Augustine in Algeria

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Conference:  The formal proceedings of the conference stretched over three days in Algiers and were concluded with a session in Annaba.  The format was the familiar academic one:  two or three papers, response/questions, and a coffee break; repeat till dark; repeat whole pattern again the next day.  This was complicated by the unusual multilingual features of this particular program - almost none of the European or American scholars were comfortable in all three languages (French, Arabic, English) of the conference, and it was ironically and pleasingly most likely to be non-academic Algerians who would need the least translation.  But the simultaneous translation facilities provided were very effective and made it possible to follow all the proceedings in your language of choice. (The several papers delivered in Annaba were entirely in French, with no simultaneous translation provided.)  As each paper concluded, staffers fanned through the audience distributing printed copies of the text to all who wished them.  We are assured that the proceedings will be published in the near future.

Images of participants in the conference.

I attach a copy of the program's papers, accurate to the best of my recollection as a picture of what was actually delivered.  I will comment here on only a couple of the more striking interventions, and on the tenor of the whole.

The themes of "Africanité" and "Universalité" were clearly chosen with a view to the larger Algerian audience in mind, and the visitors from abroad were clearly surprised to find such a large, engaged, and interesting community of Algerian participants.  The themes and the audience, moreover, gave an unaccustomed urgency and flavor to the proceedings as a whole.  This was not without its tensions.

Thus sessions typically ran a little longer than scheduled; panelists were called back to the stage to respond to questions; conference participants came to the aisle microphones to ask questions -- but there was often a disconnect between the concerns coming from the floor (usually not from professional academics of the sort who had given the papers) and the responses that could be or were given, and often questions went unaddressed as time was made to give as many voices from the floor a chance to be heard as could be squeezed in.   Several individuals from the general audience made striking impressions:  a retired schoolteacher, whose career must have begun under the French but extended mainly after independence, spoke for restoring Latin to the curriculum "so we may read the stones around us". A berobed philosopher from southern Algeria asked incisive questions and spoke articulately for an understanding of Augustine that bridged cultural gaps.  Several times the distinguished and learned visitors were challenged to think, or point to scholarship that had thought, through the comparisons between ancient Christian thought and medieval Islamic discourse, and were rightly disappointed by the thinness of the answers - so thin has been western engagement and such the configuration of traditional Augustinian studies.  It is fair to hope both that Algerian participants in the conference were inspired with a renewed interest in a great philosopher, but also that the scholars present went away with a different sense of the contexts in which their studies can have meaning today.

The contributions ranged from the philological and historical to the philosophical and theological.  The former included some quite interesting pieces that may have passed by much of the audience:  Konrad Vössing on late antique schools, Yoshichika Miyatani on the surprisingly deep roots of the single word "magnus" ("great") with which the Confessions open, and the like. Robert Markus captured the attention of the scholars while making a point of considerable relevance to the wider audience by making more explicit the growing scholarly consensus (building on Markus's own work of many years) that Augustine's "Catholicism" was not somehow the authentic and natural form of religion against which the "Donatists" stood in schism, but rather that he represented a dissident view himself.  Markus suggested that the contested question of rebaptism (whether it would be permitted to rebaptise those who had lapsed in time of persecution) was not aboriginal to the contested episcopal election of 312 that gave rise to the schism, but was rather an issue that was introduced in response to pressure from bishops outside Africa when the two sides went looking for support from abroad.  If this is true (as I believe it is), then it repositions Augustine's "universal" catholicism as a particular kind of creation arising from and in response to a particular kind of African heritage.  At the other end of a long historical sweep, Abdelhadi Ben Mansour delivered a fascinating paper on the memory of Augustine in the Maghreb in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - a time when memory could be full of inaccuracies and passion. Travelers then brought back tales of the crypt in Tagaste where Muslims and Christians alike kept lamps burning and prayed to Augustine for health and welfare, and in "Tagaost", in Morocco, an Augustinian monk who had come there from the Canary Islands was venerated and sometimes confused with Augustine himself. (Similar syncretisms persist: see J.S. Griffith, Beliefs and Holy Places [Tucson 1992] for very similar stories, conflating Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, and a local missionary Franciscan in northern Mexico.)

At  the crossroads of scholarship and more contemporary concerns fell, for example, several interesting and important papers on the state of research regarding "Donatism", including one by André Mandouze, followed by Maureen A. Tilley and Alfred Schindler.  Dorothea Weber astutely traced the anti-African bias in the anti-Augustinian polemics of Julian of Eclanum. More theological presentations also had an undeniable ring of currency, ranging from Robert Dodaro's piece on the pastoral implications of speaking of the secular city and the City of God to the remarks a short while later of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, on a similar theme.

The star of the show, undoubtedly, was the 84 year old André Mandouze, a towering figure in Augustinian studies for the last half century.  His initial and pathbreaking article on Augustinian mysticism was delivered at the great "Augustinus Magister" conference in Paris in 1954 (on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of Augustine's birth), and his two landmark books of 1968 (Saint Augustin:  l'aventure de la raison et de la grace) and 1984 (Prosopographie Chretienne du Bas-Empire embracing African Christianity from 303-533 CE:  now followed by the two large volumes brought to light by the late Charles Pietri covering Italian Christianity from 313-604) have been indispensable tools for a generation.  But Mandouze was also an engaged French intellectual of his time and made a quite different reputation in the 1950s as a supporter of Algerian independence.  He had taught there as a young man, laying foundations for his scholarly as well as political engagement, and was a tireless campaigner for what he saw as a just cause.  At one point he was jailed for his activities.  Then he served as first rector of the independent university of Algiers.  The Algerian audience included many former colleagues and students, and many others are well placed in Algerian society and government.

Now, almost forty years after independence, he is thus a figure accorded great veneration in Algeria, and it is his personality and breadth of vision that embodied the aims of the conference:  he is no less "Augustinian" for being open to and deeply committed to supporting Algerian - that is to say, Islamic - autonomy.  His remarks at the conclusion of the formal sessions in Algiers were concise and clear.  He spoke of resisting all forms of religious integralism, an old rubric under which he clearly sees at least some of current Roman policy sailing.  (The Pope's leading theologian and enforcer of orthodox, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, began his career with significant scholarly work on Augustine himself, and Mandouze clearly had Ratzinger in mind in his remarks.)  He evoked his own teacher and mentor Henri Marrou for their lifelong struggle to oppose Augustinisms in favor of Augustine himself.   For a figure who has been accorded as much reverence as Augustine, such subversion of ideology is an ever-difficult and challenging task, so much is the weight that later generations have hung on his shoulders, but it is clear that the best work of our time on Augustine always contains a strong strain of this movement to liberate him from his reputation and know him for himself.

After the visit to Annaba and other sites, Mandouze closed the whole conference (I owe this report to Professor Patout Burns) with a lecture in French in a public lecture hall in the city of Algiers.  In splendid Gallic rhetoric he reviewed the interaction of Europeans and Algerians in the appropriation of the work of Augustine and the contribution of European Christians, in particular, to the establishment of the Popular and Democratic Republic of Algeria, with its universities and archeological parks.  The lecture was attended by many who had not participated in other parts of the Conference.

The final conference session in Annaba, held in what appeared to be more or less the city council chambers of the city, was devoted to a description of the state of play at the chief Augustinian sites of Hippo (well excavated long ago, more to be done) and Tagaste (overbuilt, neglected, and frustrating) -- the later an impassioned presentation by a local scholar, Mme. Nacera Benseddik.  That session was closed with broader reflections by Prof. Otto Wermelinger (who was one of the most active organizers of the whole conference) and the acting president of the Haut Conseil Islamique, M. Bou Ayad.

It would be impossible for me to say what any Algerian participant in the conference might have taken away from it.  Hopes were expressed on all sides that this would be the first encounter of a series, and there was a fair amount of hallway discussion about what subsequent meetings might look like.  Most discussion focused on increasing the attention to the material past, not least because that is something we already know how to do and that could be done in Algeria with evident profit.  If such attention led eventually to renewed archaeological activity, we could indeed come away with real enhancement to our knowledge.

At the same time, the frustrating fits and starts of conversation across the Islamic/Christian, Algerian/European cultural divides were tantalizing:  it is less clear how one would carry discussion forward in that vein, but it is clearly desirable that it be done.  It would be good to get beyond the slightly stilted ideological framework that was necessary for this meeting (every paper needed be thought into the context of those abstractions 'Africanité' and 'Universalité' and papers wound up being inclined to aggrandize rather than criticize:  yes, of course, Augustine was African, but yes, of course, his meaning was Universal. Having proven that voices can be heard across barriers, it would be refreshing to begin admitting that gaps exist, that "African" and "Universal" are ambiguous terms at best, carrying a lot of ideological freight in all periods, and that Augustine can help us understand ourselves not only when we think we see him most like ourselves, but also (or even especially) when we see the distance that separates us from him. The past is heritage, but it is also challenge:  challenge to recognize just how self-made cultures are, how little claim they often have to real inheritance, and how heritage can be an excuse for not addressing contemporary urgent concerns.  In Hollywood terms, that kind of argument is "low concept", and it was surely necessary to begin this adventure with a more traditional and "high concept" approach.  To consider the possibilities now is exciting, and they are possibilities only because this remarkable venture came off so successfully.

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