Discovering Augustine, finding ourselves
How a fascinating voice from ancient times can give us confidence to live as Christians today.
An extraordinary Christian
Asked if people still need convincing of Augustine’s relevance for today, Cally recalls that every time she speaks on the subject, ‘I can see the light dawning on people’s faces.'
She continues: 'I did a study weekend for army chaplains earlier this year. It was a really hot afternoon and they looked half-asleep. I thought, "Okay, this is going to be tough." But two hours later we were so animated. The rest of the three days was just so vibrant with enthusiasm and interest. It was tremendous! And that’s not me being a good teacher – it’s Augustine being an extraordinary Christian.'
Cally explains that other great Christian writers of the period don’t tend to reveal as much of their interior lives. 'You don’t get a sense of them asking themselves, "Why do I care about this?", whereas when you read The Confessions, there it is: his interior life spread out in front of you, asking questions.'
The unsaintly saint?
But Saint Augustine does get a bad press, and Cally admits she can’t be confident she hasn’t 'cherry-picked the good bits – like everyone else cherry-picks the bad bits! I’m not saying that Augustine was a saint in the sense of being perfect.
'It is true that he says some very unpalatable things, from a modern perspective. Like he thinks that women generally aren’t as intelligent as men: they are the weaker sex, and God takes men more seriously. All that is there in his prejudices.
'But Paul also has principles and insights that say human beings are all the same, but then culture and preconceptions that say women are not quite as good as men. And there are bits in The Confessions where Augustine talks about how idiotic it is to assume that women can’t do theology or be exemplary Christians we can learn from – because look at his mother: she was as bright as any man, he says.'
It’s okay to question
What does Cally feel Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love contributes to BRF’s vision to encourage engagement with the Bible?
‘What I most hope the reader will take away from this book is the confidence to ask questions. Augustine is somebody who simply couldn’t just accept something because somebody told him to believe it. He had to make sense of it for himself. You certainly get that from reading The Confessions and I hope you get that from reading my book.
'In some Christian circles asking questions is frowned upon, but I’m absolutely sure that having the confidence to ask questions will take people deeper into God. One of the things I say to students is that there is no question you can’t ask. People shouldn’t feel guilty.
'Trying to stop people asking questions is a way of saying we don’t really believe our faith is robust enough to cope. And actually I think Christianity is well strong enough to cope with any questions the world can throw at it – and if we don’t have confidence that it has answers to life, who else is going to?'
St Augustine on Stained Glass © Thinkstock