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Moving Away From Religion Toward Christianity

6/20/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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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 ...

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