On God, the Soul, Evil and the Rise of Christianity

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John Peter Kenney
Reading Augustine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2018.
     144 pages.
     $42.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501414981.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Reading Augustine series, published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, aims to treat Augustine “not only or primarily as a pre-eminent Christian thinker but as a philosophical, spiritual, literary, and intellectual icon of the West.” In reading him as an “icon,” these books seek to not only look at Augustine, but also to look through him. They read Augustine, not merely as a reality worthy of care and study, but also as a sign which reveals wider, deeper truths and reference points. By lovingly, patiently studying Augustine in all his warts and brilliance, they can help us look more widely.

John Peter Kenney’s latest entry into the series is titled On God, the Soul, Evil, and the Rise of Christianity. The title may appear to be something of a jumble, yet it is a telling sign of the rise (and also of the decline and fall) of Christianity in the West. Kenney provides close readings of portions of Augustine’s corpus—especially parts of the Confessions, most notably books X and XII, and the Soliloquies. The volume engages regularly with leading scholarship, and provides the author’s own translations of Augustine’s texts.

The volume can be read crossways, wherein Kenney shows that theology proper (terminology Christians use to speak of the doctrine of God), the soul, and evil either stand or fall together. The volume can also be read forward and backward, in as much as Kenney regularly points to broader narratives of engagement, adoptions, and subversion. This reader found the former type of readings much more compelling. Highlights in this regard involve the way Kenney unpacks Augustine’s telling of Kenney and his mother Monica’s vision at Ostia in Confessions X (55), the way he ties this vision to the significance of memory in book X (78-79), and the unique Christian development of a deepened lament (though he does not use that specific term, he implies it) by deepening knowledge of one’s plight through participating in a greater vision of the Light (78-79, 109). Some of the latter readings—that is, genealogical readings—seemed to have less to show for them by way of evidence; for example, the attempt to treat the Manichees as just another (admittedly unorthodox) variant of Christianity (10-19; see also x), or the claim that it was “through pagan monotheism that the concept of transcendence came to the fore in late antiquity” (21), to which one wonders whether 1 Kings 8 has been forgotten (much less Exodus 3:14)? 

Kenney does not show that a sense of transcendence needed to be found elsewhere, say, in pagan monotheism, as it wasn’t present in the Scriptures of Israel. Such weaknesses in reading forwards and backwards historically may limit some of the ways in which Augustine can be shown to serve as an icon, but much light is nonetheless cast on Augustine’s own portrait, and through him, on the development of the Christian sense of self—burnished as it was within the matrix of theology proper, the soul, and the pains of evil. Kenney is very helpful in prompting thought about the way in which transcendence—for Augustine as well as for the broader mainstream Christian theological tradition—is nestled together with these other themes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Peter Kenney is Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Michael's College.

Comments

John Peter Kenney

Two points in response to Allen:

1. Augustine’s understanding of divine transcendence emerged from his reading of the scriptures through the prism of Platonic metaphysics. As he makes explicit in Confessions 7 and City of God  8 and 10, Platonism provided him with a new account of intelligible reality and ontological infinity. These novel conceptions became the foundation for his ‘spiritual’ reading of the pre-philosophical thought of ancient Israel. This philosophical component was central to his understanding of divine transcendence and the development of his Nicene theology.

2. Allen's view of Manichaeism is at odds with Augustine’s, who approached Manichaean thought in a fashion different from that of the pagans. He attacks the Manichees exegetically, recognizing their continued adherence to scripture, albeit to a truncated version.

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