The first thing you need to know about St Augustine is which one you are talking about. In the UK, any church called St Augustine’s is as likely to be named after the first Archbishop of Canterbury – who helped to convert King Ethelbert in the sixth century AD – as it is to be named after Augustine of Hippo.
But it is the bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, who is much more significant in the history of Christianity.
Aurelius Augustine was born in 354 AD in the insignificant little town of Thagaste in modern-day Algeria. Although his mother was a Christian, Augustine ignored religion as a child, and then completely rejected Christianity in his teens. Instead, inspired by a work of philosophy by the famous orator Cicero, he spent the next decade of his life trying to find the answers to life, the universe and everything by other routes. He briefly considered astrology, before plunging headlong into the frankly bizarre pseudo-Christian religion known as Manichaeism.
The prophet Mani taught that the forces of light (ie God) were constantly at war with the forces of darkness, both in the universe and in individuals; the death of Jesus on the cross was a metaphor for the suffering experienced by all of creation in the battle of good versus evil. This was an attractive doctrine for a young man who struggled with self-control and already had an illegitimate child with his girlfriend, much to his mother’s distress. Augustine could attribute the failings in his behaviour to the alien forces of darkness rather than himself.
Unfortunately for his conscience, the further Augustine advanced in Manichaeism, the more he learnt of its secret ‘wisdom’, in which the forces of light were strengthened by the flatulence of the Elect. This was a group of celibate vegetarians who ate food prepared by converts, and burped the particles of light up to the moon, causing it to become full before discharging its cargo of light particles to the sun. Augustine, who knew a thing or two about astronomy, didn’t find these theories very convincing.
He had almost given up on the search for truth altogether, when his glittering career as a civil servant took him to Milan. There he heard Bishop Ambrose preach a very philosophical take on the Bible that Augustine could easily identify with. After an intense struggle with his own self-will, Augustine converted to Christianity at the age of 32, and threw himself into it with his characteristic enthusiasm.
THEOLOGIAN AND WITTY ORATOR
Even though Augustine wanted to spend his life in quiet theological contemplation after he became a Christian, he found himself unwillingly drawn onto the world stage of philosophy. He was forcibly elected priest and then bishop of the large town of Hippo Regius (the ancient approach to avoiding a vacancy), and his own respect for truth would not allow him to keep his head down in matters of doctrine.
Augustine weighed in on all the major theological debates of the day. He had been trained as an orator in the classical tradition, and his acerbic wit and irresistible logic won him debates against his former Manichean colleagues and the Donatists, a breakaway Church that believed that the mainstream Church was impure and unforgiven. Augustine took a stance against the Arians, who believed that Jesus was not fully God, and formulated the most complete doctrine of the Trinity that anyone had ever produced.
He spent the declining years of his life railing against Pelagianism, a heresy named after the British monk Pelagius who believed that God’s grace is not necessary to overcome sin; human self-control is adequate. For Augustine, who never managed to control his sexual appetite or his ambition before receiving Jesus, God’s grace was absolutely indispensable.
Fall of an empire
‘May you live in interesting times’ is said to be an ancient Chinese curse. Augustine lived in the most interesting of times. Although his early life and education were much the same as Roman boys had experienced for centuries, the 1,000-year-old civilisation was coming to an end. In his lifetime Augustine saw two revolts in Africa, three uprisings by selfdeclared emperors, a legitimate emperor killed in battle, and the city of Rome sacked by the Goths. By the end of his life, the barbarian hordes were literally at the gates; Augustine died in Hippo in 430 AD while it was under siege from the Vandals.
Part of Augustine’s impact was the introduction of monasticism to Africa. He brought back with him a love of the retired, contemplative life that he had embraced after his conversion in Italy, and even when he became a priest in the city of Hippo, he chose to continue living a simple life in a celibate community. The bishop of Hippo granted him some land for the purpose and his ‘Monastery in the Garden’ became a training ground for priests and bishops throughout North Africa. His community inspired others through the centuries until they were formed, unsurprisingly, into the Order of Augustine.
To say Augustine was a prolific writer would be an understatement. He wrote almost 100 works, from brief treatises to his magnum opus (with the emphasis on magnum), the doorstopper City of God, which comprehensively rejects the idea that the decline of Rome was due to its abandoning the pagan gods in favour of Christianity. He also wrote scores of letters and gave frequent sermons, hundreds of which were copied down either for posterity and further study, or to save local priests from having to write their own. Augustine wrote so much, in fact, that to this day it hasn’t all been translated into modern English.
He had an opinion on everything, from the nature of God to table manners, but it is his opinions on sex and original sin that he is generally remembered for today. Augustine wasn’t sure how sin was passed on from generation to generation since the Fall, but he was sure that every human being was born with an unavoidable tendency towards sin, with a will that was warped to pursue its own selfish ends instead of God’s – a view that still influences our thinking today. This was mainly a response to Pelagianism, which reckoned that people are basically good and are able to choose God’s will voluntarily. Augustine recognised sin in himself (and everyone else) even from earliest childhood, and his own experience had taught him that he could not master his own sinful desires without help from God.
Augustine famously renounced marriage when he became a Christian, breaking off a socially advantageous engagement (for which he had dumped his long-term girlfriend) and embracing the celibate life. He went on to write that celibacy was preferable to marriage, and that sexual desire within marriage was a sin, albeit a forgivable one. This has led to Augustine being accused of hating sex and pleasure, and of being responsible for the warped views of human sexuality in the medieval church and beyond, even down to the toe-curling awkwardness and anxiety about ‘that sort of thing’ sometimes found in the Church today.
You can certainly come up with this sort of view by reading (some of) Augustine’s writings, but it’s not entirely fair. What Augustine said appears extreme when it is removed from its context, but within that context it looks quite different. Much of what he wrote about sexual desire being a sin was written in response to Pelagian views about self-control, and was influenced by his own background, in which a lack of sexual self-control was a perennial problem. Augustine equated sexual desire (and overeating, for that matter) with lack of control, which he saw as the essence of sin.
It’s also worth remembering that Augustine was writing at a time when celibacy was all the rage among ‘career Christians’ and there were those (such as Jerome) who thought that there was no place for sex or marriage in Christianity at all. Augustine, by contrast, wrote a treatise called ‘On the Benefits of Marriage’, and concluded that there were some – namely procreation, fidelity, and the reflection, in a mysterious way, of the relationship between Christ and the Church. He didn’t even see sexual pleasure as sinful, provided it was only a byproduct rather than the purpose. Augustine wouldn’t have been a fan of The Joy of Sex, but he was, by the standards of his time, pretty moderate on the topic. What he was unbending on was humanity’s absolute sinfulness and desperate need for reconciliation with God through grace.
In his own words
You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Confessions 1.1
People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars – but they are not interested in themselves. Confessions 10.15
No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. On Christian Doctine 1.27
Longing is always a prayer, even though the tongue is silent. If you are longing without interruption, then you are always praying. When does our prayer sleep? Only when our desire cools. Sermon 80.7
[The Lord] consoles [those who serve him] when they hope, encourages them when they love, helps them when they try and hears them when they pray. On Nature and Grace 81
Karen Murdarasi is the author of Augustine: The Truth Seeker (Christian Focus Publications)