Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life
Meilaender, Gilbert. The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006.
The Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is. ”So declares Orual, Queen of Glome, in C. S. Lewis’s magisterial retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Cutting sharply against the grain not only of the declamations of modern skeptics such as Freud and Feuerbach, but of the ever-alluring fashions of our consumer society as well, Orual’s dark wisdom confronts us with a disturbing insight into mortal life: sharing the universe with the divine is in fact no pleasure cruise.
Of course, long before Freud and Feuerbach modern religious skeptics adopted the practice of caricaturing traditional religious faith as merely a pill, an irrational palliative that protects the weak against the harsh realities of honest, authentic living. It has indeed become unquestioned wisdom among many modern and postmodern secular intellectuals that, in our enlightened age of science, faith in God is attractive only because it offers an “easy way out.” With an ironic twist of logic, C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces turns this modern secular agenda on its head. Through the drama of Orual’s dawning recognition of the grasping and rapacious nature of her own heart, we confront the ironic truth that it is in fact our inveterate human demand for autonomy, not the tyrannical love of the divine, that most deeply alienates us from ourselves and those we love. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that of the many fine Christian thinkers writing in the last fifty years, few have been more courageous and outspoken in advocating the wisdom of Orual and debunking the myth of Christian faith as “easy comfort” than Gilbert Meilaender, Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University and one of the finest C. S. Lewis scholars writing in the past fifty years. Indeed, since the publication of his Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis (Eerdmans, 1978), Meilaender has been defending an intellectually unpopular conviction shared by such Christian writers as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and Saint Augustine: living a truthful human life means relinquishing the comforting dogma of autonomous existence and following the far more difficult way of the cross. Such a life of utter dependence on the true “other” (God) may well promise ultimate and final bliss, but in the here and now it calls us to the life of renunciation and thereby inevitably wounds us deeply.
Certainly from the vantage point of sincere Christian conviction, the wisdom of Orual offers a much-needed antidote to contemporary consumer culture’s aggressively marketed ethos of self-absorption, personal autonomy, and cheap, therapeutic grace. Saint Paul sought to deliver Corinthian Christians from the swirling vortex of enticing but inordinate Corinthian pleasures. Similarly, Christians living today desperately need to hear wise voices within the church reminding us of the hard truth that being a follower of Jesus in our culture of consumption still means renouncing not only our cravings but our inveterate and insistent desire to dictate, orchestrate, and control our own destinies. As Orual declares, “That there should be gods at all, there’s our misery and bitter wrong.... We want to be on our own.”
The list of Gilbert Meilaender’s earlier contributions to the world of Christian thought is substantial. Of his most instructive works in ethics and theology ,two in particular ought to be acknowledged as classics in their field: The Taste for the Other, an authoritative study of the social and political thought of C. S. Lewis, and Bioethics (Eerdmans,2005),arguably the most subtle, principled, and erudite work in twentieth-century bioethics written from a Christian vantage point. Building on this strong foundation, The Way That Leads There provides an original and invaluable addition to Meilaender’s already impressive array of writings on the Christian life. In this recent work, Meilaender provides us with a unique work of Christian scholarship relying on the thought of Saint Augustine to delve deeply into the life of faith while at the same time keeping clearly before our minds the restlessness, discontent, and pain that are essential to an authentic life of faith. Meilaender chooses Augustine as his primary guide for the task of reflecting on some of the greatest ethical challenges of the Christian life; he does so not because Augustine always gets things right but because Augustine possesses the unique ability to “worry about things” (ix). In other words Augustine has the rare capacity to examine, ponder, and argue profoundly, all the while recognizing that we are mere mortal human beings who even at our very best “see through a glass darkly.” The Way That Leads There is thus a book written not so much to tell us about Augustine as to help us think and struggle with Augustine; most impressively, this is a book that returns to Saint Augustine in order to “free us from the limits that confine us” (x)—in order to reflect, that is, on the meaning of faith with renewed vigor and truthfulness. In so doing, The Way That Leads There is a work of uncommon wisdom, providing Christians in our hyper-materialistic world addicted to comfort with the very tonic we so desperately need.
The Way That Leads There sets out by exploring the problematic nature of Augustine’s eudaimonism and the recurring tension between our human desire for happiness and the demands that moral duty place upon us. Exposing the teleological gap between the ideal unity and happiness we yearn for, on the one hand, and the demands of moral duty and the limits of our human capacities, on the other, Meilaender engages the reader in a series of subtle and balanced conversations on the nature and limits of politics, the meaning of human sexuality in God’s creation, and the significance of grief for human beings who ultimately must learn to love God as their only final and highest good. As Meilaender relies on Augustine to guide us through these complex issues, we are led to appreciate the paradox inherent in Augustine’s profound insight that “our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.” From Augustine’s perspective, to be human is to yearn for what we can never, in our earthly lives, fully possess. Those ultimate blessings we long for—the exhilarating experience of the unity of duty and happiness, the secure enjoyment of rest and communion in the presence of divine beauty, and the transformation of the self into a renewed self capable of rejoicing in and adoring God—lie painfully outside our mortal grasp. So, echoing Augustine, Meilaender sums up the human condition in terms of an arresting and daunting existential choice: “[w]e can have a sham happiness that will not really satisfy—or we can relinquish the desire to grasp the happy life here and now, leaving open in our being a gaping wound that God must fill in His own good time” (19).
A brief review can in no way do justice to the richness and ingenuity of Meilaender’s arguments. In what follows I will try merely to highlight some of the particularly fine reasoning Meilaender exhibits throughout his reflections. In the first two chapters, Meilaender primarily aspires to clarify and defend Augustine’s vision of the human heart. In chapter one he defends Augustine’s Christian eudaimonism against three important objections: (1) that Augustine’s basic thesis that all human beings ultimately need God in order to find lasting and true happiness degrades God into a mere instrument or object of human desire; (2) that Augustine’s doctrine of the restless human heart essentially downplays fundamental disagreements among world religions and promotes a bland, anthropocentric religiosity; (3) that Augustine’s vision of final rest in God presents us with tyrannical God whose demand for total devotion precludes all loves for the merely finite. In other words, love of God, who is our all-sufficient, sovereign good, suffocates love of neighbor, friend, parent, or child. In defending Augustine, Meilaender provides an impressively balanced and subtle analysis of Augustine’s complex understanding of cupiditas and caritas.
So, for example, Meilaender offers a sympathetic and compelling refutation of Anders Nygren’s contention that Augustine’s eudaimonism “degrades” God by reducing God to nothing more than an object or instrument for satisfying human longing. Nygren’s fundamental error, as Meilaender deftly shows, is to fail to distinguish healthy from unhealthy forms of need-love. Contrary to Nygren, need-love need not be selfish love. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis explains so elegantly in the Four Loves, while human need-love may certainly become corrupted and devolve into a grasping selfishness, to be needy per se cannot be a moral defect for it is fundamental and appropriate to our creaturely nature. Indeed, we are by nature erotic beings who can fully become ourselves most fully only by acknowledging our neediness and transcending our isolated, private selves. So healthy need-love is essential to our creaturely nature, reminding us that we are not self-creators. Need-love of God in particular is certainly not reducible to a proud, self-centered, and self-absorbed preference for self. On the contrary, as Meilaender shows in his analysis of Augustine’s writings, only by transforming human need-love can the Holy Spirit deliver us from our excessive preoccupation with our own private, egocentric desires. Like Orual, we must learn how to need God. We must be led outside of ourselves and toward God Who alone is truly good in and of Himself. Thus, paradoxically, as human beings who are meant to flourish only in and though God’s perfect gift-love, we find our way home and satisfy our deepest desires only by losing ourselves in the presence of a God whose worth is not of our own making, relinquishing our egoistic tendency to possess and control our highest good as if it were our own. In uniting our entire selves to the God of perfect love, Meilaender observes, “anthropocentrism will have been overthrown as, simultaneously, the anthropos is fulfilled” (21).
Meilaender is similarly subtle and lucid in defending Augustine against the charge that love of God obliterates love of neighbor. Here Meilaender wisely diagnoses and remedies Martha Nussbaum’s aversion to transcendence (“Augustine and Dante on the Ascent of Love” in Gareth B. Matthews, ed. The Augustinian Tradition, Berkeley, 1999), clarifying how Augustine’s vision of the ascent to divine love transforms rather than nullifies love of neighbor. Yet while he argues in favor of Augustine’s fundamental philosophy of caritas, Meilaender acknowledges the serious spiritual difficulty all human beings encounter in learning how to love God and neighbor in a healthy and uncorrupted fashion. As Meilaender himself confesses,
It is not easy to find language in which to express clearly the proper way to love something that is good, but good only relatively—something that has real but not ultimate value because it has no existence apart from its participation in the life that comes from God. Rather than saying it is not right to love earthly things, we should say we do not know the right way to love them. (155)
As Augustine so profoundly understood, philosophizing about the spiritual transformation of our imperfect and corrupted human loves is not the same as daily struggling to hold on to “the Way That Leads there.” Learning how to love requires more than thinking—perhaps an obvious truth, but one that professional theologians and philosophers need to be reminded of, at least once in a while.
The Way That Leads There is certainly not a one-sided work defending Augustine at all costs and against any and all contenders. While Meilaender endorses Augustine’s basic Christian teleology and chastened conception of the nature of politics, he also finds that Augustine at times overlooks the complexities inherent in some important human capacities and practices. Augustine’s account of the proper ends or goods of such human activities as eating and sexual union suffers, according to Meilaender from an unfortunate narrowness. Meilaender argues that Augustine fails to see the plurality of proper ends internal to the activities of both sexual union and the eating of food. Indeed, Augustine’s regards the good of sex in a way similar to that of food: both serve the human being as a kind of medicine. For Augustine the sole purpose of sex is procreation, that of food, mere nourishment of the body. Though Meilaender criticizes Augustine for characterizing these human activities in too restricted a fashion, he nevertheless gives Augustine his proper due. Despite the shortcomings of his understanding, Augustine reminds us that properly enacted eating and sexual activity must lead us to affirm goods outside of ourselves and should not serve merely for our autonomous, private self-gratification.
Meilaender’s chapter on Augustine’s chastened conception of politics should be required reading in all courses in political philosophy. Quoting Jean Bethke Elshtain, Meilaender notes “If Augustine is a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all, he similarly torments cynics who disdain any project of human community, or justice, or possibility” (79). According to Meilaender, Augustine embraces a subtle historical agnosticism: avoiding the errors of Christian triumphalism and millenarianism, as well as the vice of despair and cynicism toward the political realm, Augustine urges us to seek the well-being of the civitas terrena without overlooking the fact that no human institution caught in the struggle between earthly and heavenly loves ever will be free of discord, dissension, and division. On Meilaender’s reading, Augustine thus provides us with a “chastened but not denuded politics.” Turning then to an illuminating critique of Rawls, Meilaender proceeds to expose the incoherence of the secular liberal’s insistence on a rigid and simplistic separation of the religious and the political. To be sure Christian citizens of the civitas terrena must not confuse political power with that of the Holy Spirit: “[C]hristians in public service should decline to use political power to (attempt to) create faith precisely because they take seriously their Christian commitments—among them the belief that God wills to work faith not through the sword but through the work of the gospel and the testimony of the Holy Spirit” (102). Yet as Meilaender is careful to remind us, Augustine was not himself always consistent in his own thinking on the proper relationship of the two cities. By working through Augustine’s complex thoughts, however, Meilaender contends we can nevertheless find in them a coherent and compelling vision of church and state. At his best, Augustine reminds us that, at bottom, liberalism and conservatism are not only compatible but inseparable. Being free, both for individuals and for communities, requires conserving what is just and true in our historical traditions without falling prey to the idolatry that confuses the ideal with the actual. As Augustine argues, we must resist confusing patriotism with righteousness, and we must never forgot the immense distance separating the deficient and often disappointing church from the perfect and unblemished Lamb who is her true life, true authority, and true integrity.
To be sure some readers will bristle at the Augustinian humility and “ethics of heteronomy” that pervade Meilaender’s text. The Way That Leads There prevents a powerfully counter-cultural vision of human life as wholly and utterly dependent upon God’s grace. In an age clamoring for the separation of amor sui and amor Dei, this is not a work one expects to see lauded in the party periodicals of the cultural elites. Yet for those sympathetic to the life of faith, a close reading of The Way That Leads There is anything but a journey into despair. It is a most informative and hopeful work embodying the kind of truthful and robust Christian vision of life that Flannery O’Connor terms “Christian realism.” Ultimately, Meilaender’s reflections on “the Way That Leads there” call to mind Saint Paul’s Christian realism regarding the place of struggle and suffering in the journey of faith. As Paul confesses to his Corinthian brothers and sisters, “[w]e were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life. But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead. Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us” (2 Cor. 1.8–10).
James R. Peters,
The University of the South