Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.  In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.  As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.  The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.  Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.  80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.  And then there were the quasi-Christians.  Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents – including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.

 

One Response to “Augustine and His World (Part One)”

  1. Gaylon Claiborne says:

    I’m pleased with your ‘part 1’…and am looking forward to the ‘rest of the story’!

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