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December 26, 20175669Views

Rowan Williams: On Augustine

The former Archbishop of Canterbury brings the teachings of a theological giant to life, in potentially life-changing ways.

Imus autem non ambulando sed amando.
(we go [towards God] not by walking but by loving)
Epistulae 155.13

Rowan Williams was Professor of Divinity at Oxford before becoming Bishop of Monmouth in 1992. He’s famous nowadays for his ten year stint as an unsuitably druidical Archbishop of Canterbury. But he left the Chair of St Augustine three years ago, it seems, to pen a book on his older, libidinous namesake, St Augustine of Hippo—the titan of the Catholic Church in the West—when he assumed the position of Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 2013.

The result, On Augustine, is a slim volume at roughly 200 pages but nonetheless dense enough to sit near plutonium on the periodic table. At first glance it looks like university fodder: a predictable series of essay notes, didactic scribbles and aphorisms spun out and regurgitated to cash in on a stint at Canterbury. Even worse, many readers will fear leafing through a homiletic tome that drowns in an ocean of ponderous footnotes. In short, that Williams’ book may behave in a manner not unlike his primateship, with academic scruples capsizing the core message.

Such assumptions are deflated in the first few pages, however. For Williams aims at nothing less than the rehabilitation of one of the most demonised thinkers in the oikoumene today. A colossus of the early Church, “postmodern” types (interestingly, Wittgenstein loved and Nietzsche detested the man) find Augustine a convenient figure to pin a whole host of nasties to. He stands accused, among other things, of exaggerating original sin, enforcing heterosexual norms and encouraging authoritarian ecclesiastical systems. None of the antidotes administered in the book are treated in a chronological fashion, however. In fact for historical treatment, Peter Brown, Henry Chadwick, Miles Hollingworth and Robin Lane Fox have sketched surveys far more worthy of attention. Instead, On Augustine is a serious appraisal of the Church Father’s reflections on his faith by today’s greatest theologian (pace Benedict XVI).

And Williams, though insufferably polite, doesn’t suffer a fool gladly. The first chapter is on Time and Self- Awareness in the Confessions and it unapologetically leaps into the deep end of the seminary’s talent pool. Confessions carries the double sense of praise and penitence in the Latin and its essential message is that the heart is ever unquiet until it finds rest in God. Some of its profoundest analyses appear on memory in the tenth book. Here Augustine takes leave of his intellectual crutches, Aristotle and Plotinus, and ventures into unknown pastures. Williams holds up Augustine’s Man as a creature who is not “a self- transparent reasoning subject” and instead is one full of humility and a sense of finitude: “To be an intelligence in time is to be inescapably unfinished, consistently in search. Never just ‘there’.”

Balanced somewhere between a lispy librarian, an impish druid and a concerned parent, Williams avoids the Charybdis of academese and the Scylla of sermonising with a voice that is peculiarly his own. And it’s genuinely powerful in parts first, because it’s rooted in a discordant reality and second, because it’s alert to the hazard of drifting into feel-good waffle or highfalutin pratde. Direct and potent, many readers will feel the pangs of their own heartstrings when Williams quotes Margot Waddell on the fact we must grow into “the capacity to bear the loss of the external presence [of the ones we love] but nonetheless retain their presence internally in the face of absence, of doubt and uncertainty, of loss of trust, and even of fear of betrayal by the loved one”

Williams also reconfigures several thoughts and feelings in a manner most would struggle to articulate. Passages that deal with the fact “God is, at the very least, the unsettling absence that will pervade sensual pleasure” or the times we must suffer “self-alienation” due to seeking completion outside of instead of in ourselves and God, or finally, the reality that we will fail constantly and yet “are present to a love which holds together what we cannot unify or sustain by our own resources” have all entered my book of lifted phrases I’ll deploy for better or worse.

That’s not to say there aren’t parts that leave one nonplussed. While the chapter on Psalms is short, bouncy and packs points that invert common notions (such as the fact that “Out of the deep have I called” in Psalm 130 is about the darkness of this world, in which our hearts are hidden from one another, and not about some form of pre-creation existence), the essay lacks coherence. Its contents revolt against its form, with each paragraph forming a giant cabochon (I especially loved the barb that Platonic contemplation “delivers a vision but not a habit of life”) on a gaudy crown that shows few signs of design.

Interestingly, one of On Augustine’s greatest shortcomings is often a lack of Rowan Williams. When he impresses himself upon the text, it’s always a relief. A master of
understatement, the author informs us Augustine’s name “is not of good omen in [environmentalist] theological circles” and notes later, no doubt with a twinkle underneath his owlish eyebrows, that “Creation really is good for nothing”—in other words its point is not to serve a divine need. And, this really has to be a crowd favourite: “A wicked human is an immeasurably greater problem than a wicked hamster”. Did he write that with a straight face? I hope not.

Throughout, the texts that shine are invariably the ones which Williams reads less like a monk adding dutifully to the scholia and more like a wizard casting (Christian) spells against the sky. Especially when those incantations demand that we let go of our obsession with power relations because

“The underlying question of how we love the radical stranger (let alone the oppressor, in some new and rectified order) is evaded if love’s paradigms are rooted solely in common experience and need”.

In general Williams is unafraid to bash through any obstacle that places itself in the way of a vision of life that is animated by divinely-sourced delight and creation as anything but Grace. And it is this spirit, this joie de vivre (with echoes of Sermones, 362.28 where Augustine trills that the enjoyment of God is “an insatiable satisfaction”), that sustains the pace, brushing past the indigestible tares of theology. In fact, such is the gaiety of the text that the reader can often find him or herself drifting past some of the more penetrative points.

One of which is on evil. To Augustine (and Williams) God is the unqualified and unconditioned act; the created self is a finite and responsive act, evil is finite and responsive actuality turning inwards on itself as its object or goal and away from that infinite act to which it is meant to be united. In short, evil is the alienation of the mind from itself.

The second is the old bugbear of Christological thinking, The Trinity. Many struggles with the concept because it’s hard not to fall into the trap of thinking of a divine essence, plus or minus a form of emanation that is somehow lesser or derivative. In On Augustine Williams reinforces the fact that its three parts are equal and most importantly relational because love can be nothing but.

Third is spiritual discipline. Instead of demanding that we storm the ramparts of heaven, the eternal Word came down to find us, so we must stop seeing ourselves as “boldly questing
intellectual mystic[s]” and start seeing ourselves as sick people in desperate need of healing.

Towards the end of On Augustine, I stop trying to critique it and inhale the core message that’s carefully smuggled into each cerebral chapter. And it’s ultimately that all the knowledge of the ages eventually runs itself down into futility or up into fantasy, and that true wisdom must realise itself as love—a radically disinterested love—that seeks “the fruition of joy of others in the same joy it knows”.

That’s Williams’ turn of phrase but it’s also pure Augustine, the man who wrote how, in the quest of personal happiness, the path must paradoxically be one of self-renunciation (away from the deadweight of egotism), the same theologian who scrawled that “Man is slave to that by which he wishes to find happiness” in De Vera Religione (69).

I penned something I dare not speak of in the margin next to Williams’ passage. Let’s call it a confession for privacy’s sake. Some books are powerful enough to revise a Weltanschauung, others perhaps to change it altogether. But the finest texts possess the capacity to reform lives. And I can’t count on all my fingers or toes how many times in the past few weeks I’ve reflected on something in On Augustine and altered my behaviour accordingly. So, as God (in a child’s voice, no less) commanded the Doctor of the Church: tolle lege (take up and read) Rowan Williams’ On Augustine, and you may "find that you can know something which you are not aware that you know” {De Trinitate xiv.9).

Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Co-founder, historian and Editor-at-Large of Excvbitor


Twitter: @byzantinepower


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