Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Great Doctor of the Western church. Long considered the greatest ancient mind in the Western world, Augustine is out of favor right now in Christian circles.
Being asked to sum up Augustine’s life, teaching, theology and ministry in 5 minutes is a bit like being told that I need to drive a semi through my cat door…it won’t fit and the attempt is liable to make a mess of things.
I will start the way Mark starts his Gospel-by skipping the first 30 years. We pick up Augustine’s story mid-stream: Augustine is 30 years of age and already has the most prestigious academic job in the Roman world: Professor of rhetoric for the imperial court in Milan. It was a position that brought with it a sure career of prominence in Roman politics.
Being a prominent up-and-comer has never been good for one’s sense of spiritual need, and as such, Augustine came resistantly to faith. He was having too much fame and fortune and enjoying all of the “fun” that comes with. However, he had a praying mother and a friend of faith, Ambrose, who was a challenge to his intellect. They were God’s tools to break his defenses. Who is God using to break yours?
So eventually the Big man met He-who-will-not-be-avoided.
Augustine had his familiar conversion experience alone in his backyard at 33, after much influence by St. Ambrose (another rhetorician and Archbishop of Milan). At 37 Augustine was ordained to the priesthood. At 41 he was made bishop of Hippo, an African backwater and a diocese considered far beneath a person of his aptitude and potential. Far from being buried in obscurity, however, over the next 29 years Augustine would become the most towering Latin writer, extraordinary in both scope and depth. Brilliant preachers and teachers are always asked to write their stuff down. He did. We have 350 of his authentic sermons and around 100 books/booklets. They include apologetic works to debunk various heresies, commentaries on books of the Bible, texts on Christian doctrine, one of which was called “On Christian Doctrine.” His work, “On the Trinity,” is considered by many theologians to be the masterpiece that forever defined “Great theological writing.” Augustine is best known for his (Confessions), the personal account of his early life and conversion, and the City of God which he wrote to explain to Christians, badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 that “our citizenship is not on earth.” The Confession, addressed to God as prayers is the first autobiography. Augustine introduced the concept of the “self” in the Confessions and of “history” in the City of God. He was held in such high regard that years after his death, when Hippo was sacked by the Vandals, who held to the Arian heresy that Augustine had so powerfully written against, they burned every building in Hippo except his cathedral and library.
And yet, he is held in wide contempt in the church today. Augustine is blamed for “oppressive doctrines” such as original sin, the sovereignty of God, just war, and abortion as a sin. The current movement in the Episcopal Church to “restore” the heretic Pelagius is a direct repudiation of Augustine. And yet…
Several weeks ago I was taking summer courses at our seminary in Berkeley. The seminary president hosted a dialogue, in the fancy historic mansion on the grounds. This dialogue was between former presiding bishop Frank Griswold and Mark Jordan, a professor who has left Harvard for the Danforth Center on Politics. I didn’t know Jordan, but quickly came to realize that this guy, in a room full of super-bright people, was super, super-bright. Jordan was the Reinhold Niebuhr Divinity professor and a professor of women, gender and sexuality. He was originally an expert on medieval philosophy…especially Aquinas and is published dozens and dozens of times-mostly on Aquinas and human sexuality issues. By the middle of the conversation everyone in the room was waiting to hear how Jordan would respond to whatever question was being fielded. In a room full of heavyweights, he was the weightiest. At one point he made a comment about St. Augustine, and added the throw away line, “I cannot get enough of Augustine. I have spent 30 years immersed in him. To this day I can not come to his writings without feeling like the proverbial man drinking from the fire hose.”
A good place to start with Augustine is The Confessions: they are Augustine on Augustine…or more accurately, Augustine on the experience of being chased by God. What comes out when reading the words of this “greatest intellect of the western world” is his humility-his sense of gratitude toward God…his sense that God pursued and chased and wooed and won his heart when he was in love with the pursuits of his own flesh- as Paul says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for you.” While the early fathers focused on the mind and the body as the seat of God’s saving action, Augustine was the first writer to articulate the heart as the seat of God’s saving work the human soul. Here is how Augustine describes God’s pursuit of him, while he was lost in hedonistic pursuits:
“Thou didst cast away (my sins), and in their place thou didst enter in thyself–sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood; brighter than all light, but more veiled than all mystery; more exalted than all honor, though not to them that are exalted in their own eyes. Now was my soul free from the gnawing cares of seeking and getting, of wallowing in the mire and scratching the itch of lust. And I prattled like a child to thee, O Lord my God–my light, my riches, and my salvation…
Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold, you were within and I without, and there I sought you. You were with me when I was not with Thee. You did call, and cry, and burst my deafness. You did gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness. You did touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in you. Late have I loved Thee, Your Beauty ever old and ever new. You have burst my bonds asunder; unto Thee will I offer up an offering of praise.
Hear the wisdom of this wise man: “O Lord, You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in Thee.”