Thursday, 30 January 2014

Augustine at the John Owen Reading Group

Well, not in person, but we enjoyed a lively and informative discussion at our Reading Group, led by Jeremy Walker, who had evidently actually read the book, which is not always the case with every leader. Most of us used the translation by Garry Wills (Penguin Classics, 2008) though I also had the older Oxford common-room style Penguin edition (1961) by R.S. Pine-Coffin (yes really) which I had read a few years ago.

Wills is a refreshing read once you get over his strange choice of words - umbrageous, foisoned, fractuosity, punks; his Augustine is a rumbustious fellow, who would never been at home at Oxbridge.

We wondered if Wills' choice of translating Augustine's most famous phrase 'you made us for yourself...' as 'we are unstable until you have stabilized us' adds anything to it, and indeed whether it detracts altogether from the link with the very last chapter of the book which is 'Sabbath Rest'. Could there not be an intended connection between the first paragraph and the last chapter which is lost by changing 'restless' to 'unstable'?

Again, does Wills' choice of phrase in the same sentence describing us as having been made 'tilted' towards God reflect a Roman Catholic view of the creation of man, with inherent instability (that concept again)? Wills we discovered was Jesuit trained and is a Roman Catholic at least by sympathy. But there I go - trying to claim Augustine as a proto-Protestant.

The book can be described as an 'act of therapy' and 'a masterpiece of strictly intellectual autobiography', 'quite succinctly the story of Augustine's heart, or of his feelings' and 'a manifesto of the inner world' (all Peter Brown), a spiritual autobiography, an apologia pro vita sua. One author says its theme is that 'human life is the product of free decisions guided by God's grace to its proper conclusion'. 'Confession' meant for Augustine 'accusation of oneself and praise of God'.

It is a wonderful work, no doubt over-hyped by some but it is difficult to deny the breathtaking brilliance of the mind from which it came, the depth of self-knowledge, the delight in God, the penetration of analysis and the painful (as we would understand it and as the Puritans would understand that word too) examination of his heart in response to temptation. God is always there for Augustine. The whole work is of course addressed to God. Life becomes prayer. Reality is sacramental, 'charged with the grandeur of God', and Christ is his beloved only Mediator.

We concluded that this man took sin with utmost seriousness, and understood grace with lavish abandon. We could do worse than follow him at least in these.

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