Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year's Reading

I try to avoid New year's predictions - thus also avoiding the eventual embarrassment of having to acknowledge how wrong I was! Similarly, I generally also avoid New Year's resolutions. Experience suggests that the only ones likely to be kept will be those resolving to do what I would have done anyway! Thus, while I will almost certainly read a lot in 2014, I prefer to avoid predicting how much and what I will read - with one exception.
This week, I have joined an on-line reading group committed to reading designated chapters of Saint Augustine's City of God more or less daily during the new year, beginning next Monday, January 6, and finishing sometime next December. I last read Augustine's City of God in graduate school. That was almost 40 years ago! It's certainly time to read it again. But Augustine's City of God is very long and not always a page-turner. So, when I learned about this collective effort to read it together, I saw an opportunity. Usually, New Year's resolutions fail for a failure of discipline. This resolution will remedy that failure and hopefully have me doing what on my own my undisciplined self would find it hard to persevere at.
I'll certainly read other things during the year. Who knows I may even find other reading groups? I've often reflected on the benefit I derived from being part of the "Great Religious Fiction" reading group at Saint Paul the Apostle in New York a few years back. That was an old-fashioned, live, we-meet-together-every-month kind of group, being part of which got me reading some wonderful religious fiction - e.g., Oscar Hijuelos' Mr. Ives' Christmas, which I spoke about in my Christmas homily last week.
Why Augustine's City of God?

Undoubtedly it is one of the most influential books in the history of western civilization, as well as a classic in the Christian interpretation of history. An eminent French historian of late antiquity Henri Marrou (1904-1977) once called Augustine "one of the few Christian thinkers of whose existence non-Christians are aware, and to whom they allow a place, at least, in the evolution of the human mind." Unlike a modern academic theologian, Augustine was a classic Bishop-Theologian, who exercised authority within the Catholic community and played a public role in the wider Roman society. That the City of God was occasioned by a need to rebut pagan claims that Christianity was socially and politically harmful certainly has a somewhat contemporary ring to it. At the very least it reminds us that Augustine lived and wrote at a time when, while Christianity was definitely the paradigm of the future, serious alternatives still existed and Christianity still had to make its case to a not completely compliant world - as it is once again being challenged to do today. And, while it is certainly true that Augustine's famous "conversion" was in fact a sophisticated adult's return to and embrace of the Church of his childhood, the influence of which had always been there lurking as it were in the background, it is also the case that along the way Augustine had investigated the principal intellectual and spiritual alternatives his society had to offer. He was (to speak in anachronistically post-modern categories) "spiritual but not religious" for much of his early life, for what could be called (again speaking anachronistically) his "young adult" years. All of which ought to heighten his salience for the challenge of today's  "New Evangelization."

Photo: Saint Augustine in His Study, by Sandro Botticelli (1480).


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