Tuesday, 10 April 2012

But not yet

I read a review of Peter Sarris's new book on the late Antique/early Islamic era. I had some dealings with him when he supervised some of my students a while back, and just by bad luck he had my two most troublesome ones. He was ultra-professional, and I have a lot of respect for him, the sort of respect that's tinged with dauntedness. I don't think he suffers fools gladly, and unfortunately for all four of us the two students I sent him, although both very far from unintelligent, were fools.* The review was by Christopher Kelly, who was a fellow of Corpus while I was a research fellow there, but was for most of that time away on a Major Leverhulme Research Fellowship -- or it may not have been Leverhulme, but I do remember that it was Major. I only met him a couple of times, and he never talked to me. His writing usually seems sensible. The thing that caught my eye particularly was about St Augustine.
It is certainly a relief that readers of this book do not have to share St Augustine's concerns, cried out in desperation to his friend Alypius: 'the uneducated rise up and take heaven by storm, and we, with all our learning, here we are, still wallowing in flesh and blood'. This is an embarrassing outburst from one of the finest minds of antiquity who should have known better. To be fair, Augustine was, as Sarris points out, a saint 'on the brink of a breakdown'.
Now, I may not be understanding this properly because I find it hard to make sense of it. It took me a long time to like Augustine, who was a complex individual. If you asked me to say what it is I now like about him, and why I would genuinely have liked to have known the (later) Augustine, it's for exactly the reason that Kelly is singling out as embarrassing. Augustine was a very clever young man, who excelled in his studies of rhetoric and had a high-flying academic career. It took him a long time, even with his "finest" mind, to realise that learning and intelligence are not enough by themselves to make you a good person -- aren't the criteria for valuableness in a human. And ever since I was quite young this has been one of the things I've loved about Christianity too. As a teenager I used to love that Church was a place that involved lots of studying, lots of close reading and discussing of the Bible, lots of explaining of things in cultural context and in wider terms, but no sense at all that to be intelligent was of itself the best thing to be. Intelligence and understanding were tools to be used towards another goal. I loved I Corinthians 1: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength".** (From the context Paul seems to be talking about God's love leading to his plan for our redemption, foolishness in terms of Jewish theology and weakness in terms of Greek theology.) And this is what I find in Augustine's vast Commentary on the Psalms, written over the course of thirty years. (I've been reading it over Lent for three years now and I'm still only on Psalm 78.) These mingled sermons and lectures are much more endearing than many of his writings in their concern to spread understanding to his congregation. This is the Augustine I'd like to have known, more than the Augustine of the Confessions or The City of God, or On Free Will or any of his more academic pieces, the seasoned bishop who cared about his flock. [Edit: some of the quotations I lifted from Chadwick's Life of Augustine are relevant here.)

So that's my point of view, and it's certainly informed by my faith. But surely it's not just Christians who would think this? Leaving Peter Sarris, fellow of Trinity, out of this on the grounds that the review can't be assumed to express his point of view, Christopher Kelly is a fellow of Corpus Christi. I have a true and unforced respect for the learning of all the fellows there. But you can't spend a lot of time in governing body meetings without realising the limits of academic intelligence. It will really only get you so far. It's not the same thing as wisdom, and it's not the thing that justifies people, not the thing that makes you valuable, useful, important, or whatever it is you think people should be. Does Augustine's realising this really count as "an embarrassing outburst" from someone who "should have known better"? Is Augustine's complex spiritual progress really, in modern eyes, "the brink of a breakdown"? Like most people I often feel profoundly alienated from modern life, but it's heartening when, as in this instance, it's in a good way.

*When I reread this I felt bad about calling those students fools, but they did act very foolishly. They were both of them just 20, though, and I'm sure they have grown wiser over time.

**It goes on like this: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God -- that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord"." [I Cor. 1: 25-31]

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