February 10, 2017
What Augustine Offers Our Multicultural World
Augustine, the great church father, has been such a giant on the theological landscape for so many centuries, he has become a huge, lifeless statue to some. In The Mestizo Augustine Justo González pumps life back into our view with a fresh and fascinating look at the humanity and the competing cultures at work within Augustine.
Augustine was a mix of the African heritage and faith of his mother (Monica) and the Roman culture of his father (Patrick) that he learned in school. Thus, the mestizo Augustine. Mestizaje is a Spanish word meaning mixed breed that was (and can still be) pejorative. About a century ago in Mexico, however, the word began to be used to describe an advantage--the ability to take the best from two worlds and mold it into something stronger.
We see this at work in the disagreements Augustine had with other Christian factions. On the one hand, he affirmed the Roman view that authority was conferred by the office one held whereas the Donatists took the African perspective that it resided in one's virtue and character. But when dealing with the Pelagians, he reversed course and took the African viewpoint. God's authority was found in his own person of love and grace not in his role as Judge which, according to the Pelagians, he was bound by the Law to administer with justice or be labeled capricous. Augustine was flexible and creative as required.
The bishop of Hippo, however, wasn't very self-conscious about how these two cultures were at work in and around him. He didn't seem to understand that more than theology motivated the Donatists. They resisted oppressive Roman rule (and so sometimes a Roman-dominated church) by affirming their own North African identity. The conflict was social, cultural and economic--expressed in theological differences.
Nonetheless, the overall strengths of Augustine's mixed background offer a positive model for us now as it has throughout history. The Hebrew-Gentile mestizaje of the New Testament era, the Greco-Roman mestizaje of the early church, the Latin-German mestizaje of the Middle Ages and more all point to the value (even with the inherent tensions) of weaving together multiple cultures as a pathway to creativity, vitality and mission.