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Reasonable and fresh discourse about God

by
24 June 2016

This author has much in common with his subject, declares Cally Hammond

On Augustine

Rowan Williams

Bloomsbury £25

(978-1-4729-2527-5)

Church Times Bookshop special offer price £20

THIS collection of essays was writ­ten over many years. It does not set out to be an introduction: there is no biographical sketch, no timeline, no survey of Augustine’s writings. Neither do the essays claim to be pushing the boundaries of August­in­ian scholarship with some new theoretical schema. There is no representative bibliography; foot­notes are refreshingly vestigial. Rather, the collection is presented, unapologetically, as if the value of engaging with Augustine’s writings is self-evident.

Those writings are interrogated rigorously, but sympathetically. They are not justified in any defens­ive way; Williams presupposes, through­out, the inherent reasonable­ness of discourse about God in gen­eral, and Augustine’s in particular. He does not commend Augustine by trying to modernise him, nor to minimise the aspects of his oeuvre which are most alien to modern sens­ibilities — Augustine remains a patriarchal and hierarchical thinker.

After all, as Plato often makes Socrates’s listeners observe: “How could it be otherwise?” It is a foun­dational stupidity in reading the Fathers to castigate them for not thinking as we do; our moral per­ceptions have been hard won, over many centuries. Augustine does not appear here as the origin of Christian angst about sex and the body, either.

This mix of the academic and theo­­logical with the sympathetic and confessional makes the book unusual as a collection of essays on Augustine; but not atypical of the author, who has, in terms of aca­demic and theological imagination, not a little in common with his subject.

Williams is very obviously at home in this world of discourse, exploring themes spanning a range of Augustine’s thinking (Christo­logy, the psalms, trinitarian theology, the nature of evil, the meaning of “self”, creation, proper love). So his repeated use of untranslated Latin phrases comes across less as obscurity for the reader without Latin (though to some extent it must be frustrating), and more as a reassuring sign of his being com­fort­able in Augustine’s company.

I appreciated intercultural ele­ments such as the insight into the nature of evil which Romans 6 and Greek tragic ananke (”necessity”) have in common; and the use of Sal­lust and Livy to formulate a Chris­tian chal­lenge to earthly kingdoms.

Some sections and some sen­tences defy comprehension, not only on a first reading, but also after several efforts. I found the most overtly theological essays the most difficult (on Christology and Trinity), and those on less abstract themes (Confessions, On Teaching Christianity) the most rewarding.

As with Augustine’s own writ­ings, so, too, in these essays, dense and impenetrable elements sit side by side with moments of humour, per­ception, epigrammatic clarity, and memorable use of the tech­niques of rhetoric. These positive moments far outweigh the diffi­culties of the dense and complex sentences. After all, buying any book, and reading it, presupposes at least a readiness to be persuaded, and some base-line sympathy with the author: compare Augustine’s own reaction to tolle, lege, “Pick it up and read it.” In the case of both the ancient and the modern theologian, one is always reading the author as well as his text.

Again and again, there is a fresh­ness and relevance to the insights; a warning against assuming that we have nothing to learn from what offends our taste; a simplicity that cuts through the meanderings of the last books of Confessions to reassess the relationship between God and creation; assessment of the nature of evil in terms consonant with mod­ern suspicion of judgement —”[in the created order] the frustration of purpose by contingent happenings leads to what we call evil.” The idea that God “needs” human beings, and in particular needs them to love him, is exposed as a treacherous path. Instead, Williams upholds Augustine’s insistence that — just as “we pray in order to fortify our­selves, not to inform God” — so also God loves us because that is how to “bring us to our highest good”, not because God is somehow incom­plete without us.

By the end of the book, the reader will have an overview of important themes in Augustine’s writings, in mostly reader-friendly and (import­ant to the preacher and teacher) memorable and communicable terms. For those who approach Augustine’s writings directly, the man is his own best advertisement; but for those who need encourage­ment to give him a try, this wide-ranging book of essays turns out to be an excellent introduction.

 

The Revd Dr Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge.

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