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Hearing Augustine’s Question: A Report (of sorts) on “Teaching the Intellectual Tradition: Augustine Across the Curriculum”

Today’s guest post is from Ian Clausen, a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology at Valparaiso University.   Ian’s current book project is The Weight of Love in St. Augustine, which explores themes of moral theology and psychology in the thought of the Bishop of Hippo, giving particular attention to Augustine’s Christian philosophy of education.

Clausen, Ian - smI recently attended a conference at Samford University, Birmingham AL, devoted to the subject of teaching St. Augustine. The conference was part of a series called “Teaching the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” accompanied with the delightfully vague subtitle, “Augustine Across the Curriculum.” By all accounts the conference was a wild success. I had the privilege of presenting a paper, one among several delivered over the weekend (Oct. 2-4), and came away confirmed in my decision to study Augustine as a figure of importance in Western intellectual history. Yet the conference was neither aimed at the Augustinian guild nor intended—at least not consciously—to indulge in hagiography. Scholars from diverse backgrounds, embracing the ethos of that much-hackneyed phrase “interdisciplinarity,” came together to explore, present, and exchange ideas on how to teach Augustine: thus assuming that Augustine has a place in the curriculum. Since I cannot speak to every paper and presentation that was given, let me confine myself to the two plenary addresses and the spirits they invoked, before offering my own reflections on what it means to “teach Augustine.”

Professor Peter Iver Kaufman (University of Richmond) delivered the first plenary paper, “Deposito Diademate: Augustine’s Emperors,” and its content certainly entertained a lively if brief discussion on the Augustinian “posture” (my word) towards worldly institutions. Against the tide of current fashions in Augustinian scholarship, though not without a sense (a welcomed sense?) of his minority interpretation, Professor Kaufman unveiled an Augustine intensely critical of prevailing power structures, and not the least bit expectant of their achieving real justice. His skepticism does not encourage a listless quietism in the face of injustice, but invites us to look for alternatives to the prevailing institutional arrangements—including, I gather, the modern university—that often perpetuate the moral poverty of the societies they inhabit. Curiously, Professor Kaufman gave “tenure” a ringing endorsement: not because it gives faculty the recognition they need or want, but because it ensures that faculty, and not bureaucrats, control the classroom! Professor Kaufman similarly argued that the Augustinian virtue of humility not only serves to call worldly systems of power into question, but also elevates alternative conceptions of the way things really change in a way that profitably expands the teacher’s moral imagination.

Similarly Professor Kristine Deede Johnson (Western Theological Seminary), delivering the second plenary address the next day, “The Justice Game: Augustine, Disordered Loves and the Temptation to Change the World,” questioned the extent to which contemporary concerns for “social justice,” another much-hackneyed phrase, can benefit from deeper exposure to Augustine’s conception of justice. If the impulse to “change the world” has its source in human effort, what to make of Augustine’s critique of human effort before grace? Surely efforts to promote justice in this world are commendable, but practical deliberation does not happen in a theoretical vacuum. It is always already inscribed within thickly layered descriptions, many of which we inherit without thinking much about them. So how do we describe/give an account of what we are doing when we do it? Such is where Augustine, with his rich and varied notion of justice, can help students to contemplate and clarify their beliefsSt. Augustine. Professor Johnson’s upcoming book on the subject of justice, The Justice Calling (co-authored by Bethany Hanke Hoang, Brazos Press: 2015), promises both to shed light on the biblical and theological grounds of justice, and to equip teachers and students to think carefully about their activism.

For both plenary presenters and the conference more generally, Augustine’s legacy still haunts the landscape of contemporary Western thought. To teach Augustine in the university is a potentially subversive act, not only because Augustine punctures the university’s sanctimonious rhetoric—he certainly does that! But also because he underwrites a different set of expectations, a different “ethic of pedagogy,” through a posture not of control but of humility and attentiveness—in a word, through love.

But as for how we teach love or embody love in the classroom, Augustine can do more than just offer us a few pointers. For love is a way of thinking as much as a way of doing, and only love can truly receive the world and teach us how to live through it. But love in response to what or who is precisely the question. Teaching Augustine exposes students a world of competing voices, all of which invite, entice, and call humanity into question. To recognize and name these voices is the work of attention, and learning how to respond to them is the charge of humility. Love, then, is inscribed within the very act of teaching: the “thing” that renders intelligible our professorial vocations. To teach love is to teach; and teaching implies an invitation. So to what are we inviting our students to perceive, acknowledge, and embrace? Augustine’s answers to that question may not be our answers, ultimately. But Augustine certainly helps us to hear the question afresh.

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