July 29th, 2010

Augustine Restless Heart

Personal/Theological Notebook: Lunch with Denis; Augustine and O'Donnell

Yesterday afternoon my college Denis, our senior theological historian, took me out to lunch, just as a way of getting to know one another better. It really was a blast of an afternoon, with around two hours of conversation. He drove us over to the Audubon Golf Clubhouse, a gorgeous open-to-the-public venue where we could eat and talk while looking out at sweeping views of the ancient oaks of Audubon Park, yet still be sheltered from the sweltering July heat by the welcome air-conditioning. Denis was very generous and treated me to lunch, and so I had a wonderful fresh-squeezed lemonade and a chicken salad on croissant sandwich, which was made with red grapes and pecans mixed in, which were both new ingredients to me (maybe they're not so uncommon, I don't know: I'm pretty new to eating chicken salad as a matter of taste). The red grapes worked surprisingly well, I thought, and so I enjoyed my food very much. So, over such goodness, we compared notes about how we worked our way to becoming theologians, of all things, with my walkabout back to Catholicism and his reaction away from his Mennonite youth in Winnipeg, to discovering Luther and Aquinas as a student, and finding himself a broadly ecumenical Protestant in a Catholic university.

We also spent an enormous amount of time talking about Augustine, particularly The Confessions. This bounced back and forth between talk of teaching the text, or just more broadly teaching undergraduates Augustine, and his coming back to his reading of J.J. O'Donnell's recent biography of Augustine, which he was (to me) surprisingly enthusiastic about. He certainly recognized all the limitations of O'Donnell's book that the various reviewers have pointed to. I had read several of these and, seeing their consistent reactions and what O'Donnell was up to, did not bother with the book itself. But despite these deep flaws, Denis consistently lauded O'Donnell's ability to point to questions in the text. O'Donnell's three-volume commentary on The Confessions is state-of-the-art in Augustine scholarship, a close reading of the text that is of tremendous use, and O'Donnell brings that experience of deep reading to the biography. The problem is that O'Donnell just consistently just doesn't get Augustine. He is utterly baffled at the concept of God's grace, although he can give a scholarly definition of it, of course. But lacking any experiential knowledge of it (O'Donnell isn't a believer), O'Donnell's ability to understand Augustine breaks down at the theological level. It's another one of those cases where some sort of experiential knowledge changes utterly the depth of possibility of what someone has to say on the subject, as in the Christian definition of theology coming from Anselm of Canterbury where theology is defined as "faith seeking understanding." Or, in a different field, how a great chemist/food scientist could have loads of brilliant things to say about chocolate, but how his language (and his understanding of other people's language on the subject) would be severely limited because he had never actually tasted chocolate himself.

And so O'Donnell ends up hostile to his subject, doubting Augustine's sincerity throughout. His incomprehension regarding Augustine's move toward faith in God ends up making him hostile to the discussion of faith in general, resulting in such distracting and sophomoric moves like insisting on rendering the word as "god," which should no longer seem deep and edgy to anyone older than 20. As a result, O'Donnell falls into the sort of reductionism where he has to defy the writer and insist that "everything's really about ____." Naturally, in Augustine's case, much of this move makes it all about sex, given Augustine's famed hang-ups in this direction. Even my freshmen – hell, my high school students! – were expected to do better than that, coming to understand as they studied the text that Augustine's focus on the problem of his own sexuality was incidental, that for him the real concern in the text and in his thinking as he moved toward faith was the problem of evil, located in the broken human will. In Augustine's case, this brokenness happened to be particularly manifested in his inability to control his sexual desire, but he never goes anywhere near saying that sexuality itself is the problem. (Although lots of people who have never read him have put those words in his mouth for years. Christianity and Judaism stood out in in the ancient world for affirming the goodness of matter, of the human body, and of sexuality itself, while recognizing that the abuse of ones sexuality could have huge repercussions.) But despite all this, Denis kept pointing out how O'Donnell had a talent for pointing out moments of tension and difficulty in the text of The Confessions and in the narrative of Augustine's life, and drawing the reader's attention to these and pulling out their depth and complexity. And that is a great asset for a reader, even if, in the end, O'Donnell kept coming to a point of incomprehension as to what Augustine meant.

So that was a happy instance of getting to know one of my new colleagues a little better. He also mentioned something I had picked up or figured out over the last few days: that the Jesuit I'm replacing for this year has entirely flown the coop, so Loyola is going to need to fill my position permanently. The few people who broached this subject with me yesterday didn't know of anything yet being set up in how the department will conduct the search for the Catholic systematician for the position, but obviously it may be advantageous for me to already be here doing the work. I also found out that they are still raising money for a Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology to be endowed in Fr. Stephen Duffy's name, which would be awesome in bringing a senior theologian in. I thought that that search was going to be conducted while I was here, that I might even take part in the search, but now from what I'm hearing that sounds like it might be something for the following year. Sr. Terri stuck her head in later in the afternoon, saying Hi and looking a little surprised to find me already here. She was running out the door, and then heading out to New Mexico for a spell, but we made loose plans to have dinner when she gets back. I'm having dinner with another one-year faculty member, this one in Philosophy, who was introduced to me via email by Maria, Dan and Amy's friend and professor from their Scranton days, and so I'll head out from here in a few hours to her and her husband's new place, and get to know some entirely new people. And I'm going out on Saturday with Nick, one of my Saint Joe students, who is now a writer down here working on his Master's degree. So it's suddenly becoming social down here, which helps take the edge off of having heard yesterday from Graebel Van Lines that my stuff was still in Milwaukee, and that they were "looking for" a driver....