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The hyphenated Augustine

Review of 'The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures' by Justo González.

“In the West, there is no theologian who can compare with Augustine.” So González writes in the introduction to his groundbreaking biography of Augustine’s life, thought and works. Catholics and Protestants alike turn to the bishop of Hippo as the patron saint of theological discourse, the forefather of our ecclesiological and soteriological imaginations. Whether we are aware of it or not, those of us who worship the Triune God in churches that can trace their ecclesiastical ancestry back to Europe see God through a framework built by Augustine as much as Paul.

Because of this, González argues, it is vital for Christians to know and understand who Augustine is and how he has shaped Christian thought and language. “Reading the New Testament or understanding the Christian faith through the eyes of Augustine is not necessarily wrong,” he writes in the introduction. “But it is dangerous to do so without being aware of it, which makes us subject to or at least unaware followers of someone we do not know.”

Many Christian thinkers, of course, recognize Augustine’s outsized influence on Western theological thought. Countless historians, theologians, pastors and philosophers have written biographies. He has been lauded as the “Father of the Western Church” and was even praised by Jerome, his contemporary, as “the one who has established anew the ancient faith.” He has been excoriated for embedding gnostic (a favourite bogeyman of critical theologians in the 80s and 90s) and Neoplatonist ideas into the Western theological imagination. He has been condemned as a heretic. He has been canonized as a saint.

What made Augustine so integral to Western theological thought? And what makes González the right thinker to pen yet another biography of Numidia’s indefatigable pastor-scholar? González argues that Augustine’s genius comes from his mestizaje, a Latin-American word that literally means “being of mixed breed,” but over the past century has grown to develop an almost mystical meaning that captures the ability to navigate life when one is caught between two cultures – transcending borders both physical and conceptual, mastering the translation not only of words but worldviews, living in the “hyphen” that separates identities (as in Cuban-American, which González is). To be mestizo, as González explains, “is to belong to two realities and at the same time not belong to either of them.”

Augustine, the biracial son of a Roman father and an African (likely Berber, but possibly Punic) mother, learned by necessity to navigate two very different worlds. As the son of a Roman public official, he was expected to go on to public office himself to serve the empire, navigating his way through the complicated political alliances and relationships that characterized the upper ruling class of the known world. As the child of a conquered people, though, Augustine knew firsthand the anger and dissatisfaction of the peoples of North Africa with their so-called benevolent overlords, who were often not benevolent at all, and were predictably self-interested, ambitious, and dismissive of the beliefs and convictions of the people they had conquered.

Augustine’s mestizaje gave him unique insight into many of the controversies, both local and ecumenical, that plagued the church over his tenure as bishop in Hippo Regius – from Donatism to Pelagianism. When Rome fell to Germanic invaders, Augustine’s mestizaje gave him the categories of thought to explain to the larger Roman church how a Christian’s identity transcends earthly citizenry or belonging to a particular “place.” Ultimately, González argues, Augustine is the one who equipped the Roman church with the tools it needed to adapt to the fall of Rome to create a new culture, the mestizaje of Greco-Roman and Germanic heritage to create what we now know as “Western Culture.”

Accessible, relevant, and in many ways revolutionary, González’s retelling of Augustine’s story through the lens of mestizaje is compelling and illuminating. As is his habit, González lifts up the stories of women who formed, shaped, and challenged Augustine throughout his life and ministry, which other historians tend to gloss over or ignore. His exploration of the collision of the Roman and African concepts of authority, at the heart of both the Donatist and Pelagian controversies, is both riveting and edifying. His analysis of The City of God is quite simply inspiring. Notably missing from the story is On the Trinity, a work of immense theological importance, which didn’t surprise me (Augustine biographers tend either to overemphasize it or ignore it), but I was hoping for some insight into how Augustine’s unique cultural perspective shaped his theological thought in this work in particular.

This short, accessible, illuminating, and even entertaining biography offers a concise and profoundly insightful introduction to a figure all Christians ought to know and understand better.

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