Imagine a feasta symposium really, in the ancient Greek sense of the wordin which the aim is not merely to enjoy good food and drink, but also to share in thoughtful conversation. The guest of honor (a distinguished Christian thinker) is the main course, but other luminaries are present, occasionally interjecting their ideas and engaging the main speaker in debate. Perhaps most important is the master of ceremonies (himself a prominent Christian intellectual), who skillfully directs the conversation, allowing the guest of honor to speak for himself, but always pushing him, gently, to clarify (and occasionally to correct) his opinions.
If you find this scenario attractive, then you will surely enjoy and learn much from this important new book. The Way That Leads There offers the literary equivalent of the classical symposium. The guest of honor is St. Augustine, who is sympathetically (though not uncritically) interrogated by Gilbert Meilaender, the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Also in attendance is a host of other thinkers, religious and secular, past and present, who enter into dialogue with Augustine: John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, Anders Nygren, Richard Rorty, Søren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, Dante Alighieri and many others (including Miss Manners). Meilaender writes with clarity and verve, respectful of the historical distance between Augustine and us, yet refusing to let that distance separate us from Augustine’s wisdom. He has truly provided a rich banquet.
The topics on which Augustine speaks are familiar ones, dear to the bishop’s own heart: desire (for God), duty (always to tell the truth), politics, sex and grief (especially for the loss of loved ones). Meilaender does not suppress the tragic dimension of Augustine’s thought or his relentless insistence on human sinfulness. But the Augustine who speaks in these pages is also humane and deeply sympathetic to human loss. In his discussion of grief at the death of loved ones, for example, one senses that Augustine could justify the pain felt at human loss because he had experienced so much of it himself (see City of God 19.8).
Those not familiar with Augustine’s thought will find here a reliable introduction to many of his central themes. Meilaender’s discussion of politics, for example, presents a balanced account of Augustine’s effort to demythologize and desacralize the political order. The person who thinks with Augustine will reject any attempt to attribute ultimate value to the secular state or even to discern the providence of God in human history: Just as we must be largely agnostic about the meaning of our own life, so also must we be about the course of history.
At the same time, Meilaender insists that an Augustinian vision of politics need not ban religion completely from public life: Thinking with Augustine, therefore, we might come to endorse a politics free of redemptive purpose while simultaneously distinguishing that from a politics entirely neutral with respect to competing visions of the good life or entirely deprived of religious reference in public life. Christian politicians will bring to their office a clear sense of the limits of the political; that is, they will eschew any connection between the state and God’s redemptive purposes in history. Nevertheless, they will bring to their public work their vision of what is good and truly human, a vision that has been shaped by Christian convictions. Likewise the church can be a genuine guarantor of liberty, insofar as it checks the pretensions and limits the claims of all political entities.
On the subject of sex, Meilaender takes us on a detour about food, in the hope of correcting Augustineand the Roman Catholic tradition that has made use of himon the matter of procreation and contraceptive intercourse. Augustine’s understanding of eating and sex, he argues, was too limited. By restricting the purpose of eating to physical nurture and the purpose of sex to physical procreation, Augustine failed to acknowledge that a distinctively human good could be achieved by both: eating with others in a festive meal incarnates conversation and community; sex within marriage enriches the good of carnal conversation and community.
Applying this to Roman Catholic teaching on the connection between the unitive and procreative goods of marriage, Meilaender argues: To express marital communion in the sexual act while using contraceptives is not unlike sharing in a festive meal when one is not hungry and eats little. Precisely in order to share fully in the good of community on that occasion one does not do what one does on the occasion of some other meals. In other words, both in eating and in sex, it is permissible (in Meilaender’s view) to pursue one good (communion) without the other (nourishment, procreation), since neither good is harmed or distorted by the separation.
Meilaender’s pages on sexual ethics (he also tackles the problem of laboratory fertilization, this time defending the Catholic position) are among the least persuasive in the book. Perhaps this is because in these matters the complexity of the issues has outstripped the resources provided by the framework of Augustine’s thought. But even when one disagrees with or remains unconvinced by Meilaender’s attempt to think with Augustine, one cannot help but learn from them both. And that is nourishment enough.