The key to understanding James J. O’Donnell’s biography of Augustine is the word “new” in the subtitle. He remarks that Augustine “comes weighed down with the assumptions, expectations, and conventional narratives of many generations.” Then he asks, “Can he be set free?” O’Donnell’s book is an effort to accomplish this liberation.
To some degree the effort succeeds. O’Donnell is exceedingly well-informed, not only about Augustine but about the whole late classical world-and he looks afresh at Augustine. He does not, for example, simply tell again the familiar story of Augustine’s conversion. Rather he brings out noteworthy facts, such as the great African’s surprising lack of appreciation of the prophets. And he lays some emphasis on unattractive qualities of Augustine, such as his social climbing and political scheming. This is not to say, though, that he is bent on debunking Augustine: O’Donnell expresses a deep respect for Augustine’s intellect and spirituality. Nor is it to suggest that he is arrogant in his judgments. O’Donnell’s whole manner is unpretentious, his style casual and appealing. His book as a whole is both likable and provocative.
At the same time, though, it is sometimes disconcerting. Readers will find themselves facing some statements that are puzzling and others that are seemingly absurd. It is puzzling, for example, when O’Donnell suggests that Augustine’s whole story of the inner life and the soul might be rendered irrelevant by “a better science.” What, then, is O’Donnell’s philosophical position? Is he a potential positivist, waiting for psychology to develop into a comprehensive and exact science? Is a biography of Augustine only a makeshift until the “better science” appears? Exemplifying statements that are seemingly absurd is O’Donnell’s assertion that Christianity is not primarily a religious movement. His only defense of this astonishing proposition is that Christianity’s “fundamental impact on the world” (a phrase which seems to mark a subtle shifting of his ground) has been on “the organization of civil life and society.”
Also disconcerting, and arguably a grave flaw, is that the author’s view of Augustine seems to change as he goes along. Thus only near the end of the book does O’Donnell speak of Augustine’s “appetite for transcendence” as “the most consistent and characteristic feature of his thought.” And it is even nearer the end of the book that any mention is made of what O’Donnell calls “a consistent pattern” in all of Augustine’s writing-the individual alone with God. Most readers would expect such basic matters to be brought up early in a biography and elaborated upon throughout.
It may be asked whether a book such as I am describing is worthy of serious consideration. I think it is. Most readers, however familiar with Augustine, will learn much. But there are other unsettling statements in the book. These must be faced, and if possible they must be explained. Otherwise, they may jeopardize the reader’s openness to the insights O’Donnell provides. The following is a tentative explanation of O’Donnell’s position.
In order to examine Augustine from a new perspective, the author tries to abandon conventional perspectives. He steps outside the usual framework of interpretation. Thus, in one of the boldest, and in my mind most questionable, of such moves, O’Donnell steps outside even the framework of Christianity. He speaks, seemingly of the whole Christian narrative, and of Augustine’s main doctrines, as a “fantasy world.” He terms Christianity an “invention,” something that was devised in the fourth and fifth centuries. He apparently regards Augustine as the inventor. To put this view in its most provocative form (which O’Donnell does not do), the origins of Christianity lay not in Jesus and Paul but in Augustine. This, at least, is my own reading of O’Donnell. It is not clear whether this amounts to a confession of personal unbelief or merely to a scholarly stratagem.
As this example suggests, O’Donnell’s methodology is problematic. No one can stand outside of all frameworks; O’Donnell apparently tries to do that. He does not maintain a consistent standpoint from which to look on Augustine. The result is that a book rich in insights and learning does not present a clearly focused picture of its subject.
No less bold and questionable than trying to step outside the framework of Christianity is the posture of refusing to assume that Augustine believed in a God that present-day readers would recognize as God. We are told at the very outset that Augustine had no idea of “a single divine principle crossing all religions.” Accordingly, O’Donnell refuses throughout the book to speak of the deity Augustine worshiped as “God.” He is merely “god,” or “Augustine’s god.” Most readers will have a hard time understanding how such an interpretation can apply to a man who was engrossed in the account of Creation in Genesis 1, engaged in prolonged meditations on the Psalms, and from his earliest years came under the influence of Paul. How, above all, can it apply to the man who wrote the Confessions?
Whether it is wise or useful to bring into question Augustine’s concept of God is perhaps debatable. Another stratagem, though, seems to involve a plain and serious factual inaccuracy-an inaccuracy explicable, given O’Donnell’s very considerable learning, only on the assumption that he let himself be led into it by his basic interpretative intentions. This is his denial of “a linear descent and filiation” from Jesus to Augustine. This denial is implicit, of course, in the proposition that Augustine was the “inventor” of Christianity. But O’Donnell does not defend it, and it is hard to see how he could. He ignores facts that demonstrate continuity, namely, Augustine’s devotion to the Gospels and to the letters of Paul. Further, O’Donnell says nothing of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is almost explicit in the Gospels and the Pauline epistles, and is, of course, at the center of Augustine’s thought. And he claims, or comes close to claiming, that Augustine originated the doctrine of original sin and only alludes glancingly to the fact that the doctrine, or something close to it, is powerfully enunciated by Paul. No one reading O’Donnell can think that he is ignorant of these well-known bridges between Jesus’ time and Augustine’s. But, lacking a clear framework of interpretation, he is not as sensitive as he might otherwise have been to the danger that some of his statements will not liberate readers but will simply confuse them.
The result of this problematic strategy (if such it is) is that the emergent portrait of Augustine is not only blurred but also, at least for this reviewer, less than fully adequate. What is lacking above all is recognition that Augustine was, among many other things, a searcher for the truth. There were issues of truth-as well, no doubt, as much else-in his various doctrinal disputes, as with the Donatists and the Pelagians. And Augustine has been of interest to succeeding ages not only because he was an impassioned, embattled, and intrinsically interesting human being, but also because he clarified, and eloquently expressed, major Christian truths. These things are not denied by O’Donnell, but they are largely ignored.
My own appraisal of Augustine: A New Biography is more favorable than these comments may suggest. They are intended, as I said earlier, mainly to make readers ready for a book which will probably now and then perplex and even offend them, yet ought to be read by anyone with a serious interest in Augustine.