Augustine and The City of God

Last night, I turned the last page on St. Augustine’s City of God, all 1182 pages. Whew.

Augustine and I go way back – he had me write the forward for one of his books. I was happy to oblige, anything for a church father. So I was eager to read his central defining work (with Confessions running a close second).

The City of God is beefy. If you plan to go in, you best take provisions and gear, you’re going to be on the trail for a while. I won’t offer a full-scale review, partly because I need some space to process the experience and Augustine’s sense of things – and partly because a proper review of City of God (COG) requires a level of energy I can’t seem to muster.

Essentially, Augustine offered a comprehensive vision of the two competing cities, the City of God and the City of Man. These two cities offer us the two orders of society, or realms of human loyalty. I almost said human reality just there, but I think Augustine would take umbrage with that. For him – and this was one of my favorite themes in COG – there is only one reality. Everything else is a non-reality, unreal. So good and evil are not two somewhat equal forces competing for power in the world. Rather, what is real (God, good, the Kingdom of Light) is, through redemption, overwhelming all that is unreal (Satan, evil, the Kingdom of Darkness).

Emerging from the accusation (amid the rubble of Rome) that Christianity – and its opposition to traditional Roman religion/gods – brought down the Empire, Augustine gave a sweeping vision of God’s purposes for the world and how these purposes set the stage for the outworking of human history. He wrote, not primarily as an academic but as a churchman, one who wanted to spur all who would listen on to their “final good” – that place where, whenever we arrive at it, “each [of us] are made happy.”

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts (which I must admit, feels a bit unjust, like bumper-sticker Augustine)

Moreover, if God, by Whom all things were made, is wisdom, as the divine authority and truth have shown, then the true philosopher is a lover of God.

He is the fount of our blessedness, and He is the goal of all our desires…

For our good…is nothing other than to cling to Him…

[I]n comparison with the Creator’s knowledge, the knowledge of the creature is like a kind of evening light. But when our knowledge is directed to the praise and love of the Creator, it dawns and is made morning; and night never falls while the Creator is not forsaken by the creature’s love…And, indeed, the knowledge which created things have of themselves is, so to speak, shadowy until they see themselves in the light of God’s wisdom and, as it were, in relation to the art by which they were made…they know themselves better in God than in themselves…In Him, therefore, they have, as it were, a daylight knowledge, whereas in themselves, they have a twilight knowledge…

In some cases, therefore, there can exist things which are wholly good; but there can never be things which are wholly evil.

The soul, then, draws life from God when it lives well…

For the good make use of this world in order to enjoy God; but the evil, by contrast, wish to make use of God in order to enjoy this world. By striving after more, man is diminished.

[T]he holier a man is, and the fuller of holy desire, so much more abundant is his weeping when he prays.

And a few of the questions I ponder as I walk away from Augustine for a bit (the same age-old debates here, nothing insightful or new):

To what extent was Augustine influenced by versions of Platonism, even as he critiqued Platonism on many fronts? Was his division between soul and body still overdone?

What exactly is the nature of happiness redemption offers in this world (not the world to come)?

In what ways (other than procreation) is orgasmic sexuality good, rightly pleasurable to the senses? To me, Augustine seems to say that any physical enjoyment of sexual acts are inherently results of our inferior fallen state. Could Augustine give more space to the good of sensual pleasure or even to the higher ideal of sex as sacrament?

Why does Augustine seem to go to such great lengths to absolve central Biblical characters from their wrongdoing (humanity even)? And could he achieve the “more spiritual” reading he desires (in some cases) without running quite so roughshod over the Scriptural narrative actually sitting before us?

And finally (cliche though it is): Augustine, what was your deal with women???

Review: There is a God by Anthony Flew

There Is a God: How The World's Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind {from Goodreads}

There Is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind by Anthony Flew

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had heard bits of Professor Flew’s fabled change of mind, from atheism to theism. The book purchase was an impulse buy, though, when I saw it at one of our local bookshops.

I was eager to read Flew’s story. After the introduction, I was eager to gobble the pages. Unfortunately, about midway, I realized I was going to be disappointed. I expected an emphasis on narrative, the story of Flew’s wrestling. I wanted to hear the angst and hear him tell the stories of what it was like to be a headliner in so many well known philosophical debates. I wanted to know why he had changed his mind, for sure, but I wanted it set in the context of his life, who he was as a man.

Flew, however, wrote a book that skimmed the surface of his philosophical change of heart. He quotes a lot of people (too many for my taste), and he gives a broad sketch for why, after more than half a decade leading the charge in one direction, he did an about face. It’s interesting, even helpful (though I doubt it beefy enough to change many people’s mind). It just wasn’t worth $22.

Flew describes his journey in words that explain why I found little resonance with this book (and, truthfully, little resonance with his overarching bent in religious matters): “In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.” When speaking of belief in God, I’m (for the most part) happy however one happens to get there. However, some paths are more beautiful (to me) than others.

Rather, I wish Flew would have sunk more deeply into the words he quoted from Frederick Copleston: “I do not think that it can be justifiably demanded of the human mind that it should be able to pin down God like a butterfly in a showcase.”

Silence, Shusaku Endo

After I got past the Japanese use of the passive voice (“the scent of the grass was wafted over the white rock”), this simple, haunting story pulled me into a valuable conversation about the character of the gospel: what is the essence of Christian faith? How must the gospel incarnate itself in radical new ways within new, distinct cultures? How much of the gospel has been trapped in Western garb? How much can Christian faith accommodate itself to new cultural forms without surrendering its essence?

A line from the translator’s introduction, quoted from another of Endo’s essays will be on my mind for a while: “Unless there is in [Christianity] a part that corresponds to Japan’s mud swamp, it cannot be a true religion.”

From Goodreads.

The Echo Within: Robert Benson

A writer ought to offer something worth saying as well as something worth hearing. Some authors have a thing or two to tell me, but frankly, after a few pages, I don’t care to hear it. I’ve come to believe that truth without beauty … well, isn’t truth. I reveal my bias here, but writing is a sacred calling (just as is photography and carpentry and mothering and leading a parish); and I don’t understand “writers” who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the actual craft of writing. And it’s no better with religious books (maybe worse). Slapping the name Jesus on bad art still leaves bad art. My hunch is that Jesus doesn’t much appreciate the association.

Thank God, however, there are writers like Robert Benson.

If you’ve hung around Miska or me very long, you’ve probably heard Robert’s name tossed about. Miska has recommended (or given away) Benson’s Living Prayer more than a few times. And a few summers back, the small community that met in our home read A Good Life, Benson’s exploration into St. Benedict’s Rule.

Robert’s latest book, The Echo Within, offers his ruminations on embracing one’s calling and vocation. It’s a fabulous read. I loved the numerous (and conflicting) ways I encountered his wise mind and artful pen. On one page, I’d find myself saying, ah, yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. And on the other pages, hmmm, I’ve never seen it that way before. One moment, I’d laugh out loud; other moments I’d sense a deep piercing where a word or image had landed well. I think collisions like these signal how we are on to something good.

Our exploration for what we are called to be and do, for what deep gift is uniquely ours to inhabit and then give away, is one of our most central, most human, questions. By virtue of both living so many years in a university context (among young friends beginning to chart their way) and by simply having the kinds of conversations pastors tend to have, I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question: how do I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? We’re all asking this when we’re twenty-three. Many of us are still asking when we’re fifty-three.

I wish I’d had The Echo Within to recommend in all these conversations. Now I do. When I pass it along, however, I will also pass along a warning. Some will find Benson frustrating. When we ask these questions of our life’s direction, we often are looking for someone to tell us what to do – or at least to give us some fool-proof system that will tell us what to do. Exactly. Prescisely. Clearly. And quickly. Even if you didn’t know Benson and were unaware that such things will always be the opposite of what Benson provides, you’d know soon enough by skimming a few of his chapter titles: Listening (ch 1). Hearing (ch 3). Waiting (ch 6). Dreaming (ch 10). And there’s more where that came from. Lots more.

Benson reminds us that finding our vocation is about finding our truest selves. Or, to put it another way, it is about finding the “echo of the Voice that spoke us into being [which] is the sound of our own true voice.” To find ourselves, we must listen to what God has spoken uniquely to us, in us.

This is the heart of the matter. Finding our vocation, our call, our life’s work, is not first or foremost about what our business card says about us or how we find the way to pay our mortgage and put food on the table. Your life’s call is about embracing the beauty God had in mind when he took joy and delight in making you. And then, your taking joy and delight in singing the song you (and only you) were intended to sing.

“Your vocation” says Benson, “is not only about the work you do with your hands and your heart and your mind; it is about what shapes the work, the person you become in and around that work as well.”

Father Joe

A couple years back, I read Englishman Tony Hendra’s autobiographical story of his long, formative relationship with Father Joe. The book (creatively titled Father Joe) commenced with fourteen-year-old Hendra’s affair with a married women. When the women’s husband discovered his wife and the neighborhood kid mid-passion, it was obvious to pretty much everyone that Hendra needed guidance.

Whisked away to Quarr Abbey (a Benedectine monastery on the Isle of Wright), Tony Hendra met and began a life-changing relationship with the elder, flat-footed, knobby-kneed priest, Joseph Warrilow. Warrilow was kind and firm and wise; and when Tony first met him, he said he “felt on the brink of learning an entirely new set of possible responses to the world.” Hendra’s days and conversations with Warrilow changed who he was and guided him through a tumultuous life. In fact, their relationship spanned nearly fifty years.

I was mesmerized by the story. It was more than the story, though; it was how this tale spoke to my own longing for elder spiritual guides. I believe we all long for our own Father Joe. We long for women or men who will see who we are – as well as who we are not. We long for wiser guides to point the way, older friends who are unflustered by our angst and chaos, entirely unimpressed with our masks and our pretenses and our false selves. We want assurance that we are not alone and that the world does not ultimately depend on us – we know we are too small for that.

Sunday is Father’s day, and when I think about what I want to give my sons – it is the sort of things Father Joe gave Hendra. Over the years (many years), Father Joe walked alongside. He told Tony the truth, even when it was tough. He surprised Tony with his easy forgiveness and generous grace (one thing Father Joe never did was shame or condemn, even when Tony was way out of line). Father Joe helped Tony become more of himself, his alive, free self.

That’s the kind of dad I want to be.


In the morning, we are taking the boys for their first adventure to Disney World. It will be a hoot. You may not hear from me next week, though. I’m going to be plugged in with the family.

Brothers K

A couple friends suggested a novel for a read over the holidays, The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I’m enjoying it. The voice Duncan has created for his narrator, the wide-eyed (and wide-mouthed) boy Kincaid Chance, reminds me a bit of Leif Enger’s narrator in Peace Like a River, Reuben Land. Both are the youngest sons in their troubled family. Both have great admiration for their father. Both are quick-witted, brutally honest and – more importantly – are not yet competely spoiled by cynicism and blunted hopes.

brothers_k.gifBrothers K doesn’t have the same richness as Peace Like a River; it doesn’t have that magical quality in a book where you feel like something far bigger is happening in the story than you are able to articulate or even understand – but K is still good reading. I’ll share a spot or two.

In one poignant moment after Kincaid’s folks blew up in a fierce argument over one of his dad’s vices which were unacceptable to his strick Adventist mother, his mom stormed off to her parent’s house with all the other kids. As the evening went on, dad began to binge, eventually drinking a six pack or two or three too many. Scared and angry, Kade (as his friends call him) went to bed confused by a theological dilemma. He had prayed to ask Jesus to keep his father from getting drunk, but he wondered if perhaps his prayer had gone unheeded because his father had been praying at the same time, asking Jesus to allow him just one single night to drink peacefully in his own home. How do such quandaries get worked out in the Divine scheme? Kade concluded this: “Prayer is mysterious, and God is even worse. I don’t completely understand it yet.” Sounds about right.

Another powerful scene was when young Kade went toe-to-toe with his father, a man who had succumbed to the disillusions and disappointments we all face as we make our way in this world. His father’s heart had gone dull and lifeless. And Kade couldn’t bare it. He couldn’t bare to see his father, his hero, simply wilt to grey and fade away. After a fiery conversation and an act of surprising violence (I won’t give it away), Kade said brave words to his father, words most every man will need to hear some time or another: “All I want is for you to fight, Papa. To fight to stay alive inside. No matter what.”

That line did me in. I could imagine my own sons saying it to me – I hope they never have to. But when I need to hear the truth, I hope some man is strong enough to give it to me.

Fight. Stay alive inside. Keep your heart open and free. No matter what. No. Matter. What.

peace / Winn

Eat This Book

I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. It’s splendid.

eatthisbook.jpg One of my growing convictions is that we have made the Bible to be something it is not: a manual, a collection of moralisms, a melting pot of proverbial wisdom, a flat historical account. I see these tendencies in the way I grasp at Scripture. I see it in the way the Bible is often taught in the church. I see it among the liberals who supposedly abuse the Bible and among the conservatives who supposedly are Scripture’s guardians.

All of us face the temptation to make the Bible out to be something we can control and manage rather than a meeting place with Jesus Christ, a meal where we ingest the Living Word, however it comes to us, whatever is served.

As Peterson says, “It is entirely possible to come to the Bible in total sincerity, responding to the intellectual challenge it gives, or for the moral guidance it offers, or for the spiritual uplift it provides, and not in any way have to deal with a personally revealing God who has personal designs on you.”

peace / Winn

Fenelon is Alive!

Well, sort of. My new book, Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon is out.

I am excited about this book because it is a collection of letters written by Fenelon to a number of friends, letters where he was answering their questions and offering them spiritual guidance for their life-journey. These letters connected with my own desire for wiser, elder, spiritual guides, and so I modernized them, wrote introductions to help us hear Fenelon’s wisdom in response to the sorts of questions we might ask today, and wrote an opening chapter encouraging us to recognize our need for spiritual guides in our life.

So, grab a copy. And, while you are at it — be sure to download a recent interview I’ve done talking about faith, life, and my first two books. Also, there is a special gift – two singles from one of my favorite indie artists, Tom Conlon.

I hope you like it.

peace / Winn

Fiction as a Spiritual Discipline

My wife is the most voracious reader I know. Fiction is her first love. The good stuff – Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby, Madeleine L’Engle, Buechner, all things Dickens. Recently, when she rifled through War and Peace, I began to feel a little intimidated.

Eugene Peterson says that pastors should read fiction as part of their spiritual regimen (wonderful advice I was never once offered in seminary). I think every Christian should heed this wisdom. Listening to the story. Being captured by the narrative. Discerning truth as we are tugged through the plot. “Every good story is a retelling of the gospel,” says Chesterton. If that’s true – and I believe it is – then we need to read more good stories. God knows, we need as much of the gospel as we can get.

Here is a quick hit on four novels that have told me much truth:

East of Eden, John Steinbeck
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
‘Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

peace / Winn