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

[1] On the first page of Meilaender’s book, The Way that Leads There, he dedicates the work to Jonathan, Charlotte, Miriam, and Veronika, and just beneath their names he offers a quotation from Augustine-Ibi vacabinums et videbimus, videbimus et amabimus, amabimus et laudabimus[1]–“We shall be still and see, shall see and love, shall love and praise.” These lines guide Meilaender’s work though the pages that follow-particularly the work of seeing rightly. The quotation comes from Augustine’s City of God, and this vision of a life lived towards God determines Augustine’s–and Meilaender’s–view of the virtuous life. That is to say, it describes “the way that leads there.”

[2] In his preface Meilaender makes his affection for this Augustinian perspective clear, identifying Augustine as his ongoing “conversation partner” (rather than the object of historical analysis). “When I ask myself what it is about Augustine that makes him seem so apt a conversation partner,” he notes, “I usually conclude that it is his ability to ‘worry’ about things.” And then, quoting Roger Rosenblatt, Meilaender suggests that the best teaching is “being overheard as one worries aloud about a subject.”[2] And “if that is the criterion” says Meilaender, “Augustine seems to me to get high marks as a teacher. The reader is also invited to be still and see, as Meilaender, assuming the role of the teacher, “worries” too, alongside his conversation partner Augustine, about “some questions that never go away.”[3]

[3] But this conversational approach to writing-this “worrying” out loud as it were–is more than just a good pedagogical idea. As Meilaender draws more and more people into the conversation-theologians both living and dead-he expands his worrying into a kind of round table discussion that transcends the bounds of history. Serving as both host and moderator Meilaender appropriates Augustine’s wisdom on how to handle disagreement. “We should, Augustine thinks, love our own opinion…not because it is our own, but because it is true. And if we love it for that reason, we should love any other true opinion for the very same reason”-a lesson, Meilaender suggests, “that if taken to heart will make us less possessive about our views.”

[4] But this kind of ‘listening in’ does not alone give Meilaender’s method its importance. Rather it is that his ‘method’ is, itself, an expression of the intermingling of the two realms, or, as Meilaender prefers to describe it, the two cities. “We should anticipate and expect that in the institutions of any society the two cities-formed by their contrasting loves will be inextricably intermingled,” Meilaender explains. “That anticipation may in fact help us achieve a certain political wisdom.”[4] We learn neither to expect too much of the civil realm, nor to fear the discord of competing convictions.

[5] But just how these two cities (and the two loves associated with them) are to be properly intertwined in our everyday choices becomes for Meilaender the overarching question that shapes this book. And by his conversational “method,” which unreservedly finds its ground in God and employs the language of the Christian tradition, Meilaender provides us with a demonstration of the kind of intermingling that is the object of his study. .

[6] Indeed, this mixing of the two cities is inevitable according to Meilaender, given our human need for some ground of meaning. He demonstrates this by drawing on an example from Rawls, who succeeds in employing the very “comprehensive doctrines” that he simultaneously rejects as inappropriate to public discourse.[5] In a footnote that Meilaender describes as “ad hoc and (unwittingly) laden with normative commitments,” Rawls reveals his personal convictions regarding a woman’s right to choose.[6] Meilaender observes that “those who profess neutrality often turn out to be intensely committed to views that rely on deeper metaphysical or normative commitments.”[7] Thus it is an illusion to think that the separation of the “inner” and “outer” person can successfully produce an integrated self capable of decision, or that we can, by such an arrangement avoid confrontation.

[7] In his discussion of the Church, Meilaender makes his position on the intermingling of the two cities clear. Ultimate convictions cannot and should not be repressed in the face of pluralism. The Church, he writes, “bears witness precisely by entering with its own distinctive language into public argument and debate.”[8] And as part of that Church, Meilaender does just that in this book, which invites his readers into a distinctively Christian conversation even as it is itself a part of the public discourse. The Way That Leads There is an expression of Meilaender’s own Christian identity-an outward expression of his inward (ultimate) faith. And so his method thereby demonstrates what this intermingling of the two cities looks like in a given instance.

[8] But life has many dimensions, and in all of them this intermingling exists. Worrying it out remains a complicated business. Meilaender relies on Augustine and his other conversation partners to help him, working his way through desire, duty, politics, sex, and grief. One wonders if these are perhaps the loci for a Christian ethics class. The book would I think make a good text for a class already conversant in the Christian tradition.

[9] And, given Meilaender’s service on the President’s Council for Bioethics, one cannot help but notice that the book also addresses many of the underlying issues associated with our modern moral complexities. His juxtaposition of discussions on sex and grief raise interesting possibilities. In the matter of sex, he “corrects” Augustine’s singular emphasis on the good of procreation, arguing that it emerges from a distorted view of the person that takes rationality, but not relationality, into account. With Augustine’s insistence that sex rightly aims at procreation, it is not far-fetched for us to fall into viewing children as products, Meilaender suggests.[9] It is a recognition of the (also ultimate) ‘unitive’ good in human sexuality, predicated on the presupposition that we are relational beings, that provides the barrier to in vitro fertilization. At the same time however, this full recognition of the unitive good suggests that not every instance of sex need aim at the birth of children. But, Meilaender writes, “The implications of such a correction of Augustine’s understanding go far beyond a consideration of contraception alone. Indeed, correcting Augustine in this way is necessary if we are to make sense of the deepest reasons for concern about new reproductive technologies.”[10] Meilaender does not pursue this in depth here, though it seems likely that one reason for his “worrying” over the proper mingling of the cities-of the right relationship between our ultimate and penultimate concerns-is the result of his work on the President’s Council. For there he must try to see these matters rightly beginning with his (ultimate) Christian convictions, and then considering the questions from within the (penultimate) context of a very public discourse that speaks for the ‘state’.

[10] This is a fascinating, probing, and well-informed book. A pleasure to read, I found it pulled me into the conversation that Meilaender was leading. It seems to me a deeply personal book as well. Like Augustine his teacher, Meilaender combines his theologizing and his faith. Identities sometimes blur as ideas are extrapolated and examined in the contemporary context. But Meilaender’s method employs conversation rather than careful historical description. And it is this conversation that we are invited to join. Besides, as Augustine (and Meileander) say-the truth is simply the truth. True ideas belong to no one in particular; and this book is a treasure trove of true ideas to be enjoyed by pilgrims along The Way That Leads There.











Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.