Augustine on Trial – Ron Haflidson

Ron Haflidson on Paul Rigby’s Theology of Augustine’s Confessions

Paul Rigby, The Theology of Augustine’s Confessions, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 340pp., $99
Paul Rigby, The Theology of Augustine’s Confessions, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 340pp., $99
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A friend of mine refers to her favorite thinkers of the departed white male variety as her “dead husbands.” The phrase is useful both for capturing students’ attention and for communicating a strange truth: we can fall in love with the dead by reading their books. Paul Rigby’s over forty years of intense study of Saint Augustine surely bears much resemblance to a long and transformative marriage. One result of their years together is Rigby’s conviction that Augustine’s voice remains fresh, if we can manage to hear it.

How may we come to hear Augustine’s voice? Grasping Rigby’s answer requires a turn from marriage metaphors to the rather more austere imagery of the courtroom. In his The Theology of Augustine’s Confessions, Rigby puts Augustine on trial in the hope that doing so will allow Augustine to be heard. The procedure is more than an enticing conceit for a book. Rigby supposes that Augustine demands a kind of trial from his readers, for the confessional idiom that is central to his ongoing influence requires him to present himself as a reliable witness to his own experience of divine grace, and invites readers to judge his veracity. Rigby supposes that one consequence of Augustine’s style is that a trial is the best way for contemporary readers to encounter him afresh. We must subject him to the same kind of interrogation that we are accustomed to using on ourselves and on others if we are to find him reliable. As the heirs of figures like of Nietzsche and Freud, certain “investigative techniques” are habitual to us (think, for example, of how much of our everyday thought and speech is shaped by Freudian assumptions about the unconscious). Rigby puts these techniques to work in examining the reliability of Augustine’s testimony, asking whether his faith is ultimately an expression of neuroses, narcissism, or wish fulfilment. These concerns are almost reflexive for readers today: they continually recur with students who complain that Augustine has “mommy issues” or “needs to get over himself.”

Rigby’s questioning of Augustine is aided by Paul Ricoeur. For Rigby, Ricoeur is positioned to serve as a decisive “cross-examiner” because he is at once sympathetic to, and critical of, Augustine. Ricoeur belongs broadly to the Augustinian theological tradition, and yet, as a philosopher whose thinking has been shaped by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud, Ricoeur’s interrogation offers a decidedly modern challenge to Augustine’s theology. Rigby also subjects Augustine to interrogation by theologians and Augustine scholars who have reinterpreted or rejected defining Augustinian teachings on evil, original sin, and predestination.

A sense of Rigby’s procedure may be taken from a portion of his analysis of evil in Chapter 5. This section provides a glimpse of the admirable strengths of Rigby’s book: the use of Ricoeur to explore how the narrative of Confessions illuminates and elucidates key mysteries of human existence; the thorough engagement with critics of Augustine whose voices are heard and carefully considered; and, most impressively, the creative and insightful means of re-interpreting Augustine to demonstrate that his testimony remains vital for us.

In treating questions of evil, Rigby suggests that one insight that Augustine has for us is that narratives — stories — are an invaluable means of exploring the mysteries of human experience, God and evil chiefly among them. At their best, narratives can explore these mysteries without trying to solve or simplify them. The full shape of these mysteries may be lost in philosophical or theological systems that strive for comprehensiveness, or in allegories that resolve into a lesson; but Rigby suggests, following Ricoeur, that we may approach them through that essential element of narrative, plot. Plots involve situating particular events within the larger context of the story, and can thus “mediate” between contingent instances in which we encounter evil and a coherent whole that can give such events meaning. Rigby writes: “Narrative wisdom cannot answer the question of the origin of evil or the question of its universal ethical, dialectic, or aesthetic rational. It does not offer a solution to the aporia of suffering and evil, only a response rendering it productive.” He suggests that one “productive” feature of the narrative of Confessions is hope.

Rigby goes on to mount a stirring defense of Augustine’s great discovery about the nature of evil, the so-called privation theory. Here he is led to take a departure from Ricoeur. One of the chief problems facing Augustine in Confessions is how to reconcile the existence of a good God with the reality of evil. If God is good, and made all things good, where does evil come in? Augustine describes in Confessions how, with the help of the Platonists, he discovered that evil does not have independent existence; instead, whenever we encounter evil, we are encountering what is good being deprived of some feature of its goodness. Ricoeur admires aspects of this understanding of evil; but he also concludes that Augustine cannot fully explain how evil can have such force in the world. To characterize evil as deprivation is to characterize it primarily as negative; yet evil’s effects seem to suggest it has “positive power.” Ricoeur suggests that something is missing. Rigby responds that the penetrating analysis of human desire for happiness in Confessions Book 10 holds the key to a richer appreciation of Augustine’s position.

Rigby’s reconstruction of Augustine’s position runs something like this. To desire happiness is ultimately to desire God; to desire God is to remain, in an important sense, good; desire for happiness is thus an abiding indication of our goodness. Yet, alongside the goodness of our desire for happiness, we have myriad ways in which we contribute to our own and one another’s misery. What are we to make of this tension? This question leads Augustine to grapple with the nature of human freedom and to come to recognize that it is subject to a tragic “double necessity.” We do what we do out of the belief that it is good (we pursue happiness); but our choices are defined by our contexts, especially our individual and corporate histories, and the limitations of those histories ensure that the actions through which we seek out happiness are always guided by “half truths.” Acting on these “half truths” involves us in what Augustine takes to be a kind of self-hatred, for our desire for happiness is bound up with a desire to know the whole truth, and we cannot find happiness so long as our actions are shaped by a partial vision. In searching for happiness within the bounds of our histories, we are in fact working against our desire for happiness. We become, in a very real sense, our own worst enemies. Divine activity alone can liberate us from this bind, and, in recognizing the need for this divine activity, we also see how evil as privation can take on force in the world. The self-hatred that undermines our search for happiness shows the destructive consequences of the privative gap between what I desire and what I know.

In reconstructing Augustine’s line of thinking in this way, Rigby shows how Augustine’s psychological insights address the precise objection that Ricoeur raises. The example shows the fruit that is yielded by Rigby’s decision to put Augustine on trial. At significant junctures, Rigby’s approach permits Augustine’s voice to emerge with arresting clarity; but it should also be said that the work itself is difficult reading. The prose is dense; technical vocabulary is often not explained; a good deal of knowledge about both Confessions and Ricoeur is assumed. But of course some difficulty is appropriate. These are difficult thinkers and difficult topics. Tackling predestination should not be a leisure activity! Rigby’s book leaves us with important questions, not least about what it would mean to give reliable testimony today regarding the kinds of questions that Augustine explored. In the face of increasing social fragmentation along political, religious, socioeconomic, and racial lines, what kind of story might liberate us from our half-truths? How might we prepare ourselves to hear it?


Feature image: Earliest known portrait of St. Augustine via Wikimedia Commons.