Rowan Williams’s Beautiful Grasp of Augustine

Reviewed by John C. Cavadini

On Augustine
By Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury, Pp. xii + 213. $42.

To read these essays now published in book form is a little like a homecoming. I had remembered reading those previously published with appreciation — but upon re-reading them, I have to add, perhaps not with sufficient appreciation. I had forgotten how beautiful they are. Rowan Williams writes: “It will be obvious that I believe Augustine to be a thinker supremely worth engaging with — not only as a specifically Christian mind but as someone whose understanding of subjectivity itself, of what it is to be a speaking and thinking person, is of abiding interest” (p. ix). Therefore, he “deserves all the lavish attention he has received over the centuries” (p. x).

Williams does not have only Christian theologians in mind, either as past or as prospective interlocutors. Rather, he wants to reach “beyond the community of Christian belief” (p. x) — not by neutralizing Augustine as a Christian theologian — but instead, hoping that Augustine can be read afresh by anyone, “as a thinker who illustrates beyond any doubt that Christian theology can be a vehicle for the most serious reflection on the nature of our humanity: its varieties of self-enslavement, its obscurity to itself, its emergence in relatedness and reciprocity” (p. x). Truth in advertising would have me reveal that I am fully on board with such a project and deeply grateful for the brilliant intellectual leadership that Williams has offered in its service.

Williams’s leadership in this regard has not been abstractly intellectual, but rather it arises, as noted, out of a conviction about what is worth engaging, and what is of abiding interest. Such convictions cannot be proven in any kind of Cartesian sense of a clear and distinct idea that is self-evident once grasped, but must be, one could say, performed. There is therefore an almost sacramental character to these essays, because they mediate an experience of the conviction that animates their performance. The reader experiences the worthwhile engagement that Williams argues for.

Part of the performance is the always subtle but often dramatic release of Augustine’s thought from trivializations that have occurred by way of caricature, and by way of the silos of scholarship that have tended to promote trivialization and cliché. We have all heard the clichés, but, just in case, Williams dryly enumerates them, mentioning “Augustine’s alleged responsibility for Western Christianity’s supposed obsession with the evils of bodily experience or sexuality, or its detachment from the world of public ethics, its authoritarian ecclesiastical systems, or its excessively philosophical understanding of God’s unity, or whatever else is seen as the root of all theological [and one could add, cultural] evils” (p. viii).

The scholarly tendency to study Augustine in the silos of the disputes in which he involved himself generates standard labels that deflect attention from the depth and nuance of Augustine’s thought. For example, if a claim of his is labelled anti-Pelagian, it can seem as a sufficiently exhaustive treatment of the position and, since the label shows a vested interest, it also can serve to discount the position (by reducing it to its vested interest) without probing its depth. Williams notes that his essays “include no extended discussion of the major controversies of Augustine’s episcopal career,” not only because the texts discussed are largely the ones Williams happened to be teaching (an endearing comment if I ever read one), but also because they emerge out of his “interest in the fundamental categories of Augustine’s work,” those from which the doctrinal concerns about “grace and the limits of the Church” actually derive (p. ix).

One of the major watershed essays in the book, “Politics and the Soul: Reading the City of God” exemplifies this approach, using it to deflate the caricature of “‘Augustinian pessimism,’ so called,” as well as the caricature, coming from Hannah Arendt no less, that Augustine is the enemy of the public realm and that his model of community relationships “represents a flight from time” (p. 126). But what we are actually seeing represented in these clichés, if one looks “more subtly,” is — and there is no one who can say it better than Williams himself, a corollary of Augustine’s pervasive hostility to two things: an elitist concept of human commonalty (immortality as the acquisition of a remembered name) and a nostalgia for some escape from the shapelessness and uncertainty of temporal existence as such (the Manichaean isolation of a pure and inviolate, ahistorical soul in us, the Platonist promise of ecstasy, the Donatist quest for absolute institutional purity, the Pelagian hope to achieve purity of will, unconditioned moral liberty).

Wow! This is a beautiful example of the way in which a focus on fundamental categories operative across the polemical fields shows what is at stake in all of them and blocks easy deflections of attention from Augustinian depth. Williams succeeds here in putting his finger on what I would call the anti-utopian strain in Augustine’s thought without allowing it to be rendered banal by the cliché of pessimism. Williams shows that, for Augustine, it is rather utopian thinking that is ultimately pessimistic, prone towards the annihilation of human existence as we know it:

For Augustine, the problem of the life of the two cities is, like every other question presented to the theologian, inextricably linked with the fundamental issue of what it is to be a creature animated by desire, whose characteristic marks are lack and hunger. … On such a basis there is no possibility of building a theory that would allow final security and ‘finishedness’ to any form of political life. The claims of such a theory would be, ultimately, anti-political because anti-human: denials of death. (p. 126)

In another famously programmatic essay, we see the same use of fundamental categories to cut through customary trivializations of Augustine’s thought. In “Augustine on Christ and the Trinity,” Williams treats one of Augustine’s texts most prone to flatfooted interpretation, the chestnut in Confessions 7 about Augustine’s having read in the Platonist texts about the eternal Word of God, but not about the Word made flesh. To accept the Word made flesh means that Christian belief for Augustine was “not first and foremost the acceptance of certain statements as true, but a sort of moral turning inside out.” We can stop trying to climb to heaven and act on the belief that the eternal Word has come down from Heaven in search of us. The payoff for the reader though is in the next two sentences, both poignant and pointed at the same time: “And this happens when you see yourself not as a boldly questing intellectual mystic, but as a sick person in desperate need of healing. … Left to ourselves, we can fantasize about gaining wisdom by effort, but in fact we shall only be locking ourselves up still further in our illusions, admiring not the eternal wisdom but our own spiritual skills” (p. 132).

It is interesting, in this connection, to see how easily and eloquently Williams’s scholarship accommodates pastoral concerns. This is illustrated by the chapter called “God in Search: A Sermon,” on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Williams points out the seeming paradox of thinking of Augustine — par excellence the example of a theologian of the “restless heart” in search of God — as, even more, the theologian of God’s coming in search of us. Williams tells his listeners that until God has come in search of us, our own quest is doomed: “we are frustrated and disappointed in what we try to satisfy ourselves with … and so deepen our bondage and anger and misery,” adding that “it is like drinking sea water to quench our thirst.”

A little later: “The trouble with putting the human search for God at the heart of things is that it can lead to a self-important, individualistic religiosity that talks glibly about ‘my spiritual journey’ as a thing in itself, a fascinating exercise in a specialist activity, a very elevated hobby” (p. 208). Not only is the point that Williams takes into the sermon profoundly Augustinian, as shown in the essay on Christ and the Trinity, but the very fact of taking it into the sermon is Augustinian too, because Augustine characteristically filled his sermons with the depth of his theological discoveries and insights, if not with the jargon that sometimes can attach to them.

Williams sums up Augustine’s achievement by characterizing him as a Christian theologian who is fundamentally and irreducibly theological and yet “whose doctrinal convictions open unexpected vistas on questions that are not narrowly theological.” Williams’s Augustine “shows theology at work in the shaping of wisdom.” Williams, in turn, shows Augustine at work in this way by his own careful labor of meticulous eloquence, of a kind of deep-steam cleaning of the grime of intellectualized smog that has accumulated through the generations. Thereby he makes available for viewing an unsurpassed brilliance, but he also thereby performs the same for the religion of which Augustine was such a persuasive apologist.

These essays are not only a first-class set of pro-Augustinian apologetics, in the best and classical sense, but they are also in one and the same act a set of apologetics — also in the best and classical sense — for the Christian faith. Ever the pastor as well as the scholar, Williams addresses his essays as much to people’s souls as to their intellects. The essays carry with them, inconspicuously and almost by sleight of hand, an encouragement for those searching for faith and truth in the learned circles of our world where it can seem most absent. Augustine the pessimist, so called, becomes ironically in Williams’s precisely crafted prose a source of consolation to those who might have been tempted to give up on the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith.

John C. Cavadini is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.


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