Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Seeing with the ‘eye of the soul’

Posted on: February 19th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit
By Father Luke Bell, OSB
Angelico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-1621380825
314 pages


Not many books use a potato to explain spiritual wholeness but Father Luke Bell manages to do this and more in The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit. As a monk-priest at Quarr Abbey on the UK’s Isle of Wight, Bell is well placed to teach us about contemplation and potatoes.

At first, a guide to contemplation seems unnecessary. After all, the church calendar offers ample opportunity to hone our contemplative practice: Advent and Christmas provides 40 days to direct our thoughts toward others; Epiphany’s 12 days allow us to reflect on the light of Christ’s birth; Lent gives us 40 days and nights for spiritual self-flagellation and improvement. With all that contemplation, do we really need more? The problem, according to Bell, is that our contemplation is superficial.

The fundamental cause for this is our pathetic observation skills. Too many of us have grown accustomed to seeing merely the temporal without seeing and understanding the intrinsic link between objects and the divine, and between people and the divine. We have gained knowledge from the periphery at the expense of knowledge at and of the heart. As our perception of the world becomes increasingly myopic we teeter on the edge of divine anaesthetization. To possess a truly contemplative spirit means having the ability to think with the heart and not always with the head, which is in direct opposition to the way society teaches (or wants us) to observe.

Bell believes that reclaiming a contemplative spirit starts not with God or Scripture but with understanding the symbols that bring us to God—nature, language, numbers, scripture, and sacraments. Guiding us through the process he attempts to wrestle us away from our acquired tunnel vision in order to ponder the world with wide-eyes and soulful thinking.

Hence the potato: A potato not eaten eventually sprouts growths, and if that potato is planted those growths will yield new potatoes. Through Bell’s extrapolation we see that all the potatoes you find in the stores are actually grown from one potato.  Within this observance of nature we can appreciate our relation to God and to one another. Spiritual wholeness enables us to make that link at a deep level.

Disclosure: I met Father Luke several years ago at Quarr Abbey. He’s soft-spoken and his posture seems permanently inclined to contemplation. He also has a dry sense of humour, which comes out in his writing. With a poet’s heart and a philosopher’s brain he infuses his thesis with philosophical musings, physics, Scripture, poetry, and every-day references. As a former teacher of poetry, it is not surprising that Bell recommends the ambiguity inherent in poetry as an effective tool in allowing our minds to both transcend the obvious and ruminate the deeper meaning.

Just as St. Benedict exhorted his monks in the 6th century to “listen with the ear of your heart” so Bell in the 21st century encourages present generations to “see with the eye of your soul”.

Jane Christmas is the author of And Then There Were Nuns (Greystone Books)


Anglican Journal News, February 19, 2015

Lenten Lent

Posted on: February 15th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

A Way to Refresh Your Spirit
by Donna Shaper

Woodlake Books, Kelowna BC 2015,
Paperback, 70 pages. $11.00 CAD
ISBN #978-1-77064-793-0


Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

Donna Sharper has been writing inspirational
books for ordinary Christians for some decades.
She has written for the Alban Institute and
other publishers who serve the spiritual needs
of people in congregations.

The Canadian publisher, Woodlake Books of
Kelowna BC = long a publisher for parishioners –
has produced this book of Lenten devotions
and we are the better for it.

Lent encourages us to give special attention to
spiritual needs in our lives and this book is a
helpful addition to resources available to us.

The author has selected forty plus one scripture
passages for Lent and Easter from both Hebrew
and Christian testaments. She uses various
biblical translations because the words she
selects are important to her.

Readers can be both disciplined or periodic
selectors of these brief (rarely more than just
a page in length) inspirational pieces that are
supported by biblical passages in each case.

I know that I will be using this booklet as
a Lenten resource this year, and I encourage
you to do the same


Buy the book from Woodlake:

Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X, No. 27,  February  15th, 2015

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most By Marcus J. Borg

Posted on: February 11th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


How I Learned What Matters Most
By Marcus J. Borg

HarperOne: Toronto. $21.00 CAD.
December, 2014. 241 pages.
ISBN #978-0-06-226997-3



Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

This volume contains a short, pithy,
but well-crafted summary of eleven
key theological/spiritual themes that
have emerged from a lifetime of good
reflection, teaching and writing

These themes have become the core
constructs of Borg’s faith in God, Jesus
and Christianity. He prompts a resonance
in many of his readers.

I can certainly accept all eleven and now
realize how influential Borg has been
in the reshaping of my faith during the
20 years that I have been reading him.

Listed below, without comment are
those eleven core themes:

Context matters
Faith is a Journey
God is real and is a mystery
Salvation is more about this life
than an afterlife
Jesus is the norm of the Bible
The Bible can be true without
being literally true
Jesus’s death on the cross matters –
but not because he paid for our sins
The Bible is political
God is passionate about justice
and the poor
Christians are called to peace
and non-violence
To love God is to love like God

To arrive at these core meanings
(he does not like the term ‘beliefs’)
he has studied classic Christian, as
well as modern thinking, within and
beyond the Christian faith. He has
also kept connected with what moderns
are seeking to know and understand.
He is not confined by the traditional
creeds, but neither is he a slave to

I consider him progressive but mature
in his spiritual/theological convictions.

As Borg says in his preface, he writes
from an American context but is also
hopeful that many non-Americans
will find value in what he has to say.

Perhaps most importantly, he uses
language for a progressive Christianity
that is respectful of those who do not
agree with him, but who are willing
to engage in constructive, hopeful

This proved to be the author’s last
published book (at least in his
lifetime) and is a worthy summation
of his thought. It is a refresher for
those who read him again, and a good
summary of his life’s work for those
who meet him for the first time.

“Convictions” will certainly hold a
special place in my library.


Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X, No. 26,  February 8th, 2015

Simply Good News

Posted on: February 10th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


Why the Gospel is News
and What Makes it Good
by N.T. Wright

2015,HarperOne, Toronto, ON
Hardcover. 189 pages. $20.00 CAD
ISBN #978-0-06-223434-3.



Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

I have always appreciated the theology of
N.T. Wright because he reflects what I myself
seek to emulate in terms of my Christian faith.
That does not mean, however that I always
agree with him.

He speaks with both head and heart language.
He does not avoid the challenges of reason, but
he is also aware that faith needs to be grounded
in personal experience and a living spirit.

Wright believes that many people are seeking
good news today. When they go to hear it in
church, however, what they often get – at best –
is good advice. They miss what Christians from
the beginning have responded to – the Gospel
as Good News.

This is not only true for those of us in the more
liberal churches where maxims and common
wisdom are offered. It is also true for many in
the more conservative churches where the
Gospel is presented as a series of biblical

Wright rejects both approaches. The real Gospel,
Wright believes, comes as news about Jesus rooted
in a history complete with a backstory and heralded
as an event with real personal entailments and
social implications.

Wright wants us to rethink and re-examine
the Gospel. So much of what passes for gospel
today does little justice to Jesus’ life, death,
resurrection and exaltation. He continues:

“For something to qualify as news there has to be
(1) an announcement of an event  that has happened;
(2) a larger context, a backstory within which this
makes sense; (3) a sudden unveiling of the new
that lies ahead; and (4) the transformation of the
present moment, sitting between the event that
has happened and the future event that therefore
will happen.”

Wright introduces these themes in chapters one
and two, while the rest of the book elaborates
with great power the implications of embracing
the Gospel as Good News in proclamation and
practice, just as it happened for the first Christians
in the context of their lives and times.

We err when we think that our circumstances
needs and hopes are different from those who
first heard the Good News proclaimed and
witnessed to by the first believers and apostles.

Wright makes the biblical message come alive
for us because he not only takes it seriously
but understands and interprets it in a real-
live set of circumstances.

This is Wright’s third book of a series using both
erudition and immediacy. Previously, he wrote
“Simply Jesus” (2006) and “Simply Christian”
(2011) – employing the same theological process
and literary method which works well for him.

For those who need a faith grounded in real history,
(I personally am not in need of this) Wright serves
as an enlightened guide and is well worth reading.

Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X. No. 23,  January 18th, 2015




Portrait of a leader in tumultuous times

Posted on: January 29th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews



By Solange De Santis 


Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Archbishop Michael Peers at the book launch for the Peers memoir, More Than I Can Say. Photo: Simon Chambers




More Than I Can Say: Michael Peers—A Memoir

Edited by Michael Ingham

158 pages

ABC Publishing (Anglican Book Centre), 2014

ISBN 978-1-55126-575-9


As primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1986 to 2004, Michael Peers faced turbulence in nearly every aspect of church life.

He delivered a landmark apology in 1993 to native people for abuses suffered at church-run schools, chaired debate on the place of gays and lesbians in the church and celebrated a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The Anglican church was also facing restructuring in the face of declining numbers and finances.

Peers is now 80. His leadership, nationally and internationally, will be the subject of analysis and debate for a long time. While those learned treatises are being written, More Than I Can Say: Michael Peers—A Memoir adds a layer of warm, personal perspectives on a life lived very much in the public eye.

Initiated by the current primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and edited by Peers’ former principal secretary, Michael Ingham (later bishop of the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster), the book stakes out its territory on the first page: “a tribute to Michael from a grateful church.”

Criticism, therefore, is in short supply, but when the 70 contributors range from Peers’ wife, children and boyhood friends to Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, honesty is not.

More than one reminiscence describes Peers’ legendary impatience with tedious process (or people), heedless attitude toward attire, obsessive attention to lists (and maps while travelling) and dry, sometimes cutting, wit.

Tutu refers to Peers’ linguistic abilities (he speaks five languages), recalling how he presided in French over a session of the 1988 Lambeth Conference. It was the first time that had occurred in a language other than English.

Williams—and others—recall Peers’ deeply felt concern that all voices be heard on difficult issues. “He was one of the people who showed how to listen, who brought to the conversation a sense of willingness to go deeper and take the time needed to absorb and cope with the underlying feelings,” Williams writes.

Clarkson remembers being “dazzled” by Peers’ “very evident brilliance” when she was a third-year undergraduate at Trinity College and he was a divinity student, and they engaged in long conversations and evenings at the movies.

What the book does particularly well is provide a readable, sometimes amusing, journey through the extraordinary depth as well as the breadth of Peers’ career and life (so far), although there could have been more voices reflecting on the human sexuality debates.

There is, inevitably, something of an insider’s feel to the text, but one doesn’t have to be a Canadian Anglican to enjoy or appreciate it. Ingham has wisely written an engaging 15-page introduction that succinctly sets out the accomplishments and difficulties of Peers’ primacy, against the background of family life.

Beyond facts and conclusions, however, the underlying emotions running through the contributions are affection and admiration and a sense that the Canadian church was fortunate to be deeply loved and well served by a man paradoxically possessing both intellectual genius and humility.


Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008. Now based in New York, she is editor of Episcopal Journal.


Anglican Journal News, January  26, 2015

Devotions for Christian unity

Posted on: January 21st, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

In God’s Reconciling Grace
By Bernard de Margerie
Roman Catholic diocese of Saskatoon, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9920011-1-7
Soft cover; 238 pages
The subtitle says it all: Prayer and reflection texts for Christian reconciliation and unity. This collection of private and corporate devotion gathers resources from across the whole spectrum of Christianity from every age—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox through United, Baptist, Pentecostal. It carries the endorsement of Christian leaders from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, home of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.

This is clearly a labour of love for the centre’s founder, now retired Roman Catholic priest Bernard de Magerie. Newly ordained, he discerned his special vocation for further Christian unity on Jan. 26, 1959, the day that Pope John XXIII called the second Vatican Council, saying that unity would be a major goal.

The overriding theme of this 238-page book is from John 17:20–21, Jesus’ high priestly prayer that “all may be one.” It is impossible to review in detail so much varied content. Anglicanism contributes four items: two traditional ones from the Book of Common Prayer (pages 39 and 40) and two contemporary offerings, “Draw the Circle Wide” by Gordon Light (Common Praise, Hymn 418) and a collect by the Rev. Jan Bigland-Pritchard. Looking toward the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 2017 are four contemporary prayers from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission.

One of the most moving of the suggested liturgies acknowledges “brokenness, proclaiming our hope for full communion in the body of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Its climax is the passing of pieces from a broken loaf through the congregation, as each person touches, but does not consume, the bread—symbolizing the pain of being present at, but unable to share fully in, the Sacrament.

Through the generosity of three special donors, 5,000 copies of this book were made available free of charge through Fr. De Margerie at telephone 306-651-7051; email: Only 500 were left by mid-January.

The last page reproduces an etching, “The Praying Christ,” commissioned by Abbé Paul Couturier, who in 1935 articulated the ideal of prayer for Christian unity “as Christ wills it and in accordance with the means he wills.” This book demonstrates how far we have become, and how far we have yet to go, toward fulfilling Jesus’ prayer.


Anglican Journal News, January 21, 2015

Is religion to blame for war and violence?

Posted on: January 19th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


By Maylanne Maybee


Karen Armstrong’s book, Fields of Blood, is an ambitious project that looks closely at the interrelationship of religion and violence. In it she seeks to challenge the scapegoating of religion as the cause of all war and violence, a simplistic assumption she seems to hear all too frequently from the mouths of politicians, academics and taxi drivers.

“Fields of Blood” refers to the passage in Genesis depicting the archetypal conflict between Cain, the one who worked the land, and his brother Abel, the one who hunted and gathered. Cain killed Abel, but could not hide his sin or silence the cry rising from fields of blood: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”

The title reflects one of Armstrong’s core theses, reinforced chapter by chapter: that as hunting-gathering societies (which she romanticized as fundamentally egalitarian) evolved into agrarian societies, the emergence of wealth, civilization and art became possible, but only with the support of violent warfare and oppression—turning farming fields into fields of blood. “From the first, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.”

Religion, woven together with political, social and economic systems and the discourse of meaning, had an ambiguous function—both to legitimize the “organized theft” of nations and empires necessary for their survival and expansion, but also to resist and offer alternatives to the violence that lay at their core. Armstrong refers to this tension as “Ashoka’s dilemma,” using the historic example of the third-century BCE emperor of India, a man known for his immoral violence and cruelty, who experienced a profound conversion when he witnessed and took in the horrific violence of war and the profound suffering of ordinary people. He mounted monumental inscriptions throughout India telling kings to keep violence to a minimum and enjoining ordinary people to be kind to the poor and to respect all teachers of wisdom, regardless of their allegiance. Yet Ashoka could not disband his army, which he understood as the only way to maintain strong rule.

Armstrong repeats this dilemma theme in her study of civilizations in China, the Middle East and Byzantium, up to the present day. Empires are instruments of systemic violence, yet they also have the effect of maintaining “peace” (i.e., the absence of organized warfare) and order over time.

Armstrong is clearly at home with the Abrahamic religions, and is especially articulate and informed in her depiction of Islam, for which she models great respect. Her chapters in the third part of the book on the postmodern appearance of religion as distinct and separate from state, and the consequent status of the nation-state as a new form of religion, are perhaps the most gripping and relevant.

Her book is encyclopedic in its sweep, moving from the origins of man as creatures of the four “Fs”—fight, flight, food and procreation, through the origins of major world religions in China, India, Mesopotamia and Mecca. It is encyclopedic in its detail as well—Armstrong has a habit of introducing new names, concepts and terminologies from other cultures, religions and languages without repeating or reinforcing their meaning.

Canadian Anglicans—theologians, ethicists, journalists and policy-makers—who are seeking to understand our place on the world stage should read Armstrong’s book alongside Margaret MacMillan’s books on contemporary nationhood, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace, John Ralston Saul’s book on Canada’s nationhood, A Fair Country, and the work of René Girard, who makes a definitive study of violence and Christianity. At times, Fields of Blood makes for heavy-going reading. It can be a challenge to discern the core of Armstrong’s message, which I believe Christians and all people of faith need to heed as a sign of God’s mission: a message of compassion, resistance against violence and the humanizing of the one we call “other” or “enemy.” Reading this book is a start to hearing and living out that message. For those who wish to deepen their understanding of the culture of religion and violence in our age, it is well worth the effort.

The Rev. Maylanne Maybee is principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg. 


Anglican Journal News, January 19, 2015

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Posted on: January 13th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


Updated 14.09.21

Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful: Review of Sr.Elizabeth Johnson, ASK THE BEASTS: DARWIN AND THE GOD OF LOVE. Bloomsbury 2014. 323 pages.


By William Converse

Elizabeth Johnson is an American Roman Catholic theologian and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York where she has taught since 1991. She is considered one of the architects of feminist theology. She belongs to a cohort of contemporary Roman Catholic theologians exploring the implications of conscious evolution. The author of nine books, she became the focus of controversy when the doctrinal committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops censured her book Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers in the Theology of God (2011).

In the Introduction Johnson recounts the genesis of her latest book.  To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), the dean of Fordham College invited faculty to study the text together.  Questions arose that called for further theological reflection. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God was her response.  The approach is Trinitarian, similar to John Polkinghorne’s The Faith of a Physicist (2005). The Nicene Creed provides the framework. Job 12:7 (AV) suggested the title.

Johnson initiates a dialogue between thoughtful Christians and scientists who are concerned about the future of life on the planet. She draws on Catholic philosophers and theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Duns Scotus) as well as Catholic mystics (Hldegarde von Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich).

An eco-feminist, Johnson deplores Western theology’s woeful neglect of the natural world. Neo-Platonic dualism, combined with Augustine’s particularistic understanding of the consequences of the Fall, denigrated matter. Medieval theologians demarked the natural world from the supernatural world of grace. The Reformation emphasized individual salvation rather than cosmic redemption. The ascendancy of Calvinism in the 17th century promoted an anthropocentric interpretation of Genesis 1:28. Cartesian dualism and Enlightenment rationalism opened the way for full-scale exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory represents life as a continuum. Human beings belong to the natural order. All living things are interdependent, the result of natural selection occurring over hundreds of millions of years. In chapter IV Darwin illustrated their interconnectedness with a taxa diagram, the tree of life.

In the Recapitulation and Conclusion to Origin Darwin wrote:

“Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings that lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to become ennobled.”

Darwin delimited Origin to living things other than humankind, although he intimated that his theory might eventually have wider application:

“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

Darwin’s theory challenged both the scientific and the religious establishment of the day.  The accepted scientific view was that all species had been created separately, distinct and immutable.  The idea that existing species had evolved over millions of years from a few simple life forms and, like the planet itself, had been shaped by natural forces defied reason and common sense.   It was counterintuitive to suppose that a structure as complex as the human eye had evolved by random mutations.  Darwin addressed these objections in chapter VI of Origin.

The challenge to conventional religious views was no less marked. Recent geological discoveries had raised serious doubts about biblical chronology. In the 17th century Archbishop James Ussher determined that the date of creation was October 23, 4004 B.C. This date appeared in the margins of the Authorized Version. The world was thought to be less than six thousand years old.  Sir Charles Lyell, the foremost British geologist of his generation, on the basis of certain geological anomalies, estimated its age as not less than 300 million years. Darwin’s theory not only contradicted the plain sense of Genesis, it denied Providence. The historic debate in 1860 between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s champion, highlighted their disparate views.

Perhaps mindful of the Galileo Affair in the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church remained silent on the theory of evolution until 1950. Origin was never on the Index.  Catholic scientists might   explore the origins of life and the cosmos. The Father of Modern Genetics was an Austrian botanist and Augustinian abbot, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). The French Jesuit geologist and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was co-discoverer of “Peking Man.” The Belgian mathematician and astrophysicist, Mgr. Georges Henri Lemaître (1894-1966), originated “the Big Bang” theory.

Since St. Augustine allowed an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, a literal understanding was not required. Thus, John Henry Newman could write in a letter: “Mr. Darwin’s theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill.”   Newman captured Darwin’s sense of wonder at the end of Origin: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin was born in 1809 into a distinguished family of British naturalists. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin entertained vague evolutionary ideas and wrote erotic verses about plants. His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, encouraged Charles’s early interest in nature and later supported his research.  Both were freethinkers.

Darwin was intended for a career in either medicine or the Church of England. His career plans changed abruptly when he was invited to join a scientific expedition to chart the coastline of South America and the Pacific islands. The voyage, later described in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), lasted five years, 1831-1835. During this time his religious and scientific ideas underwent a sea change.

In the first four chapters Johnson provides the background to Darwin`s theory of natural selection and explains how he arrived at it by means of patient and meticulous observation. Evolutionary ideas were not new. In the 18th century, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Modern Taxonomy, assigned humans to the primates. The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested that evolution occurred according to natural laws. In the 19th century, Lyell determined from the fossil record that humankind had originated only recently in Africa.

Darwin’s singular achievement was to formulate the theory that explained how evolution operated by combining Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1831-1833) and Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Populations (1798). Fearing repercussions, he delayed publication. Then, in 1858 he received a scientific paper by Alfred Russell Wallace with a theory identical to his own.  This forced his hand. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection appeared on November 22, 1859.

Darwin was acutely aware that natural selection entails pain, suffering and death on a massive scale caused by predation and extinction. The ichneumon that paralyzes caterpillars as live food for its eggs especially perturbed him. At Cambridge he read William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) with its elegant argument from design.  Paley’s theodicy no longer sufficed.  In later life Darwin became an “agnostic,” a term Huxley coined in 1869.

Johnson broaches this intractable problem in chapter 7. She eschews theodicy, opting instead for what shall calls “deep incarnation”:

“Theological reflection on the natural world’s continuous creation in the power of the Spirit cannot ignore this unfathomable history of biological suffering and death, extending over hundreds of millions of years. Its overwhelming power initially evokes the honest response of being struck dumb in the face of so much agony and loss. As with the mystery of suffering among humans, its roots reach deeper than the human mind can fathom. When theology does dare to speak to this issue, ancient in its pedigree but relatively new in its evolutionary colorings, various viewpoints are endorsed and debated.”

Ask the Beasts is scholarly, yet eminently readable and accessible. There is an extensive bibliography and a good index.  Origin of Species, with its elegant prose and lucid argumentation, makes fascinating reading. The lavishly illustrated first edition, published by Sterling Signature Publishing Co., Inc. (2008; 2011), 544 pages,  David Quammen, General Editor, provides additional historical material, photographs and drawings, along with excerpts from Darwin’s journals, notebooks and correspondence. I highly recommend both books.

©William Converse, 2014



Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

Posted on: January 13th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews



Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. 45th Anniversary Edition. University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles), 2012. 548 pages; and

Through the Eye of a Needle:  Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Princeton University Press, 2012. 759 pages


By William Converse

Today many people still see Augustine of Hippo as a saintly figure, a giant of faith rather than a human   being shaped by the tumult of the age in which he lived.

This lack of proper historical perspective goes back to the Middle Ages when Western churchmen shaped the traditional image of Augustine as they read, copied and commented on his works, including his letters and sermons.  By this time, Augustine’s North Africa had ceased to exist; it already belonged to a little-known past.

If today we are better able to see Augustine in his own time and place, much of the credit belongs to Peter Brown.

Born in Dublin in 1935 to a family of Scots-Irish Protestants, Brown studied at Oxford, and has held positions at Royal Holloway College, the University of London, and the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He has received many awards for his pioneering studies in the field of Late Antiquity.

This review focuses on two works that conveniently bracket his career. Both serve to correct a number of misconceptions and dispel myths about the end of classical antiquity.

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography was first published in 1967, when Brown was only 32, and established his reputation as a scholar.  Augustine was shorn of his hagiographical aura and presented as a person of flesh and blood. To mark the 45th anniversary of the original publication, the new edition published in 2000 was reissued with a new preface and two epilogues.

In the first of these epilogues, Brown shows how our understanding of Augustine has been broadened and deepened by new evidence. He also describes the directions that Augustinian studies have taken since 2000.

Prior to his death in August 28, 430, Augustine authenticated his writings and began putting his letters and sermons in order. However, he died before he could complete this task. It was a parlous time because the Vandals were laying siege to Hippo.

During the medieval period, Augustine’s letters and sermons were copied in manuscripts and circulated in various collections. With the introduction of the printing press, some of these collections were included   with his collected works. Others were not. The task of tracing them was well-nigh impossible before the introduction of computers into research libraries.

In 1969 the Austrian Academy of Sciences launched a project to catalogue 15,000 known manuscripts of Augustine’s works held by the libraries of Western Europe.  In the Bibliothèque Municipale de Marseilles Johannes Divjak discovered a manuscript that had belonged to René of Anjou containing 27 previously unknown letters, dating from the last decades of Augustine’s life.   The “Divjak Letters,” as they are now known, provide important information about the political situation in North Africa at that time.

The second major discovery occurred in 1990 when François Dolbeau found in the Stadtbibliothek of Mainz a late manuscript that had belonged to the Carthusians of Mainz, with 26 of Augustine’s sermons.  The “Dolbeau Sermons” were either previously unknown or known only from extracts made by medieval copyists. Augustine delivered them in Carthage in the summer of 397, the year he became bishop of Hippo. In the same collection there was a second group of sermons from 403-404.

Brown explains their historical significance:

“…Without knowing it, both the Carthusians of Mainz and the stylish copyist of the Divjak letters had cut down to a largely untouched, ‘fossil’ layer of evidence. The feature that had caused these particular letters and sermons to circulate so sluggishly in the Middle Ages was precisely the feature which makes them so gripping for us—their unremitting circumstantiality. The letters and sermons carry with them the sounds of a North Africa that had become as silent as a drowned city to those who read and copied them in the Northern Europe of the Middle Ages. Many of the letters speak at seemingly interminable length of incidents that took place on farms and in villages with strange names in which Punic was still spoken. Augustine’s work as a bishop took place within the framework of a legal system that still assumed that all roads led to Rome: much of the legal material contained in them would have been inexplicable, even unintelligible, to medieval readers. Above all, they are earthy letters, concerned almost exclusively with the day-to-day business of little men in small North African towns. Few were devoted to the eternal verities of Christian doctrine, to which medieval persons might turn with profit.”

The Dolbeau sermons are also important because they show how medieval copyists worked:

“In the case of the Dolbeau sermons, we can actually glimpse early medieval monks, in a far-distant Northern Europe, at work as they read through them, searching for passages relevant to their own times. Around 700, none other than the Venerable Bede read the longest of these sermons, preached on the occasion of the pagan New Year’s Feast of the Kalends of January. Faced with a rhetorical masterpiece of 1,543 lines, his eyes soon glazed over.  For this was a glimpse of a world which was too ancient, too distant from his own.  It spoke of a Christianity still engulfed in the murmurous, multi-faceted paganism of a great city of the Mediterranean. Of all its richness, Bede extracted under a hundred lines. The rest he left. The precise, sharp scent of a pagan city of the Roman Empire in its last days did not greatly interest him.  The battle, with that particular form of paganism at least, had been fought and won by his time. Of this one mighty sermon we have had to be content, for fifteen hundred years, with a few short extracts, culled and circulated for their own purposes by clergymen in Northern Europe. It is only now that we can read such sermons in their entirety, and come upon Augustine, once again, in gripping close-up as he preached to the crowds of Carthage.”

Through the Eye of a Needle Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD is Brown’s latest book and the one that he admits caused him the most difficulty. The title is taken from Matthew 19: 24, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. The book is many-layered, nuanced and rich in detail.  Six of its 29 chapters are devoted to Augustine, hardly surprising given that he was the most prolific author of Late Antiquity  and the fact that so many of whose works have survived.

Brown explains his purpose in the opening paragraph of the preface:

“In this book I wish to examine the impact of wealth on the Christian churches of the Latin West in the last centuries of the Roman empire and in the first century of the post-imperial age, roughly from the middle of the fourth century AD to the consolidation of the post-Roman, barbarian kingdoms in the period conventionally associated with the ‘Fall of Rome.’”

Brown challenges the Enlightenment’s narrative of the end of classical civilization: for example, Edward Gibbon’s view that the Christian Church sapped the wealth of the later Roman Empire, diverting resources the state needed to counter the barbarian invasions.

Brown argues that this era was neither cataclysmic nor preceded by cultural and political decadence.  Late Antiquity was a time of innovation and transformation in both the religion and culture of the later Roman Empire. He considers the fourth century an age of affluence.  Wealth was not a moral issue when Christians were mostly poor. However, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the wealthy began to enter the church in droves. They also brought with them the influence that wealth commands. This gave rise to conflict between Rome and Carthage: Jerome and Pelagius found themselves on one side and Augustine on the other. In Brown’s graphic phrase, it was a veritable Punic War!

Brown surveys all classes in the later Roman Empire, from aristocrats and great landowners to what he calls “the middling classes.”  He includes the urban poor, he slaves as well as the Jews. We meet some very colourful and determined personalities. We learn a about the social and political movements as well as the Donatists, the Arians and the Pelagians.  Brown covers the length and breadth of the Roman Empire and the centers of power.

Brown’s treatment of Christianity in North Africa is detailed and informative. The church of North Africa has tended to be neglected because it disappeared completely.  However, its importance in this period demands an in-depth study and this Brown provides.

Brown’s impressive command of the vast literature and documentation, including archaeological,   economic and sociological data, enables him assess in minute detail how the Christian Church overcame the dilemma that wealth presented and  became exceedingly wealthy doing so. He uses the analogy of a modern state gone bankrupt while corporations and private foundations preserve their wealth.

There are over a hundred pages of endnotes and seventy-six pages listing works cited. The index runs to forty pages. The fascinating black-and-white and the coloured plates are gathered together at the end of Chapter 15. I highly recommend both Through the Eye of a Needle and the anniversary edition of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.

©William Converse, 2014


Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography

Posted on: January 12th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews



By William Converse


A Biography Worthy of Augustine Himself. Review of Miles Hollingworth, Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford University Press, 2013. 312 pages

The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought. T & T. Clark International, 2010. 230 pages

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. University of California Press, 1967, 2000. Forty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2012. 548 pages


Miles Hollingworth is Visiting Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at St. John’s College, Durham University. This is his second book on Augustine. The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought was published in 2010.

Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography is a stimulating and engaging tour de force. Rowan Williams has praised it highly: “This is a book whose style and feel are really worthy of Augustine himself.” Hollingworth’s approach is both novel and innovative. Here, as in The Pilgrim City, he interprets Augustine’s mature writings in terms of his early life experiences. It is also revisionist since he prescinds from the conventional view that there are two Augustines, an early and a late Augustine, conveniently demarcated by his conversion. Hollingworth follows Peter Brown in his insistence that Augustine remained Augustine to the end. Continuity rather than discontinuity is the key to understanding his works.

Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography, therefore, is not a conventional biography. Readers who prefer a standard biography of Augustine should read Peter Brown’s classic, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which Hollingworth references throughout.

In The Pilgrim City there is a short chapter on Augustine’s early life and education, up to his nineteenth year. This is evidently the germ for Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography. Eight of the eleven chapters deal with Augustine prior to his conversion in his thirty-third year.

Hollingworth situates Augustine firmly in his native North Africa, in what is today Algeria. His first chapter, “Out of Africa,” shows how the country where he was born and where he spent most of his life, apart from for his brief stay in Italy (383-387), is essential for understanding his character and outlook.   Augustine was an African with Berber ancestry, a provincial who never lost his African accent!

Augustine was born on November 13, 354, at Tagaste, Numidia (today Souk Ahras, Algeria) in what was then Proconsular Africa.  His father Patricius Aurelius was a pagan; his mother, Monica, a Christian.

He received his early education in Tagaste and Madauros. Thanks to Romanianus, his benefactor and subsequent patron, he was able to pursue his studies in Carthage where he met the woman with whom he cohabited for fifteen years and who was the mother of his son Adeodatus. We don’t know her name. Augustine never mentions it!

In Carthage Augustine encountered the Manicheans, a dualistic syncretic sect that originated in Persia.  Its founder Mani taught that there were two contending principles, the Good and the Evil. Augustine was a Hearer in the sect for nine years before becoming disillusioned and leaving. However, Manichaeism left an indelible mark on him, especially its dualism, the binary opposites of the two cities, the two loves, the predestined and the reprobate, what Peter Brown called “the subtle attraction of opposites.”

Augustine’s negative views of women and human sexuality owe more to Neoplatonism than they do to Manichaeism. Its founder, Plotinus, was described by his disciple and editor Porphyry as a philosopher who seemed ashamed of being in a body.  For Augustine humankind was a “condemned lump” (massa damnata).   Salvation depended solely upon divine grace, hence his sobriquet, “the Doctor of Grace.”  Bertrand Russell aptly summed up Augustine’s view: “Damnation proves God’s justice; salvation, His mercy. Both equally display His goodness.”   Augustine’s singular doctrine of original sin and its transmission through sexual generation was based on his literal reading of Genesis, chapter 3, and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 5.  This doctrine and the doctrine of the predestination of the elect have cast a long shadow over Western Christianity.

To advance his professional career, Augustine moved to Rome in 383. Thanks to the intervention of Symmachus, the pagan Prefect of Rome, he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric in Milan, then the imperial capital. The appointment gave him the status of a public intellectual.

In Milan Augustine was drawn to the sermons of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Ambrose could read Greek and introduced Neoplatonic themes into his sermons.  Ambrose’s influence over Augustine grew steadily until his conversion in 386. After a brief retreat at Cassiciacum, he was baptized by Ambrose during the Easter vigil, April 24-25, 387. Augustine was now determined to renounce all worldly ambitions. He resigned his professorship.

Augustine returned to North Africa and established a small monastic community on the family property. On a visit to Hippo Regius (today Annaba, Algeria) in 391, he was (to use Peter Brown’s expression) “press-ganged” into being ordained a priest. This was not unusual at the time. Ambrose had been acclaimed Bishop of Milan before he was even baptized!  Augustine was subsequently ordained coadjutor bishop. He succeeded Valerius as Bishop of Hippo in 395. There he lived until his death on August 28, 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. To this period belong his major works:  On the Trinity (De Trinitate), On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) and his monumental work, The City of God (De Civitate Dei).

Augustine’s education was confined principally to Latin authors, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust and Terence. Of these, Cicero exercised the greatest influence.  CIcero’s Hortensius (no longer extant) first turned his attention to philosophy. He studied Greek but he never mastered it. In the Confessions, he tells us: “Even now I cannot fully understand why the Greek language, which I learned as a child, was so distasteful to me. I loved Latin.” Since Greek was then the international language of commerce and culture, much as English is today, he was at a serious disadvantage.. Peter Brown considered it a disaster: “Augustine’s failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the Late Roman educational system: he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek.”

Consequently Augustine had to rely on Latin translations of Greek texts. Although he held Plato and the Platonists in the highest regard, he was unable to read them in the original.  In the City of God he wrote: “There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists.”  But if Plato was “the master of all those philosophers,” it was the two great Neoplatonists of the age, Plotinus and Porphyry, “the most renowned of the pagan philosophers,” who eased Augustine’s transition into Catholic Christianity.

For biblical exegesis, Augustine depended on the Old Latin Version(s) of the Bible, based on the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, dating from the 3rd century BCE.  In 393 he wrote to Jerome to inquire about Latin translations of Greek commentators on the Bible. Unlike Jerome, he did not know Hebrew but consulted Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Vulgate, when he was writing the City of God.

Augustine was a prolific author. A list of his works exceeds one hundred separate titles.  He employed many different genres—apologetics, treatises, polemics, commentaries and exegesis, sermons and   letters. He created two new literary forms, the Soliloquia and the Confessions. The Soliloquia, one of his first philosophical works, broke new literary and philosophical ground by exploring the problem of how to be creative and self-conscious at the same time. The Confessions is not an autobiography in the modern sense but an extended prayer to God. What is novel is the autobiographical elements.   It became the archetype for later autobiographies.

The corpus of Augustine’s works is vast.  Since Augustine was not a systematic thinker, it is difficult to reconcile some of his theological positions, for example, infant baptism and predestination. This is the case with his political ideas as well, as Hollingworth showed in The Pilgrim City.  Since Augustine engaged in theological controversies, many of his writings were polemical and topical. Augustine was trained as a professional rhetorician and dialectician as well as a philosopher. His skillful use of rhetorical devices enabled him to achieve maximum effect and easily score points against his opponents.

The first scholarly edition of Augustine’s works, printed in Basel in 1490, started a controversy over his views on grace and the church that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.  Diarmaid MacCulloch quotes the Princeton historian B.B. Warfield’s remark: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”

Augustine spans the Classical Era, Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.   By combining the God of the Bible and the God of Neoplatonism, he premised Scholasticism.  He anticipated Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Descartes’s Cogito. Professor Charles Taylor in his chapter on Augustine in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) observed:  “On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine. Augustine’s whole outlook was influenced by Plato’s doctrines as they were transmitted to him through Plotinus. His encounter with these doctrines played a crucial role in his spiritual development.”

Augustine was a precursor of a number of important developments in 20th century philosophy: existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics and semiotics. The “religious turn” in Continental philosophy has focused on the Confessions. Postmodernists have also shown special interest in his writings.

Augustine’s continuing relevance is well established.  Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy rated Augustine highly as a thinker. He considered his analysis of time in Book XI of the Confessions superior to Kant’s in the Critique of Pure Reason. Edmund Husserl adduced Augustine in Cartesian Meditations; Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time; and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the Preface to Phenomenology of Perception. At the outset of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein quoted the passage from Book I of Confessions where Augustine explains how as a child he acquired language. Hannah Arendt, a student of Husserl and Heidegger, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s concept of love.  In her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,she reprised Augustine’s notion of evil as the privation of good.

Augustine engaged two major North-African French thinkers, both born in Algeria. Albert Camus wrote his dissertation on Plotinus and Augustine. In his  novel The Plague (La Peste), the Jesuit, Fr. Paneloux,  renowned for his researches into St. Augustine and the North African Church, delivers two sermons on the plague  that are decidedly Augustinian in tone.  Jack Derrida, the founder  of  deconstructionism, was a confirmed admirer of Augustine from the time he first read him as an adolescent. His highly original text Circumfession is replete with Latin quotations from the Confessions. Another French postmodernist thinker and a former Marxist, Jean-François Lyotard, wrote La confession d’Augustin, the beginning of what was intended to be a definitive version of the text of the Confessions. It was incomplete when Lyotard died in 1998 but was published posthumously.

We are probably better placed now than at any time since the Enlightenment to appreciate Augustine.  His pessimism about the human condition resonates today. There are parallels between his age and our own. The Roman Empire was disintegrating.  The amphitheatres were crumbling. There were repeated economic crises. Ancient Roman religion had lost its hold.  It was an age of syncretism.  The shock of the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 was comparable to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Augustine wrote the City of God in response to pagan claims that Christians were to blame for “the public calamity.”

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is very readable but it needs to be read slowly. As he did in The Pilgrim City, Hollingworth provides a chronology. He lists Augustine’s writings, with Latin titles, abbreviations and translations. There are over forty pages of endnotes and a good index. The dust jacket shows Antonello da Messina’s painting of Augustine (c. 1472), Museo Nazionale, Palermo, Italy.

Miles Hollingworth is currently working on two projects: Inventing Socrates: The Religion of the Good Life, and a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, due to be published in 2014 and 2015 respectively. In the meantime, I strongly recommend Augustine of Hippo:  An Intellectual Biography.

© William Converse, 2013