Dissertation defense presentation

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

by Gerald Schlabach
12 April 1996

In his 1994 presidential address to the North American Patristics Society, Frederick Norris argued that yes, the discipline of Patristics must certainly continue to do the work of establishing critical editions, faithful translations, and careful interpretations. Nonetheless, he continued, the demise of the historical objectivism under which scholars once did such work, and a new sensitivity to the way communities of meaning receive, read, and transmit texts, should actually help the society do its work better. Norris thus welcomed new readings of early Christian texts by theologians of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And he welcomed readings from other disciplines too, such as “religious studies, classics, history or literature” for (he said) “I often find insights in such discussions which my community did not see.”

Feeling a little out of place as an ethicist attending NAPS for the first time, I was relieved. Perhaps the questions I brought as an ethicist — oh yes, and as a Mennonite besides — would be welcomed as fruitful ones from the other side of the interdisciplinary conversation. From my side, working primarily as an ethicist, I had certainly begun finding it fruitful to engage in sustained conversation with Augustine. And to my surprise. As I explain in my preface, the idea that Augustine might have something to offer was not one I initially welcomed.

I say all this in order to situate my dissertation in a field of tension defined by two sets of polarities.

The first is a set of two questions: What might Augustine have to offer? But how are we to appropriate Augustinian thought without appropriating too much? I argue that contemporary Christian ethics should consider reappropriating at least the overarching structure of Augustine’s doctrine of Christian love because it integrates both right self-love and proper self-denial. Yet we should take care not to appropriate too much, for Augustine integrated all aspects, of all loves, through a vision of the good of mutual love that also tempted him to paternalistic coercion.

Now, the term “reappropriation” has started to become a commonplace, at least in our department. But if we do not sense a second set of tensions here, we should. The prospect of reappropriating “too much” from Augustine carries a normative tone, a hint of ethical judgment. The second field of tension, then, is between the methodologies of ethical argument and historical investigation. Historical studies, despite the demise of objectivism, and despite the welcome that I heard in Norris’s speech, remain properly nervous about imposing normative problems upon the record. “Reappropriation” dare not mean that we mine a tradition for pretty gems we happen to like, only to render the landscape unrecognizable for students who come after us.

I have tried to negotiate this field of tension by requiring myself to appropriate or reject Augustine’s ethical judgments and ecclesial policies only on the basis of a principle of selection that he himself would be able to recognize, on his own terms. To arrive at such a principle of selection has, I hope, required me to be responsible with the historical record and accountable to the canons of historical research.

In the end, however, this is not finally, strictly, a historical study. Rather, it is a species of conceptual analysis, in conversation with historical texts. The hope is that we can make clearer distinctions in and among concepts we have inherited, by examining them, at or near their sources. The goal is to enliven our imaginations so that we can think about a set of contemporary ethical issues in ways that have been refreshed. The possibility that nonetheless remains is this: So long as we stay clear that the questions we are taking to ancient texts are not exactly the questions that the ancients were asking, then the lens of our own fresh questions might yet allow us to see things in the historical record that we would otherwise have missed.

The structure of the dissertation, therefore, is chiastic. Of its five chapters, the first and the last frame the study by posing and then returning to contemporary issues in Christian ethics. The middle three chapters are more historical, working with Augustine. The argument goes something like this:

[1] Christian ethics needs a unified account of right self-love and proper self-denial. As long as we are reacting to one moral problem at a time, this may not be obvious.

But what happens if we recognize the standard worries of ethicists about egotism; the inevitable need for Christian moral reflection to grapple with the suffering servanthood of Jesus Christ; and the concerns of feminists (for example) about what happens when Christian thinkers make self-sacrifice the most characteristic feature of authentically Christian love?

What if we notice that when a person or community makes Jesus’ self-denying love central to their ethic they must eventually confront the question of how to sustain self-denial over time, avoid “burn-out” and thus reintroduce considerations of self-concern?

And what if we notice the intriguing case of ecofeminism, which presumably shares the feminist critique of degrading models of self-sacrifice, yet also critiques the collective human egotism that environmentalists call “anthropocentrism?”

We need a Christian account of self-love, yet no ethic can do without some account of self-denial too. For to have normative bite, any ethic must identify the points at which moral agents must refrain from potentially advantageous actions. Feminist and other liberation ethics are no exception. Liberation struggles may require great sacrifices. And ecofeminism provides a particularly good example of what happens when we juxtapose various moral problems and hold ourselves accountable to all of them at once.

My suggestion is that Augustine offers us a good place to go within the Christian tradition in order to think such issues through to a unified account of self-love and self-denial. At first he may seem an unlikely resource, for Augustine has critics who lament that he introduced too many ascetic, anti-body, self-denying attitudes into the Christian tradition, and he has critics who lament that he found any place at all for self-love in Christian teaching. Yet on second thought, these diverse criticisms represent a clue. Perhaps Augustine understood something about the unity of self-love and self-denial that interpreters have either misrepresented or missed altogether.

[2] The first task of my chapters on Augustine, therefore, is to identify the unifying structure of Augustine’s teaching on Christian love. One can trace Augustine’s doctrine of Christian love by proceeding as he did, “from below,” and discovering why no love can be stable unless it directs us toward and is secured in the love of God. Especially in Augustine’s struggle to learn how to love his friends rightly, we encounter the unobtrusive but crucial notion — “Let them be loved in God.” To love any creature rightly is to recognize that the source of its life and goodness is the God whose face we see in the person and character of Jesus Christ. To love any creature rightly is to desire and help it find its good in relation to God, within the ecology of right relationships among all creatures that God created it to fulfill.

Orienting all of Augustine’s thought on Christian love, then, is what I have called a gestalt vision of love-as-a-whole-in-coordination-with-its-parts. What is true for the neighbor is true for the self, and vice versa: the good that we seek when we love neighbor, self, or enemy is not a private good of each one’s willful and egocentric devising, but participation in the common good, the theocentric good of right and mutual relationship with God and all other creatures in God. The only self that I may rightly love is the self God created me to be. To love that self is decidedly not egocentric, for to do so I must relinquish the sinful self of my illusions.

[3] But can we get there from here? Augustine’s own narrative reminds us that human beings may view visions of the good from afar yet find themselves congenitally unable to practice them. Further, robust conceptions of how the eschatological vision of mutual love should begin taking shape in history and in the church are (as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us) quite able to exclude enemies and embody a dangerous collective egotism. It is in trying to see whether Augustine had adequate ways of responding to such challenges that my dissertation makes its most pivotal contribution. The operative mode of Augustinian caritas or Christian love, I argue, must always be continence.

Now, in one way, the critical role of continence in the righting and reunifying of human love has been obvious since Augustine wrote book 10 of the Confessions (10.29.40). Yet the prominent place of specifically sexual continence in Augustine’s narrative, and the general tendency to think of continence mainly as an act of negative self-restraint, may have distracted scholars from noticing the positive role that continence plays in all right acquisition of the good, according to Augustine.

Continence is a way of having by not having — i.e. a way of having the good of right relationship with all that one loves by respecting them and their place in God’s intended ecology, by receiving that good from God in grateful trust, rather than having what one loves through manipulation and domination. Attention to the verbs that Augustine used for acts of acquiring, having or possessing various goods confirms a pattern in which Augustine chose verbs of grasping (or controlling and closing in on what one desires) for problematic loves, but chose verbs of clinging (clinging as though to something too big for one to control) when speaking of rightful loves.

Now if continence is the operative mode of charity and we must participate in the good through continence, then we find guidance for the problems of “how to get there from here.” We don’t — or better: we don’t. The good of continence which is key to acquiring all good must itself be acquired continently. If we rely on ourselves we not only slide into an impossibly infinite regression, but worse still, we are incontinent. And so we must trust in God’s grace.

[4] For many of us, however, the most formidable stumbling block in Augustine is the way his vision helped him rationalize coercive measures to realize an order of mutual love in the divided Christian community of North Africa. The danger of paternalism had been present in Augustine’s notion of love ever since he concluded in book four of the Confessions that the way to love one’s friends rightly is to “let them be loved in God … and with you carry up to him as many as you can” (4.12.18). Initially this only meant persuasion, but its logic could rationalize coercion. To “compel [the Donatists] to come in” was for their good, it seemed.

The danger of imposing one’s conception of the good upon others is a not a uniquely Augustinian danger. Love argues both for intervention on behalf of what we judge to be others’ true good, and for respect of their dignity as creatures of God who must appropriate that good for themselves. If love is to have content, it cannot avoid this tension. So we need a way to speak the two sides of love simultaneously, compromising neither our respect for the dignity of others, nor our longing for the good of others. Continence provides this, for it is the mediating concept that reminds us: we cannot realize the highest or most important goods in life at all except through respect for the beloved and trust in God.

The vindication of Augustinian charity-working-through-continence is that it diagnoses Augustine’s own incontinence. Mutual love in the body of Christ was for him the greatest of earthly goods — but his great temptation was therefore to force its realization through coercion and domination rather than trust in God. Augustine’s Donatist policy represents a realized eschatology out of synch with his deepest theological convictions. It struck a fateful fissure at the heart of his doctrine of love, which forces us to appropriate his thought selectively. The principle of continence, however, gives us a reasoned rather than a merely emotive basis for selection.

[5] By now the notion of charity-working-through-continence has suggested a way to hold together right self-love and proper self-denial. Self-denial is only meaningful when ordered teleologically to a higher good, a good that even moral agents who suffer on behalf of others must be able to recognize as a good for them. Even Christ endured the suffering of the cross “for the joy that was set before him,” the joy of drawing others into that order of mutual love which he proclaimed as the coming Reign of God.

In the final chapter, feminists in my own Mennonite community provide a case study for testing this thesis, for they are seeking to stay in continuity with their tradition’s witness of nonviolent love and suffering servanthood, yet also to distinguish Christ-like nonretaliation from submission to gratuitous sexual and domestic abuse. While preserving the sense in which willingness to suffer remains the ultimate test of faithfulness to both the Reign of God and Jesus’ nonviolent way of bringing it, we can also begin to derive concrete criteria for distinguishing Christ-like self-sacrifice from gratuitous victimization that neither contributes nor witnesses to the order of mutual love that begins to participate in God’s own trinitarian life of love.

* * *
As grateful as I am to receive Frederick Norris’s post-modern welcome to fresh readings, fresh and multiple viewpoints are pointless, if they do not finally allow us to see something. I hope that Augustine studies, Mennonite theology, and Christian ethics may all be a bit richer for a cross-pollination of the questions my dissertation has raised, but also for the learnings and suggestions I have offered:

    • In Christian ethics, I have already mentioned my argument for holding together both self-love and self-denial, and in the dissertation I have suggested criteria for distinguishing proper self-denial from pernicious self-denial. All this depends on a plausible overall account of Christian charity, and I hope I have provided that. If someone found an inspiration in my discussion of continence for a fresh meta-ethical theory of the relationship between the right and the good, I would take that as compliment, though I probably won’t do such work myself.
    • In Augustine studies, my case for discerning in Augustine’s thought a grammar of continence, grasping and clinging makes two modest contributions: The notion of a grammar suggests a way to conceive of the continuities in Augustine’s thought without either over- or under-stating them. Second, my attention to continence may require further testing but does extend a developing consensus that sees Augustine’s analysis of concupiscence as relevant not just to sexual sins but to all social reality.
    • And among my Mennonite colleagues my suggestion will be this: If we believe something went seriously wrong when Christians let Constantinian toleration seduce them into alliances with empires, princes and states, then it behooves us to identify that as finely as possible. We need, I believe, a nuanced sense of where we may converse within and where we should critique the mainstream theological tradition. This is part of my contribution.