US News:  5/23/05

What He Did Not Confess

A fresh, new look at St. Augustine and his legacy

By Jay Tolson



Augustine in his studyHow did a North African bishop who lived and wrote in the late Roman Empire become so essential to the shaping of Christianity? Put another way, would the Christianity we know today be different if Augustine of Hippo had not existed?

One reason those questions have recently acquired more interest is that the new pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, has long claimed St. Augustine as his theological lodestar. Observers might reasonably wonder whether that debt can explain the central mystery of the man previously known as Joseph Ratzinger: how a reform-minded adviser to Vatican II became a rigid defender of the church doctrine while through it all claiming a core consistency to his beliefs and teachings.

If St. Augustine provides a key to the real or apparent contradictions of Pope Benedict, it may be because Augustine himself was a contradictory figure whose reversals and lingering doubts left an indelible stamp on the religion he helped shape. Not that Augustine himself wanted to be thought of that way. In fact, his famous autobiography, The Confessions , was written largely to convince the world that his life story was straightforward and neatly resolved: A man who once was lost was found, and by grace saved.

But a provocative new biography by Georgetown University provost and classicist James O'Donnell shatters the neat story that Augustine constructed and that so many of his subsequent biographers more or less bought into. It is easy to understand why they did. As O'Donnell acknowledges, to challenge Augustine's account is to challenge a work that became the model not only of the self-exploring autobiography but also of the literary form that emerged some 13 centuries later: the novel. Questioning Augustine's account also means questioning a tradition of narrative that, in emphasizing a life's coherence and orderly development, fashions the very idea of what we think an individual life can or should be. To the extent that O'Donnell's Augustine: A New Biography does just that, it will trouble those who cherish certainties as much as it will engage those who like to see them challenged. "It is the first postmodern biography," says Boston University ancient Christianity scholar Paula Fredriksen, who herself is finishing a new book, Augustine and the Jews. "O'Donnell is not afraid of saying when Augustine went off the rails. He shows what Augustine didn't confess."

Take his early story: A bookish boy born in 354 to a family of lesser provincial gentry, he grew up near the inland market town of Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria), where he began his struggle with carnal longings--and famously stole pears from his neighbor's orchard. Studying in the great port city of Carthage, the bright libertine married a woman whose name and social status go unspecified but with whom he had a child, Adeodatus, possibly to the disappointment of Augustine's socially ambitious and devoutly Christian mother, Monnica.

Big moment. As a professor of rhetoric in Thagaste, Carthage, Rome, and Milan, he fell in with the Manichaeans, a sect that proposed a sharp divide between the realms of evil (physical, fleshly, dark) and good (spiritual, intellectual, and luminous). But continuous reading of mostly neo-Platonic philosophers and assorted Christian texts and the influence of the great bishop Ambrose drew Augustine closer to the religion of his mother, who had followed him to Milan. Not long after sending his wife back to Africa, presumably so he could remarry, he underwent a powerful conversion moment. While sitting in a garden, he heard a voice ordering him to take up and read a passage from one of Paul's epistles. The sinner saved, he was baptized in March of 387.

So what was left out? Apart, that is, from everything that happened between his conversion and the writing of The Confessions about 10 years later, by which time Augustine, after a three-year withdrawal to his parents' African estate, had become a bishop in the middling coastal city of Hippo. Well, says O'Donnell, to Augustine's contemporaries the most striking omissions were qualities that would have added up to a full and accurate picture of the youthful Augustine, whom the authors of the handful of accounts that survive recall as a nerdy, calculating do-gooder. "The Augustine they knew," O'Donnell says, "had much more in common with the later Augustine, who was known as the scheming, self-promoting hammer of Donatists."

Donatists? Another omission. Augustine does not mention the strong rivalry between two main groups of African Christians, the Donatists and the Caecilianists. The doctrinal differences between them were mostly minor but ultimately came down to one point: The former accepted the practice of rebaptism for those believers who felt they had relapsed into sin; the latter insisted on one and only one baptism. More significant were social and political differences, O'Donnell explains, the Donatists being the back-country rustics and the Caecilianists the highly Romanized coastal elite. Monnica probably started as a Donatist but went along with one of the first imperial efforts to force all African Christians into the Caecilian fold.

When that highly political animal Augustine returned to Africa--having learned from Ambrose, in O'Donnell's words, that "it was possible to be a scholar, gentleman, and Christian" --he backed Rome's favorites as the true Catholic Christians and eventually helped secure their absolute victory. (One ironic result of this triumph is that it might have so weakened grass-roots Christianity that Islam easily prevailed in North Africa a few centuries later.)

Doctor of doctrine. As he became a warrior against "heresies" --Augustine's name for Christian sects he disapproved of--his faith passed from an optimistic, broad, and tolerant one to an increasingly dogmatic, uncompromising creed. More and more, he applied theological ingenuity to doctrinal dilemmas that came with being the established church and not just a minority sect. For instance, Christian parents, living at a time when so many babies died, increasingly demanded baptism for their infants. Once put off by the practice, Augustine now had to justify it. He did so, O'Donnell writes, "by constructing a theological notion, original sin, that defies logic on various points." How, for one, did the taint of original sin pass from Adam and Eve to all newly born infants? Augustine himself came up with four possible explanations but never committed himself to any one. The implications of each led to such severe conclusions about predestination and the futility of good works that even later Christians who claimed to be good Augustinians had to live with incoherence, believing in original sin but also accepting the salvational value of good works and the sacraments.

But perhaps Augustine's greatest coup, achieved as the Roman Empire foundered under "barbarian" assaults--in fact led by Germanic leaders professing alternative Christian beliefs--was his success in making two related theological propositions appear to be the full and indisputable truth about Christianity. The first, says O'Donnell, "is that Christianity is one thing that can be gotten right and therefore can be universal--with all Christians reading from the same page." Augustine also made the case that Christianity was "this essentially formed thing in 33 A.D." --a proposition, O'Donnell adds, that is not true, and not even "strongly grounded in the New Testament itself."

From happy, hopeful Christian to embattled warrior fighting to preserve the absolute doctrines of the one, true, and universal church: Augustine's brilliant career may indeed tell a lot about the man who is now the supreme pontiff and vicar of Rome.

Augustine's Influence

(Letters to Editor, 6/20/05)

I was interested to read that St. Augustine came up with his plan for infant baptism because so many parents at the time "demanded baptism for their infants" ["What He Did Not Confess," May 23]. If Augustine had just read Ezekiel 18:20 to the people, he could have stopped this practice before it got started! The passage says, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." To formulate a theory of "original sin" was unfounded and unnecessary.
Parrish, Ala.

St. Augustine's " Confessions" detail the development of his faith in a transcendental, loving God. Why is it that "observers might reasonably wonder . . . how a reform-minded adviser to Vatican II became a rigid defender of the church doctrine while through it all claiming a core consistency to his beliefs and teachings"? Progressive social reformers are understandably disappointed with Benedict XVI's election , but "a fresh, new look at St. Augustine and his legacy" contributes nothing to the understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine. Pope Benedict XVI is neither a contradiction nor a mystery. He is an Augustinian, influenced Pope John Paul II's encyclical on "Faith and Reason," and is the best thing that could happen to the Catholic Church today.
Belvidere, N.J.