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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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.