The Mestizo Augustine (Justo González) -- Review

THE MESTIZO AUGUSTINE: A Theologian Between Two Cultures. By Justo L. González. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  175 pages.

                Whether you love him or hate St. Augustine, if you're a Western Christian, you have been influenced by him. That is true even if you don't realize it. Although he did build on the work of others, he set the direction of Latin Christianity. In many ways, he provided the foundation for the emergence of the Reformation as well. He set in place the conversation about grace and salvation and much more. I've read him and read about him, not just because I'm a church historian by training, but also because whether I agree with him, I know he has something important to say.  

                To understand a theologian, one understand the context in which a theologian worked. Theologians don't live in a vacuum. Like the biblical writers, they respond to the issues and culture of the day. As for Augustine, he was born and raised in North Africa. While his father was a Roman (a minor official), his mother appears to have been a native of the region, probably a Berber. Therefore, he was the child of two cultures. He was both Roman and African, and per historian Justo González, these cultural dynamics helped create the theologian and his theology.

                González is a well-known church historian, having written numerous books scholarly and popular, with a special interest in the theological education of Latino and Latina church leaders. This book emerges from his interest in Augustine and his own experience as a historian/theologian formed by living in two cultures.

                In the preface, he writes that "I began to suspect that Augustine's restlessness was not due only to his distance from God, as he tells us in his Confessions, but also to the inner struggles of a person in whom two cultures, two legacies, two world visions, clashed and mingled—in short, of a mestizo" (p. 9). Gonzalez uses this analogy of the mestizo to help us understand how Augustine's dual heritage as both Roman and African helped create the person, the Christian, and the theologian who came to dominate Western Christianity. More than anyone he paved the way for the influence of Platonism in the West, a philosophical foundation that lasted until the reintroduction of Aristotle in the 13th century.

                Augustine is a complicated figure. He wrote voluminously, writing biblical commentaries, theological and philosophical treatises, sermons, and numerous letters, both personal and professional. There are many books and articles that explore his life and theology, but few are as clear and illuminating as this relatively brief book. González understands the value of clarity and ease of reading. After all, he has been writing for students through the years. This volume can serve as a good introductory text to Augustine's life and theology, but what makes it special is the use of the metaphor of Augustine as mestizo, a person formed by two cultures.

                While, the Roman/Latin side may have dominated, the African side contributed significantly, especially religiously. Since it was his mother, a person of African descent, who was the Christian influence, North African Christianity played a formative role. Not only was his theology rooted in this mix of cultures, but the way his theology was developed involved culture mixture, as Latin and German readings created a new “mestizaje.”

                The book’s introduction lays out what the interpretative grid by which this cultural dynamic might influence him. Then, González, takes us on a journey, beginning with the roots of North African Christianity, as well as Rome’s rule over the region. When Augustine was born, Rome still ruled the Mediterranean. The region around Carthage was part of the Roman province of Africa, which had been a center of Christianity since the first century. Out of North African came leading theologian including Tertullian and Cyprian. While there was a significant Roman population, especially in the cities, the region was also populated by Berbers or Libyans, as well as the Punic people, descendants of the original founders of ancient Carthage. His mother, Monica, likely hailed from the Berber population, a semi-nomadic culture that populated the lower and working class of the region’s society. She had married out of this cultural dynamic, but it would have helped provide her frame of reference, and may have influenced her form of Christianity.

                What we learn from González is that all of this helped form the person Augustine would become. As a child living in the inland town of Tagaste, he showed promise as a scholar and was sent off to school. He was, as he notes in the Confessions, given to following his passions. In search for answers to his questions about life, he first embraced Manichaeism, in part to make sense of the Christianity of his mother and questions he had about the nature of God. The dualism of Manichaeism helped him make sense of the presence of evil. Over time, however, he experienced conversion, a process that began with his move to Milan to teach rhetoric. It was there that he moved from Manichaeism to Neoplatonism, and then through his encounter with Ambrose, a conversion. His journey to baptism was a long one, but in the end, he embraced the faith, chose a monastic life, and then ended up back in North Africa, where he was finally ordained a priest and then bishop of Hippo.

                The heart of the book is found in chapters four through seven. In these chapters, we are introduced to Augustine's theological work in the context of four engagements, all of which showed some signs of his wrestling with his dual heritage. His theological work began with his felt need to refute his former embrace of Manichaeism. Gonzalez notes that Manichaeism presented itself as an intellectual/rational system. His refutation allowed him to engage in arguments that were both rational and personal. In many ways, his efforts led to the disappearance of his former religious/philosophical community.

                For me, the chapters that develop his response to Donatism and Pelagianism were the most important. It is in these two chapters that we see most clearly how the two cultures created conflicting visions that Augustine wrestled with. Donatism was a religious force in North Africa that emerged out of the persecutions. It also had strong roots in the Berber culture. The Donatists sought to create a pure church, in which the efficacy of sacraments and ordinations were rooted in the purity of the officer. They revered martyrs and opposed bishops and priests who had in some way collaborated with the Romans. Augustine used the Roman legal vision that lifted the importance of office over its holder in response to the Donatist embrace of charismatic leadership. Again, appealing to the Roman vision, he also argued for the catholicity of the church against the Donatists’s regionalism. The Donatists, however, had a strong presence in the region, especially among the Berbers, who saw the Roman government as an oppressor. Augustine would win out, but at the cost of denying part of himself. Unfortunately, the division between Donatist and Catholic visions led to violence on both sides. In fact, it was in this context that Augustine developed his just war theory.

                When it came to Pelagius, things were turned on their heads. Pelagius's insistence on the ability of the Christian to fulfill the law of God was rooted in his Roman legal background (he had been a lawyer). He asked how could God issue laws if God did not expect that God's people could fulfill them? To saw otherwise was to blame God for evil. Interestingly, Augustine turned to his African roots in response, emphasizing the personal over the legal. It was in this context that he developed his doctrines of grace and predestination. For the Romans, everything was guided by law. For the Berbers and other Africans, law and order were in the hands of the clan or tribe. Again, it was much more of a personal, charismatic vision. In the Roman context, virtue is rooted in the individual. For North Africans, "the virtue and rank of an individual depend on the chief's decision—and when this chief no longer has the strength to make his authority obeyed he is no longer the chief" (p. 149). In other words, it is perfectly within God's power and privilege to decide who is among the elect and who is not, for all deserve to be excluded, but God has chosen to include some.

                As you read these chapters you can begin to place yourself in the discussion. You may be sympathetic to some of the concerns of the Donatists, but recognize that Augustine is probably correct that the holiness of the church is present not in the individual but in the office. You may, like me, be uncomfortable with Augustine's vision of predestination, but feel uncomfortable with the legalism of Pelagius. What's interesting here is that on matters of doctrine the parties were all orthodox. The issues had to do with how one lived out the faith. They could agree on the Trinity, but not the sacraments and church life.

                He also deals with Augustine’s response to the continuing presence of traditional Greco-Roman religion, which he speaks of in terms of paganism. I think that it is commonplace to believe that after Constantine's embrace of Christianity, everyone became a Christian and that the older religious order quickly disappeared. That’s not quite true. Christianity did become an important player, but many in the countryside and even the elite continued to embrace the old religions. So, when Rome fell in 410, Augustine wrote The City of God as a defense against the charge that Rome fell because it had abandoned the gods that made Rome great. In response to the claim that to make Rome great again it must return to the old religion, Augustine denied that Christianity was at fault, instead blaming an aging and corrupt Roman society. Only the City of God had eternal value. Gonzalez writes that the "mestizo vision was one of the factors that allowed Augustine to serve as a bridge between the Greco-Roman past that was waning and the new regime that was dawning—a regime of disorder, obscurantism and violence, from which eventually, as a new incarnation of the earthly city, Western civilization would develop" (p. 166).

                In his final chapter, González suggests that Augustine can be a lens to examine Western Christianity. There are important doctrinal questions that Augustine helps us understand, but he can also help us make sense of our own cultural diversity, the ways in which cultures come together to create new realities. We are all, in a sense, mestizos. Thus, he writes: "that very mestizaje some see as a sign of shame, and some would try to forestall or to deny, may well be a sign of the future from which God is calling us" (p. 171). That is, I believe, why this book is so important. It not only introduces us to Augustine and his theology, but it helps us, examine ourselves so that we might embrace God's future.

                This is a book to take and read, to enjoy and to ponder, for the message of mestizaje is an important one for our day, especially as Christianity becomes increasingly global, with the influences from regions that were once mission receivers becoming partners in theological conversation. This word mestizaje is used in the Latino/a context, to speak of a reality often spoken of pejoratively as mixed breed. However, González suggests that it describes the future that is emerging within the Christian community. Our theologies are becoming mixed as we recognize the various contributors to our theological discourse and church life. For this reason, this is a book to take very seriously. No matter our view of Augustine's theology, his experience helped form his theology, and ours will help form our theologies. González has recognized how his own experience, and that of other Latino/a theologians parallel Augustine's life as mestizo. We too are mestizos. 


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