Augustine for Today

I was recently in church when a man
in the congregation stood up and
said, “Look, I know you are all going
to disagree and maybe hate me for saying
this, but I do think that God makes
junk. I’m junk. I’m completely mad. I
look pretty normal today, but that’s the
meds. Really I’m completely
bonkers. I’m junk. But
that’s okay because we are
all broken. We’re all junk.
That’s how God made us.”

This was slightly less
startling than it might
have been elsewhere. The
context was a post-sermon
talk-back session in an urban
church-start. We were
sitting in folding chairs
in a room sandwiched between
an Ethiopian restaurant
and a karate studio.

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The pastor’s sermon had
been on God’s love of oddballs
and, as you may have
guessed, he had used the
bromide “God don’t make no junk” more
than once. Still, this man (a first-time
attender) was clearly testing how serious
we were about this idea of embracing
the oddball.

Several people, including the pastor,
tried to reassure him that disagreement
was okay but that in fact
we mostly agreed–yes, we are all broken.
It just that being broken and being
junk were not the same thing. The
man shot back that now we were just
playing with semantics. His vocabulary
must have presented a challenge to the
young lady who spoke up to say that
she herself had a severe learning disability,
but not being able to read didn’t
make her junk.

On our way home, I vented my frustration
to my husband. The exchange
had been too muddled to be “good news.”
Creation, fall, redemption; guilt, grace,
gratitude–these are the rhythms of
the gospel. Mushing brokenness into
our essence and saying it’s okay because
it’s ubiquitous (another word our
guest had used) mislocates disorder in
Christianity’s grand narrative. Order
is the creational theme; restored order
is what we will celebrate for eternity
when grace has done its full and perfect
work.

If I’d had a copy with me, and if our
guest hadn’t slipped out as we were singing
“Make Way for the Risen Lord,” I would
have handed him David K. Naugle’s Reordered
Love, Reordered Lives
. The book
might have helped us talk through why
it is important to be able to see both that
“God don’t make no junk” and that “we are all broken,” and then to see why “we
are all broken” does not entail “it’s okay
that I am broken.”

Reordered Love, Reordered Lives is
a well-written introduction to Augustinian
ethics. Authored with a pastoral
intent, it applies two of Augustine’s
concepts–vice is disordered desire,
and virtue enables us to love all things
in proportion to their true worth–to
the practical challenges of living a
flourishing Christian life. Naugle is a
professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist
University, and his teaching skills come
through in the manuscript. The volume
includes a set of discussion questions to
make it useful in group settings. Finally,
the book offers a considerable amount of
practical advice on cultivating spiritual
disciplines.

Naugle supplements his summary
of Augustinian ethics with references to
a wide array of other philosophers and
theologians: C. S. Lewis finishes second,
and Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Calvin, and
Jonathan Edwards come in for several
references. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Pascal
also earn passing glances. Lest that
sound overwhelmingly academic and
heady, Naugle also cites the lyrics of Bob
Dylan, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, and
Twila Paris. Clearly, he hopes to build
bridges from the ethical riches of the
historic Christian faith to the concerns
of those of us seeking to bring order to
life–to our own often chaotic lives–in
the twenty-first century.

Naugle’s goal in writing is not originality
but synthesis. Yet he adds some
correctives to the received tradition. He
thinks that Augustine, medieval theologians,
and to some extent the Reformers
neglected a creation ethic and care for
our embodied existence. He is concerned
that Evangelicals may have sought to
overcome sloth with spiritual zeal while
remaining blind to their own scornfulness
and deficient love of creation.

Naugle urges a Christian humanism
that cooperates with Jesus’ purpose
for cosmic revitalization (90 ), and
emphasizes the joy and mirth of God
incarnated in Jesus Christ (204-5).
Such a humanism highlights the “expulsive
power of new affections” (120 ),
cultivating virtues rather than castigating
vices. Our desires and needs always
aim at a perceived good, and our
perceptions of the goods that we desire
are on target but disproportional. What
we want really is good for us, but not in
the quantity that we want or not at the
price of what we are willing to sacrifice
for it.

Holistic vision is another important
theme. The happy life “unites God and
humanity, connects the Creator with
the creation, joins the spiritual and
the physical, binds the transcendent
and the immanent, and fuses the sacred
and the secular into an integrated
whole in which all aspects of reality
are correctly understood and rightly
loved.” (23) Naugle avers: “Worshipping
God plus the cultivation of the intellectual,
moral, and physical virtues adds
up to the reordered life. On this foundation,
we find strength to overcome
bad habits and additions and to thwart
propensities toward violence, crime,
and warfare.” (174) Shalom and wholeness
spread from redeemed Christians
outward mainly by converting others to
reordered loves.

There is much to praise in Reordered
Love, Reordered Lives
. If there is a
deficiency in the book it is in giving too
little room for common grace or structural
restraint of evil. Naugle’s recipe for
crime-reduction and world peace seems
to be individual conversion (174-76). Here
he contrasts with Augustine’s realism
about the importance of political negotiation
and compromise in the Earthly
City. Sometimes real good comes from
the exercise of power by wise secular authorities,
both Christian and non-Christian.
Sometimes a certain amount of
order is restored to creation by people
doing their jobs well, whether they are
Christians or not. I am grateful that
our church visitor, though “completely
bonkers, really” could engage us in reasoned
debate because drug-researchers
and physicians, whether believers or
not, had found how to bring some limited
but real restoration to a troubled
mind. I am praying that, in the end,
grace will have its perfect work in both
him and me.

Caroline J. Simon is Jacobson Professor of Philosophy
at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.