04 February 2018

Augustine of Hippo and Algeria (1)

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“Basilica St Augustine, Annaba, Algeria – photo by Kristen Hellstrom.” Only a small part of the Roman ruins of Hippo are visible here. “Basilica St Augustine, Annaba, Algeria – photo by Kristen Hellstrom.” Only a small part of the Roman ruins of Hippo are visible here. http://www.asatours.com.au/events/day-6-saturday-27-august-melbourne-lecture-series/

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.