Rowan Williams on Augustine

Rowan Williams writes to St Augustine

What everyone remembers, of course, is the things you got wrong – or the things we’re quite sure you got wrong.

How you painted yourself into a corner over predestination, God deciding before all time who was to go to heaven and who not. And women; we get very indignant that you had difficulty believing that women were really in God’s image as much as men. We forget that this is what you did believe, and how difficult it was for you to square this with what everyone else in your age thought.

And we blame you for messing up Christian attitudes to sex, because for you it was an area of humiliation and tragedy – forgetting, again, that you truly thought sex between husband and wife had something of heaven in it.

We look for a scapegoat to explain why Western Christianity and Western civilization are so much of a mess. You wrote such a lot and so powerfully that I’m afraid you’re a very good candidate for the position. But I think you would have turned around and challenged us: why the passion for a scapegoat? What are you refusing to look at in yourself?

In the City of God you explained the mechanisms: we’re not sure in ourselves what we really love and value; we invest all our expectations in people and solutions inside this world, and they let us down cruelly. We feel restless and insubstantial because we don’t know how and what to love. So we give ourselves a false solidity by pushing the darkness, the doubt and evil out there, projecting it onto some other person, some other group.

We get our solid identity from denying our own poverty and incompleteness. When I was teaching students about the City of God, I felt I really began to understand the Cold War.

So we can’t learn to love unless we let go of the longing for solid, fixed identity. We start to grow up not when we become independent, but when we recognize that we shall always need the words and actions of others to give us life – and when we face that fact without resentment or shame.

Behind it all is the recognition that the only reason there is anything at all is the pure act of generosity that creates the world – it doesn’t have to be there, God doesn’t have to make it, but he wants his joy shared. When we know that, we know ourselves – not by introspection, because I shall always lie to myself about my motives, but by looking to the love that made me and remakes me.

Not a scapegoat, then, but someone who’s taught me what I hope is the right kind of skepticism about myself and the world of power around me – and the right kind of trust in my maker.

Thank you.

The original is available online here.

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