The Mestizo Augustine

A Theologian Between Two Cultures

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Justo L. González
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , November
     2016.
     176 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851508.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures, the Cuban-American theologian and early church historian Justo Gonzalez has written an exciting historical and liberatory reception of Augustine and his theology. In this short introduction to Augustine, Gonzalez presents his subject as a mestizo figure whose life and world were characterized by various kinds of “in-betweenness.” As mestizo, Augustine lives amid several realities: his “in-betweenness” was situated not between only two poles (despite the volume’s subtitle) but within “a mixture and clash of views and traditions” in African and Roman cultures alike (17).

Gonzalez’s volume joins a wider conversation in Augustinian scholarship about Augustine’s identity and the social milieu within which his theology took shape. Raised in a poor-to-middling family in the Roman province of Numidia (present-day Tunisia/Algeria), Augustine of Hippo (c. 354–430 CE) shone as a student and teacher of Roman rhetoric. Because his writings formed the basis for the philosophical and theological imagination in medieval Europe and took on foundational importance for intellectual traditions that were tightly bound to European imperialism in the early modern period, Augustine’s North African upbringing has often been elided. As with many figures central to the origins of Christianity, Augustine has, through the ages, come to be imagined as a (white) European.

Over the past few decades, scholars have increasingly challenged this assumption. Peter Brown’s landmark biography situates Augustine not at the head of a European Christian tradition, but in his hometown of Thagaste, his college town of Carthage, and his eventual see, Hippo Regius. Also working from a historical perspective, Brent Shaw has devoted much attention to Augustine’s distinctively North African social background and context, focusing particularly on intra-Christian religious violence during Augustine’s episcopate. In addition, scholars such as Maureen Tilley, Pamela Bright, and David Riggs have demonstrated the centrality of the Donatists, a distinctively North African Christian sect, for Augustine’s own theological development.

In these studies, the term “race” is generally avoided as being a distinctively modern invention that cannot, without a certain level of distortion, be applied to the pre-modern period. Gonzalez similarly eschews the language of race; he turns instead to the language of mestizo, arguing that “being a mestizo is not only a genetic condition, nor is it limited to one or two generations” (16). Rather, “the condition of mestizaje is a fertile field for creativity and a sign pointing to the future” (16). Gonzalez works the fertile field of Augustine’s life and theological vision, but his goal extends far beyond Augustine: this volume is a first installment in a renewed reception of the “entire history of the church and its theology” in which Gonzalez calls his readers to perform “from the perspective of mestizaje” and with attentiveness to “the manner in which it points to the future” (18).

Gonzalez’s account of the mestizo Augustine includes an introduction and eight chapters. Following the introduction, which presents the concept of mestizo as foundational for understanding Augustine’s life and thought, the first three chapters recount Augustine’s upbringing, education, and conversion—that is, his life up until the beginning of his ministry. Here Gonzalez explores the different cultural influences that shaped Augustine throughout his life, starting with his home life and extending through his education, love life, conversion, and return to Roman North Africa after his mother Monica’s death. In chapters 4 through 6, he turns to Augustine’s ministry. Each chapter centers on Augustine’s engagement with the other Christianities that gave shape to his episcopal career—the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians—arguing at every step for an appreciation of how Augustine’s mestizaje accounts for his theological inventiveness. Chapter 8 describes how Augustine has been a bridge between our times and the ancient world and how Augustine, as mestizo, might also be a lens for a renewed approach to faith and life in the future.

Despite arguing in his introduction for a new reading of Augustine, Gonzalez presents Augustine’s theology in a very traditional way. At first, this strikes the reader as strange. Following a compelling and eloquent representation of Augustine’s mestizaje, here are all the traditional doctrines—original sin, cooperative grace, free will, evil as the deprivation of good. Yet, the traditional presentation of Augustine’s doctrine alongside the re-presentation of Augustine’s mestizaje is precisely Gonzalez’s point: Augustine asknown and celebrated by orthodox Christians was mestizaje. The purpose of this identification is not for an exegetical reinterpretation of Augustine’s writings, but for an affective reinterpretation of mestizo identity. By identifying the traditional Augustine as mestizaje, Gonzalez actively counteracts any sense of shame that readers might feel regarding their own mestizaje (171). One cannot persuade those who recognize Augustine as a theological authority to release their own shame for being in some way mestizaje without retaining the core tenets of traditional Augustinian teaching.

According to Gonzalez, Augustine too felt shame in his mestizaje. For instance, when discussing Augustine’s polemical dealings with the distinctively African Donatist movement, Gonzalez argues that Augustine experienced “difficulty in seeing the Libyan protest that was involved in the Donatist movement” was rooted “in his own difficulty in acknowledging the Libyan elements within himself, suppressed by means of a long process of education in which only that which was Greco-Roman was appreciated, and anything that was African in origin was considered barbaric” (124). The result? A “just war” theory that came to undergird state power in its justification of the use of violence, and an ecclesiology that too easily aligned the concepts of catholicity and uniformity (124-25). Again, Gonzalez’s critique is as much about affect as about theology: the long-term effects of Augustine’s shame in his mestizaje were damaging not only for him, but also for those who have been influenced by him. By contrast, when Augustine relied on his mestizaje for theological insight, as, for example, Gonzalez argues he did in the Pelagian controversy (146-49), the results were salutary.

Gonzalez’s historical analysis has a liberatory theological aim: to embolden his readers to recognize the depth of their own mestizaje and embrace it as the future. His volume, which builds on the work of Virgilio Elizondo and other Hispanic theologians, is a timely and necessary contribution to Augustinian studies, patristic studies, and church history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melanie Webb is visiting assistant professor at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justo L. González is an ordained United Methodist minister, a retired professor of historical theology and author of the highly praised three-volume History of Christian Thought and the two-volume The Story of Christianity. He previously taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. Besides his continued research and publication, he spends most of his energy promoting the theological education of Latino and Latina leaders.

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