The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life

Brad Mercer

When Gilbert Meilaender writes a book, I press "pre-order" at Amazon. Not because I agree with everything he writes, but because he, as an astute theologian and ethicist, is consistently insightful about the nature of what he calls "the perennial problems of moral life." I was first introduced to Meilaender when I heard him lecture on C.S. Lewis at Wheaton College in the 1990s. I immediately tracked down A Taste for the Other: The Ethical Thought of C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) and devoured it. This book, along with Alan Jacobs's, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), are the two best books published on Lewis's thought. Meilaender is orthodox, insightful, measured, and wise--and he never hides behind abstract jargon or simplistic platitude.

In his latest book, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Meilaender does not disappoint. He takes Augustine as a "conversation partner" and reflects upon the topics of desire, duty, politics, sex, grief, and method. He listens to Augustine "worry over a subject" and observes that "it is often at those places where one is tempted to dismiss him as misguided, or even comical" that he helps us transcend the confusion and nonsense that characterizes our age. Underlying the entire book is Meilaender's assertion that Augustine "is one whose power lies chiefly in his sense that the way that leads to God (and hence to fulfillment) is a way that often hurts and wounds us."

Meilaender maintains that Augustine's oft-quoted "programmatic statement" that "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find their rest in you," introduces a tension between mercenary and disinterested "impulses" into the Christian life. Is Augustine's doctrine of desire a compromise with human hubris? Anders Nygren claims that Augustine's appeal to desire is nothing but "sheer titanic pride." Meilaender argues that this charge misses the way Augustine frames his story. Augustine's account of the restless human heart is not the story of our need to possess God. It is the story of our need to praise Him and delight in His presence. "Augustine does not seek God in order that he may thereby live a happy life; he seeks God in order to delight in his presence." To reinforce this point, Meilaender quotes Lewis: "In love we escape from our self into One other." Every human being is created with a deep desire for happiness that is consummated only in the rest and enjoyment of God. Does this escape from self destroy the self or diminish the importance of other people? No, the people whom God gives us to love serve as a kind school of love in which we learn the real meaning of love. "To turn in love toward that God is to turn toward One in whom we are given others to love. But they are--always and only--loved 'in God'; for apart from that location they can never truly be themselves."

If desire is so important, what is the place of duty in the Christian life? What is the relationship of the "attractive" to the "imperative"? For Augustine, duty is central to a life well lived. For example, in Against Lying, he takes the "rigorist" position that lying is always wrong. There are no exceptions. What about the distinction between the right and the good? According to Augustine, "This much I know . . . that even he who teaches that we ought to lie wants to appear to be teaching the truth." When we lie for what we think is a good cause, we can never be certain of the final outcome. In all situations, says Augustine, "man must respect the norm of morality" even if that means martyrdom. Meilaender, while respecting Augustine's rejection of ends which justify means, argues that his position must be augmented by the insight the "words may at times rightly be weapons." This is Bonhoeffer's approach:

[A] teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher's question has placed him in a situation for which he is not yet prepared. He feels only that what is taking place is an unjustified interference in the order of the family and that he must oppose it. . . . The child's answer can indeed be called a lie; yet this lie contains more truth, that is to say, it is more in accordance with reality than would have been the case if the child had betrayed his father's weakness in front of the class. According to the measure of his knowledge, the child acted correctly. The blame for the lie falls back on the teacher.

Not only is lying justified in cases of resistance to unjust demands, in some situations lying is justified based upon "mutual agreement," such as in cases of espionage and other forms of concealment. Lying, says Meilaender, may also be appropriate in cases when "truth does not display respect for the other person." It may be very wrong to inform a dying man that his son has just died. The tension between desire and duty will always be with us in this life. We must heed Augustine's prayer: "give what you command, and command what you will."

Meilaender tells us to affirm with Augustine that although politics and physical pleasure, in the form of eros, can never quiet our restless hearts, we are often tempted to look to them for more than they can deliver. Politics is not salvific or redemptive. Christians should not look for signs of the times but patiently and faithfully fulfill their daily duties. Only the church set against the world can be church for the world. Eros can become a kind of self-gratifying idol. Yet we must part company with Augustine when he gives civic rulers the right of religious coercion and lays the theological foundation for current Roman Catholic condemnation of contraceptive intercourse and assisted reproduction. "All this said, however, we should not fail to give Augustine his due. What he did see, and what his emphasis on procreation might remind us also to see, is that sexuality is more than a personally fulfilling undertaking intended to make us happy and give us pleasure."

Politics fails us. Sexual pleasure is fleeting, and we are never far from pain and grief. "Not to love the good things of this life, to practice Stoic detachment, might protect us against the pangs of grief, but it would mean that we had stepped off the path that leads to God. So we must continue the pilgrimage--and doing so will hurt." Meilaender concludes the substance of the book by reminding us that Augustine calls us to embrace our earthly blessings "in the manner of pilgrims." Life is a school of virtue. "To think of grief as constitutive of the believer's journey toward God places a premium on patience, the virtue that 'accounts for the coincidence of joy and sorrow' along the pilgrim's way." He summarizes Augustine's position by offering a well known passage from Lewis: "The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. . . . Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home."

C.S. Lewis, in his 1944 introduction to Athanasius's, On the Incarnation, mentions that he often finds weighty doctrinal books more devotional than devotional books. "I believe that many who find that 'nothing happens' when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find their heart sing unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and pencil in their hands." This is an apt approach to The Way That Leads There: doctrinal-devotional for head and heart. It's time to grab a pencil--and pre-order Meilaender's next book.

Gilbert Meilaender - Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006  
Review By Brad Mercer, Minister of Discipleship, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS