True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

Thoughts on Rick Perry’s Claim that Donald Trump is the “Chosen One”

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In 2006, while serving as governor of Texas, Rick Perry was asked whether non-Christians will spend eternity in hell. “I don’t know that there’s any human being that has the ability to interpret what God and his final decision-making is going to be,’ Perry said.  He added: “That’s what the faith says. I understand, and my caveat there is that an all-knowing God certainly transcends my personal ability to make the judgment black and white.”

I am not sure if Perry really believed this, or if it was just a fancy piece of political footwork to avoid making him look intolerant, but his answer revealed a certain degree of humility and an affirmation of the mystery of God.

Last month Perry did an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.  He told the story a Christian “prophet” who  prophesied in 2011 that Perry would one day be in the Oval Office with his grandson. Perry assumed that this meant he would be elected President of the United States.  “If you want to make God laugh,” Perry told CBN, “tell Him your plans.”  (Around the time of this interview Perry and his grandson got a picture taken with Trump in the oval office. This moment, Perry believed, was the real fulfillment of the prophecy).

Again, Perry’s answer reveals his belief that human beings do not know the will of God in every circumstance.  God’s plans are not our plans.

For a man who, at least in these two cases, appealed to the mystery of God and the inability of humans to understand His will, Perry seems pretty certain about God’s will when it comes to the presidency of Donald Trump.

Many of you by this point have seen Perry’s interview with Fox News in which he describes Donald Trump as “the chosen one” and rehashes what is now a common Christian Right talking point about how God uses flawed vessels to carry out His will.

Most Christians, to one degree or another, believe that God orders the world according to His purposes.  In the Fox interview Perry says that “God is very active in the details of the day to day lives of government.” I agree. But Perry seems to know exactly what God’s activity in government looks like.  Perry arrogantly believes that he knows why Donald Trump was elected.  In the interview he suggests that Trump was chosen by God to advance the Christian principles upon which the nation was founded and uphold the moral values that have defined the Christian Right for the past four decades. There are other evangelicals who have used the same belief to suggest that demonic forces are driving Trump’s political opponents.  (I am guessing that Perry believes this too).

For Christians who believe in divine providence, politics present a conundrum.  As believers, we want to know God’s will for our lives. We spend time in prayer and meditation trying to discern what He is calling us to do in the circumstances of our lives.

So if we try to discern providence in our spiritual lives, what is wrong with trying to do the same in the realm of politics?

Rick Perry and others who seem to think that Christians should rally around Donald Trump because he is “the chosen one” must be willing to reconcile their certainty about Trump with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”  Perry offers a simple and direct reading of providence in American life that assumes an understanding of the secret things of God, things that sinful men cannot fathom outside of the scriptures.  Appeals to providence in public life not only lead to bad politics in a pluralistic society, but they also represent bad theology.

St. Augustine is helpful here.  In Book 20 of The City of God Against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world.  The Scriptures teach us that history will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God.  Christians put their hope in Christ’s return.  But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history.  We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible because our understanding is so limited.  As Augustine writes:

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one.  Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding  out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

Perhaps Ambrose Bierce best described Perry’s brand of providential politics when, in his Devil ‘s Dictionary, he defined providence as an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”  Indeed, I didn’t hear many on the Christian Right talking about how Barack Obama or Bill Clinton were God’s “chosen ones.”

Maybe God has put Donald Trump in his position of power.  My weak-kneed Calvinism leads me to at least entertain such an idea.  But I also reject Christian’s ill-conceived propensity for trying to discern with certainty the purposes of a sovereign God and then use such conclusions to serve political or cultural ends.  I am reminded of the words of Valparaiso University moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender in his book The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life:

What God is accomplishing in that period stretching from the time of Christ to the final judgment is largely hidden from us.  Our task ,then, is less to look for signs of the times than to be patient, to wait for God–and, along the way, to carry out our duties faithfully.

What does it mean to “carry out our duties faithfully” in the age of Trump? Part of our responsibilities as Christians is to live and speak prophetically.  For believers, God’s will has been revealed to us through the scriptures.  The Bible has much to say about the poor, the refugee, the widows, and how we must treat those who do not share our race or ethnicity.  When our leaders blatantly lie to us, we must stand firm on the side of truth.  We are called to defend life and the dignity of human beings.  We must speak out against those things that harm the witness of the Gospel in the world.

Perry and the rest of the Trump evangelicals would do better to approach their understanding of politics with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand why Donald Trump was President of the United States.  We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.”

Two final thoughts on Perry’s statement:

1. Perry says he gave Trump a one-page sheet describing three Old Testament kings who God used despite their flaws:  Saul, David, and Solomon.  Indeed, God did use these flawed men to serve His purposes in the ancient world.  But if you are going to play the “God uses sinful men” card, then you also need to tell the entire story.

For example, when God’s decided to give the Israelites a king in the person of Saul, he was making a compromise with His people by offering a solution to their problems.  It was an imperfect solution. There was a price to pay for such a compromise, as God warned that there will be a day when “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18).  The Israelites believed Saul would be more effective than God (or his prophet Samuel) in protecting them from their enemies.  Saul sought political power over the will of God. Consider 1 Samuel 13, the passage in which Saul does not wait for the priest Samuel to arrive at his camp at Gilgal to make a sacrifice and instead makes the sacrifice himself.  In a fascinating study of the Book of Samuel, legal scholars Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes offer an insightful take on this important scene in the book.  According to these authors, the scene teaches us what happens when religion mixes with power: “What the author of Samuel conveys by this striking episode is how religion, even when sincerely believed, can be instrumentalized in power struggles and how political rivals can shed moral qualms about treating the sacred as just another weapon to be opportunistically deployed in a competitive struggle for prestige and power.” Sometimes it is better to obey than to sacrifice.

Or consider King David’s sin with Bathsheba.  Evangelicals like to stress how David repented of his sins in Psalm 51 (something Trump said he does not do), but it also worth remembering that David’s failure had serious consequences for his family and the nation of Israel.  Remember what the prophet Nathan said to David after he confronted the King about his affair with Bathsheba and ordered the death of Bathsheba’s husband: “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own. ‘This is what the LORD says: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you.””  (2 Samuel 12:10-14).  Read 2 Samuel 17-24 to see what happened.

And then there was David’s son Solomon.  He was a man of great wisdom, but his “heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel.” 1 Kings 11 says that Solomon “loved many foreign women.” Despite the Lord’s specific admonition forbidding Solomon to enter “into marriage with them,” Solomon did it anyway.  “There the Lord said to Solomon, ‘since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statues that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.'”  Following the reign of Solomon, Israel would be divided into two kingdoms and begin a downward slide toward Assyrian and Babylonian captivity.

Of course the United States of America is not Old Testament Israel and it is almost always a bad idea to apply Old Testament passages to contemporary American politics. But even if we accept for the moment Perry’s practice of using the stories of Old Testament kings to prop-up Donald Trump, it is clear that the analogy he makes between our current president and these kings does not go far enough.  If we carry Perry’s analogy to its logical conclusion we must say that the sins of leaders have consequences for the future of the national communities in which they lead. In other words, the United States is in big trouble.

2.  As I told The Washington Post today, there are many members of the clergy who claim that Donald Trump is anointed by God to restore America to its Christian roots. But Perry is a member of the president’s cabinet.  The belief that Donald Trump is carrying out God’s will like an Old Testament king has now made its way into the rhetoric of those who hold power in this country.  If what he said in the Fox interview is true, Perry is preaching this message to the president himself.  I imagine that these themes are discussed regularly in the Wednesday morning cabinet Bible study attended by Perry, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Sonny Perdue,  Alex Acosta, and others.

Song of the Day

Because sometimes you just need to listen to Born to Run:

“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”–Augustine’s Confessions

Teaching St. Augustine on 9-11-01

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Peter Candler was a graduate student at Duke Divinity School on September 11, 2001.  He was scheduled to give an 11:00am guest lecture in a theological class on St. Augustine’s City of God.

He describes what happened on that day in a piece published Monday at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

This was what the students came to hear from Augustine. They came to hear him argue that when the common interest of a public is not grounded in love for its own sake, and when human rights are not grounded in a universal human calling to love God and one another, then we inevitably serve some other god than the God of Love. We worship at some other altar than that of true mercy and freedom, and above all we end up worshiping an idol whose shifting forms disguise his one name: domination. In our desire for mastery over others, we will merely become slaves to the lust for domination that we mistakenly call freedom.

Read the entire piece here.

 

St. Augustine and the Conversion of a Progressive Journalist

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Elizabeth Bruenig converted to Catholicism in 2014.  Her decision to unite with the church of Rome came through her reading of St. Augustine.  She describes her spiritual journey in a recent piece at America magazine.

Here is a taste:

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed,in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”

Property entered the equation with sin. Since people could no longer be trusted to honor the original purpose and use of creation, governing authorities were able to maintain order by dividing it up. But the church remained sensitive to the pre-property purpose of creation, and with its own authority (throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, ecclesiastical courts heard many cases regarding property and contracts) and power to persuade states and subjects, it urged vigilance against the tendency of the wealthy to amass more than their due, to the detriment of the poor. Individual actors departed from the counsel of the church, of course, but never succeeded in altering its doctrine to advance their own purposes.

But that changed after the Protestant Reformation. 

Read the rest here, including Bruenig’s comparison of her conversion to those of conservative intellectuals R.R. Reno and Ross Douthat.

 

 

Peter Brown Invented the Field of Late Antiquity

BrownI just came across this article on historian and St. Augustine biographer Peter Brown in The Daily Princetonian.

Here is a taste of Rudy Shao’s piece:

Brown retired with the title of Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History in 2011. The University then split his job into two, assigning the Eastern half of the Mediterranean to Tannous and the Western half to Reimitz, according to Sahner.

Nevertheless, Brown’s productivity continues. Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m. He then studies up to three languages, each for an hour, using books and recordings.

Language learning constitutes Brown’s main hobby. He dismissed his familiarity with over 20 languages as “not so difficult,” given the numerous cognates involved. “I speak as many as I need for traveling,” he said.

Next, he takes a walk in a local park, where he passes dogs that he later describes to Betsy. Finally, he reads historical texts intensively, relaxing the pace of his schedule as the day wears on.

Fifty years after the publication of his first book, “Augustine of Hippo,” Brown is researching a book on the meaning of the Christian notion of universalism in late antiquity.

“What did it mean to preach to all nations? Did they really think they could convert everybody, or simply bring the gospel to everybody? Those are two different questions,” he said. He added that he is also writing an autobiography, based on his old papers and teaching notes.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Teaching Augustine on Twitter

38678-augustine-of-hippoChad Pecknold of the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. is leading a “class” on St. Augustine that takes place entirely on Twitter.

Here is a taste of a post on Pecknold’s experiment at the Catholic Herald:

Students in professor Chad Pecknold’s newest class come from Canada, Uruguay, France, Germany, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and all across the United States, but two things unite them all – a printed copy of St Augustine’s “City of God” and their Twitter accounts.

Pecknold teaches a doctoral seminar on what is one of the saint’s greatest theological works at The Catholic University of America in Washington. On a whim, he decided at the beginning of this semester to post the seminar reading schedule on his personal Twitter account, and invite people to read along and have an occasional discussion.

Expecting about a dozen people to respond, Pecknold was shocked to find thousands of people showed interest in doing this online study of Augustine.

About 120,000 people viewed his invitation shortly after he posted it; more than 2,000 committed to buying the book and reading along. Pecknold had to quickly figure out how to accommodate such a large volume of people, and decided to dedicate a two-hour period on Thursday evenings to the study of “City of God.”

During his first class on January 12, Pecknold sat down with several different translations of the book, which had all of his handwritten marginal notes from about a decade of teaching the text. He tweeted out his commentary on book one through the Twitter app on his iPhone, and since Book 1 is 33 chapters, he wrote about 150 tweets in two hours.

His students either replied to his tweets or composed their own, using the class’s hash tag #CivDei to add their commentary to the discussion. The hash tag is taken from the original Latin title of the text, “De Civitate Dei.”

Read the rest here.

I like this idea. Though what Pecknold is doing should never replace an actual face-to-face course, I think this is a really good way to reach the larger public with good ideas and content.

What do you think?

What Can Augustine Teach us About American Politics?

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A lot.

Check out Alex Grant‘s piece, “City of God and the Ends of American Politics” at Christ & Pop Culture.”  Here is a taste:

At heart, the Democratic and Republican parties are each giving us a story about identity. Augustine begins his critique of this identity by satirizing some of what we might call the “conservative values” of the Republican party. He argues that we can tolerate corruption in a people and their government as long as “our way of life” is not disrupted:

“So long as it lasts,” they say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride . . . if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. . . .” (II.20, translated by Henry Bettenson)

Does not this desire to maintain riches, glory, and a certain kind of stability contain the echo of “making America great again”? Here is the preservation of class divides, the “freedom” to be good consumers, and a hawkish desire to go to war in order to “protect our way of life” (in our case, isolationism, capitalism, and neglect of social justice). It reveals a people who have found their identity in being “the greatest nation on Earth,” where greatness is defined in measurables, such as economic prosperity and military power rather than true justice and relational human flourishing.

But Augustine is not just concerned with the economic and material desires. He goes on to address the more liberal “identity politics” most often espoused by the Democratic party. Why should we worry, Augustine continues,

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; . . . The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. (II.20)

Notice that, in this view, consent is all that is required to make an action virtuous. All desires and delights are valid. Here is the argument that it should be possible to do anything one wants, provided that it does not harm others’ property or bodies.

We could stop here, recognizing that both parties have their flaws. But Augustine goes further, linking the desires for unchecked economic prosperity and personal license:

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. (II.20)

And this is where we reach the ends of what we have been trained to love and value. The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?” And so the Democratic party asks, “Why shouldn’t we fulfill every desire that is in our hearts?” Embedded in both is the same question: Why should we deny ourselves pleasures of any kind, and why should we let anyone disapprove of what we do?

Read the entire piece here.

Reader Feedback: Coates on Historians and Hope

Yesterday our “quote of the day” came from Ta-Nehesi Coates’s reflections on historians and hope.

Here is the quote I chose:


.. I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.


The best response/question to the post came in a tweet (@johnfea1) from Aaron Cowan, a history professor at Slippery Rock University:



Great point.  I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis.  I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present.  I would not call these people “historians.”


I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here.  His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them,  Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.

E.J. Dionne Weighs In on the Obama Prayer Breakfast Speech

Thanks for all of your comments on my post about Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. I know that not all of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home agree with my take on the speech, but I do appreciate all the Facebook shares and retweets. We may have a revised version of the post out as an op-ed sometime next week. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post has weighed in on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks.  Here is a taste:

…He (Obama) never suspected that he was in the midst of one of those hard tasks. Who knew that denouncing religious extremism and calling on people of all faiths to guard against “a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith” would prove to be so controversial? If a president dares to say anything critical about what Christians may have done at any point in history, he is destined to be attacked for engaging in “moral equivalence” and accused of downplaying present dangers.

Obama could not have been clearer in his condemnation of the Islamic State, “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
Yet he also urged Christians not to “get on our high horse” and to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
He added: “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” This last point, about a much more recent time, should be seared into our historical memories. Christian churches split over slavery and were deeply divided over segregation. It’s a fact that should make all Christians think very carefully about how we righteously use scripture to justify our current political commitments.
Obama’s observation was, at one level, entirely anodyne: that “we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” Can anyone argue with that? Religion has, indeed, inspired extraordinary acts of generosity and called forth powerful movements on behalf of justice and freedom. But monstrous crimes have also been justified through the invocation of faith and committed in its name.
As someone who is sympathetic to faith and to believers, I have always liked the observation of the historian Richard Wightman Fox: “Religion allows people to grapple with the human mysteries that neither science nor politics can address. But it also provides a force that science and politics can call on in their effort to understand and transform the social world.”
At the same time, most religious people agree with the theologian ­Reinhold Niebuhr that we should all share “a sense of contrition about the common human frailties.”
But I guess a president isn’t allowed to have complicated views about religion. Within hours of Obama’s speech, I heard him attacked by a few secularists who thought he soft-pedaled the theological roots of violence. But most of the assaults came from conservatives. One right-wing Web site concluded: “Obama basically equates ISIS with Christianity.” Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore called Obama’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”
Good grief. Do Obama’s critics think that Christians reduce their credibility by acknowledging their imperfections? Is it disrespectful of Christ to admit that Christians regularly fall short of His teachings? That would make St. Augustine a heretic….

David Brooks Dabbles in Early Church History

Augustine of Hippo

Brooks describes two types of fourth-century approaches to Catholic identity.  The Donatists “believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity.”  Augustine of Hippo “wanted the church to go on the offense and swallow the world.”  He sees Pope Francis as an Augustinian in this regard and also praises the Augustinian model as an effective way of reviving institutions.

I am sure that church historians are going to have a field day with this column, but let’s give Brooks a break–he only has 800 words.  Moreover, Brooks has probably led thousands of people to head over to Wikipedia and look up the word “Donatist.”  I applaud his effort to bring history to bear on the present.

While we await the scholarly assault, here is a taste of his column:

In the fourth century, another revival movement arose, embraced by Augustine, who was Bishop of Hippo. The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.
Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.
He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.
In this view, the church would be attractive because it was hungering and thirsting for fulfillment. Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions. Augustine had this deep, volatile personality. His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.
This second tendency is also found in movements that are in crisis, but it is rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis.
Like most of the world, I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers “accidents on the streets” to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.
It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who stands by traditional Catholic teaching, but then goes out and visits Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who had married in defiance of the church and who was dying poor and forgotten. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who ferociously rebukes those priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers.
It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who seems to feel a compulsive need to be riding the buses, who refuses to live in the official residences, who sends his priests out to the frontiers and who once said he would die if locked away in the Vatican.
I’ll leave it to Catholics to decide if Francis is good for the church. The subject here is how do you revive a movement in crisis. The natural instinct is to turn Donatist, to build an ark and defend what’s precious. The counterintuitive but more successful strategy is to follow Augustine, to exploit a moment of weakness by making yourself even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure, counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault.

St. Augustine on Farting

Yes, it is true.  Even St. Augustine commented on this bodily function.

HT: David Swartz at Moral Minority

(From City of God, xiv. 24)

We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity. Such people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together. Others without moving the head can bring the whole scalp-all the part covered with hair-down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will. Some can swallow an incredible number of various articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm, can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. There are others who imitate the cries of birds and beasts and the voices of any other men, reproducing them so accurately as to be quite indistinguishable from the originals, unless they are seen. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region. I know from my own experience of a man who used to sweat whenever he chose; and it is a well-known fact that some people can weep at will and shed floods of tears.”

St. Augustine’s Journey Toward God

Garry Wills has a new book out on St. Augustine.  It is entitled Augustine’s “Confessions”: A Biography (Princeton University Press).  From what I can tell, Wills is trying to rescue the Confessions from scholars who seem to think that the book is about a saint’s struggle with lust.  More than a autobiography, Wills suggests that the Confessions are best understood as Augustine’s reflections on his journey toward God.  As Wills writes in an excerpted passage of the book published on the website of The New Statesman:

If Confessions is not an autobiography, what is it (aside from its overall framework as a prayer)? It relives the drama of sin and salvation, in the form of a journey towards God. It stands closer to The Pilgrim’s Progress, or even to the Divine Comedy, than to Rousseau’s Confessions. It is a theological construct of a highly symbolic sort.

I am not sure what is new about this interpretation.  I think that this is the way many Christians have always read the Confessions.

HT