Augustine Our Contemporary

Examining the Self in Past and Present

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Willemien Otten, Susan E. Schreiner
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , May
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The title of this extraordinary book, Augustine Our Contemporary: Examining the Self in Past and Present, conceals the fact that it is editors’ Willemien Otten and Susan E. Schreiner’s homage to David Tracy, long time Professor of Theology and the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Committee for Social Thought. Technically, it is not a festschrift. The title is taken from Tracy’s description of Augustine, and the essays in this volume are more-or-less dedicated to exploring Augustine’s thought in a hermeneutical, historical, or philosophical light. Readers expecting a comprehensive treatment of Augustine’s anthropology or philosophy should be warned that this volume does not fit that bill. Here, the Augustine under examination is a platonized version thereof. In keeping with the Chicago School, this volume stresses the philosophical resolution of broadly spiritual concerns. Among Augustine scholars, there is a cleavage between those whose inclination is to read him as a disciple of Plotinus and Porphyry, and those who see in Augustine, first-and-foremost, a Christian disciple whose philosophical commitments are in service to theological aims.

The first—and most substantial—chapter is by Tracy himself. It reflects Tracy’s longstanding commitment to thinking through the theme of tragedy in relation to sin, the will, and selfhood. For Tracy, Augustine’s most important legacy is his appropriation of Plato and the Good. Not only would Augustine and the Protestant reformers have done better to organize their thinking around the poles of nature and grace instead of sin and grace, Tracy wants to recapitulate nature and evil in terms of tragedy. Why? The story of Jesus fits better within such a categorization, for one thing. As such, Christian thought might have cohered with that of the ancients and the artists, whose reckoning with necessity seems to outshine the Christian focus upon sin. In a remarkable maneuver, Tracy takes the doctrine of Original Sin and reinvigorates it as a form of postmodern critical theory and a distorted Augustinian attempt to ascertain the whence of tragedy. 

Other chapters are less adventurous than the first, but most are nonetheless illuminating. Bernard McGinn deals with some of the medieval reception of Augustine in light of the portrait of God as semper agens/semper quietus from The Confessions. McGinn’s treatment of the topic is especially strong as a direct exegesis of Confessions. He makes an intriguing connection to the dialectical reading of God as mutable and immutable in Dionysius. Picking up on a more anthropological theme, Vincent Carraud seeks out the counterintuitive Augustinian notion of love as a kind of weight or weightedness (pondus). In a dense, hermeneutical summary, Carraud discovers that Augustine’s consistent application of paradox means a line is drawn between Christ’s light burden and a form of reflexive self-knowledge (ordo) that is our displacement. Among other intrigues, this means that the Jansenists were implausible Augustinians due to their simplicity. This is a clever chapter, which has benefitted and labored under the task of translation from the French original. Only careful readers will receive their just reward.

Chapter 4 is a welcome response by Otten to Martha Nussbaum’s pejorative rejection of Augustine. Otten’s focus is on the early Middle Ages, where the appreciation of Augustine’s confessio/cogito takes up a view of the self in unity with the world and God. This Augustinian alternative to Nussbaum’s redux of ancient Stoicism is an ethics, associated with names like Peter Abelard and the others who—like Augustine, read synchronically—never separating spirituality from morality. The chapter by Adrian Peperzak continues with the volume’s largely philosophical focus, which in Peperzak’s contribution treats the themes of wise teaching and true learning. His main interlocutor is Bonaventure. The light of eternal truths are still the Platonic ideas, the light of Socrates’ Good, although Augustine is said to expound a new doctrine of Illumination that is partly dependent on intersubjectivity and sensible things. A short chapter follows from David Steinmetz on Luther’s use of Augustine to interpret Romans 9 in light of the latter’s early doctrine of free will and his later doctrine of grace. The theological locus of this chapter is welcome in light of the preponderance of philosophy in the rest of the volume. Alas, this essay is reprinted from a 1986 volume. One would have thought that fresh theological scholarship were more available to the editors than their choice to reprint a 33-year-old piece implies.

The next chapter by the formidable French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion deals with the distinctiveness of Augustine’s thought about mind. It contrasts with Cartesianism by virtue of its lack of essence, and its simultaneous debt to memory and forgetfulness. The argument of this chapter will be largely impenetrable to most readers, however, and this is a pity, given the considerable engagement with desire—a portrait of mind that has to do with (narratively told) Life, not Being. Along a completely different historical trajectory is a chapter by W. Clark Gilpin on certain Augustinian elements of American Puritan piety. Augustine’s legacy is poignant as a retrospective recognition of transcendence. This is understood through the handling of fragmentation in autobiography, hence Gilpin’s view of reading the Confessions as like “putting a DVD into a Blu-ray player and watching an entire movie with the director’s commentary on” (239). Next is a chapter by William Schweiker on Augustine and education and entailing a refreshing focus on the still (relatively) neglected De doctrina christiana. Yet, the thrust of Schweiker’s argument undercuts Augustine’s own practice of theology and his loyalty to the church in favour of Schweiker’s “wider strategy of education,” a sort of paideiafor moderns (254). To his credit, Schweiker deals at length with some of Augustine’s modern critics such as Immanuel Kant and Jacques Derrida, though Schweiker’s aim of separating Augustine’s notion of divine immutability (deemed unworthy) from the dynamics of human creativity and life (deemed worthy) trades on an a priori binary that Schweiker does not justify.

Chapter 10 is a treatment by Franklin Gamwell of the modern reception of Augustine’s sin doctrine by Reinhold Niebuhr, whose interpretation of Augustine is arguably more paradoxical than Augustine’s counterposing free will and concupiscence. After Tracy’s chapter, this one is the most stellar in the volume. Gamwell notes that “self-contradiction in theological anthropology calls into question the credibility of theism” (280). Although I do not think he is correct, Gamwell ends the chapter with a short defense of neo-classical (process) theology that seems to better resolve the interminable difficulties of squaring divine perfection, human temptation, and modern philosophy’s insights into anxiety. This is followed by a somewhat disappointing, more introductory chapter by the late Jean B. Elshtain on Augustine and political theology, the main argument of which is that Augustine is not a political realist, as he is commonly identified.

This is followed by a richly fascinating chapter by Frederick Lawrence, who gives a geneaological account of Augustine’s influence on Martin Heidegger and Bernard Lonergan in a chapter titled “Cor ad cor loquitur.” Lawrence knows the work of these 20th century giants extremely well and no hermeneutical stone seems to go unturned in what could well have expanded into a book all by itself. Tracy, of course, was influenced by Lonergan early in his career, and so Lawrence gives the reader a roadmap of the intellectual terrain that was traversed in the course of Tracy’s career. The notion of influence turns out to be a finely tuned sort of thing: Heidegger was influenced much more by the Confessions (specifically, Book X), from which Heidegger moved to treat Aristotle, and to some extent, Edmund Husserl. Not the reverse. As for Lonergan, Lawrence sees a more implicit, but nevertheless powerful, influence of Augustine in Lonergan’s later, more theological work although there is an equally strong Augustinian character to the phenomenology that led Lonergan to pen Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (University of Toronto Press) in 1957, possibly the most ignored 20th century philosophical monograph. The final chapter, by Françoise Meltzer, concerns the role of ancient ruins in romantic thought and its postmodernist interpreters. The authority Augustine’s work plays in determining the difference between what can be known and what remains unknown is relevant to this context, although Meltzer barely elaborates on the Augustinian element. 

Tracy’s name shows up now and again in most of the chapters, contributing to the impression that this is a festschrift in disguise. This helps provide an overarching connection among the various chapters, along with a moderate devotion amongst most contributors to inquiry in the mode of philosophy of religion. Lawrence, Gamwell, and Tracy write more in the vein of philosophical theology. All the chapters reference, in one way or the other, figures in the Continental tradition. What half of the chapters do not manage to convey is the notion that Augustine is our contemporary, which the book’s title leads us to anticipate. Somewhat disappointingly therefore, the contributors seems to think it adequate to analyze Augustine through one or other historical period or genre of literature. 

Augustine Our Contemporary’s orientation to Tracy (over Augustine) is evident by comparing the number of entries in the Index under “knowledge” with those under “Jesus Christ.” There are three times as many for the former over the latter, which does not square with recent theological retrievals of Augustine. Thus, with notable exceptions, the volume’s perspective on Augustine, while welcome, trenchant, and incisive is nonetheless theologically quiet. For a complementary volume to this one, see the distinctively theological thrust of essays by Rowan Williams in his On Augustine (Bloomsbury, 2016). In regards this volume, all libraries with Theology, Religion and (continental) Philosophy programs should purchase a copy. Every scholar of Augustine’s work will want to own a copy, despite the lack of close exegesis of Augustine’s own writings. I spotted only a couple of typographical errors in what is a finely crafted volume. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Allen is Dean at Corpus Christi College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Willemien Otten is Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the College

Susan E. Schreiner is Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the College.


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