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Book review: A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s political thought by Michael Lamb

by
18 August 2023

Reflect on the hope in Hippo, says Robin Gill

EVER since the publication in 1967 of Peter Brown’s seminal and beautifully written Augustine of Hippo, there has been growing historical and theological interest in the voluminous writings of the intellectual genius of early Christianity — so much so that, in 2013, when Diarmaid MacCulloch reviewed the independent scholar Miles Hollingworth’s Augustine of Hippo: An intellectual biography (much praised by Rowan Williams) in the Literary Review, he noted wryly: “As you read this, someone, somewhere on the planet is writing a book about Augustine of Hippo.”

Since 2017, Hollingworth has responded in spades, editing the Bloomsbury series Reading Augustine, with 25 stimulating books published to date, all arguing that Augustine’s ideas remain relevant across various academic fields today. Rowan Williams, separately, has written On Augustine (2016) for Bloomsbury — praised in Theology by the formidable classicist historian and religious sceptic Robin Lane Fox as a “stratospherically intelligent and heartfelt appreciation of Augustine’s similar strengths”.

The youthful Michael Lamb, a product of Princeton and Oxford, enters a thoroughly overcrowded senior common room, but he does so with panache in this his first major book. He writes clearly and demonstrates an impressive knowledge of primary and secondary sources, challenging, in turn, the veteran Peter Kaufman’s two contributions to Hollingworth’s Bloomsbury series.

Both Kaufman and Lamb use Augustine to teach public ethics in leadership studies in the US, but Lamb argues that Kaufman’s pessimistic reading of Augustine’s attitude to society at large (shared by John Milbank and many others) is mistaken and too often focused negatively on chapter 19 of The City of God. Making extensive use of Augustine’s letters and sermons, Lamb offers a more optimistic take, which views this chapter 19 as rhetoric.

My own take on chapter 19, in A Textbook of Christian Ethics, is very similar, noting Augustine’s shifting ethical criteria, typical of public debaters — sometimes absolutist, but, at other times, consequential. Whether or not others agree, they will need to be well equipped to discount Lamb’s careful research.

Augustine is presented afresh as one who — despite his late Roman prejudices, (thankfully) scorned today, about, say, slavery and empire — nevertheless seriously grappled with an issue that remains highly pertinent: namely, how a committed Christian pilgrim can also be a good citizen. Lamb maintains that Augustine has been viewed wrongly as a pessimistic proponent of Christian islolationism or sectarianism. Instead, he believes that “hope”, “humility”, and “love” drove Augustine’s attitude to pagan society rather than straightforward rejection.

On this understanding, the peace of an earthly city, say, was not to be equated with the peace of the heavenly city, but was still relatively good and preferable, for Christians and pagans alike, to an absence of earthly peace.

Any thoughtful Christian who engages with secular colleagues in the public domain today might learn from this new book. It is astonishing to discover just how often Augustine anticipated many of our concerns. He wasn’t infallible, and his episcopal coercion of Donatists remains shameful, but, on balance, he was actively and intelligently engaged with the socio-political context of his time.

Augustine was, for me, an applied theologian par excellence.
 

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.

 

A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s political thought
Michael Lamb
Princeton University Press £35
(978-0-691-22633-0)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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