Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Evil and the Augustinian Tradition

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Evil and the Augustinian Tradition

Article excerpt

Evil and the Augustinian Tradition. By Charles T Mathewes. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xii + 271 pp. L40.00 (cloth); $60.00 (cloth).

Evil and the Augustinian Tradition is more than an intervention into the endless scholarly debates on the problem of evil. Charles Mathewes aims not solely to speak to theodicists and anti-theodicists, devotees of theory and of practice, but also to promote Augustinianism as a comprehensive theological stance. Somewhat controversially, Mathewes chooses Reinhold Niebuhr and Hannah Arendt to represent the Augustinian tradition. Each thinker, he argues, preserves only half of Augustine's response to evil; Niebuhr retrieves the insight into evil as "perversion" of a fundamentally good nature, while Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil holds onto the truth of evil as "privation." Moreover, the Augustinianism of each is compromised by their "subjectivism," the (typically modern) belief that action is determined by free and spontaneous choices of the human will.

Mathewes has surprisingly little to say about Augustine's own reflections on the mystery of evil; he scarcely engages with the Confessions. For the most part, he relies on summary statements of the "Augustinian" account of evil: that is, evil as "perversion" and evil as "privation." Where Mathewes does enter into a more detailed discussion of Augustine's thought, though, he takes a promising approach, identifying Augustine's practical response to evil rather than any theoretical "solution." Thus, he considers Augustine's counsel to the women raped in the sack of Rome and his discussion of the judge, both from City of God.

From these two texts, Mathewes derives two broad principles. As sufferers of evil, we respond by practicing forgiveness, while as agents whose hands are inevitably "dirty," we nonetheless participate actively in the social world. We are called to acknowledge responsibility for the past despite the limits of our agency and to embrace it despite the ways in which it has injured us. …

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