Happy Feast of St. Augustine

by Michael Sean Winters

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Today is the Feast of St. Augustine. Apart from the writers of the books of Scripture, no single person has had a great impact on the development of doctrine in the Latin Church than Augustine. As a theologian, only Aquinas really warrants a mention in the same breath, and for all the differences in their method, recent Thomist scholars have drawn out the many ways that Aquinas depended upon Augustine, or at least was swimming in the wake he created. Augustine was a giant and anyone who writes about religion today knows that, compared to the great Bishop of Hippo, we are pygmies.

If Augustine had only written The Confessions, he would be considered on the greatest spiritual writers of all time. If he had only penned the City of God, he would still be considered on of the great Christian theorists of human community. If he had only delivered his many sermons, he would be the most significant preacher in the history of the West. He did all these things.

Our age needs to reacquaint itself with Augustine in the worst of ways. The other day, a disgruntled former newsman shot, on air, a former colleague and her cameraman, and the most common word used to describe the reaction of people was “shocked.” Why? Why should we ever be shocked by human depravity? He, more than anyone, articulated the doctrine of original sin, which was famously called the one Christian doctrine that did not require belief, for the evidence of its veracity was all around us.

We live in an age of progress. The ancient Romans were capable of a variety of progressivism too: Many of their writers had an inflated notion of the potential of humankind to rid itself of its baser instincts and build a new and better tomorrow. The Romans, too, could point to their various technological masterpieces as evidence of progress: The aqueducts were to them what the internet is to us, proof positive of our superior technological capability. And, a people capable of such technological progress were surely capable of an equivalent moral progress. Augustine would have none of it.

The doctrine of original sin is the great liberator of humankind. Sinfulness is not only, or even primarily, a thing we choose, it is constituitive of who we are. It stalks us. Even our noblest deeds, animated by the best of intentions, miscarry badly and, as often as not, contain more than whiff of human pride within them. Such a belief is normally attributed to a certain pessimism in Augustine, but this is a gross misreading. If Augustine believed anything, knew anything, it was that Christ had redeemed those who would be saved. He places our depravity in context, in Christ’s context, where mercy is abundant. Unsatisfied with mere human progress, he recognized the need for a savior and he knew who that savior was.

I have related this story in another context, but it bears repeating today. Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete was the most engaging, original theologian I have known. One day, when we were discussing human sexuality, he explained to me that when Augustine teaches that even the conjugal act, entered into with love and fidelity by a married couple open to the procreation of children, even that act was not unstained by the sin of concupiscence, Augustine was actually teaching us something very liberating. Sin abounds, but grace abounds all the more.

Although profoundly influenced by the Neo-Platonism of his day, Augustine’s writings are not those of a man consumed only with the world of ideas. The density of human life, its corporality, its facticity, these were his calling cards. In his splendid book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken observes:

The City of God can be read as a Christian response to Plato’s Republic, though Plato’s work does not figure large in it. In a revealing passage early in the work, Augustine alludes to the program of the Republic. There Plato had sketched out a rational ideal of a perfect commonwealth, in Augustine’s words, “what kind of city ought there to be.” The use of the term ought is noteworthy. Augustine emphasizes that Platon had set forth his thinking on what an ideal city would look like. One might have expected Augustine in response to outline his ideal city, contrasting the city of God with the kind of commonwealth envisioned by Plato. But Augustine does not present a model city, a society human beings should strive to build in this world. His city of God is not an ideal but an actual city, a living community to which one belongs. In a telling phrase in one of his letters, he refers to the city of God as a city one enters, that is, a society of which one becomes a part. Though the life of the city of God is oriented toward the future, it is a social and religious fact. In the very first sentence of the City of God Augustine says that he has taken upon himself the task of “defending the glorious city of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that city.”

One of the reasons Augustine’s writings still speak to us all these centuries later is this rootedness in the actual circumstances of life. Ideas can be more easily manipulated than facts. This is the insight Pope Francis draws our attention to when he states that reality is more important than ideas. Whatever else it is, the Church is not an idea but a living community.

A little later on in that same book, Wilken writes, “The peace for which the city of God yearns is a ‘perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God,’ a peace of ‘enjoying one another in God.’ Notice that Augustine’s language is social, not individualistic. He does not say ‘fellowship with God,’ but enjoying one another in God or, as one translator has it, a ‘mutual fellowship in God.’ Augustine’s controlling metaphor for the new life that God creates is not, for example, being born again, but becoming part of a city and entering into its communal life.” Given my horror at the rise of libertarianism in our day, you can see why this passage warms my heart.

I have commented before on Augustine’s views on the limits of politics, when I wrote upon the death of Jean Bethke Elshtain, whose book of that title was such a perfect antidote to the Clinton years. You can re-read my comments here and I see no need to alter them. Looking through this morning's newspaper, it seems we still need to be reminded of the limits of politics that Augustine first taught us. 

We Christians stand in the shadow of the Cross and at the entrance to the empty tomb. We do not stand there alone. We have as a companion and as an authority the great Bishop of Hippo whose feast day we celebrate this day. When I move back to Connecticut and the more humane rhythms of rural life replace my current rhythms of urban life, I hope to dedicate more time to Augustine’s sermons. Rereading The Confessions always rewards. Once through City of God is probably enough. But, what a companion to have along life’s Christian journey.  Happy feast to one and all.




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