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20 April 2016

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.

By A N Wilson

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”.

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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)

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This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster