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For the love of God: how Rowan Williams illuminates the philosophy of St Augustine

What Williams shows, in essay after essay, is that Augustine’s conversion to Christianity changed everything.

This is a book that I have been waiting all my adult life to read – though I did not realise it. I have read Augustine’s Confessions three times without, as I now see, properly understanding the purpose or shape of the book. I have dipped into The City of God and read Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms (to me, his most accessible writing). And I have read Peter Brown’s marvellous biography of Augustine. Great as Brown is, however, he is a historian, not a theologian – still less a poet-bishop, like our present author.

Augustine’s reputation suffers in several respects. He is regarded as the macho father of Western Catholicism: obsessed by the evils of the flesh and all but dualistic in his depiction of a city of God that is completely at variance with what Wordsworth called “the world of all of us”. He is also seen as  an ardent heresy-hunter, an establisher of Church orthodoxy and a male chauvinist who abandoned his common-law wife and child in order to pursue a career as the sex-hating, self-flagellating egomaniac who penned the Confessions.

And he was – this was what I could never quite match up in my mind – the father of Western mysticism. The bits of the Confessions that have always swept me away are the prayers but only when reading the book through Williams’s eyes did I see that the whole thing is a prayer.

Rowan Williams has very astute comparisons to make with Rousseau. Augustine’s Confessions is not intended to be an autobiography, in either the ancient or the modern sense. It is also, perhaps, the most significant expression – even more than Hamlet – of how, in Williams’s inspired words, “To be an intelligence in time is to be inescapably unfinished.” The Confessions, Augustine’s entire career and Williams’s book are all superbly delicate expositions of the contingency of things. Our consciousness, our memory and our attempt to use language as a tool for describing experience have no proper focus until we place God at the centre of things. The Confessions is not about our quest for God but about his quest for us – and Williams makes this the subject of the quite superb sermon with which this book finishes.

Augustine lived in a culture that prized literary difficulty. This makes him a particularly challenging thinker for our culture, which – in spite of its academic forays into “theory” a generation ago – prizes ease and literalism. Williams prizes difficulty, too, in his poetry and in his theological prose. This is a knotty, pensive book of essays, written over a period of more than 25 years but reflecting a lifetime’s obsession with Augustine. The bishop of Hippo is the starting point but in each of the chapters, we are presented not merely with an exposition of a particular Augustinian problem but with Williams’s engagement with it. If the book has a single, underlying theme it would be, as for T S Eliot in “East Coker”, “the intolerable/Wrestle with words and meanings”.

Until I read these essays, I had never fully come to grips with why Augustine rejected Platonism. His exegesis of scripture seems to be so entirely allegorical that you would think that Plato would be his man. The surface meaning of any particular text only stands for an inner meaning: isn’t this, in essence, the Platonic way of reading the world? Williams points us gently to the core of the problem. Platonism is posited on the notion that the spiritual is always superior to the material. “Augustine,” Williams writes, “is obliged by his commitment to the incarnate Christ to deny that the incorruptible and immaterial can ever as such be an object for the cognition of material, historical and ‘desirous’ beings.” Scripture can only be understood in the light of the crucified Christ.

This is not, however, simply a way of reading the Bible. What Williams shows, in essay after essay, is that Augustine’s conversion to Christianity changed everything – his philosophy of language, his epistemology, his reading of the world and of history. Williams’s way of putting this is: “God is res, and, in respect of him, all else is signum.” God is the central reality – in a sense, the only reality – from which all other realities emanate. Our attempts to objectify experience, whether in scientific language or empirical statements about history and experience, are frustrated by “the omnipresence of metaphor”.

It would be impossible, in the space of a short review, to do justice to Williams’s – or Augustine’s – theology of love, theology of the Trinity, or philosophy of Creation. Again and again, I put this book down and wished that it were compulsory reading for all those who, in our public forum, think that they are engaging in intelligible conversations when they are merely mouthing sounds. Islamists, with their blood-curdling certainties; ditto the cringe-making versions of Christianity peddled by certain types of evangelicals; ditto the shrill neo-atheists – all could do with a dose of this book.

Central to it is a doctrine of love. Perhaps the most impressive essay in the book, “Augustinian Love”, is an answer to Hannah Arendt’s wrong-headed doctoral thesis, written in 1927-28, which suggested that Augustine’s doctrine of love “does not help us to form human community”. Williams rescues a more plausible Augustinian teaching (certainly one that Dante would have recognised): “If we try to love human beings independently of loving God, we ignore what they are.”

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible by A N Wilson is published by Atlantic Books

On Augustine by Rowan Williams is published by Bloomsbury (218pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition