February 2018

In the first half I looked at the life and work of St. Augustine (354-430), mostly focusing on his multiple identities and how this may have helped him carry out the momentous mission he believed God had given him. I also discussed his view of politics and the surprising fact that, considering his strong views on original sin, he seemed fairly hopeful about people banding together around “the love of peace or the desire for security.”

Amazingly, dozens of articles and books on this greatest of Church Fathers are still published every year in many languages around the world. Yet the most surprising fact of all, as I see it, is that in this new century Augustine has been claimed by Algeria as one of their own.

The story begins officially in 1999 when the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, attended the annual conference of an Italian Catholic movement (Communion and Liberation) in Remini. On the occasion of a speech he gave there, Bouteflika launches into a chorus of praise for the fourth-century theologian. I translate here an excerpt from that speech in French. After a section mentioning the great Berber kings of the second century BCE, Massinissa and Jugurtha, he turns to Augustine:


“And then, what can we say about the Algerian Augustine who contributed so much to the Church? Theologian, philosopher, writer and activist, author of the Confessions and the City of God, he was the bishop of Hippo, today’s Annaba in the western part of this land where he died. He was rightly considered one of the most influential and prestigious Catholic Church Fathers. It was said of him, ‘He treated legal questions like a Roman lawyer, and exegetical questions like a great theologian of Alexandria. He argued like an Athenian philosopher. He told anecdotes like a nobleman from Carthage and stories of the exploits of Berber militia like a worker from Hippo.’ Do I dare add that he was Cartesian before Descartes himself?”


Then he announced that in 2001 Algeria would host an international colloquium on Augustine, “the Algerian Philosopher.” More on that below, but in the meantime, during a 2000 state visit to France Bouteflika addressed its National Assembly. Surprisingly (think of France and its laïcité!), in one passage he pays homage to the work of the Catholic Church in Algeria. And I quote from an article in the French Catholic periodical La Croix that in his speech he called all Muslim nations to dialogue with other cultures and religions and even to emulate the Church’s public apologies and repentance. He also wanted “to pay tribute to the Church’s acts of abnegation,” and in particular “when it resolutely pursued in the darkest days of its tribulation its mission of witness and human solidarity in my country.” Specifically he condemned the assassination of the seven Trappist monks and of Bishop Claverie in 1996 during the civil war period. These acts represent “a grave insult to Algeria, a land of hospitality, and to Islam, a religion of tolerance.”

[The ordeal of the seven Trappist monks was beautifully and dramatically captured in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men , which won first prize at Cannes that year]

The 1990s were indeed Algeria’s darkest days since it achieved independence from the French after a brutal eight-year war that killed over a million of them (see these two blogs). Around 200,000 Algerians, mostly civilians, died in the civil war from the bomb blasts, shootings and massacres of entire villages. No wonder the president, who had recently declared a unilateral amnesty, was eager to work for national healing and mend Algeria’s reputation for murderous violence in the name of religion and politics!

The international colloquium on St. Augustine did take place as planned in 2001 (April 1-7). In the end, it was co-sponsored by the Swiss Confederation and the Algerian High Islamic Council of Algeria. Bouteflika had chosen that year, partly because the United Nations had proclaimed it as the Year of the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations, and partly because it was the beginning a new millennium with high hopes for new and joyful developments. It was a resounding success. Close to fifty Augustine scholars and archeologists from twenty-seven countries came together for sessions both in Algiers and Annaba.

There was plenty of national and regional pride on display too. I have in front of me the book gathering all the papers presented on that occasion: Augustinus Afer: saint Augustin, africanité et universalité (eds. Pierre-Yves Fux et al., Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 2003). In his opening speech, the president thanks his “friend and brother,” the Sorbonne Augustinian specialist André Mandouze for pointing him to the words given by a colleague (Henri Irénée Marrou) at a Mediterranean congress in 1976:

“Today I would like to show that a transfer has been made from the south to the north … from Africa to Europe … I don’t know if you North Africans have given this enough thought … I believe that you North Africans should be quite proud of the fact that you offered Europe the masters who formed its thinking, whether it be Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine … All of Europe was thus fertilized and educated by your ancestors, your fathers, dear North Africans.”


Two North African witnesses

Just as an example, I would like to cite two of the conference contributors whose papers are found in this book, Augustinus Afer. Both have North African names and both are archeologists working for UNESCO in Paris: the Algerian Mounir Bouchenaki, and the other, the Tunisian Azedine Beschaouch. Both write in French (four fifths of the book is in French).

Bouchenaki’s chapter (131-9) is entitled, “Augustine and African Identity, from historical works and the study of the sites of Thagastus, Hippo, and Carthage.” His thesis is that Augustine’s rich correspondence has been under-studied so far, and with some examination his letters contain a rich record of the political, legal, social and economic context of Augustine’s writing. It also sheds light on his attitudes toward the people, towns and villages of his native land. He has often been accused of being overly pro-Roman, but do the writings bear this out?

His review of the historical literature on this period in North Africa, whether under Rome’s imperial rule or independent of it, shows that Christianity had largely replaced paganism and “had acquired incomparable influence and prestige.” As dominant as it was, however, it was also racked by internal divisions, which at times could turn violent. But just to give an idea of the numbers, 565 bishops took part at the Church Council of Carthage in 411, with both Catholics and Donatists present. That is a huge representation, considering that there there were only 600 towns in North Africa at the time.

But how was Augustine different from his fellow countrymen? He was certainly not distinguished from them by race. Besides the indigenous population of the countryside and mountainous regions that spoke a punic language (lingua Punica, the ancestor of today’s many Berber dialects), those living in the towns were educated in Latin and identified much more with their Roman identity. Some of them were transplants from Italy, but others were Greek-speaking from other parts of the empire.

Augustine was of local stock, though well educated. According to the sources Bouchenaki quotes, Augustine grew up in more humble circumstances than I thought (using the sources I did for the first part of this blog). His father owned a vineyard, but in his letters Augustine himself uses the adjectives “modest” and “poor” to describe his upbringing. His father apparently struggled to send his son to Madaurus to study with a famous grammarian for three years. After coming back, Augustine was then stuck for a whole year in Thagaste before his father could persuade an acquaintance to finance his son’s rhetoric studies in the capital city, Carthage, some 280 kms east of there.

Bouchenaki quotes a number of scholars to show that Augustine’s sermons contain a treasure-trove of information on the various basilicas dedicated to martyrs in Carthage, on the various localities in the vicinity of Hippo, without mentioning notes on his other travels on Church business east and west. Thus by perusing his hundreds of letters and sermons, we see a man profoundly connected to his African soil and to the people he serves with such attachment and love.

At one point Augustine corresponded with the famous grammarian of Madaurus, Maximus. The latter had spoken disparagingly about Christians who gave more honor to the martyr Namphano than to the immortal gods of Rome. Augustine was no pushover and he wrote back, “You could have found plenty of things to mock in Rome, with the god Sterculius [god of feces], the goddess Cloacina [associated with Rome’s sewers], and the bald Venus [one of her post-classical forms]. How could you have renounced your own African origins by attacking Punic names? Are we not both Africans?”

I love Bouchenaki’s pithy conclusion paragraph, summing up so well his own love and esteem for this fourth-century “ancestor”:


“In the town of Hippo now under siege in 430 by the Vandals, seventy-six-year old Bishop Augustine, son of Numidia and pillar of the Roman Church, is about to experience the distress of its population and breathe his last in August of that same year.”


Azedine Beschaouch’s shorter article, “Saint Augustine and the land of Carthage,” tells of his love for Carthage, its ruins and its glorious history, and how, as an archeologist who has covered most of the Roman sites of Tunisia, he has at times, “with the help of Providence, walked, as it were, in the physical footsteps of Augustine in the regions surrounding Carthage.” Once, in the ruins of ancient Mustis on the road Augustine would have taken from Thagaste to Carthage, he discovered a commemorative plaque with the first ever inscription bearing the name of the proconsul of the African province Helvius Vindicianus dated 380-381. He wrote up the finding and his article was published in 1968.

Another discovery brought him much closer to Saint Augustine. For years archeologists had been searching for the town of Abitina, where the famous African martyrs, men and women, were tortured and killed in February 304 under the reign of Diocletian. Augustine had written about this event in great detail in several places. Thanks to some of these details, Bouchenaki discovered the exact place by means of two inscriptions. Perhaps they should have trusted local lore a bit more, because the Arabic name for that place was “Shuhud al-Batin,” literally, the “the martyrs of Batin” (or Abitinia).

Besides the archeological discoveries, Beschaouch’s piece tenderly reflects his own affection, both for Carthage and Augustine. He writes,


“Carthage represented for Saint Augustine the privileged site for his preaching and his doctrinal stands. In that respect, one should think of one of his most beautiful sermons, the one he delivered end of June or beginning of July 397, which he dedicated to the theme of love, both the love for God and the love for neighbor. He was referencing the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind’; and the second commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”


I cannot help but interject the following thought here. Beschaouch wrote these lines at least three years before Prince Ghazi of Jordan penned the historic “Common Word Letter” addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and all Christian leaders and signed by 138 leading Islamic scholars and clerics worldwide. It was an invitation for Christians and Muslims to unite in dialogue over the heart of both traditions: love of God and love of neighbor (I explain this in more detail in the following blog post).


Last words from the Augustinian priest in Hippo

Lucien Borg is the Augustinian priest serving at the Saint Augustine Basilica above the ancient ruins of Hippo in Annaba, Algeria (see picture above). He wanted to record his own version of how this historic conference went. In his article in the September/October 2001 issue of their Augustinian Assumptionist journal, Borg quotes another Catholic author, Michel Kubler, who stated that “the colloquium which Algeria consecrated to Saint Augustine constituted a genuine rehabilitation.” Indeed it was, he adds. For years the Catholic Church in Algeria dreamt about such an event, but it seemed very unlikely. Naturally, he writes, some of the islamist factions opposed it from the start, “seeing it as a veiled attempt to Christianize the Algerian people and therefore as a threat for Islam.” He then cites a front page article in an Algerian newspaper only two weeks after the conference which stated that “six Algerians convert to Christianity every day.”

Borg had been part of the planning committee for the colloquium, and he mentioned how carefully he and his colleagues were to avoid any unnecessary polemics. The result, therefore, exceeded all expectations. As we saw, it was spearheaded by the president from the start, and let me add that despite the appearance of democratic governance, Algeria remains a mostly authoritarian state. So let’s not be surprised that the High Islamic Council co-sponsored the event with the Swiss authorities. The Algerian postal service even issued two stamps on the occasion.

Still, Borg believes this represented a sea change in official Algerian political and cultural attitudes. Now they are drawing up plans to have a museum dedicated to Augustine in Annaba. In 2015 the University of Annaba sponsored an international conference on Augustine. Now back to 2001, Borg quotes from the president’s official address:


“[A conference on Augustine] offers a privileged platform for a common reflection which will allow us to highlight our similarities, indicate our points of convergence, and lay the foundation of an ethics of inter-civilizational relations built on respect, mutual understanding and solidarity … The study of Augustine is incredibly relevant today, and the debates that will naturally flow out of it can contribute to our making progress together, as diverse as we are, toward a peaceful world, a world of justice and brotherhood to which all people of good will have aspired since the beginning of time.”


Borg here is certain that Mr. Bouteflika was sincere in stating this. I think too that Augustine himself would be heartened – sad to see the disappearance of the church in his region for so many centuries but glad to see that it is slowly growing again. He would especially rejoice that his life and writings can still spread some of the values of the Heavenly City among the inhabitants of our earthly city, and especially in his native land.

St. Augustine (354-430), dubbed “Foremost Father [of the Church],” was as prolific a theologian and philosopher as he was influential, down to our day. Eminent nineteenth-century theologian and church historian, Adolf von Harnack, saw him as “the incomparably greatest man between St. Paul and the reformer Martin Luther.” Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon entitled her review of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1995 book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, “A Saint for Our Times.”

So why am I suddenly writing about Augustine? Since I arrived in the Philadelphia area in 2006, I have been a part of a Thursday noon discussion group called the “Faculty Staff Christian Forum” at the University of Pennsylvania. While I have attended more sporadically in recent years (I now have less to do with Penn), I stay in touch. This week in the context of a series on “Great Souls” (of the Christian past), I gave a talk on Augustine. This blog post draws on some of that material in three parts: Augustine’s multiple identities, Augustine and politics, and Augustine, the Algerian philosopher.


Augustine’s multiple identities

We talk a great deal about identity nowadays, whether in politics, in the classroom, or in the work place where many of us have undergone “diversity training.” From experience too, we know that we all draw on different elements that make up our “self,” depending on the context and on who we are with. Ethnically, I am Swedish on both sides of the family, but on my mother’s side I am also an eighth English and an eighth Chinese. She in fact was living in Hong Kong when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was only by the grace of God that she and her family survived the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the war years. I often bring this up when talking with Chinese people.

Our past experiences can help to define our identity as well. Having lived sixteen years in three different Arab countries, I seek out Arabs and enjoy their company. My efforts over the last two decades to bring Muslims and Christians into conversation obviously impacts my relationship with Muslims in general.

Augustine himself carried within himself multiple identities. Born in Thagaste (today’s Souk Ahras in Algeria, not far from the Tunisian border), he was an “Afer,” Latin at the time for a Roman living in the African province of Numidia, once a Berber kingdom with the same capital, Carthage. His father was an upper class Roman (Romanized Berber) who owned a large tract of land employing Berber day laborers (“circoncellions”). Though he might have owned slaves to till his land as well, we do know that Augustine wrote against slavery later in life. His mother, a devout Christian, was from an indigenous Berber family. We remember her as Saint Monica.

Augustine studied some in his hometown, then at age eleven in neighboring Madaurus (today’s M’Daourouch), and finally at seventeen he went to Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) for the equivalent of a university degree in rhetoric, which is public speaking and the art of persuasion. By all accounts, he fell in love with Cicero, and he stayed in Carthage to teach rhetoric himself.

Augustine must have been very good at what he did, for he was given the opportunity to teach rhetoric in Rome and then in Milan. Clearly, he was on his way to a brilliant political career, but he was also a spiritual seeker. For a few years he even embraced Manichaeism.

He never married the Berber woman he lived with for nineteen years, but he fathered a child with her. For this and other reasons he increasingly struggled with feelings of guilt and restlessness. Around this time he began to listen to the famously eloquent Ambrose, bishop of Milan and was deeply moved by what he heard. Ambrose noticed Augustine too and urged him to move to Milan so he could take him under his wing, though he was not yet a Christian. Augustine jumped at the opportunity to sit under this wise elder churchman.

He turned to his mother’s faith at age 33 and was baptized, together with his son. Soon he traveled back to Thagaste, his birthplace, selling all his land and giving the proceeds to the poor. He then turned his family house into a small monastery for him and his friends. Ordained priest in 391, he was named bishop of Hippo in 395. This is where he served God and the church for the last thirty-five years of his life, leaving behind over a hundred books, more than seven hundred sermons, and hundreds of letters.

We know from various references in his writings that his African identity meant a lot to him. For instance, he once referred to famous second-century writer Apuleius, who hailed from Madaurus, as “the most notorious of us Africans.” We know too that his father’s family had been given Roman citizenship about a century before his birth and with his high profile presence in Rome and Milan – not to mention his great eloquence as a Latin rhetorician – Augustine must have been a proud Roman, at least to some extent.

A topic to be explored would certainly be how proud he was of his Numidian heritage. His household growing up spoke Latin, as it was a class issue. But his mother spoke fluent Berber and that was her heritage, though she was very comfortable in Latin. She even came to Milan to live with Augustine there for a period of time.

This is relevant for other reasons too, though I cannot pursue the question here. When the Arab armies swept through North Africa in the seventh century, there was military resistance from the Berber population but, unlike Egypt and the Levant, the church in North Africa totally disappeared within a century. Augustine sharply opposed the Donatists, a puritanical sect that did not want to belong to the Roman church, partly because they were Berbers from middle and lower classes. Another reason I have heard is that the Bible was never translated in their language. Had Roman imperialism divided the church?

Now back to Augustine’s multiple identities. He was the shepherd (bishop) of a network of churches, spiritually overseeing mostly Berbers and Romanized Berbers for over three decades. At the same time, through his voluminous writings, he was taking positions on important theological questions being debated all over the Roman world, including the eastern capital, Constantinople. He was in dialogue with the other church luminaries of his time and led the charge in refuting the Manichaeans' beliefs and the “heretical” claims of the Pelagians and Donatists. In all of these herculean efforts which turned out to be very fruitful for the church, one has to believe he was well served by his multicultural upbringing in Roman Numidia and by his expert practice and teaching of rhetoric in Carthage, Rome and Milan.


Augustine and politics

As most of you will know, I have been immersed in issues at the intersection of political science and religion over the past two years. Translating Rached Ghannouchi’s classic work mostly written from a Tunisian prison cell (The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State), I have reflected a great deal from both a Muslim and Christian perspective on the why and how of politics. Augustine sheds some interesting light on the question.

I mentioned earlier Glendon’s review of Elshtain’s book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics. This paragraph of hers is a perfect place to start our reflection on this topic:


“In making Augustine’s thought relevant to the contemporary world Elshtain discusses how, for Augustine, wisdom comes from experiencing fully the ambiguity and division that characterized the human condition after the fall, and how human beings are fated to narrate their lives within temporality and to work at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity. This is the central feature of what Augustine called our business 'within this mortal life,' and he insisted that any politics that disdains this business, this caring for the quotidian, is a dangerous or misguided or misplaced politics.”


Let me make three simple comments based on this quote about Augustine:


1. Augustine was the early church father who in his writings contributed the most to the doctrine of the fall (“original sin,” which is opposed by Jews and Muslims). Here he says, we would be “wise” to seriously consider “the ambiguity and division” that plagued the human condition as a result of the fall. Politics in every society will be messy by definition.

2. Another consequence of the fall is that humans are born “broken” to some extent. Part of this dilemma stems from our inheriting some of the sins of our bloodline (in the context of the second of the Ten Commandments, God says that he will visit the sins of individuals onto the descendants up to the third and fourth generation, Exodus 20:4). Another part comes from our own sin growing up into adulthood. Consider too the great diversity of the human race, which is at the same time a great blessing and a curse, as it tends to foster tribalism, racism, horrible injustices and unspeakable violence. All of this and more complicate the task each one of us has in narrating our “lives within temporality,” working “at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity.” Notice again how modern this talk about identity is!

3. Any political system that is too centralized and authoritarian will inevitably oppress people who need some freedom and space to work out how to manage their daily lives as useful members of their families, their social groupings and their state.


The best place to read about Augustine’s view of politics is in his most famous work, The City of God Against the Pagans, or just The City of God. It’s an 800-page book in a recent translation, so it’s definitely Augustine’s magnum opus! The following offers a brief introduction to some of the major discussion points.

In a 1992 political science journal (History of Political Thought), Peter J. Burnell argued that twentieth-century scholars of Augustine have overemphasized the role of the fall in his view of politics. Here is how he summarized the general consensus:


“[B]ecause civil institutions are a necessary response to sin, they are not something natural in the full sense; in the end civil life is theologically neutral and serves ephemeral ends; it constitutes an ‘area of indeterminacy’ between the City of God and the City of this world; the state is intrinsically coercive in its methods, it involves to some degree domination of one human being by another, so it could never have come to exist in the Garden of Eden. Such an institution is regrettable, but in the circumstances acceptable. This implies that there is no part of natural law that is intrinsically political; politics are a technical matter and do not engage our full humanity.”


So at issue here is this: to what extent has the fall corrupted the image of God in humanity? And can our doctrine of humanity not offer a higher view of what God intended for human social and political life? Burnell wants to answer that question in the affirmative. His article divides the question in two parts: first, the relevance of politics to Christianity; second, the relevance of Christianity to politics. First, then, how can we speak theologically about politics? Here is his conclusion:


Firstly, in principle for Augustine the civil state is the chief natural means of justice; hence the rectitude of the state is the pre-eminent natural form of moral goodness in man, though it can be fulfilled only by reference to man’s relationship with God. Secondly, in practice the goodness of civil society (as of all kinds of human relationship) has been much diminished (not annihilated) by the Fall, which has necessitated coercion and also much institutional pluralism – for states find themselves in a plurality of circumstances as they attempt (when they do attempt, and then only with partial success) to approximate to rectitude.”


I may shock some readers here, but that first conclusion is exactly what the islamist position is, and that of the current American Christian Right. I can tell you with confidence that it is what Ghannouchi is arguing in his magnum opus, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Additionally, already in the book and especially in his thinking now that he has declared that “political Islam” is no longer relevant for Tunisia, the second point is also germane to his thought. In a nutshell, though far from perfect a democratic system of governance is the best means to foster “rectitude” or justice. Checks and balances are necessary, because people in power are easily corrupted.

I will end this first part with an article on Augustine from 2007, which specifically looks at the policies of the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and its declaration of a War on Terror (Michael Wolcott, “The ‘War on Terror,’ the Liberalism of Fear, and the Love of Peace in St. Augustine’s City of God,” New Blackfriars 88).

Wolcott asks whether fear is a good emotion to drive “men and women to submit to sovereign power”? He answers that although Augustine has been the most influential thinker in political theory leading up to Hobbes, the latter’s view about fear as the “governing emotion” does not truly represent Augustine’s view. Here is a good summary of his argument:


“In Augustine’s definitive account of political emotions in Civitas Dei [The City of God] he suggests that a commonwealth is a multitude of people who are bound together by their ‘common objects of love’.The moral quality of a commonwealth therefore depends on the kinds of things that are loved. The supreme love is the love of God, and this love characterises those who inhabit what Augustine calls the heavenly city or the Church. But there can also be worthy loves in an earthly city, even although in such a city there will not be so much common agreement about the love of worthy objects. And the love that is most widely held in the earthly city is the love of peace or the desire for security.Wherever men and women live together it is possible to discern that they will act together socially in order to bring about a state of affairs in which they can enjoy peace. This is because peace is that collective condition without which it is much harder to pursue such other worthy goals and ends as the nurture and education of the young or the contemplation of the eternal” (emphasis mine).


Though much more could be said, I will simply end here with the thought that “the love of peace or the desire for security” is a good place to start out our thinking about the role of politics in our increasingly globalized and pluralistic world of the twenty-first century. And this seems to be the thought that motivated the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 to call for an international colloquium on Augustine of Hippo, “the Algerian philosopher,” in his country in 2001. This is where we will pick up in the second half of this blog post.