Augustine’s writings run to many volumes, which is a testimony to their charm and fascination. After all, many of these works started as off as sermons, which were taken down by teams of scribes as the bishop spoke, and then reconstructed in written form. These teams of writers must have been pretty dedicated – some of the sermons were hours long – but that is understandable: they did not want to lose a single word, and we should be grateful, many centuries later, for their dedicated efforts. That so much of Augustine has survived is also a testimony to the immense value put on his work throughout the ages.
Writings about Augustine are equally voluminous, and it is cheering to know that he has attracted so many good writers. One thinks, for example, of Pierre Courcelle and his splendid Recherches sur les Confessions de saint Augustin, a hefty book which is both literary criticism and theology, and every bit as good a read as the original Confessions. Or one thinks of Henri-Ireneé Marrou, who carefully reconstructs the world of Augustine’s education and reading, at great length but in beautifully limpid prose. Both Marrou and Courcelle concentrate on particular facets of the great Doctor, and both mine their narrow seam to great and illuminating depth.
The current book by Rowan Williams takes a different approach. It is a wide-ranging survey of Augustine’s writings, and at 211 pages of text, remarkably short. There is no bibliography. Given the sheer weight of Augustinian scholarship, and the volume of the saint’s writings, this means that one is constantly wondering why Williams has not homed in on this or that passage or phrase, and why he hasn’t mentioned what this or that scholar has had to say.
However, even if his book had been 10 times the length, it still would have encountered this reaction. With Augustine, no one can be comprehensive. There is, of course, a niche in the market for good, single-volume introductions to the life and work of the saint, and these are regularly published. But this is not what Dr Williams is doing. His book is deeply technical in parts, clearly written for his fellow scholars. He takes to task, for example, writers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sallie McFague and Anne Primavesi for their misreading of the saint’s teaching about the Creation. This is a useful and indeed necessary corrective, but most general readers will not be interested in the status quaestionis to such a degree.
Again, there is much discussion of Hannah Arendt and her reading of the City of God. He says she was almost entirely wrong about Augustine, as is Professor Werner Jeanrond, but can we blame them overmuch? There is so much in Augustine that there is room for multiple interpretations, with each scholar tearing off the piece of the saint that appeals and using it to construct the theory that most appeals to him or her. Indeed, one suspects that these writers are really writing about themselves and calling in the saint as an expert witness – their own personal Augustine.
So who is the Augustine of Rowan Williams? If I read this dense and driven book correctly, with its searching analysis of all of Augustine’s main works, it is this: Augustine helps us to think. He makes us realise that Christianity is not an hermetically sealed doctrinal casket, but rather a set of underlying principles that liberate the mind to think with Christianity. Augustine provides us with the proper foundation for a thought-through faith. It is this, a commitment to an “open” Augustinianism, which makes this book worthwhile, and a useful antidote to the readings that try to use Augustine as a soldier in their own doctrinal and cultural wars.