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Jason Byassee

Reverse Hagiography

A new biography of Saint Augustine.

As modern convention has it, we draw a sharp distinction between "theology" and "history." According to this distinction, James O'Donnell is a historian of the first order. His three-volume commentary on Augustine's Confessions will remain the unsurpassed reference for generations. His skills as a classicist make for easy familiarity with the Latin primary sources. His keen critical eye allows him to pose probing new questions and uncover potential embarrassments in our hagiographies that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. In Augustine: A New Biography, he works hard to blaze a trail in Augustinian biography by asking more deeply critical questions of the church father's life, in hopes that he can "wring a real confession or two from him against his will."

As a theologian, alas, O'Donnell's skills are less patently on display. Because he mistrusts Augustine's own accounting of his life—which mistrust marks his skill as a critical historian—he pays either very little or very poor attention to the intellectual content of Augustine's work. A reader of this book will be left wondering how Augustine could have had such wide readership for so many centuries when his ideas are so flimsy. That Augustine comes in for intellectual criticism here is no surprise—scholars for decades now have complained about his inability quite to leave off the dualism of his Manichaean past, his ruthless use of imperial power against his Donatist enemies, and his late-life grumpy and inadequate responses to the intellectually spry Pelagian, Julian of Eclanum. But at every turn in O'Donnell's critique, Augustine is portrayed as dreadfully anxious, intellectually inferior to his enemies, and so inclined to deal with them duplicitously and brutally, and to tell the story subsequently in such a way as to exonerate himself and excoriate their memory.

O'Donnell begins with Confessions, a "triumph of self-absorption" in which Augustine so deftly managed to "dramatically mislead his readers" that few before O'Donnell have had the gumption to challenge Augustine's narration of his life. Certainly this ur-memoir whitewashes history. Augustine's "one truly impassioned religious experience," for example, was with the very Manichees whom he here disavows, and the deepest allegiance of his mother Monnica (O'Donnell uses an old Punic spelling of her name) was to the Donatists, mention of whom Augustine surgically omits to avoid this embarrassment. At the time he was writing his life story, Augustine was a bishop of a nowhere town in North Africa (ordination to that ecclesiastical jurisdiction was the only genuine conversion in his life, O'Donnell says, in a characteristically withering jibe), and nowhere does he mention that he only retreated to Africa from Italy with his tail between his legs when his social ambitions proved a failure.

Confessions, then, in O'Donnell's reading, is really a book about failure. It ends with Augustine's supposed conversion in order to hide the disillusionment that had already set in before he set to writing and that would steadily creep over his entire life, chasing away his friends, clouding his philosophical judgment, and sweeping him up in anxiety about God's indifference and his own frailty—an anxiety so consuming that it bordered on paralyzing dread. For O'Donnell, "the real power of this text [comes] to the surface just as the hegemony of its author's ideas and his church's ideas begins to fade from memory." Luckily for Augustine, his work helped birth modern psychological introspection and even the literary form of the novel—for without this unintended success we would not so readily believe the false version of events he craftily constructed and would think no more of him than of any number of unimportant late antique Latin clerics.

O'Donnell is consistent in his mistrust of Augustine's telling of events. The Donatists, he tell us, were actually a more locally rooted African version of Christianity, whose popular support Augustine envied and which he could only dispel by arranging for its brutal suppression at the hands of the imperial authorities. O'Donnell calls Augustine's favored brand of Christianity the "Caecilianists," after an earlier bishop who opposed Donatus—even though no one else in Augustine's day or since has called the Catholics that. O'Donnell is out to puncture stereotypes, to show us that one can slap a name on a group one dislikes and dismiss it as evil—and that he can do it no less effectively than Augustine. The supposed "theology" in this controversy is a mere pretext; this is a political quarrel, plain and simple, in which Augustine effectively "invents" a notion of "Catholicism" to "help him win a local war of punishing intensity." Because O'Donnell's book is meant to have popular appeal he often turns to contemporary parallels, and the one used here is telling: "Augustine resembles nothing so much as one of those pious churchmen of Francoist times, leader of a state-promoted church, followed prudently by many, despised quietly by some, and opposed fiercely by a remnant quite sure of its own fidelity to a truer church."

O'Donnell's historical account continues in this vein: show Augustine in the worst light possible, his enemies in the best, and dispatch him with a final zinger in the form of an ad hominem slur or what's taken to be a devastating analogy. In truth, Augustine was simply "jealous" of Pelagius and Pelagius' skilled protégé Julian. He was not only a social climber but also connivingly acquisitive—despite his pious claims that he wanted people's wealth for his church and not for himself. Every one of his famous polemical disputes is described as a fight Augustine needlessly picked, with disastrous consequences. His fight with the Donatists needlessly weakened the African church and prepared the way for the later Islamic conquest. His unnecessary pouring of vitriol on the Roman Empire in City of God anticipates later church divisions between insiders and outsiders, paving the way for the Crusades, endless heresy hunts, and modern fundamentalism. Augustine is "Don Quixote in a world that really takes him and his obsessions seriously," that is, a world too gullible to know this figure deserves mirthful pity.

And that's not even Augustine's theology—merely his political machinations. "Augustine's god was off the charts," O'Donnell tells us, giving us a glimpse of a professor trying to appeal to undergraduates with hip language. That is to say, Augustine's god was "powerful, knowing, arbitrary yet ultimately just and fair" (the lowercase "g" alerts us that Augustine knew, deep down, there were many gods to choose from but tried to pretend there was only one). His god was "high, unapproachable, ineffable" and finally the "unsayable Other," before whom the individual stands alone in dread of a capricious judgment that produces "anxious, depressive, lonely, and distraught" believers. This arbitrary god naturally produced an arbitrary vision of the church. As O'Donnell puts it,

The notion that what one sees today on an evangelist's television program, in the cave monasteries of the Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, and in an African cathedral welcoming a papal visit, to say nothing of an upper Manhattan Episcopalian Sunday service regularly attended by house pets and their owners, are all of a piece with what happened in Augustine's lifetime in the Syrian desert, in farming villages in Africa, and among perfumed socialites in Rome is to make a quite extraordinary theological assertion in the guise of history.

This wonderful passage shows that despite O'Donnell's strident effort to be critical at every turn, occasionally he sees clearly what Augustine is saying and simply dislikes it. Of course it's an extraordinary thing to claim that believers are united in Christ's body across space and time: that is why belief in the church is something we hold to by faith. For O'Donnell, such faith is tantamount to the cessation of thought—as when he mocks Augustine's inability fully to explain notions of God as a non-bodily Spirit, or the promised resurrection of all flesh. But for Augustine—and for all Christians—a "mystery" is something we can talk about with insight from Scripture and tradition even as we cannot explain it fully. All O'Donnell can see in such moments is theological tyranny and an arbitrary divinity. After a long quotation from a sermon about evil as a privation of the good—a classic Christian position—O'Donnell paraphrases, "you can't make sense of sin: the god's book says so."

These moments in which O'Donnell comes clean by laying out Augustine's position and his own antagonism to it are refreshing. There is hardly a heresy Augustine confronted that O'Donnell does not praise. The Manichees' Cologne Mani Codex is a "magically beautiful" book. The Sabellians' description of the Trinity as one God wearing three masks "might be a fresh approach to a difficult subject." The Arians' description of Jesus as a creature of God is a "rather more nuanced philosophical position" than the view of Jesus' divinity that won out. The Pelagians' religion was "serene, optimistic, cultivated"—too bad Augustine's view won the day. Yet O'Donnell also advises us moderns who are troubled by Augustine's views to "look closely to see what text or scripture he has in mind and how it more or less forces him to say what he says." At least O'Donnell doesn't subscribe to the common (and mistaken) claim that Augustine is not a biblical theologian. Augustine is faithful to Scripture; O'Donnell just wishes he weren't.

Unfortunately these moments of honest antagonism are overwhelmed by others in which O'Donnell simply misunderstands his subject. His description of Augustine's view of God as distant and arbitrary, creating dread, is sadly misinformed. However much one dislikes the "Platonism" that informed Augustine's theology, one has to attend to those places where Augustine himself shows how the incarnation thoroughly reshapes that philosophical legacy, as a new wave of Augustine scholarship has made clear, despite O'Donnell's ignoring it here. O'Donnell also seems unable to imagine any view of religion other than of an individual before God. This is obviously a thoroughly modern view, but O'Donnell maintains that it is present in both Paul and Augustine and only has come to be questioned recently in late modernity! O'Donnell's chronology on this point is simply backward.

On other matters too, for all his justly deserved reputation as a historian, O'Donnell offers brand-new historical theses with startlingly little evidence in support. Manichaeism as Augustine's only religious passion? Ordination as his only conversion? His praise of Augustine's opponents and his opprobrium heaped on Augustine are simply hagiography in reverse: we mistrust everything from the saint's mouth and believe everything from his enemies. Startlingly, Augustine himself was more kind to his interlocutors, believing that even communities he disavows in Confessions have things to offer insofar as any goodness in them attests to the goodness of the Creator. Augustine frequently thanks God for heretics—without them, how can we know or clarify the truth? Modern critical inquiry shows itself here to be far more intolerant than the Bishop of Hippo and father of the church.

So we see that the convention of separating theology and history finally fails. For O'Donnell here subjects Augustine to a ferocious inquisition and judges him worthy of condemnation at every turn. O'Donnell's own theological commitments clearly guide him in this endeavor. Unfortunately, they keep him from offering a helpful work of history. While critics of great thinkers often clarify matters, here they are badly muddled. We are frequently left wondering why exactly Augustine opposed the Donatists, or Pelagians, or whomever; when O'Donnell explains, we get more about the arbitrary god or the anxious self, rather than anything informed by Augustine's actual thought. This incessant suspicion collapses as O'Donnell pays Augustine so little respect that he hardly ever bothers to give us Augustine's ideas in terms that he himself would recognize.

The problem may be that O'Donnell avoids attention to the community that is the successor to Augustine's: the Christian Church. For the billion and a half or so Western Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who are his intellectual heirs, the ideas matter. Our ministers are trained in Augustine's ideas about the goodness of marriage and creation against the Manichees, the universality of the church and the power of the sacraments against the Donatists, the grace of God against the Pelagians. That O'Donnell finds these ideas unintelligible may have something to do with his evident distaste for the community that still tries, by fits and starts, to live them out. "It is impossible for Augustine's Christianity … to exist any longer," O'Donnell maintains. (In his day job, by the way, he is provost of Georgetown University.) Those of us who demur could help him understand why he is wrong—if he bothered to ask.

Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at the Christian Century.

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