The Spirit and the Common Good

Shared Flourishing in the Image of God

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Daniela C. Augustine
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , September
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $49.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802843852.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Daniela C. Augustine’s The Spirit and the Common Good: Shared Flourishing in the Image of God is a fascinating and frustrating book. The study is intended to bring together a holistic and comprehensive perspective on human flourishing framed by engagement with Orthodox Christian sources as well as insights from Pentecostal Christianity. The point of departure is the author’s engagement with Christian peacemakers in East Slavonia, a part of Croatia. A decade ago Augustine did field work in that part of the world, dealing with survivors of conflict and Christian peacebuilding agencies and networks. The basic idea, as Augustine puts it, is that in the context of interconfessional and interreligious violence, “due to their historical neutrality in the conflict, the Pentecostals were uniquely positioned to provide safe space for societal healing and facilitate reconciliation among the warring (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim) factions” (5).

Inspired by these concrete contexts, Augustine weaves a tapestry of insights into the implications of Christian anthropology for flourishing. Augustine’s perspective aims to be comprehensive: the study is not simply about human flourishing, but the vitality and shared telos (end) of all of creation, in its interconnections, intricacies, and interstices. The work opens with an examination of the Christian understanding of the image of God for human flourishing, particularly as it relates to human embodiment and especially as it relates to the human face. Having been confronted, for example, with violence that aims at literally defacing its victims, Augustine defends “the significance of the theology of the face” (28). The human face is a kind of living icon of the divine, and ought to be revered as such. The import of this becomes clear as we appreciate the relationship between the first Adam and the second Adam, Jesus Christ. “As intensification of sacramental potential,” writes Augustine, “the Incarnation (as well as the resurrection) sanctions all aspects of human life as means of grace toward theosis and affirms their goodness” (42). By invoking elements of Orthodox theology, such as theosis, iconography, and sobornorst (ecumenical unity), Augustine brings a wide variety of influences and perspectives to bear in her study, from N.T. Wright and Sally McFague to Walter Brueggemann and Jürgen Moltmann.

The main body of the book consists of three chapters exploring, in turn, how the gospel changes humanity from a people of violence to a people of love, markets corrupt our relationship to material goods, and forgiveness is the foundation for future hope. The argument is highly recursive; Augustine returns again and again to main themes concerning the Spirit’s reconciling work in the world, sometimes advancing the argument but more often reiterating it different angles. Sometimes this iterative process is simply reiterative. Augustine’s style and substance mostly advance a clear line of thought. But the challenge for the reader is to appreciate both the grandiosity of the prose while also recognizing the significance to the truth it contains. To be frank, Augustine’s writing can, at times, be both highly poetic and beautiful even as it remains highly technical and difficult to parse. A representative example can suffice:

Transfigured by this in-Spirit-ed askesis into a living home and sanctuary of the divine presence, the human being becomes a reflective, liturgical image of the Creator Trinity speaking forth into existence the cosmos (out of nothing) and hosting it within its own (kenotic and ascetic) communal self as an act of generous, unconditional, divine hospitality (45).

Augustine concludes the volume with a series of portraits of different kinds of reconciling and peacemaking activities from Pentecostals in East Slavonia. The move from the abstract and elevated prose of the main portion of the study to the concluding concrete vignettes is radical. The connection between the two is mostly left for the reader to fill in. A potentially more fruitful approach to bridging the gap between Augustine’s complex theologizing and her narrative of Christian praxis would have been to integrate the narratives into the main body of the book itself, perhaps as interludes or even more explicitly as ways that the theologizing can become manifest in the world. As it stands, it is unclear whether the heavy lifting that Augustine does in the main sections reflect the self-understanding of those depicted in the conclusion, or whether Augustine’s theologizing is a more speculative foray into a way of understanding the cosmos and its divine significance that is not necessarily dependent upon the saintly work of those she finds are so inspiring.

There is much to be gleaned from Augustine’s ambitious work. It is at points captivating and inspiring. At other points it is challenging and troubling. In this tension Augustine’s work is itself a kind of pedagogy, leaving its readers to struggle with the task to, as she puts it, pursue a “saintly life (with all of its ethnic, racial, cultural, historical, geographical, sociopolitical particularities),” understood to be “an authentication of the Incarnation with its scandalous radical particularity, and of the incarnational work of the Spirit, translating and indigenizing the life of Christ (as the content of the gospel) in diverse, living faith communities” (202).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniela C. Augustine is reader in world Christianity at the University of Birmingham (UK) and associate professor of theological ethics, School of Religion, Lee University (USA). She serves as associate editor of the Journal of Pentecostal Theology and co-editor of T&T Clark's Systematic Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology Series.

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