miércoles, 27 de enero de 2010

Saint Augustine by Garry Wills – a biography of the early Christian saint.

A young African man with a taste for sex and a highly developed sense of both religion and mission travels across the Mediterranean. He decides to sail. Once in Italy, he communes with the rich and powerful and then, some years later, makes the return journey via the same means of transport, and thereby completes the sum total of his life’s travels.

We know a lot about the man, not only from his own writings which are both extensive and preserved, but also from the accounts of many of those contemporaries who met him, engaged in intellectual and theological debates with him, or merely reported.

The Roman Empire had only recently espoused Christianity. It was an era when the young faith was divided by schism. A strength of this biography of Augustine is that it brings home the passion that characterised these differences. A weakness, however, is tat the different variants of fourth century Christianity are not clearly delineated. This would, perhaps, be too much to ask in a short account of a life, but there are times when understanding of the text is compromised because of this omission. What does come alive, however, is how recent were the memories of persecution under Diocletian. It was a difference in attitude to some of those who succumbed to denial of their faith under that persecution that created one major schism.

Donatists refused to re-admit those who had renounced their faith under threat and were the main expression of Christianity in North Africa. Our young African man chose to ally himself with the Roman church, thus placing himself in a local minority.

Pelagius who was around at the time denied the concept of original sin. Quite often it seems that he didn’t, then he did, and then he didn’t again. It was a heresy, needless to say. But, and I feel it might be an attractive concept even today, the idea that the Church was not full of sinners had its adherents.

Arians stressed the humanity, not the divinity of Jesus Christ. This allowed them to avoid at least some of the problematic concept of three deities in one, a holy trinity. The concept has been a confusion and for many outside of Christianity it appears to be a wholly unnecessary complication. Arian thought, however, Gary Mills points out, is only reported by those who opposed them, so an accurate representation of their philosophy is difficult to establish.

Manicheans, unlike Christians, saw the universe in black and white, a competition between good and evil. There were aspects of light and dark in everything and everyone, but it was the interplay between the two that determined where an individual might be placed in the overall scheme of things. Manichaeism has largely disappeared from world religion, its only remaining bastion being Hollywood, where it provides the basis of most films aimed at the popular audience.

All of these ideas, heresies and religions were themselves in competition in the homeland of Augustine of Hippo. And through Gary Wells’ book we gain an insight into how an individual thinker and philosopher grappled with the contradictions and tried to make sense of what he regarded as the correct line. The book is a window on Augustine’s thoughts , thoughts that often deal with the base as well as the obviously spiritual. Gary Wills provides real insights into Augustine’s charm, the magnetism of his rhetoric and the logical processes of his thought. And he manages to this in just 150 pages, pages that also include significant and poignant quotes from Augustine’s work.

The stained glass analogy on religion applies. If you look at windows from outside, they are merely sold grey. On the inside, they reveal full and splendid colour. There might be many a modern reader who would be confused as to why it matters that a concept is associated with this or that belief. But for a Christian and certainly for someone who sees the windows in full colour it clearly does matter. Gary Wills’s book brings the debates and issues alive even for the general reader, though it has to be said that sometimes the detail of the theological debate is less than penetrable. This is a book of many surprises.

View the book on amazon
Saint Augustine (Lives)

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