How St Augustine's insights have stood the test of time
As One Struggling Christian To Another: Augustine's Christian Ideal for Today by Theodore Tack (The Liturgical Press, 2001, 119pp, $34.95). Available from AD Books.
In the humanities, the name Augustine stands out. Indeed, be it history, theology or philosophy, Augustine is a towering figure. His many writings are still discussed and analysed today, nearly 1600 years after his death. His City of God is one of the classic Christian writings, as well known by students of philosophy as students of theology.
Yet another remarkable book of Augustine's is equally valued, his Confessions. In this biography, Augustine gives us not only an insight into his thinking, but his very soul as well. It is this side of Augustine, his personality, not just his theology, that this new book deals with.
As Tack rightly notes, Augustine is a man for our times. Even though he lived centuries ago (354- 430), his life is full of lessons for believers (and non-believers alike) today. The struggles and conflicts that Augustine so well describes are in one sense the struggles of every man.
Wealth of insight
Indeed, the many struggles and tensions that most 21st-century people feel can also be found in the life of Augustine. Whether the issue is one of the struggle to find God, of coming to terms with God, of struggling with prayer, of learning about faith, of wrestling with a persistent sin, or of learning how to relate to other people, the experiences of Augustine offer a wealth of insight and encouragement to today's spiritual pilgrims.
For example, Augustine's well- known struggle with youthful lust is an honest and open portrayal of one soul's desire to become a whole person, a struggle that many young, and not so young, people also wrestle with today. The insights provided by Augustine on this and other struggles offer the believer of today with much to draw upon and utilise. No mere armchair academic, Augustine knew full well about the realities of life's daily struggles, and he left us ample writings on these journeys to help guide our way.
Some who know Augustine only as a philosopher or theologian might be surprised to find this practical, even devotional, side to him. While he could debate with the best of the philosophers, he could also meditate on the depths of the divine, and our relationship to it.
Consider his words on love: "Love is the only real distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil. All may sign themselves with the sign of Christ's cross, answer Amen and sing Alleluia. All may be baptised, come to church and line the walls of our meeting places ... You may have whatever else you will, but if this one thing is lacking to you, nothing else will help you."
The insights of Augustine have stood the test of time. His encouragement and his example have provided many others, struggling along the way, with the inspiration to keep faith and to keep going. He encourages us to keep going even when it looks as if there is no reason to persevere. The adventure of faith and our relationship with God provide the motivation to continue. Says Augustine, "A person of faith owns the entire wealth of the world, for even thought he has almost nothing as his own, if he clings to you, Lord, whom all things serve, he has everything". Perseverance in the face of adversity, setback and disappointment is often difficult. Yet Augustine shows that such persistence is possible, and that it pays.
And the Christian life is a struggle. Being citizens of two kingdoms simultaneously has to produce tension, conflict and turmoil. It is a misreading of the Christian faith to think the life of the believer will be a carefree, problem-free journey. Augustine knew this only too well, and his life, his example, his reflections, have much of value to any modern day believer, faced with similar struggles.
This is what makes Augustine such an important figure. With many theologians we know much of their mind, but less of their heart, of their life. With Augustine we have not only his great wealth of philosophical and theological learning, but we have something of his person as well. And what we know of the person helps illustrate and amplify what we know of his teachings.
Augustine's pilgrimage, first to God, and then with God, offers modern-day pilgrims much of value. And this short book is a good way to be introduced to Augustine the man, Augustine the Christian, as well as Augustine the great Church Father.
Bill Muehlenberg, who is a Baptist, is National Secretary of the Australian Family Association and teaches theology at several Protestant Bible colleges in Melbourne.