freud, who, though he dismissed religion, entrenched in the modern West the not-so-original view of a dark core that makes us do other than the right things. Freud also agreed with St Augustine on sexuality being a predominant site. It is ironic, thinks Boyce, that Freud’s theories have such Puritan roots.
Boyce claims that original sin now has “little relevance” for American Christians, because of the all-encompassing importance of the idea of freedom. But there has been, and likely will be in Christianity generally continual tension between the idea of grace being sufficient and the idea that human beings have the God-given choice to improve. But Boyce sees the influence of this doctrine continuing in a more general, negative sense, in our ongoing pessimism about human nature. The implication here is, perhaps, that free from this dubious doctrine we might be able to do better at fixing the world. Maybe. But maybe we haven’t been able to banish the idea because it still says something about us. Maybe Freud was not unconsciously misled into continuing original sin’s legacy, but, rather, his theories resonate with the doctrine because both try to explain something fundamental – that we contain both good and bad. It isn’t either/or. Christianity works best when it maintains a balance between “made in the image of God” and our heart of darkness. As the biblical scholar Claus Westermann explains about the biblical creation narratives, the story of human beings being made in God’s image and the story of their “first defection” are “inseparable”. And as Luther said, to be human is to be simultaneously saint and sinner.