Sunday, June 7, 2009

Brown on Frederiksen on Augustine on the progressivism of the mainline Christianity of late antiquity

"the Christians of the second and third centuries were caught in the grip of a peculiarly late-antique high-mindedness. They strove for the spiritual. Worse than that, they believed strongly in progress. They looked to a bright future, freed from the weight of the past. For them, history was junk. And the worst junk they could imagine was Judaism. Here, they thought, was a religion irreparably locked into the material world. It imposed circumcision on the penis, the most intimate and distastefully material part of the entire body. It favored fecundity and warfare. It practiced blood sacrifice. Its worshippers remained locked into the past, through nostalgia for a temple whose destruction by the Romans had declared Judaism as a whole to be passé. . . . When Constantine unexpectedly became a Christian in 312, it was this image of a squeaky-clean Christianity, committed to the spiritual and purged of the past, that drew the attention of a crowned revolutionary. The past could be junked. Judaism and paganism alike could be declared, by imperial fiat, to belong to the dust heap of history.
"It was this conglomerate of confident notions that Augustine found himself confronting. They might not have challenged him if they had not been presented by advocates of Manichaeism, a sect to which he himself had adhered for twelve years as a young man. Today, Manichaeism tends to be treated as weird and wonderful, and even as slightly ridiculous--at best, a New Age fad. But it was not its exotic features that made Manichaeism so hated by the local clergy in Augustine's era. It was its troubling resemblance to mainline Christianity. Believers in Manichaeism claimed that it was the reformed, the true 'spiritual' Christianity of their age. As a result, the attitudes of the Manichees toward Jews and Judaism, and, above all, toward the body and the past, were a caricature of the high-minded progressivism of mainline Christians. . . .
". . . it is Frederiksen's insight to have realized how this singularly forbidding vision of the human condition enabled Augustine, within a few years, to emerge (in Against Faustus) with a view of the world of the Old Testament in general and the Jews of his own time in particular that is startlingly different from that of his Christian contemporaries. . . .
"What needs to be stressed is the imaginative upshot of Augustine's prolonged intellectual struggle. Basically, it was about how much of the past could be condemned to the past, and how much could be allowed to linger, like a majestic shade, in the present. Unlike his more euphoric contemporaries, Augustine thought that Judaismm could never be totally transcended, for the simple reason that the human condition itself admitted no startling fresh departures. Nor could the Judaism of ancient times be dismissed as a religion, irreparably tarnished (in the eyes of Christians) by disquieting overtones of physicality, for the simple reason that physicality itself was neutral. Material existence placed no bar between human beings and God. All that counted was God's will.
"If that was so, Augustine went on to argue, then God was free to leave the signs of His will as deep in flesh and blood as He wished. He could leave his mark on penises. He could bless sexual fertility and look with favor on a multiplicity of wives. He could ask for the shedding of blood in sacrifice. He could create an entire kingdom and a mighty temple supported by the wealth of a nation. These were God's great words--each of them impenitently heavy with materiality--by which he spoke to the world through a chosen group of human beings, the Jews.
"The history of Israel and of its institutions acquired a new majesty in this reading. They were like a mighty poem that unfolded across the centuries. The lived experience of Jews under the Law might seem mysterious and even alien to human judgment; but what was certain was that the life of the people of Israel had never been either trivial or disgusting, as so many 'spiritual' Christians (quite as much as Manichees) were tempted to believe. . . . Against so many of his contemporaries, 'Augustine insisted that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a witness to it.' Jews and Judaism could never be put into the past. In an age in which so much of previous history was being flattened by Christian intolerance, they were to continue to stand out, protected by the aura of their own, God-given past.
"In this way Augustine paused, for a moment, to bestow a deeply considered majesty upon what was to most of his contemporaries a peculiarly alien and distant fragment of the history of the ancient Middle East. To have done this was no small contribution to the emergent civilization of the medieval West. It is good for a culture to have to grapple with pasts that will not go away. A touch of an older, alien dispensation added moral roughage to a world that could all too easily have closed in upon itself. In future centuries, monks who were tempted to flee the body had to come to terms with stories of multiply married patriarchs on whom the blessing of God had fallen quite as majestically as on their own, highly spiritual ways of life. Missionaries who were tempted to expunge ancient ways in distant, barbarian lands had to realize that they carried with them a canon of the Holy Scriptures that had found a place for polygamy and for the observance of taboo, and that had described with archaic vigor the rise and fall of warlords not unlike members of their own flock.
"Under the shadow of the distant majesty allowed by Christian followers of Augustine to the Jews, other pasts sidled back into the Middle Ages. Ancient gods began to walk the land again, like deposed dynasties, pushed to one side by the new religion, but never entirely exiled from the present, whether in the woods of Scandanavia or among the ruins of postclassical Rome. Above all, the ancient pagans joined the Patriarchs. Virgil, appearing before Dante on the edge of the underworld, like 'one who seemed hoarse from long silence,' was the imaginative heir of Augustine's long search, in the depths of biblical time, for an age whose heroes would never ben 'condemned to history.' Little did Augustine know it, but the imaginative richness of Europe was at stake. In the words of the seventeenth-century clergyman and poet George Herbert: 'If the Jews live, all the great wonders of old live in them.'"


Peter Brown, reviewing Paula Frederiksen's Augustine and the Jews: a Christian defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008), in "A surprise from Saint Augustine," New York review of books 56, no. 10 (June 11, 2009): 41-42.

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