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Latin American View of Augustine - a Review

by Alberto Garcia

Introducción a la teología mestiza de San Agustín. Justo L. González. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013. Pp. 161.
We are already accustomed to expect scholarly and ground breaking contributions in the areas of Church history and U.S. Latino/Hispanic theology when reading Justo González’s volume of work. This volume, by way of an introduction, will not disappoint us. It offers to church historians and theologians alike a new way in approaching our Western theological tradition for our edification and pastoral work. González accomplishes this goal by interpreting Augustine, who is considered the theologian par excellence in the development of Western theology, through the hermeneutical lenses of “mestizaje.” This is how González describes his task in his Preface: “In more recent times in dialog, personal or through correspondence, with friends and colleagues, such as Orlando Costas, Virgilio Elizondo, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, and others, I began to suspect that Augustine’s restlessness was not only due to his distancing from God, as he explains in his Confessions, but that it was also due to the internal struggle of a person who lived within the tension of two heritages, two cultures, two worldviews—plainly stated, “de un mestizo”. This volume is, consequently, invaluable for the two goals stated by the author. First, it is an introduction that engages the reader in re-reading Augustine from the perspective of mestizaje. González finds this to be an essential hermeneutical key in re-reading our entire church history (p. 13). Secondly, this interpretative tool allows González the opportunity to read Augustine in a way that may be analyzed and understood by whom he calls “un pueblo hispanounidense,” a people who also live in light of the struggle of mestizaje. As González further adds, this is a very personal interpretation because this “pueblo ‘hispanounidense’ is also my very own people” (“que es también el mío,” p.7).
This book is organized into a preface, an introduction and eight chapters. The introduction provides the historical, cultural, and theological reasons why it is essential for our Western tradition to re-read Augustine in light of his mestizaje. Chapters 1 through 3 provide important stages and influences in Augustine’s life that allow us to understand Augustine’s personal, intellectual, and theological formation in his quest to understand and serve God. Chapters 4 through 7 provide important highlights in how Augustine as pastor and bishop engages Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, and the religious paganism present in his world. Chapter 8 highlights how important the lenses of Augustine’s theological work are for our understanding and re-reading of Western theology. I shall offer now by way of summary some of the key elements in the development of this interesting and valuable book.
In the introduction González defines and explains the hermeneutical key of “mestizaje” and then briefly situates Augustine within his “mestizaje.” The two historical/theological reasons are as follows: First, when the Germanic people invaded and destroyed the Roman Empire, his writings became a bridge between the former Christian tradition and the new historical and cultural conditions. It is through his eyes that the Latin Medieval Christianity read the Scriptures and understood the faith. Secondly, the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church claimed his authority. Today the majority of Christians in reading Paul do not realize that they do so through the eyes of Augustine. It is important to distinguish this in order to rediscover and correct some of his influences (pp.9-10). González explain then the reading of texts in light of our mestizaje. He gives credit, and explains this criterion in light of Virgilio Elizondo’s Galilean Journey. Our reading of the text in light of our mestizaje needs to take into account that we “belong to two realities and at the same time do not belong to either reality” (.11). But González offers also his own insights in that he finds that “it is a rarity that mestizaje is simply bipolar, for usually the two poles of this mestizaje possess elements of their own mestizajes” (P.13). Then he offers a brief summary of Augustine’s mestizaje that is further explained in chapter 1.
Chapter 1 provides the context, family influences, educational foundations, and religious influences in Augustine’s walk toward his faith foundation. This chapter defines, in other words, important elements of his mestizaje. We may think that Christian theology constructed in Latin was born in Rome and in other parts of the Western world. We may be tempted to affirm this particularly in the case of Saint Augustine because he studied with Ambrose and was baptized by him in Milan, 387 A.D. However, as González points out, the works of the first bishop of Rome who wrote in Latin, the foundational works for Western theology of Tertullian and Cyprian, written also in Latin, proceed from North Africa and not from Rome (p.17). North Africa was at the time a fertile land in more than one way. González describes in detail the cultural and historical background of Thagaste, a small free city of proconsular Numidia, now Souk-Ahras, where Augustine was born in 354. González pinpoints three main cultural strata present in this region where Augustine grew, developed and carried out all his pastoral and theological work. These cultural and historical strata may be attributed to a “mestizaje” that occurred in the interacting of Punic and Berbers cultures with Roman culture. There were three predominant languages used in the region: Latin, being the imperial and ruling language, Punic, a Semitic dying language, and the Libyan dialect, used by the Berbers. Augustine’s mestizaje is also a product of his heritage. His father Patrick, a tax collector, was of Roman ancestry and was also a pagan most of his life. His mother Monica, more than likely a Berber, was a devout Christian all her life. It is through her that he heard and learned of her Christian faith—a faith that in many ways was opposed to the dominant Roman values and culture. Augustine lived within a Greco-Roman culture that had been adapted and repositioned in light of the North African cultures. Augustine studied and was influenced by teachers and writers who lived within this mestizaje. We need to understand this context in order to appreciate Augustine’s writings. The North African intellectual and Christian pursuit was carried out in tension with the Greco-Roman. It was opposed to the excesses of a Christian orthodoxy that was influenced by this colonial dominance. The favorite reception of the Montanists in North-Africa was due in great part to the rejection of the dominant cultural theological affirmations. It is also noted here how Augustine was influenced in his early intellectual pursuit by the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and Cicero and the Manichaeism imported from Persia. A key to his engagement and rejection of Manichaeism is his struggle to understand sin and evil in the world.
Chapter 2 takes us into another important stage in Augustine’s life. This is his emigration to Italy (383). Augustine migrates first to Rome. He is still in spiritual turmoil searching for the truth because he was not truly satisfied with Manichaeism. He also wants in a sense to escape from the moralizing eye of his mother Monica and flees with his concubine in search of a better life. He relocates to Milan to secure his teaching career in rhetoric. It is there that he comes under the influence of Bishop Ambrose. González points out several texts in Augustine’s Confessions where it is evident that Ambrose helped Augustine bridge the “mestizaje” of his father’s Roman culture with the homegrown Christian faith of his mother (pp.38-39). González points out also how during this period Augustine suffers tremendous internal struggles in the battle between his flesh and the teachings of his mother. It is important to note here the influence of another Northern African, Placianus. He leads Augustine to the realization that a simple Christian piety was not incongruent with the intellectual life, as it was the case with the much admired Marius Victorinus. Augustine also was an avid reader of Saint Paul. He attributes his spiritual conversion to a child’s voice in a garden where he was meditating that lead him to read the Scriptures, and in this instance lead him to read from Saint Paul’s Epistles. During this period, as González notes, he was greatly influenced by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. Plotinus allowed him to affirm the reality of the One divinity from which everything flows, and the spiritual world to counter the worldly skepticism of the Stoics, who affirmed only a corporeal worldly reality (pp.36-37). Neo-Platonism afforded him also a way to negate evil as a true substantial reality. Augustine, however, criticizes and corrects his Neo-Platonism in light of the Christian teaching of two kingdoms, one heavenly and one earthly. In this chapter González offers also an explanation on how Augustine’s appropriation of Platonism was influential in his pursuit of the knowledge of God and the soul, a theme and methodology that influenced Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (pp.46-47).
Chapter 3 narrates Augustine’s life from the time of his baptism to the time he engages in pastoral work as a presbyter, co-bishop, and bishop in Hippo. This work is carried out in Thagaste and Hippo. It is during this time that we find Augustine’s greater theological output and mature theological work. His work takes a new form. It is not the work of an independent scholar but rather the exercise of his Christian vocation. He understands that his vision as a baptized Christian is to confess and bring forth this faith of the Gospel to the world. His Christian discipleship is at the center of leading others to faith. During this period he also has an urgent desire to live his faith within a Christian community dedicated to meditation and devotion. Contrary, however, to other monastic communities in the past, this fellowship of believers had to serve and teach in the world (pp. 54, 58-64). This chapter explains the unique vision of Augustine concerning the monastic life and how he practiced it. This type of Christian monasticism, as González points out, is the one that influenced Martin Luther. A life lived in Christian community is essential to a theological vocation and discipleship. This chapter highlights also how Augustine carried out his theological work at Hippo deeply grounded as a pastor within the lives and challenges of his people. This is central to his work and life. In reading this, I was reminded of the important dynamics of a “teología en conjunto” and a lived theology “en lo cotidiano,” being key elements of our “teología hispanounidense”—themes alluded to, but not cited, by González in this chapter. Furthermore, this chapter helped me reaffirm these valid principles within our theological vocation. Chapter 3 explains also Augustine’s development concerning true Christian knowledge in light of his theory of “Illumination.” This is an important development in the area of epistemology, as González observes, for Christian theology and for Western thought until the 13th Century. I would even go beyond that because Cartesian rationalism and Kantian idealism also are heirs, to a certain extent, of Augustine’s theory of knowledge.
Chapter 4-7, as already stated, engages the reader in Augustine’s pastoral work in light of his cultural and theological contexts. Chapter 4 is a crucial chapter because it reflects on Augustine’s pastoral work in light of the Manicheans. We know that Augustine was influenced by the Manicheans for about nine years, particularly in Thagaste, and before his baptism in Milan. González shares light on how Manes syncretistic rendering of Manichaeism, using elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity, with him as the most enlightened prophet, impacted Alexandria and the Roman colonies in North Africa. This sect was always preoccupied concerning the nature of things, and the evil present in the world. González summarizes in clear fashion how Augustine developed a Christian answer to Manichaeism concerning the evil in the world. He refuted in this exercise the gnostic tendency of Manichaeism to reject the body and God’s earthly creation. It is during this period that Augustine affirms the unity of God as creator of the world, the unity of a person, and the unity between the Old and New Testament. He becomes critical during this period of the Neo-platonic outlook on nature. Above all, he develops a theological framework that rejects the threatening demands of Manes’ dualism. Among other highlights, he engages in a constructive proposal to affirm the role of the freedom of the will within Christian thought.
Chapter 5 is, in my opinion, the most useful chapter to see how Augustine engages his cultural context and how his theology blooms and becomes influential in the West. This he accomplishes in addressing Donatism through his constructive theological work concerning the nature of the church, the validity and efficacy of the sacraments, and defining what is a just war in the eyes of the church. This chapter clearly unfolds the mediating position followed by Augustine between Donatism and the catholic orthodox faith in light of his mestizaje. Augustine is quite aware how Donatism found fertile ground and was more accepted by the common folk of Northern Africa. He is also aware that this affirmation of the church, which lived a borderland experience, threatened the imperial establishment. Augustine did not wish to simply exclude the faithful Christian brothers and sisters within Donatism. He knew many of them firsthand, including many of his relatives. He followed a Christian vision that mediated his Roman Christian understanding of the faith with the Donatist vision of the Christian faith. Authority for Rome is affirmed through the established office in the church, while Donatism affirmed authority in light of the virtue and worthiness of the individual serving in the office. For Augustine, and I add also Luther and other reformers, the sacraments, such as baptism and the Eucharist, are valid because it is God who acts to make the sacrament valid. In this way, Augustine mitigated his antagonists’ arguments to a certain extent. He never, however, as González observes, captures very clearly or completely the suffering and social injustice experienced by his people. Augustine’s ecumenical vision of catholicity is also important to note. Augustine’s affirmation of a visible and invisible church, and the catholicity or presence of the Gospel among all people, envisioned an opportunity to create a space for his fellow Donatist believers. However, it did not take into account the regional and cultural character of Donatism. In fact, Augustine contributed, as González aptly observes, to the confusion between catholicity and uniformity that dominated the Medieval Church. This is also a point that in my opinion, has limited the affirmation of a true catholicity, where the faith of the people is affirmed and understood. González has always been a champion in correcting this limited type of ecumenism where the specific communities of faith are neglected within the catholic expression of the church.
In chapters 6 and 7, González navigates clearly and succinctly through several of Augustine’s works to engage Augustine’s lived theology through the lenses of mestizaje. This exercise pinpoints the pastoral and theological acumen of the Bishop from Hippo in confronting Pelagius and in developing a theology of history in light of the Roman Empire’s debacle. We can appreciate here why he is considered the “doctor of grace” by Catholics and Protestants alike and how they differ in their appropriation of Augustine. Also we can discern how Augustine’s theology of history influenced and limited the political outlook of the Western world and the church.
Last, but not least, in his concluding chapter González explores how Augustine’s vision enhanced and limited the theological perspective of Western Christianity. First, he kept alive for the church the intellectual heritage of the early church. Secondly, he provided the pastors and the church leaders at the beginning of the Middle Ages with intellectual and theological tools that were much needed to direct the life of the church during those uncertain times. He also uplifted grace as a necessary principle and foundation for a church that was becoming very legalistic in his day. He provided, therefore, a very necessary hermeneutical principle to interpret the sacred texts, in particular St. Paul’s epistles. He also explained why there should not be a contradiction between the languages of reason and grace. At the same time, since he became the one and only predominant lens of his time, the church began to understand and construct her theology, as important as he was, limited by his vision. This left out some important interpreters—or they were merely forgotten. We find among them Basil, Irenaeus, and Athanasius, to list a few. In particular, his theological output neglected many of the insights from the theologians of the church of the East. Also Augustine has become a point of conflict and debate for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike in their theological affirmations concerning grace. González pinpoints also some of the limits of Augustine’s theology of history. While Augustine provided a theology of history that gave people hope in difficult times, his division of secular and sacred history gave an upper hand to a somewhat Platonic Churchly kingdom. This bifurcation, as González is keenly aware, has driven away or stifled the eagerness of Christians to act in light of God’s justice and love in the present world.
What is missing from this book? It depends on what one wants to get out of it. This book, especially the last chapter, will not deepen our understanding of how to appropriate Augustine in light of our 21st mestizaje. However, I believe that González’s purpose was to engage the reader in how Augustine lived and worked and theologized in light of his mestizaje. If we understand this point of departure, we will not only understand Augustine better but we will become more adept in interpreting other theologians in light of their cultural crossroads. We will also be able to be more reflective of our theological crossroads and the various cultures that intersect our mestizaje.

Alberto L. García, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Concordia University Wisconsin
albert.garcia@cuw.eduResumen de la reseña.
Este libro, Introducción a la teología mestiza de San Agustín, nos permite comprender mejor la obra teológica del teólogo más importante y fundamental para la Iglesia Occidental, Católica o Protestante, Agustín, Obispo de Hipona. Nos permite entender también, cómo, a razón del principio hermenéutico de mestizaje, podemos entender mejor, no solamente la teología de Agustín, sino también podemos acercarnos e interpretar mejor otros teólogos a través de los siglos. Este ejercicio nos ayudará también a reflexionar más concretamente como hacemos teología a la luz de nuestro mestizaje.
El libro está dividido en una introducción y ocho capítulos. En la introducción González explica el contexto mestizo de Agustín y que el mestizaje, no es solo bipolar, sino uno que se vive en varias realidades. Así González reinterpreta como Virgilio Elizondo define el concepto de mestizaje. Capítulos 1 al 3 nos hace entender el desarrollo humano e intelectual de Agustín al cruzar tres facetas de su vida. Estas son su juventud, conversión y bautismo. Capítulos 4 al 7 iluminan la obra de Agustín como pastor en relación a su labor entre los maniqueos, donatistas, pelagianos y los paganos en el Norteafricano. El capítulo 8 destaca los aportes como también los límites de la teología de San Agustin para la Iglesia Occidental.
Como resumen de los aportes de la obra de Agustín, es oportuno citar un breve párrafo de esta obra interesante y muy constructiva para nuestra labor teológica:
…[E]l conflicto interno de Agustín no era solamente el querer y el no querer, o entre querer lo bueno y querer lo malo, sino también entre lo romano y africano, entre la fe de Mónica [su madre, de origen africano bereber] y la cultura de Patricio [su padre romano] y de cuanto aprendió en las escuelas. Su conversión se fundamentó en la posibilidad de vivir la fe de Mónica dentro de la cultura de Patricio. Frente a los donatistas, optó tradiciones romanas, en que la autoridad provenía del oficio más bien que de la actuación, más bien que por las africanas, en que la autoridad provenía se derivaba de la actuación—y, en el caso de los líderes eclesiásticos, de la santidad. Más tarde, frente a los pelagianos – quienes justificadamente le echaron en cara su “africanidad” tomó la opción opuesta, argumentando que la autoridad del Dios soberano no depende de que se ajuste a las nociones humanas de justicia. Ahora, ante la debacle romana, al tiempo que se duele por ella, les achaca la culpa no solo a los invasores godos, sino también a los romanos mismos. En realidad los creyentes no son ciudadanos de Roma ni de la nación visigoda—ambas expresiones de la ciudad terrena— sino que tienen una ciudadanía diferente y más alta (P.115).
Este es un buen ejemplo de cómo González navega el mestizaje de Agustín. No me cabe duda que este libro servirá de gran ayuda para pastores, laicos y estudiantes de teología.

Posted in Figures, Africa, Seminars

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