How We All Think Like Augustine
We have mentioned the Teaching Company courses on this site before; specifically, Luke Timothy Johnson's Great World Religions: Christianity and Brad Gregory's History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. This company's "Great Courses" audio and video courses are the next best thing to enrolling in university classes—and a whole lot less expensive. Through the company's website, you can find top-notch courses in the arts, sciences, and humanities taught by selected professors who are not only accomplished scholars but compelling teachers.
Eastern University's Phillip Cary starts his Teaching Company course Augustine: Philosopher and Saint with the paradoxical "bang!" embedded in the course title: "Surely," we may be tempted to think, "you can be a philosopher, or a saint … but not both." In fact, as Cary convincingly shows us, the modern stereotype of philosopher-as-rationalist-atheist doesn't work at all for ancient and late ancient philosophers such as Augustine. For those men, not only did philosophy and religion not conflict, they were part of the same pursuit. What such philosophers sought, with all their hearts as well as their minds, was the beatific vision: a divine contact as mind-blowing and world-changing as Carl Sagan's extraterrestrial Contact. Cary launches this splendid course with just this sort of insight, and before you know it, you're in late-ancient outer (and more important, inner) space with the philosopher/saint who changed the way we all think.
For Augustine is even more to the modern West than its seminal theologian. Cary shows us how, whether we are Christian or not, Westerners' very understanding of ourselves as human beings comes directly from Augustine. (For the full-blown, scholarly version of this argument, read Cary's 2003 book, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist.) When we think of ourselves as having deep, inner psychological depths, we are speaking Augustine-ese. And there is much more than this to our Augustine-ness. Cary illuminates the ways in which our understandings of such central matters as God's grace, the nature of evil and sin, and the relationship between religion and happiness have all been deeply formed by this seminal philosopher-saint.
As this list implies, the "saint" (or more accurately, "Church Father") side of Augustine's person and legacy is also carefully and artfully presented in this short course. Even as Cary clears pathways for us through some of the deeper thickets of the prolific North African's philosophical thought, he never lets us lose sight of Augustine's role as Church Father—interpreter of the Bible and teacher of Christian doctrine. We get to meet Augustine as conservator and explicator of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, elaborator of a distinctly new Christian understanding of love, and progenitor of understandings of church, sacraments, and church-state relations that have persisted as pillars of Western Christian thought until today.
This is a luminous course, well worth the $16 - $25 for the audio or video format of these twelve 30-minute lectures. (Or you can pester your local library to pick it up: The Armstrongs always check our library for Teaching Company courses before heading out on a long road trip.) I'm not ashamed to say that I learn much from these courses—not only about history but about how to teach well; Cary is one of the stronger teachers of intellectual history that I've run across. Before launching into my spring semester HS 102 course (Church in the Modern World) here at Bethel, I am looking forward to watching the DVD version of another, longer Phillip Cary course—on Martin Luther. I'll report back.
Chris Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and senior editor of Christian History & Biography.
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