Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

Grace and the City [of God]

The ABC’s Encounter program recently aired a worthwhile discussion about the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s City of God. The program, titled ‘Grace and the City’ can be read here, listened to via a stream here, or downloaded here.

The guests on the program include Charles Mathewes (Associate Professor in Religious Studies, University of Virginia), John von Heyking (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Alberta), Lawrence Cross (Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), John Milbank (Professor in Religion, Politics and Ethics, The University of Nottingham) and Thomas Smith (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Villanova University).

There are also extended interviews with John Milbank and Charles Mathewes available as downloads.

While I’m thinking Augustine, can anyone recommend a decent biography on Augustine? I have read a few older biographies, and I own, but have not yet read, Augustine: A New Biography by James O’Donnell. And I’m wondering about I’ve just purchased Peter Brown’s book Augustine of Hippo: A Biography which Diarmaid MacCulloch cites favourably. Other recommendations? Warnings?

On self-appointed contemporary guardians of orthodoxy

‘There are two things the self-appointed contemporary guardians of orthodoxy seem to forget: (1) orthodoxy was never a guarantee of certainty, but of mystery; and (2) the opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy.

Augustine spoke to the first point when he reminded us that after we have said everything we can about God we must remember that the God we have described is still not the God who is. As Daniel Migliore has said: “True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says we reach a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.” The goal of orthodoxy is to resist the simplistic reductions of irreconcilable realities, realities which invite (even demand) continued interrogation.

George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom C. S. Lewis called his greatest influence, speaks to the second point in his fairy tale, The Princess and the Goblin: “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less.” The church is not a club; least of all the kind of club with which you beat others over the head.

MacDonald’s admonition is just as important to theology as is Augustine’s, and perhaps even more crucial for the church to hear today. A church rattled by threats from without and within is tempted to retreat into a cocoon of fideism, demanding the unquestioning belief of adherents. But a retrenched faith lacks the energy, imagination and love to engage the world for the sake of the gospel, and a defensive faith tends to prosecute its most creative minds and adventurous spirits precisely when it needs them most’. – Michael Jinkins, ‘Orthodoxy as guarantor of mystery‘.

Around the traps …

I’ve really had no time for blogging of late, but there’s been some good reads around the traps:

In their combination of a sophisticated philosophy with religious aspiration, the pagan Neoplatonists had only one serious rival-Christianity, and, anti-Christian though they were, it was the incorporation of their ideas into Christian theology that ensured their permanent influence on European culture. (p. viii).

The principal figure in the transmission of Neoplatonist thought into Christian theology is St. Augustine. (p. 177)

Rereading Historical Theology

Our good friends at Wipf and Stock have announced the arrival of a new book, Rereading Historical Theology: Before, During, and After Augustine, by Margaret R. Miles. The blurb reads:

Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most influential author in the history of Christian thought and institutions. Yet he has been revered by some reviewers and vilified by others. Contemporary critical approaches to historical authors can illuminate features of Augustine’s thought and activities that are not noticed when reviewers’ attention is either exclusively sympathetic or intransigently critical. Anyone who seeks to present an Augustine who has relevance for the twenty-first century must somehow hold together delight in the beauty of his prose and the profundity of his thought with dismay over some of the intentions and effects of his teachings. The essays in this book endeavor to read Augustine simultaneously critically and appreciatively. Miles places his thought in the context of his classical heritage and notices how pervasive in later Christian authors are the themes that informed Augustine’s thought. Understanding his writings as a passionate effort to describe a metaphysical universe that accounts for the endlessly fascinating mystery of embodied life makes many of Augustine’s proposals accessible, useful, and delightful in the context of contemporary quandaries and issues. His conclusions are less important than his method: In Augustine, knowledge and life mutually illuminate, energize, and critique each other, exemplifying the practice of a fully human life. Exploring some of his most persistent themes, these essays seek to show Augustine’s theology works.

James Wetzel, of Villanova University, writes: ‘In this collection of sixteen of her best essays, she tracks the ambivalences in Augustine’s love of the flesh, finds a Platonism with an earthly pull, sustains her sense of an antique social location, and finishes with a flourish of mystics and reformers—all successors to an Augustinian passion. An historian of great cultural sensitivity, Miles is not afraid to meet the past under the skin of contemporary life (where it, in fact, has always been). In the art of critical sympathy, she has no peer’.

More information here.

Biography in Brief – Augustine

‘Biography … is more than information; it is commentary and key’. So wrote James Orr in reference to Augustine. So what is the premiere commentary we have on Augustine? For many, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1967, revised edition 2000, tops the list. Though I am not qualified to suggest what might be the most helpful biography on Augustine, and I haven’t read O’Donnell’s latest offering, certainly Brown has done us a great service with this revised biography, assisting us (with brief chapters and tonnes of great quotations) to enter into the thought and sitz im leben of Hippo’s most famous citizen.

The book also includes an epilogue dealing with some of Augustine’s unearthed new writings (re)discovered since the first (1967) edition of this work. It is encouraging to see that interest in Augustine continues, perhaps more than ever, not least because the last time Augustine was taken seriously we had a reformation.

Book excerpt:

‘Not every man lives to see the fundamentals of his life’s work challenged in his old age. Yet this is what happened to Augustine during the Pelagian controversy. At the time that the controversy opened, he had reached a plateau. He was already enmeshed in a reputation that he attempted to disown with characteristic charm: “Cicero, the prince of Roman orators,” he wrote to Marcellinus in 412, “says of someone that ‘He never uttered a word which he would wish to recall.’ High praise indeed! – but more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man . . . If God permit me, I shall gather and point out, in a work specially devoted to this purpose, all the things which justly displease me in my books: then men will see that I am far from being a biased judge in my own case . . . For I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress – by writing.”‘