The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life

[1] Gilbert Meilander has let us in on his sustained and even quite personal conversation with Augustine. It is a genuine dialogue in which the views of the two parties concerning the Christian life are sharpened by the exchange. We read in the Preface that Augustine is cast as the teacher to whom the author has returned, “… to think about some questions that never go away. I began with the old puzzle about the relation between desire and duty in the moral life, and I moved out from there to think about the realms of life (politics and sex) in which we seek (and often fail) to bring desire and duty into harmonious order. The vision of life that emerges – at least as I read Augustine – is one whose power lies chiefly in his sense that the way that leads to God (and, hence to fulfillment) is a way that often hurts and wounds us.” (x) Here, then, we have a concise statement of how the conversation will proceed and an initial sense of the wisdom Augustine will bring to the author and to the reader.

[2] Even as Meilander at times goes beyond Augustine’s views or feels the need to revise them in some way, he does so only in the process of taking them with utter seriousness and with deep respect for the moral challenge they present. By doing so, Meilander helps us to appreciate Augustine’s grasp of the Christian life as a companion along the path to our own decisions and insights and as a source of caution not to stray too far in the confrontation with our own very different world.

[3]As one would expect from as accomplished a theologian and ethicist as Meilander, the book is closely reasoned and carefully nuanced. For example, in the chapter on Duty Meilander walks Augustine’s strict prohibition on lying through the labyrinth of qualifications and exceptions of the sort that are bound to arise when this question is thoroughly explored. While such probing may lead to a cogent and justifiable conclusion that in some ways Augustine’s uncompromising ideas about lying need modification, the relation between Duty and Desire in his thought brings us up short. Desire in Augustine is truly to seek God in who alone is true happiness. But the “way that leads there” may involve pain. Our temptation is to reframe both desire and duty in such a way as to make things come out as we would like them. “By making duty absolute, Augustine diverts us from our search for ways to unify (by our own power) the right and the good in life…Thinking with Augustine about the relation between desire and duty presses us inexorably, therefore, toward a life that must be characterized by hope (not in our own power to traverse this way, but in the gracious power of God)” (75)[1]

[4] The chapter on Politics turns primarily to a discussion of Augustine’s City of God. Lutherans reading this chapter can be forgiven perhaps if their thoughts wander to a comparison between Augustine’s account of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Earth, and Luther’s distinction between God’s right and left hand modes of rule that became known as the two kingdoms. It is not appropriate to follow that path for the purposes of this review. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there is a strong element of realism in Augustine that is echoed in Luther. Meilander’s discussion brings this Augustinian realism into sharp relief. Augustine’s discussion of the two cities offers a lens for considering both the good and the limits of politics: “…the first thing Christians must say is no to political pretension. Some cities are better, others worse – but none is the City of God.” Moreover, “None of us belongs wholly and entirely to the realm of politics, and the desire that moves us at the deepest reaches of our being cannot be satisfied by political good.” (94)

[5] Politics is not redemptive. Neither the Aristotelian ideal of politics as the venue of human fulfillment nor utopian visions or the inflated claims of American civil religion can claim Christian loyalty. Nonetheless, Christians have duties in the political realm for, as Meilander points out, Augustine desires a peaceable politics because a peaceable state makes possible the church’s mission. That mission throughout the church’s pilgrim journey goes forward amidst the push and pull of the two cities, interwoven as they are throughout history. Meilander’s account of Augustine’s insights on how the church comports itself in that situation produces relevant material for own society in which the church’s role in politics has been a source of confusion to many and unmerited certainty to others.

[6] The chapter on sex offers an interesting comparison of Augustine on food and Augustine on sex. The analogy involved is roughly this: if food is necessary for nutrition, is it right to consider it pleasurable apart from that purpose and, so with sex, if it is for procreation can we consider it pleasurable apart from that purpose? For Augustine the primary emphasis on food is nutrition (“food as medicine”) and as for sex Augustine is what some might call a “procreationist.” Meilander feels compelled to modify Augustine on both the matter of food and the matter of sex. Neither food as simply medicine nor sex as inextricably tied to procreation pass the test. This is not a surprising conclusion and one that is hardly contested in Christian ethics. However, it provides Meilander with the opportunity to make an interesting case for how the tandem of sex and procreation underlying the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on contraception (which he opposes) also gives support to the use of in vitro fertilization (which he and the Roman Catholic Church both oppose) by Augustine’s split between love and sex, tempting us to see a child as a product.

[7] When we consider the complex discussion of sexual ethics going on in Christian circles today, this chapter might strike one as a bit quaint or at least a bit narrow in scope. However, the orientation to sexual ethics that emerges from this dialogue offers the reader a clear path of inference on how one would respond to other questions of sexual conduct so prominent in our day – at least among those who are even asking questions. A signpost to that path is given in this remark of homage to Augustine, notwithstanding qualifications of his views on sex: “What he did see, and what his emphasis on procreation might remind us also to see, is that sexuality is more than a personally fulfilling undertaking intended to make us happy and give us pleasure…If in correcting or supplementing his views we lose or ignore that insight, we may ourselves turn out to need correction.” (141)

[8] While some may with some justification see this last caveat as simply a reminder of the author’s conservative stance in these matters, it is also a window his methodology. To “think with Augustine” and other voices of Christian tradition is to recognize that the past can speak to the present in their common hope for and faith in the promised future. This is what Meilander calls an “ecumenism of time.” (170) It is a perspective to be applauded. Theology is a cumulative enterprise of the church throughout time and space under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The theological task as we relate to our dogmatic and theological heritage is to discern how our forbears were faithful witnesses in their time so that we may learn how to be faithful in our own time and in that process to sharpen our understanding of what faithfulness entails in all generations. I think that is a statement consistent with Meilander’s intent.

[9] There are many things one can say about this book. It certainly offers a host of thoughts and insights relevant to contemporary questions of theology, church, and ethics and how they bear upon our understanding of the Christian life. There are implicit and explicit ethical claims concerning today’s questions, some of which one might dispute. The book speaks of duty and duties. In my mind, however, the gift that the book really gives is a spirituality that both underlies and transcends all we might say about the Christian life. It is a spirituality framed by two of the most familiar lines from Augustine’s Confessions, “our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you” and “give what you command and command what you will.” It is a spirituality of realism and hope punctuated by these thoughts from the chapter on Grief: “…somehow we must learn the humility that loves the goods of this life “in God,” knowing that apart from that relation they cannot truly be themselves. Tempted to despair, we struggle to learn (only) to grieve. One cannot despair and simultaneously live in hope, but pilgrims on the way to God, gradually coming to be marked by the virtue of hope, ought to sorrow.” (157) In the end as Christians, with Augustine, we can only live the given life.

James M. Childs, Jr.

Columbus, Ohio

The following from Jospeh Sittler’s essay, “The Mad Obedience God Requires,” seems resonant with Meilander’s point: “Only the absolute demand can sensitize human beings to occasions for ethical work and energize them toward even relative achievements. And only such a demand can deliver us, in these achievements, from complacency and pride, prevent us from making an identification of human justice with the justice of God….to live under the absolute demand is the only way, given the human power of dissimulation and self-deception, to keep life taut with need, open to God’s power, under judgment by his justice, indeterminately dependent on his love, forgiveness and grace.” Grace Notes and Other Fragments, ed. Robert M. Herhold and Linda Marie Delloff (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 77-78.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.