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Interview With John Kenney, an Augustinian Scholar


BURLINGTON, Vermont, JUNE 20, 2007 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI is moving the Church away from religion, in the modern sense of the term, and toward a deeper understanding of Christianity, says an Augustinian scholar.

In this interview, John Peter Kenney, professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael's College, in Vermont, discusses the role of St. Augustine in the thought and work of Benedict XVI.

Kenney is the author of "The Mysticism of St. Augustine: Rereading the Confessions," published by Routledge in 2005.

Q: What Augustinian influences do you see in the Holy Father's work, especially his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," and his general-audience catecheses?

Kenney: Both the encyclical's hidden architecture and many of its themes are Augustinian.

I was initially struck by the Holy Father's discussion of "sacramental mysticism" -- the ecclesial dimension of Christian contemplation. This is an important theme in the "Confessions," part of the emancipation of Augustine's thinking from pagan Platonism.

Too often Augustine has been misread as a proponent of an individualistic sort of mysticism, whereas a close reading of the whole of the "Confessions" shows his mature recognition that the human soul can only come to know God when nested in "the living soul of the faithful," the Church.

In this first encyclical, the Holy Father also offers a nuanced discussion of the role of the Church in reference to politics and the state that is very much in keeping with Augustine's position in "The City of God."

What the catechetical talks have exhibited is just how deeply the Holy Father's thinking is informed by the whole range of patristic theology. He has, as you know, been proceeding chronologically, discussing both major and minor authors in some detail.

I think it is worth keeping in mind that the Pope's thought is not just Augustinian, but broadly patristic.

Q: Augustine is known for his Order of Love -- "Ordo Amoris" -- emphasizing love over the intellect. How do you see this fitting into the pontificate of Benedict XVI?

Kenney: Clearly Benedict XVI believes in the objectivity of truth and in the possibility of the right ordering of human affections in relation to that truth. These convictions were central to Augustine's own conversion and they remained at the core of his thinking.

The "Ordo Amoris" emerged in Augustine's thought because of his own startled recognition that God is transcendent being itself and we are made in the image of that reality. Our deepest longings, loves and desires can finally be fulfilled only if we order them correctly in relation to their divine source.

For lots of historical reasons, Augustine has sometimes been interpreted as emphasizing love over the intellect.

But the Holy Father understands Augustine in his proper patristic context, as discovering eternal truth within the soul and calibrating human desires in reference to their ultimate divine foundation.

It is the dysfunction of our age that we fail to understand that calibration -- something that Benedict XVI's pontificate seems intended to remind us.

Q: How does Augustinian thought differ from Thomistic thought, and how might that influence Benedict XVI?

Kenney: I'd be very reluctant to see Benedict XVI's affinity with Augustine in terms of any self-differentiation from the thought of Aquinas. Indeed the Regensburg address emphasizes the common intellectualism of Augustine and Aquinas in contrast to the voluntarism of Duns Scotus and the later medieval nominalists.

Both Augustine and Aquinas hold that our knowledge of goodness and truth mirror, at least to some limited extent, the inner nature of God.

God is not so remote and his will so inscrutable that we have no means of knowing him as infinitely good. So for Benedict XVI, Augustine and Aquinas exemplify the great synthesis of biblical faith and Greek philosophy.

They are its twin pillars in the Latin West, even if their philosophical theologies do differ, given their distinctive appropriations of Platonism and Aristotelianism. But it is their common character that Benedict XVI has been emphasizing.

Q: Do you think Benedict XVI identified with Augustine early on because they were both thinkers who became pastors out of necessity?

Kenney: Yes, perhaps that's true. His doctoral dissertation, completed a few years after his ordination, was on Augustine's conception of the Church.

This suggests a connection with Augustine early on in his life as a priest. But I suspect that the root of this identification went even deeper and lay in his recognition of the Church as an anchor of sacred truth in a world riven by dehumanizing secular ideologies.

He had, after all, first-hand experience of such ideology in the Germany of his adolescence. Like Augustine, he identified the Church as a divinely ordained community that prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem.

So the events of both their lives brought them to see the unique role of the Church in a fallen world and also to discern the pastoral aspects of their own vocations.

Q: What might be the historical significance of having an Augustinian-influenced Pope at this time in world history?

Kenney: One of the most powerful themes in Augustine's thought is the universality of the Gospel. This is what drew him to Catholic Christianity rather than to Donatism, which seems to have been the dominant tradition throughout much of his native North Africa.

For Augustine, Christianity is by its very nature global, and the Gospel is intrinsically universal in its message and scope. And so the Church can never be just a local sect or a national institution.

Augustine was a member of that post-Nicene generation who articulated what we think of as the Catholicism of the Church and who sought to build a communion of faith across the peoples of the ancient world. There is therefore much in Augustine that speaks to our present age of globalization.

Q: Where do you think Benedict XVI is trying to point the Church and the world right now?

Kenney: He's pointing us away from religion -- in the modern sense of the term. Religion is a category of modernity, usually understood to mean either individually authenticated spiritual experiences or else a particular type of collective ideology based on socially defined values.

To think of Christianity in such terms is to drift toward the relativism that Pope Benedict has so famously decried. Hence Benedict XVI has insisted that personal spiritual experiences can only become meaningful within the shared context of a lived theology. And the collective life of the Church is far more than a form of social or political association. Christianity is not an ideology.

These modern representations of religion can constitute a reduction of Christianity to psychological, sociological and political categories and can result in a denial of its claims to transcendent truth.

Benedict XVI has a masterful grasp of all these reductionist tendencies and he has pushed back hard in order to restore recognition of the richness and depth of Christianity.

So one might say that we have a Pope who is opposed to religion -- and in favor of Christianity. Thank God for that.

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