Read some St. Augustine

August 30, 2022

Sunday, August 28, was the feast day of St Augustine of Hippo, who died August 28, 430 AD.


“When you really spend time with Augustine he is remarkably vulnerable, humble, and very much imagines himself as a co-pilgrim with people, rather than sitting up on this dais, sort of announcing and denouncing....Augustine is, he writes, less a judge than an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor."

This isn't exactly a revelation, but some lines from a Jamie Smith interview from a couple years ago in the UK's Church Times.

“In a way, Augustine has been this underground river that’s been flowing underneath us, and we haven’t realised how much we’ve been sort of drawing on that well — although, obviously, it’s been a selective inheritance.”

Selective indeed.  The legacy that Augustine left is often called "problematic," though if you know anyone else who wrote 1500 years ago and whose thoughts are assumed to be responsible for our world today, I'd like to know about that book.

In fact, what people complain about concerning Augustine is quite revelatory to where the culture as a whole is.  A few centuries ago, at the height of the Reformation, the big hotspots in Augustine dispute were grace and free will and the salvific nature of the institutional church.  In the eighteenth century it was his discussion of coercion that seems to have been most provocative.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it had a lot to do with Hell and universalism.  Today, people most typically complain about Augustine's account of sexuality.  As the article points out:

In a recent book proposing a sexual reformation, Shameless, the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber observed that, “While many of Augustine’s teachings have been revered for generations, when it came to his ideas around sex and gender, he basically took a dump and the church encased it in amber”.  

Well.  As the Church Lady would say, isn't that special?

The nice thing about this quote is that it is so vividly metaphorical that it effectively detatches itself from any responsibility to a merely literal reality, and is simply a large-scale expression of I don't like this.  There are a lot of things to say about this, here are--oh, to pick a number--three:

(1) historiographically: considering Augustine into his historical context (where he suddenly appears as a person with a richer sense of sexual embodiment, and the positive goods of that embodiment, than almost anyone else in his age--so that he wrote a book entitled On the good of marriage because most thinkers couldn't get their heads around the idea that marriage could be an actually positive context for finding God);

(2) morally and existentially: attempt to see that and how sexuality is actually a deeply fraught context and we'd all do well to undertake our investigation of it seriously and expect some ambivalences to appear (which is what Augustine tries to do);

(3) theologically and ecclesiologically: understand that Augustine's vision of human sexuality is part of an overall vision of human existence that has to be engaged as a whole, not trimmed out and assessed as a portable, modular suggestion, as if he was some kind of sex advice columnist in a free weekly. This is as true for the people who appropriated his thinking--or better, authorized their own with legitimating quotations from his--in the fifth century and going forward, as it is for us today.

But let me not get started down that road.  If anyone wants to read more, they can do so in books like Peter Brown's The Body and Society, an amazing book about these matters, and one that still seems undigested by contemporary scholarship (even much historiographical scholarship) on sex and Christianity.

We can't ask for everything, I guess. All we can do is do our best to try to understand.

Happy belated feast day, Gus!  You're still vexing us, which I suppose means we still are trying to figure out how to "come after" you.