When reading the history of the church, cultural context matters. As doctrine developed throughout the centuries, for better or worse, such development arose from contextual questions and cultural issues. Understanding such influences often yields clues towards better historical awareness. The personal experience of individuals also helps us decipher why they asked certain questions. Both context and personality are thus important for appreciating the church’s theology. Enter Augustine of Hippo.
Justo González is an eminent church historian and author of the two-volume The Story of Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010) and the three-volume History of Christian Thought (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014). In The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures, Gonzalez proposes a lens for reading Augustine—mestizaje. This term, arising out of the Latin social experience, is Spanish for “mixed breed.” Like most pejorative terms, mestizaje eventually came to be embraced as a positive social marker. More recently the term conveys the “experience of someone in the overlap among several cultures and political and social entities” (p. 15). Gonzalez clarifies, “This means that when I study Augustine and his theology I do so in terms of who I am, how I understand myself, and the main concerns and interests not only of myself of an individual but also of the community which I belong” (p. 14).
Though we should seek to understand Augustine on his own terms, we can’t help but approach him (or any historical figure or event for that matter) from “the lenses of a Christian and of a Christian community in the 21st century” (p. 14). Gonzalez adds that Mestizajes “live amid several realities, many for them clashing among themselves” (p. 17). Gonzalez calls readers to approach Augustine and “the entire history of the church from the perspective of mestizaje and of the manner in which it points to the future” (p. 18).
Various cultural factors interacted in Roman North Africa and informed Augustine’s theological and ministerial context. These cultural identities were “sometimes intermingling and sometimes in conflict” (p. 24). Punic, or Berber, culture mixed with Roman culture, though the relationship wasn’t always amicable. Augustine’s family existed between these two competing poles. One pole was his father Patricius and his Roman heritage. The other pole was his mother Monica, representing the dual heritage of Berber traditions and Christian faith.
Augustine’s search for wisdom following his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius set his trajectory as a philosophical mestizaje. Educated as a rhetorician, finding himself among the Manicheans, and steeped in Neoplatonic thought, the pre-conversion Augustine approached the Christian faith with a philosophical potpourri. In his encounters with the famed Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397), Augustine signals his inclination towards Roman ideals of oratory. Augustine’s early interest in the Christian preaching of Ambrose was simply to assess “his eloquence to see whether it matched its reputation” (Confessions 5.13.23). Bending his ear to Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine began to resolve some of his doubts about the God spoken of within Scripture. Gonzalez writes, “Upon listening to Ambrose Augustine was able to join the Roman culture of his father to his mother’s faith” (p. 44).
The conversion and public baptism of Marius Victorinus (a respected philosopher and rhetor) further exposed Augustine’s conflicted heart. Augustine stood at another crossroads of whether to accept the “faith suited for such Berbers as his mother” or remain committed to “the beauties and wisdom of Greco-Roman knowledge and literature” (p. 47). It would be the culmination of these events which would lead Augustine, prompted by the ominous children’s chanting of “take up and read” the words of Paul, to sense “the light of certainty” flooding into his heart in which “all dark shades of doubt fled away” (Confessions 8.12.26).
Gonzalez does well to focus on the pastoral life of Augustine. With a shepherd’s crook in one hand and a pen in another, Augustine’s pursuit of God would necessarily be a pastoral one. His pastoral task explains his various writings amid the Donatist and Pelagian controversies, as well as numerous sermons. Gonzalez notes that in his sermons “we see Augustine as a shepherd seeking to feed his flock and to instruct and correct it when necessary” (p. 72). Further invoking the mestizo motif, Augustine’s time as a Manichaean “hearer” greatly aided his efforts to combat Manichaean errors.
In both the Donatist and Pelagian controversies, there are many mestizo characteristics on display. Gonzalez places a heavy emphasis on the clash between Roman identity and Berber identity noting, “The Donatist schism ... was not so much a matter of theology as of cultural, social, and economic conflicts” (p. 123). In the Pelagian controversy, the influence of Roman legal training upon Pelagius seems to have propelled his formulation of human responsibility. The disposition of Pelagius and Augustine, informed by their own personal history, couldn’t be more dissimilar. One’s willpower was on full, the other’s on empty. For one grace was useful, and for the other grace was absolutely necessary.
In his City of God, Augustine fully embraces “the possibility of living Monica’s faith within Patrick’s culture” (p. 166). Believers in Christ are a community and society unto themselves, citizens of heaven, yet not as citizens unconcerned with the health and welfare of the earthly city. City of God served as a bridge-way text, informing the medieval age on antiquity as well as providing a foundation for how the church viewed itself and its place in the world. The mestizo Augustine, as Gonzalez argues, “served “as a bridge between the Greco-Roman past that was waning and the new regime that was dawning,” namely, the entirety of Western Christendom (p. 166).
In The Mestizo Augustine, Gonzalez demonstrates the importance of understanding social history for the Christian theologian and historian. Augustine provides an archetypal example. Intermediate readers of Augustine will be familiar with most of the book’s content. That said, I truly appreciated Gonzalez’s focus on Augustine as pastor as the context for much of his theology. Additionally, he reminds us that our theology is never divorced from our cultural milieu and personal histories. There’s no greater reminder of this than Augustine standing at the precipice of late antiquity looking over the edge to the next era of human history. Scholars should be cautious when seeking to dissect Augustine with the scalpel of social history. History is messy. Gonzalez flirts with this line at times, but still affirms Augustine’s Christian identity as the primary guiding force.
This book is also for those who live in “mestizo” times. We live in a globalized society of mixed heritages, oftentimes competing. In 2008, America elected a president who himself represents a mestizaje of African and White heritage. In the 2016 presidential election, America witnessed a clash of cultures, resulting in a political upset. Changing times are ahead in our land, whether for better or worse. With news headlines of Brexit, an overwhelming Syrian refugee crisis, and global terrorism, questions of cultural/social/religious identity remain as relevant as ever. We’ve yet to see the full extent to how these cultural issues will inform our theology and gospel witness.
Gonzalez delivers a usable history for the next generation of Augustine readers, giving us permission to ask how our own mestizje informs who we are and what we value.