Review of Gilbert Meilaender’s The Way that Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life

[1] Gilbert Meilaender begins his engaging reflections on The Way that Leads There by quoting a child’s grave marker:

Dear Jesus
You know that I love you
Take me to yourself (1).

With these simple words Meilaender leads readers into a profound discussion of the moral life. The marker, he notes, expresses a human neediness that can only be satisfied in union with God; it voices what certainly seems to be an appropriate love that longs to enjoy the presence of God. “Nevertheless, such a needy, desirous love has sometimes seemed problematic in the tradition of Christian reflection on the moral life” (1-2). This disputed question about the proper place of desire for God becomes Meilaender’s entry point for reflecting on the moral life. He sorts out the issues in these “contrasting impulses” (“a desire for union with God, together with a sense that God does not exist simply to make us happy” 5) in Christian thought, saying both “yes” and “no” to opposing views, as he develops his own argument for desire, properly understood. “Desire” is the title and topic of his first and longest chapter, which structures the rest of his argument. The book is about how a life that desires God is to be lived.

[2] It was Augustine of course who in the opening of his Confessions gave classical expression to the desire to be with God: “…you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you” (1.l). As the book’s sub-title-Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life-indicates, Augustine is the book’s main point of reference for exploring the moral life. Although Meilaender relies on, uses and criticizes historical studies of Augustine’s writings, the book is not a history of his thought. Instead he approaches Augustine as a “conversation partner,” reading him “as if he were our contemporary, trying to think with him in order to get some insight into the truth of how we ought to live” (162). He converses above all with Augustine’s Confessions and The City of God, along with his treatise on lying, Contra mendacium. The titles of the book’s first five chapters indicate “the questions that never go away” (x) that Meilaender thinks about with Augustine: Desire (as we have seen), Duty, Politics, Sex, and Grief. After discussing the relation of desire and duty, he turns to three realms of life where people seek to bring desire and duty into proper relationship. In a final chapter Meilaender reflects on the method he has used in conversing with Augustine. My review focuses on his first chapter and provides some context for the book. While I only touch the fullness of book’s argument and insight, I hope it will be enough to encourage others to think with Meilaender about the moral life.

[3] What for Meilaender makes Augustine so engaging conversational partner and such a good teacher “in his ability to ‘worry’ about things” (ix). Any listening to Augustine, including Meilaender’s, is bound to be selective and debatable, yet I find his interpretation for the most part to be plausible, often enlightening, charitable but not uncritical. As in a good conversation, Meilaender both agrees and disagrees with Augustine. While conversing with Augustine, he is also conversing with a host of others, including Andres Nygren, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Griffiths, John Rawls, John Milbank, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Meilaender skillfully uses reference to these and other thinkers to help readers deepened their understanding of perennial moral questions, to puzzle about their complexity, and to lead them along with him as he moves toward his own stance in the conversation. Meilaender’s own gifts as a teacher come through with his grasp of basic questions, his broad knowledge, and the winsome and thought-provoking way he pushes his argument forward.

[4] Christian theology and ethics, we are often reminded today, are contextual; they arise from a particular time and place and address changing realities that require new responses. Meilaender’s conversation with a theologian who lived 1600 years ago illustrates that an exclusive emphasis on context is not enough. “[M]uch of what we learn about human nature and human life comes from gradually working our way into a tradition of thought and learning from predecessors within it, especially those who are acknowledged masters” (167). Reading with Augustine about questions that engaged him and engage us still “keeps alive for us the truth that there are recurring questions (and answers), not just countless different, individual (situated and contextualized) questions and answers (169).” The Way that Leads There reminds us that when we take seriously our shared humanity we recognize something transcontextual in ethical reflection-genuine traditions of thought that connect us with earlier thinkers in what Meilaender calls an “‘ecumenism of time'” (170).

[5] What is Meilaender, one of the most important Lutherans writing Christian ethics in our time, saying to Lutherans by focusing on Augustine? His books-including this one-and articles clearly exhibit characteristic Lutheran themes; yet he is not interested in developing a uniquely Lutheran ethics and is critical of what frequently comes under that label, as he wrote in a 2000 article on Lutheran ethics: “Attempts to say a uniquely Lutheran word about the moral life are likely to end either in an ethic that concerns itself with motives alone and gives no guidance about what deeds ought or ought not to be done, or an ethic that leaves the wisdom found in the kingdom of the left hand entirely untransformed by the mind of Christ.” For Meilaender the Lutheran tradition is not self-sufficient but is embedded in and dependent on the broader Christian tradition that Lutherans need to view as their own. “[T]here is no way forward for Lutheran ethics that does not involve reclaiming the larger tradition of Christian moral reflection.”[1] With The Way that Leads There, Meilaender provides a marvelous example of what he means by reclaiming this larger Christian tradition for Lutheran ethics, indeed, for all contemporary Christian moral reflection.

[6] As the title indicates, Meilaender is viewing the Christian life in terms of a journey, well-aware that this is not the only way to envision it. In an earlier book, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (1984), he outlined two models of the Christian life. The first model views life “as a grace-filled journey” and the second model “as a perpetual dialogue between the verdicts of wrath and favor” upon the whole person who passively receives the verdict and in faith returns to the promise that grace has triumphed. In the first model grace is “an enabling power…the gift of faith that struggles against sin,” and in the second model grace is “a pardoning word, which sees the sinner whole in Christ and therefore sees him as virtuous.” Meilaender, who shows that both models are present in Martin Luther, insists that both are necessary ways of viewing the Christian life.[2] In Faith and Faithfulness (1991) he continues in the same vein: “There is within Christian thought a permanent tension between two ways of understanding the grace of God,” which he calls “transformation” and “declaration.”[3] Meilaender names Augustine as one who saw grace primarily as a transforming power and Luther as one who saw grace preeminently as a pardoning word, yet he maintains that both thinkers incorporated both understandings of grace.

[7] In The Way that Leads There Meilaender develops that understanding of Augustine’s vision of the Christian life. The image is one of journey (and not ascent, 42), a journey in which grace both transforms and pardons. His title comes from the end of book 7 of Confessions, from a phrase that summarizes both what Augustine found and did not find in Platonism: “It is one thing to see from a mountaintop in the forests the land of peace in the distance…and it is another to hold on to the way that leads there.” (7.21; 76) While Platonism provided him with some sense of the goal to fulfillment, it was, as he relates in book 8, the grace of the Word made flesh that opens and empowers the way that leads there. The phrase “the way that leads there” is first of all a confession of Christ: Augustine “discovered (what the Platonists did not know) the wonder of Christ’s incarnation in which God takes the initiative to answer human need” (18). After his conversion, he also discovered that the way to fulfillment opened by Christ requires self-sacrifice (19ff). In Meilaender’s compelling reading of Augustine, “the way that leads to God (and, hence, to fulfillment) is a way that often hurts and wounds us” (x). Desire and duty, for example, cannot always be harmonized and unified in life. The way there leads there is lived in hope, in “the tension between the God who calls us to himself and the God who commands us to obey. Only the God who gives what he commands, in whom we are to hope, can overcome it” (76).

[8] Many Lutherans (and others) have been influenced in their understanding of Augustine’s vision of the Christian life by Nygren’s great book Agape and Eros. Nygren, it will be remembered, drew a sharp contrast between the Greek understanding of love as eros and the New Testament understanding of love as agape and strongly criticized what he saw as Augustine’s attempt to synthesize these opposing concepts with his notion of caritas. The Way that Leads There is, among other things, a response to Agape and Eros, and can be seen as Meilaender’s working through his disagreement with Nygren’s argument. His comments in 2000 express his disagreement with but also his great respect for Nygren’s book:

[A]lthough I consider [Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros] in certain respects fundamentally mistaken, and although I think far more highly of what Nygren calls Augustine’s ‘caritas synthesis’ than Nygren himself did, this book has shaped more than a half century of Christian reflection on love. It is a book so great that, even I consider it finally mistaken, I would be glad to die having written it.

[9] Meilaender thinks Nygren is mistaken in viewing Augustine’s desire for God as a refined form of selfishness. Although Nygren himself can rightly write, “‘Desire is the mark of the creature'” (16), he goes wrong in requiring us “to deny our creaturely need for God” (17). “To renounce even desire for the vision of God is to renounce our creatureliness – which is the primal sin” (22). In his exposition of the opening of the Confessions, Meilaender provides a different account than does Nygren who viewed Augustine’s desire as acquisitive and self-centered. Augustine’s “desire is not to possess but to praise-or, perhaps, in praising to possess. Desire gives way to delight because it has been met by the good appropriate to it “(10). His is a story of need, of need to praise God; yet God is not simply a means for his happiness. A loving union with God of presence and praise “is always a source of joy, but it is the presence itself that is, for human beings, fulfillment.” In this union there is a “kind of forgetfulness of self-or, perhaps better, a self that is constituted not in isolation, but in the giving and receiving that is the bond of love” (12).

[10] Yet Meilaender’s affirmation of desire is chastened by Nygren’s concerns. “Nygren, however, is right to see that a eudaimonistic ethic can all too easily picture the Christian life as largely continuous with our natural inclinations – as if sacrifice were not integral to that life” (17). Meilaender sees Nygren as rightly emphasizing that because of sin the quest for happiness must be self-forgetful. Those who rely on Nygren for their understanding of the Christian life in Augustine will need to deal with Meilaender’s careful critique.

[11] It is probably safe to generalize that in the Lutheran ethos, in our congregations and piety, it is more common and comes more easily to talk about “faith in God” than “love of God.” We Lutherans tend to subsume love of God under faith in God, as did Nygren, “Faith includes in itself the whole devotion of love….Faith is love towards God.”[4] We remember Luther’s view that loving the neighbor is the way we love God: “‘To love God is to love the neighbor.'”[5] Or we may, as Luther seemed to do in places, “think of love solely in terms of an agreement of wills but not at all in terms of a desire for union or co-presence” (22).

[12] Yet if this be the case, I wonder, are we missing something? Are “faith in God” and “love of God” the same? In human relations, one can trust (have faith in) another without loving her (desiring to enjoy her presence), and, although perhaps more difficult, one can love another without trusting him. Is the same true of our relation with God? Do we lose something if we equate our love of neighbor with our love of God? Or, if we did not, would be weaken our love of neighbor? Is it enough to understand love of God as obedience to God, as an agreement of wills? In the opening of the Confessions Augustine worries to God “about what should come first, prayer or praise; or, indeed, whether knowledge should precede prayer” (1.1). So, we might ask, what comes first, in time and priority, “love of God” or “faith in God?” Should we, in taking a cue from Augustine’s prayer pray: “Let me trust you, Lord, by loving you, and let me love you, by trusting you”?[6] Augustine and Meilaender make one puzzle over such questions and their meaning for the Christian life.

[13] In discussing George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model of religion, Meilaender at one point wonders (and later questions in part) if “Augustine’s story of the restless heart is less the generic human story than the story of one who had already drunk in Christian faith with Monica’s milk” (30). Whatever the case in Augustine, the story of the child whose grave marker read: “Dear Jesus, You know that I love you. Take me to yourself” is a story of “one who had already drunk in Christian faith.” The child’s prayer comes from one who had heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” As Augustine confessed, the way that leads there, the way marked by love of God, is a journey in response to God’s grace and initiative in Jesus Christ.

“The Task of Lutheran Ethics,” Lutheran Forum (Christmas/Winter, 2000), 17.

[2] The Theory and Practice of Virtue
(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 111-112.

[3]Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethic
(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 74ff.

[4]Agape and Eros
. Translated by Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 127.

Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 133. Althaus gives various quotations from Luther expressing the point in the text.

The prayer referred to from the opening section of Confessions says: “Let me seek you, Lord, by praying to you and let me pray believing in you.” The Confessions of Augustine. Translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 17.

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.