At the moment I am reading a biography of Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, this contentious African bishop from the fourth century is known for his shaping of much of the worldview of the Western church and his promulgation of, among other things, the doctrine of original sin (perhaps that should be a capital ‘O’ and a capital ‘S’!). The conviction that humanity is trapped by a taint passed on down through the generations was a major feature of my early religious education and, even though I learned that Augustine’s view wasn’t the only one it is still a significant one. All the way through his life it seems he was haunted by the reality of human sin, of the way that although we set out with the best of intentions, to quote Paul of Tarsus we “see in (our) members another law at war with the law of (the) mind” that leads to wretchedness. This view has plenty of room for divine grace but it has still led to a lot of sadness and church manipulation.
But then I came across this from one of his sermons; “Come. His house is not too narrow for you; the kingdom of God is possessed equally by all and wholly by each one; it is nor diminished by the increasing number of those who possess it, because it is not divided. And that which is possessed by many is whole and entire for each one”. And Peter Brown’s biography reveals another side to Augustine, this time his thoughts on gardening; “When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to sort sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds. the planting of cuttings, the transplanting of shrubs, the grafting of slips? It is as though you could question the vital force in each root and bud on what it can do, and what it cannot and why”.
I embarked on Brown’s biography because I wanted to know more about this towering figure who was like all of us very much of his time with its controversies and fears. What this book (and Augustine’s own ‘Confessions’) has revealed so far is more than the stern ‘servi dei’ and Christian bishop. It is the man in his place, as surprising as it is challenging. Along with that there is a fascinating picture of African Christianity in the fading days of the Roman Empire before the Goths rewrote the map, not only of Europe, but of the Christian faith.
(Peter Brown’s biography ‘Augustine of Hippo’ comes from the University of California Press. My copy of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ is in Penguin Classics and Paul’s reflection on the human condition comes from the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans).