On Self-Harm, Narcissism, Atonement and the Vulnerable Christ

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David Vincent Meconi
Reading Augustine
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2019.
     160 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501326219.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In keeping with Bloomsbury Academic’s aim for the Reading Augustine series, in On Self-Harm, Narcissism, Atonement and the Vulnerable Christ, David Meconi brings Augustine’s thought to bear on one of the most perennially perplexing issues in a way beneficial for the academic and accessible to the general reader. Theologically, this work is complimentary to Meconi’s earlier work, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (The Catholic University of America Press, 2013). There, Meconi demonstrated that Augustine’s soteriology includes a robust sense of deification, characterized by the human person’s harmonious participatory imitation of the Triune life of God (Meconi, The One Christ, xv-xvi, 21). In complimentary contrast, On Self-Harm explores Augustine’s hamartiology (theology of sin), explaining how, as salvation’s opposite (55), sin is always at its core a perverse imitation of God for Augustine (41, 43, 60).

Meconi begins with an exploration of the relationship between Trinitarian theology and anthropology. Chapter 1 opens with a brief historical examination of Trinitarian theology and Augustine’s place therein (18–29). As Meconi explains, Augustine’s key contribution is understanding the inner life of the Trinity as one of “substantial relationships,” wherein “the entire identity of each divine person” is understood as “other-centered” (27). This understanding of perfection as consisting of being other-dependent and “other-centered gift,” Meconi asserts, “challenges our contemporary understanding of divinity and perfection,” which “most today would equate” with “autonomy” (28). As imago Dei (image of God), the human person has thus been created for self-giving and other-centered deifying participatory imitation in the Triune life (29–32).

With this understanding of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology and accompanying anthropology serving as the normative baseline, Meconi begins exploring Augustine’s hamartiology. Chapter 2 opens by recounting the fall of the original sinner(s), Satan, and other angels, whose pride led them to freely choose self-imposed darkness in exchange for the deifying participation in the light of God’s love for which they were created (41-42). As Meconi explains, Augustine’s exploration of Satan’s fall leads him to the discovery that at the core of every sin is “a pride that is puffed up and tumid which takes pleasure in its own power” to freely choose “a lower good over a higher good,” the self over God (43). This, for Augustine, is nothing less than an attempt at self-deification which characterizes all sin, an attempt to fulfill one’s “divinely intended godliness by [one’s] own power—to become God without God” (60).

Chapter 3 revolves around the intriguing pear theft scene from The Confessions. While many see the scene as an unnecessary bit of self-flagellation (72), Meconi asserts “that this particular evening is still burning in Augustine’s memory not because of the matter of the theft but because of its motive” (73). Moreover, whereas some contest that the pear theft was motivated by a disordered love for community (88–89), Meconi argues the pear theft scene perplexes Augustine because it is the closest he has come to choosing nothingness out of love for his own destruction (74–75, 91). Herein begins the vicious cycle of sin for Augustine, characterized by self-destruction and self-loathing (95–97). Having brought ruin upon ourselves through a perverse imitation of God, we believe that we are no longer lovable to the God whom we have turned away from and thus double down: “I must therefore become my own god. As such, I can now grant myself ‘unrestrained license’ to do whatever I desire, and to destroy what the other supposedly does not want” (95–97).

This leads to the discussion in chapter 4 on self-love. Here, Meconi highlights the Augustinian paradox of self-love: humans are made in the image of the Triune God, and “to love oneself means first to reach out of oneself, to display a movement away from oneself because one realizes that alone the self is horribly insufficient and defective” (104). Bringing Augustine’s thought into conversation with psychology, the myth of Narcissus, and his own experience in the confessional, Meconi next argues that there are two forms of pride which drive narcissism (110–111, 114). The first is an overinflated sense of self, and the second form one that sees the self as not worthy of another’s love. “Both groups consider themselves extraordinarily special: the first for what they think they are, the second for what they think they are not” (116). The two types have in common their end result: self-isolation and self-destruction as the self made for communion collapses in on itself.

The final chapter, while challenging, brings the work to a beautifully hopeful conclusion as it provides the key for breaking out of self-destructive ways. As Meconi explains, for Augustine, breaking out of the destructive cycle of sin entails self-denial, characterized by a vulnerability that is willing to confess one’s own ugliness, that part of humans that refuses communion with God and neighbor in Christ (133–134). Such confession marks the first half of the first of three steps in Meconi’s adumbrated exploration of Augustine’s understanding of atonement. Only after having identified oneself as sinful is one then able to identify with the crucified Christ, who “has become ugly for the sake of the sinner’s beauty,” thereby beginning the divine exchange (140). The second step is incorporation into the life of the church, wherein the sinful are drawn out of their self-centeredness into communion with the divine life through, with, and in Christ (145). This second step necessarily implies the final, transformation. “The oneness achieved through the incarnate Son’s physical death for our spiritual death not only awakens our soul but divinizes us into new creatures” (145).

This will always be the last word for Augustine as it is for Meconi here. Yes, we are broken, continually tempted to place ourselves at the center of our lives over and against the other, thereby tempted to enter into a cycle of isolation, self-loathing and self-destruction. “But God descends as one of us to show us our eternal worth, his own infinite love shining in and through us, having used his own body and blood to convince each of us how much we are loved” (159).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Crescio is a PhD candidate in Christian theology at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Vincent Meconi, S.J., is the director of the Catholic Studies Centre and professor of theology at Saint Louis University, USA.

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