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As a theologian I tend to focus on more contemporary thinkers. Not that I’ve ignored the others—I enjoyed my Patristic and Medieval theology courses the most. I’m particularly fond of Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart for some reason, but I usually explore their ideas in conversation with Barth, Moltmann, Gutierrez, and lately Bonhoeffer. What I find interesting is the response people give to my contemporary conversation partners. I’ve been accused of being “Barthian” (yes, that’s right, accused…) and of course any hint of liberation theology is strike one, two, and possibly three. What’s strange to me, however, is that many of the same people who are critical of the more contemporary theologians are fine with the early church fathers and mothers. This is strange because these early theologians, if read carefully, hold a variety of views on such things as creation, hermeneutics, and the nature of the bible. While invoking Walter Brueggemann or Serene Jones brings controversy, appealing to John Calvin brings an “amen”. Which got me thinking…maybe taking up these early and medieval theologians as conversation partners is a way out of the polarized political and cultural discussions. Can Irenaeus, Cyprian, or Julian open up new ways of thinking about controversial issues?
I just finished Gary Wills little book on Augustine (Saint Augustine) that focuses on important themes from his life and writings. One issue that Wills takes up is what he considers to be the overblown idea that Augustine was obsessed with sex. Even though references to sex and sexual desire are found throughout his writing, it’s always in the context of a discussion of original sin. Wills argues that Augustine “did not harp on sexual sin in preaching to his congregation. Greed, violence, and deception were greater concerns in the sermons…Sins of calculation, cold acts like lying, where what he most castigated—Satanic sins. For sins of the flesh, his own experience did not make him intolerant but compassionate.” (p. 135) In his discussion of the Donatist controversy Wills focuses on Augustine’s restraint and his desire for reconciliation. The focus, for Augustine, is that all things, including correction and discipline, be done in love for the sake of reconciliation. In a sermon based on First John Augustine says, “You see my point, that human acts should be judged by their basis in love. Many things have a surface appearance of good, but are not based on love—like blossoms on a thorn plan. Other things look hard, look forbidding, but they instill a discipline informed by love. Once again, to put it simply: Act as you desire, so long as you act with love.”
This has me wondering how Augustine relates to the significant issues facing the church in North America. What does it mean for Christians on both sides of the debate to respond to the supreme court decision on homosexual marriage in love? How does Christian love inform our response to the systemic racism that continues to evoke hatred and violence? Clearly, to follow the way of love means living as agents of reconciliation by seeking justice for those who are oppressed and marginalized. But it also means becoming agents of reconciliation in a church that is fractured by disagreement, prejudice, and its own form of hatred. Augustine’s approach often prompted accusations of being lax; he was accused of tolerating not only sinners but sin. He responded to the sexual sins of priests and monks with discipline grounded in grace and mercy, warning others to be careful in their judgement, even as he came down hard on people who committed acts of greed and corruption. At the heart of Augustine’s work as bishop and priest was the difficult task of reconciliation. Which prompts me to wonder: Is it possible for Christians become agents of reconciliation in the midst of the entrenched differences and disagreements? Or, are we reduced to silly social media campaigns and posts that reduce people and important issues—like marriage—to sound bites and twitter feeds? Reading Augustine we discover someone who, as he aged, understood the complexity of human life and the hard path of love. For Augustine love means reconciliation—being reconciled to God and neighbor. It means living with the complexity of a “mixed church” where the wheat and tares commingle. It means living every day in the conscious awareness of our own propensity to sin even as we claim the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Here, the doctrine of total depravity and original sin is less a fatalistic excuse to do bad things and much more a catalyst for love. When we are able to recognize our own failure, our own struggle, our own insecurity in the experiences of our neighbor, we are free to rest in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.