Dissertation abstract

For the Joy Set before Us:
Ethics of Self-denying Love in
Augustinian Perspective

by Gerald Schlabach

Contemporary Christian ethics needs a unified account of right self-love and proper self-denial. Competing notions of Christian love represent fragments of a unity once present in the thought of St. Augustine. In Augustine’s doctrine of Christian love (caritas), all loves find their unity in a gestalt vision of mutual love among all creatures in God, united in shared love of God as their highest good and participating in God’s own trinitarian life. That good is not a private good, and one must therefore deny the self that would use other creatures for one’s own privately imposed good. Yet one may rightly desire to participate in the common good of mutual love, which implies a kind of self-love. Continence is the operative mode of Augustinian caritas. According to the principle of continence one can only “have” the good by trusting God, respecting the other, and receiving all goods as God’s gifts, not by domineering power and manipulation. Augustinian self-love cannot be “acquisitive” in the egocentric way that Anders Nygren alleged, for the only self worth loving is a gift of God’s grace. Linguistic analysis of verbs Augustine used for ways one may “have” what one loves, confirms a pattern whereby wrongful love “grasps” its objects domineeringly, while rightful love “clings” to God and receives the good in trust. Still, Augustine’s approval of imperial coercion in his effort to restore unity to the divided community of Christians in North Africa suggests that Augustine did not practice continence consistently. Precisely because mutual love among Christians was the earthly good that Augustine most desired, forcing it proved to be his greatest temptation. Yet the ability of Augustinian continence to diagnose Augustine’s own incontinence vindicates his doctrine and provides a reasoned basis of appropriating his thought selectively. Mennonite feminists seeking to distinguish between biblical self-denial and victimization in situations of sexual or domestic abuse offer a case study for testing eight theses that mediate between Augustine’s thought and contemporary ethical challenges. Self-denial proves to be meaningful only in relationship to a larger good that moral agents may in some way identify as good for them.