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10 November 2015updated 24 Nov 2015 12:16pm

Patriarchal villains? It’s time to re-think St Paul and St Augustine

Paul and Augustine are blamed for any number of historical outrages. But on questions like slavery and empire, they were more progressive than many credit.

By Rowan Williams

Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo are usually regarded as pantomime villains by right-thinking moderns. Any number of historical outrages and injustices have been laid at their door, jointly and severally; patriarchal oppression, collusion in slavery, the Inquisition, the collective Christian neurosis about sexuality – almost everything except the common cold. What is most interesting about these two books is that two seasoned and scholarly authors without any religious axes to grind are arguing that this profound suspicion warrants significant qualification. Neither Karen Armstrong nor Robin Lane Fox would want to absolve the two great theologians from every reproach: Paul and Augustine are men of their age, using the familiar rhetorical forms of their cultures, marked by the patterns of power they live in, uncritical of much that we would indignantly repudiate. But what both these books do is to show how, although neither Paul nor Augustine existed in a timeless world of liberal virtue, they still offer an intellectually and imaginatively serious perspective on our humanity as well as theirs and that of their contemporaries.

Both are of course frequently cited as examples of lives that have changed course dramatically in midstream. Paul describes himself as originally a passionate enemy of the incipient Christian movement; but just a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, a traumatic visionary encounter with Jesus sets his life on a profoundly risky course as a travelling advocate for the new faith, for which, according to tradition, he eventually died a martyr under Nero. Augustine grows up as an unenthusiastic Christian in 4th-century North Africa, abandons the church for an esoteric cult and begins to make a career in the Roman imperial administration. Deepening intellectual dissatisfaction and unfulfilled spiritual passion lead him slowly to a recommitment to Christianity and a long, intensely demanding ministry as a provincial bishop, as the Roman empire dissolves around him.

But perhaps the central fact to bear in mind is that they both do something that only a few other ancient authors do – Plato being the other most obvious example: they invite their readers to imagine a social order quite different from what is now taken for granted. They are not simply “religious” thinkers, if that signifies only that they are trying to elaborate a system of teachings about something called spiritual life, distinct from the ongoing business of living together in society. Armstrong in particular gives an excellent reading of the way in which Paul’s letters make very stark demands about social relationships; Paul’s readers/hearers are instructed “to liberate themselves from habits of servility and ethnic prejudice by creating an alternative community characterised by equality”. They need to be freed from “solipsistic introversion”, false spiritualism and elitism, insensitivity to the poverty or suffering of others. In a nutshell, they are being told that they must show the world around them a model of belonging together in which no one either suffers alone or succeeds alone: well-being is always, uncompromisingly, a mutual and corporate affair.

Paul’s own egalitarianism is, on the surface, somewhat shaky when it comes to relationships between men and women; but Armstrong is among those who believe that the most difficult passages on this subject (women covering their head in public, or keeping silent in meetings) are likely to be interpolations from a later and more anxious hand. This is possible, even quite likely in a couple of cases, though difficult to argue for absolutely all instances. Armstrong’s main point, though, is that the connecting thread in Paul’s arguments, whether or not he fully works out the implications, is to do with radical reciprocity – a reciprocity that Paul believed should apply to the relations between all local Christian communities (part of his trouble with the “mother church” in Jerusalem was simply that he refused to see this community as superior). As has often been noted, he freely borrows the language of civic rather than religious institutions to describe the life of the churches: belonging to the Church is a sort of “citizenship”; in Greek, the very word for church, ekklesia, means a town meeting for citizens.

Robin Lane Fox’s magnificently abundant study breaks off before the point when Augustine begins to think systematically about church and civic order; but he helps us see where that later thinking first took root – not only in Augustine’s reading of the Bible, but in his ten-year involvement with a transnational, “underground” movement, comparable in character to both modern cults and modern political networks. While he was working as a government-employed official, he was also a Manichee, a member of what must be the first consciously international and intercultural religious organisation in Mediterranean history.

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Originating in Persia, it spread throughout the Roman empire with its complex but appealingly dramatic mythology of a world in which particles of sacred light had become trapped in the material world, requiring the Chosen of the new faith to release them through a mixture of ascetical self-denial and the carefully planned eating of large quantities of the kinds of food most saturated with light (mostly vegetables and pulses). The Chosen, celibate and dedicated, were supported by a group of believers who were less committed to an ascetic lifestyle but bound to supply the practical needs of the Chosen.

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Augustine later turned away in exasperation from the brightly coloured cosmology of the Manichees (the superb illustrations in Lane Fox’s book from Chinese and central Asian sources bear witness that “brightly coloured” isn’t just a metaphor); yet, even as a bishop of an imperially protected church in later life, he never lost the sense of belonging to a kind of parallel structure, an alternative reality (and, contrary to what many still assert, although he was ready in later life to invoke the law against religious dissidents, he strongly opposed torturing or executing them). For him, the Christian Church was not a human institution – but equally, not even a divine institution in the ordinary sense. It was an imagined social space: a place where human desires found their proper focus and human relations were harmonised accordingly. The Church was where you discovered what you most acutely needed and how you could become most fully what you were created to be – an agent in community, drained of self-will and self-absorption by the pressure of God’s love, so that you could relate to others without fear, rivalry and lust for power.

Augustine moves from the “New Age” speculations of Manichaeism to a passion for metaphysical vision; and Lane Fox gives an admirably clear account of the mental disciplines that Augustine undertook in order to attain a sort of mystical awareness of unity and harmony. Quite rightly, I think, Lane Fox treats Augustine’s experience, as recorded in his autobiographical recollections, as a genuine case of ecstasy (not just a metaphor for intense intellectual insight, as some have argued). But he rather underplays Augustine’s own disorientation and dissatisfaction that these ecstatic experiences do not in themselves deliver a new mode of life, new habits of relation. As Augustine puts it, spiritual rapture can still coincide with unrestrained self-promotion and egotistical fantasy: what we have to realise, he says trenchantly, is that the realm of the holy, the presence of God, is “not just for looking at but for living in”.

It is the same concern as we find in Paul, who also records intense personal experience only to relativise its importance. What matters is the discovery not of a spiritual realm where conflicts disappear in the face of a transcendent vision, but of a way of inhabiting the present material world that begins to dissolve endemic rivalry, self-serving, mutual fear and repulsion. If, as Augustine writes (following classical sources such as Cicero), a res publica – a public social unit – is a group united by what it loves or values, the most effective social unit will be the one in which the love of God’s own selflessness and generosity generate a deep, impassioned mutuality among human beings. Lane Fox shows how, as a young man, Augustine is always developing his thinking and aspiring within the context of friends and family. This is an obvious enough point once it has been flagged, but Lane Fox is particularly good at drawing out what may be self-evident but has often been underplayed or ignored.

He also offers a fascinating set of running comparisons with two near-contemporaries of Augustine: a Libyan bishop, Synesius, and a Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric, Libanius, both of them professional public orators and administrators like Augustine. Libanius was a pagan who had a considerable influence on Christians, and enjoyed a long and mostly successful career in Antioch, deeply embedded in that city’s intellectual and political establishment. Synesius moved seamlessly from being a major local landowner into his responsibilities as a bishop (having – disarmingly – negotiated with his ecclesiastical superiors to be allowed to continue hunting and having intercourse with his wife, neither of these being regarded as very acceptable episcopal pastimes). Both came from enormously wealthy and privileged families, and both had been able to take for granted an “Etonian” style of education for public office.

In contrast, Augustine is a scholarship boy: not from a humble background exactly, but most certainly not from the super-elite that nurtured Libanius and Synesius. And although Lane Fox does his best to help us like the two of them (easier with Synesius than Libanius), they never quite lose the air of impenetrable smugness that goes with unexamined privilege. Augustine’s less assured status no doubt helped clarify his thinking about the “republic” of God – the public business and public patterns of human relation pleasing to God. He had never been able to take for granted a social order that was unequivocally on his side. He had done his best to get inside it as a young man lucky with his patrons, but had never quite managed to stop asking questions larger than his social order encouraged; which did him no harm when that order collapsed suddenly as he grew older.

He wants to understand, for example, why such a strange and unnatural institution as slavery exists: not a question his contemporaries worried much about. He may not give the answer we would like (he is never a straightforward abolitionist), but he concludes that slavery is a sign of something fundamentally wrong in human relations. He may come nowhere near being a democratic pluralist, but he explains with complete clarity why an empire is going to be a bad form of society and why rulers are most credible when they confess to failure and seek advice. And so on. As much as Paul (as much as Jesus), Augustine turns his eyes on human society and refuses to accept that this or that way of doing things and distributing power is just “natural”. An entire set of political possibilities, new thoughts about public dissent and moral argument is coming to birth. We can imagine societies, not just inherit them.

Lane Fox’s book is undoubtedly a water­shed in Augustinian studies, close in significance to Peter Brown’s great biography in the 1960s. There are places where he does not fully convince (I was not at all sure about his slightly lurid explanation of Augustine’s estrangement from Paulinus of Nola) or where he slips into a textbook oversimplification (referring to the “Arian” heresy as emphasising the humanity of Jesus), or treats some readings of the evidence as rather clearer than they are (he assumes a lack of any music in North African churches before the late 4th century – as opposed to the lack of specially composed congregational music). Yet these are small matters, set against the magisterial and compellingly readable narrative, which makes full and creative use of all the best recent scholarship, especially from France. The method of footnoting is not very reader-friendly, it must be said; but generally this is a well-presented book, and a substantial contribution to the field.

Karen Armstrong’s book is not meant to be a contribution on this scale, but a guide to the scholarly landscape; as such, it does a credible and very accessible job, although some of the critical and historical judgements will be hotly contested. The literature quoted is predominantly from a decade or more ago, and the text tells us nothing about the major theological studies of writers such as Tom Wright and Robin Griffith-Jones. I don’t think she needs to be quite so suspicious about some aspects of the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles – an odd mixture of rather vague traditions, some unexpected gaps, but also a good deal of quite credible local detail. What she does is to make a rereading of Paul imperative, a reading that will weigh up, as Armstrong does, the details of his cultural world and his actual arguments.

Like Lane Fox with Augustine, she rescues her subject from two-dimensional caricature and helps us see just why generations have needed Paul to “think with”, not just about God, but about the possible shapes of human community in the face of unthinking conformism and the powerful stupidity of empires.

St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle by Karen Armstrong is published by Atlantic Books (160pp, £14.99)

Augustine: Conversions and Confessions by Robin Lane Fox is published by Allen Lane (672pp, £30)

On Augustine, Rowan Williams’s new book, will be published next year

This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe