St Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, wrote so much and so well that it is almost impossible to get him into any kind of focus. Most people know and love his Confessions; many will have read his City of God; a few more will have read some of his treatises or his reflections on the psalter; I myself acknowledge having plundered his sermons on many occasions for readings in choir; but it is perhaps those who live according to his Rule who know him best. It is very short, and full of north African sunshine. His theme is love and his words simple, but I don’t think his thought is; and that’s the great challenge of reading Augustine today.
We have a tendency to assume that the way in which we read a text is the way the writer intended. Unfortunately, because most of us are not schooled in rhetoric or are unfamiliar with many of the references and allusions contained in his works — even the text of the Bible he quotes is different from any we customarily use — there is often a gap in our understanding. Perhaps that is why his speculative theology is so attractive. One does not have to beaver away at understanding the context of North African Christianity but can attempt to follow his mind as it ranges over the created universe in pursuit of the Eternal Uncreated. (A propos of which, modern physics enhances one’s understanding of his treatise on the Trinity rather better, in my opinion, than all the footnotes of Augustine scholars, but that’s a dangerous point to argue!) Is that enough? Don’t we have a duty to get to know the Augustine who has been so influential in Christian history?
I think we do, and that is where his life-story becomes important and very contemporary. The profligate youth; the sudden conversion at the age of thirty-one; the thinker and teacher who engaged with the important issues of his day; these different aspects of Augustine helped determine his opinions and proved to have a long currency. His concept of Original Sin, for example, and his understanding of the workings of grace have made the Church of the West very different from the Church of the East. Today we tend to concentrate on his anthropology: his condemnation of abortion and slavery, his strict sexual morality, etc.; but to his contemporaries, Augustine’s teaching on the nature of the Church, her sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and free will were possibly of greater moment. He became the pre-eminent Doctor of the Western Church, and it is not without significance that, as Augustine lay dying in 430, the Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. The brilliant Christian culture of North Africa was about to sustain its first destructive blow. Everything was to change.
Today, when Christianity in North Africa is only a shadow of its former self, when the Churches of East and West are divided and secular morality has moved very far from the positions held by St Augustine, one might argue that it would be vain to look to him for any guidance. Yet there is a perennial freshness about Augustine’s work that makes him as relevant to us today as he was to his fifth-century contemporaries. He makes us think, and he makes us pray. Who could ask more of him than that?