Augustinian Brothers
  • Tuesday, February 12, 2013

“Theology of Hope: United by Postmodern Critical Augustinianism” originally appeared in The Living Church, Sept. 5, 2010

By Brian Crowe

Communion-oriented Anglicans should be hoping that press officers in both the Vatican and Lambeth Palace stumbled across an interview given by Anglican theologian — and inspiration for the “Radical Orthodoxy” school — John Milbank to Asia News, concerning Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams. “I think it is important that the two leaders take the opportunity to show that their agreements are far more profound than their differences,” Milbank said ahead of the forthcoming papal visit to the United Kingdom. “For they espouse a similar sort of theology: rooted in the legacy of Augustine and the recovery of authentic patristic and high medieval tradition.”

Augustinians in Postmodernity

Archbishop Williams’s Augustinianism is a matter of record: Rupert Shortt’s biography describes St. Augustine as “Rowan’s single greatest influence.” Referring to the archbishop’s first meeting with Benedict as pontiff, he notes that “both are steeped in Augustine.”

Roman Catholic theologian Tracy Rowland endorses this same analysis in Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press). Benedict’s Augustinianism is hardly a secret, as his encyclicals testify. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas est, reflects on the Church as a “community of love” in light of Augustine’s insight that “if you see charity, you see the Trinity” [2:19]. In Spe Salvi, Augustine is the exemplar of hope-filled faith:

Amid the serious difficulties facing the Roman Empire — and also posing a serious threat to Roman Africa, which was actually destroyed at the end of Augustine’s life — this was what he set out to do: to transmit hope, the hope which came to him from faith and which, in complete contrast with his introverted temperament, enabled him to take part decisively and with all his strength in the task of building up the city [29].

Caritas in veritate similarly invokes Augustine in discussing the relationship between hope, love and truth:

As the absolutely gratuitous gift of God, hope bursts into our lives as something not due to us, something that transcends every law of justice. Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance. It takes first place in our souls as a sign of God’s presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us. Truth — which is itself gift, in the same way as charity — is greater than we are, as Saint Augustine teaches. Likewise the truth of ourselves, of our personal conscience, is first of all given to us. In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received [3:34].

Benedict’s Augustinianism is the central theme of Rowland’s excellent book. At the very outset we are reminded of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger describing himself as “a decided Augustinian.” It was the influence of Augustine which resulted in Ratzinger as theologian critiquing the dry, impersonal neo-Thomism of pre–Vatican II Rome. Engagement with Henri de Lubac and the Ressourcement school intensified his Augustinianism — what he later described as “the required dialogue with Augustine.”

Rowland says of the Ressourcement school: “they found Thomism dry and unable to convey a sense of the glory of the Revelation. It was a much contracted presentation of the kerygma.”

Ratzinger’s involvement with this movement has, of course, given rise to the interpretation that he was a “liberal” who was mugged by reality and only then became a “conservative”: the rebel who rejected the prevailing orthodoxy in the 1950s and 1960s became the Curia’s hardline conservative of the 1980s.

Contra Rationalism

Rowland presents a much more sophisticated and interesting account in which Augustine remains central to Ratzinger’s theological thinking across the decades. The critique of neo-Thomist Scholasticism was not an expression of liberalism. It was, in fact, a critique of Enlightenment rationalism. As Rowland states:

For Ratzinger “pure reason” á la Immanuel Kant simply does not exist. He has said this many times over several decades. Some Thomists, eager to defend the faith at the Bar of eighteenth-century philosophy, have taken on board elements of Kant’s epistemology. Many Neo-Scholastics influenced by these projects may find this statement shocking but it is nonetheless true that Ratzinger and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the father of post-modernism, are united in their opposition to the Kantian belief in “pure reason.” The way that Ratzinger often expresses the principle is by saying that “reason has a wax nose.” Its shape is determined by theological convictions.

The particularity and beauty of the Incarnation, passion and resurrection of the Word were lost amid the passionless propositions of the Neo-Thomists. But, what was true of the dry Scholasticism of the pre–Vatican II era was also true of the theologies of Schillebeeckx and Küng in their attempts to reinterpret and get behind the theo-drama of the Christian proclamation. As Rowland notes, much liberal theology was “paradoxically … closer in effect to the propositional character of … the whole post-Tridentine approach.” Both pre–Vatican II “conservatives” and post-Vatican II “liberals” were children of the Enlightenment. Both were rationalists.

It is, then, the same Augustinian Ratzinger responding to both Scholasticism and Schillebeeckx. Against the propositions of both, Ratzinger proclaimed the Christian narrative. This is beautifully illustrated in Rowland’s quotation from a friend of Ratzinger’s: “He [i.e., Ratzinger] is not interested in defining God by abstract concepts. An abstraction — he once told me — does not need a mother.”

In many ways, Ratzinger’s commitment to Ressourcement’s proclamation of the Christian narrative was mirrored in Rowan Williams’s engagement with Anglican liberalism in the 1970s. Shortt describes Williams during his time at the liberal Catholic Westcott House, Cambridge, as “invigorat[ing] a generation hungry for a richer theological diet” than that offered by The Myth of God Incarnate. He then quotes a former Westcott student:

We … needed to break out of what seemed like an old-fashioned Oxbridge consensus presenting Christ as essentially a moral mentor. Rowan liberated us from this. His theology was grounded, passionate, caught up in the life of God, and he was clear that everything came together in the Church, rather than the academy. … We came to think that it was possible to out-think the Enlightenment, and defend the integrity of revelation.

Both Benedict and Rowan have been defined by a commitment to recover the truth and beauty of the Christian narrative from theological projects which sought to “translate” Christian faith into rationalist terms. The means they have sought to do this has been what John Milbank calls a “postmodern critical Augustinianism.”

The Liturgy of Beauty

Both have also shared an understanding that this has implications for liturgy. In The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000) Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a devastating critique of a functionalist approach to liturgy. Rowland describes Benedict’s emphasis on the counter-cultural nature of the liturgy — not least its pointing to transcendental beauty — as “part of his Augustinian heritage.” She contrasts this with the fact that “anyone wanting to escape the culture of modernity with its lowest-common-denominator mass culture will find it difficult to do so at many contemporary [Roman] Catholic liturgies.” Against this background, Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum can be understood not as an exercise in reactionary ecclesiastical politics, but as a meaningful attempt to restore the Roman tradition’s liturgical richness and beauty.

In a perhaps less grand manner, but not less significant, the archbishop’s sympathies appear to be with those proposing an Anglican version of the “reform of the reform.” In 2006, preaching on the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of Cranmer, Williams described contemporary critics of the prayer book tradition as “liturgical puritans” and defended Cranmer’s Eucharistic rite:

The insistent reversion to penitence in the Communion Order is not neurotic uncertainty but the sober expression of the truth that we never “move on” from being saved sinners, and our amazement at God’s free forgiveness has to be spoken out again and again. The edge of our resource: that is where faith belongs, and that is where the language of worship has to lead us.

It is also noteworthy that Rowan prefaces his Tokens of Trust with the 1662 translations of the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and in the section on the Eucharist first quotes the 1662 practice: “In the old Church of England Prayer Book, the Lord’s Prayer is said after Holy Communion — as if to remind us that when we have eaten and drunk our identity as God’s adopted children is renewed.”

For Benedict and for Rowan, older liturgical traditions embody a beauty and a logic that enriches the life and witness of the churches.

Between Two Cities

Pontiff and archbishop, then, have both been shaped by the desire to offer an alternative to the theological rationalism and liturgical puritanism that afflicted both the Roman and Anglican communions in the second half of the 20th century. In part, this has been motivated by a recognition that such rationalism and puritanism undermines the Church’s ability to speak meaningfully to the citizens of late modernity. For both Benedict and Rowan, the post-Christian nature of late modern Europe and Britain defines the Church’s mission. Ratzinger’s 2005 Subiaco Address, contained in the appendix to Rowland’s book, contrasted the post-Christian nature of contemporary European society with the previous culture: “The great deep convictions created by Christianity to a large extent remained. But this is no longer the case.” As a consequence, “the splendor of being an image of God no longer shines over” humanity.

The same analysis can be seen in Rowan’s Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement. It concludes:

The “lost icons” of this book have been clusters of convention and imagination, images of possible lives or modes of life, possible positions to occupy in a world that is inexorably one of time and loss. … And this loss, I’ve suggested, is inextricably linked with the loss of what is encoded in the actual icons of Christian tradition and usage.

In the flattened, disenchanted wasteland of post-Christian, postmodern societies, there is — as Rowland notes — “a change in the social perceptions of the nature and dignity of the human person.” For Benedict and Rowan, that dignity is restored through the proclamation and living out of the Christian narrative in the communion of the Church.

A Second Spring?

Tom Wright provocatively remarked of Spe Savli’s treatment of purgatory that “if a Pope had said this loud and clear in Germany in, say, 1517, the entire course of European history would have been different.” As might be expected, Rowland’s work does not quite suggest this. She is at pains to deny a dichotomy between the Augustinian Benedict XVI and the Thomist John Paul II. The differences, however, are significant and are described by Rowland as a “harmonious contrast.” In a phrase she quotes from Ratzinger, Augustine is “a counterweight to Thomas Aquinas.”

The papal visit to the United Kingdom comes at a time when both pontiff and archbishop are wounded — the former by the clerical abuse scandals, the latter by Anglicanism’s ongoing divisions. Anglican-Roman relationships have been soured by the distraction of the Ordinariate. All of this emphasizes the significance of Milbank’s words about the two leaders’ points of agreement. Rowland offers us an excellent portrayal of an authentically Augustinian pontiff that gives us grounds for hope. If we are to witness a series of second springs — for Anglican–Roman Catholic relationships, for an understanding of evangelical fidelity and catholic beauty, for the witness of the churches in post-Christian Europe, for a Christian vision of the common good — the two Augustinians in Rome and Canterbury perhaps have an opportunity to show strength in weakness, treasure in clay jars. Some may regard “postmodern critical Augustinianism” as clumsy jargon. But it potentially offers the hope of renewal for Rome and Canterbury.

Brian Crowe, a member of the Church of Ireland, blogs at catholicity and covenant.


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