Unwoke Augustine: Ethnicity and the Faith
Jesse Russell, PhDSeptember 23, 20210
During a recent speech to incoming Freshman at Princeton University, Princeton Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta advocated for the use of free speech in the service of social justice to “tear down” Princeton University.
While Professor Peralta’s comments might have been deliberately hyperbolic, they echo statements he made in April of last year to the New York Times arguing for a radical reevaluation of the study of Greece and Rome.
This new method to studying and teaching the classics would, Peralta argues, be focused on deconstructing both the worlds of Greece and Rome as well as how classics have traditionally been taught in the West as part of wider effort to deconstruct and ultimately eliminate “whiteness.”
Upon first glance, Professor Peralta’s statements might seem somewhat sympathetic to Christianity, which has a long history of advocating for social justice and for “freeing the oppressed.”
However, Peralta’s comments are ultimately rooted, not in the Gospel, but in Cultural Marxism and the new Millennial Left, which sees its goal not on liberating the enslaved or helping the powerless but with completely deconstructing and ultimately destroying Western identity.
For much of the past fifty years the left has won victory after victory tarring much of Western history as been irreducibly evil.
With the advent of the Trump presidency and the emergence of a new muscle right wing politics, the left engaged in an even more aggressive “full court press” on the West.
Seeing all of this anger and violence directed toward them, some Western Catholics have embraced the siren song of paganism and/or a post-Nietzscheanism that is found in some digital circles once known as the “Alt” or Dissident or even Radical Right.
Many of these figures on the Radical Right argue, in line with Nietzsche, that Christianity is a decadent and enfeebling religion that has weakened and crippled Western men and women and made them sitting ducks for the assault from the left.
This unfair critique of the faith was answered over a hundred years ago by (at the time) Catholic philosopher Max Scheler, who argued that what Nietzsche was really critiquing was Enlightenment humanism and sentimentality and not the Catholic faith, which historical had strengthened, rather than enfeebled Europe.
One of the principal arguments against Christianity from the Radical Right is the notion that Christianity forbids any sense of ethnic or cultural identity.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, perhaps the most influential theologian in the West prior to St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the man who has been called the “father of the Middle Ages,” St. Augustine of Hippo, who helped to craft the quintessentially Christian notion of the City of God or Civitate Dei, writes of ethnic identity in his Confessions in a positive and affectionate way.
Known as one of the most important works in world literature as well as one of the first autobiographies in the history of the world, St. Augustine’s Confessions tells the story of the Romanized North African’s journey from his hedonist youth to his saintly life as archbishop of Hippo.
There are two major points in the Confessions at which Augustine speaks of culture and ethnic identity.
In Book VIII, St. Augustine mentions that the philosopher Victorinus was a philosopher who had converted to Christianity, but who formerly had defended various Egyptian cults practiced by the Romans, as Augustine notes:
At that time almost all Roman nobility was enthusiastic for the cult of Osiris and Monstrous gods of every kind and Anubis the barking dog, Monsters who once bore arms against Neptune and Venus and against Minerva… gods that Rome had once conquered but then implored for aid.
St. Augustine’s mockery of the Romans who practice Egyptian religion is here two-fold. First, the worship of the strange gods of the Egyptians is the worship of idols.
In addition, the worship of these gods is a ridiculous form of LARPing or “Live Action Role Playing.” As memorialized in Virgil’s Aeneid, the Romans under the budding empire of Octavian had conquered the Egyptians under the rule of Cleopatra. However, in the decadence and decay of the late Roman Empire, the Romans have embraced the false gods of a foreign people, looking for redemption in the cultural other. A weakened Rome, would likewise begin to imitate the Germanic peoples who were in the process of conquering them.
In our day, this message can serve as a two-fold jab at contemporary Westerners who adore the idols of other peoples by adopting and admiring alien religions. Like the Romans before them, Westerners who abandon their Christian faith for foreign religions are imitating the culture of a different people and, more importantly, worshiping false gods, thus damnably offending the one true God and then foolishly LARPing as being part of someone else’s culture.
In another passage in Book VIII, while in Milan, St. Augustine receives “a surprise visit at home from a man named Ponticianus,” whom St. Augustine describes as a “compatriot [Latin: civis] in that he was an African.”
St. Augustine recognizes a special bond that he and this man have as being from the Roman province of Africa.
There is nothing terrible or awful here about having an ethnic identity or recognizing that bond between two men.
However, this man, Ponticianus, St. Augustine soon finds out, is a “…Christian and baptized believer,” which is an even greater spiritual bond between Augustine and Ponticianus.
Augustine and Ponticianus share a bond as Africans, but they also, and, more importantly, share a bond as Christians in the City of God.
Augustine identified as a Romanized African (it is possible he was half Berber, fully Berber, or like Americans of English descent, an “Italian” Roman descended from settlers living in North Africa).
However, St. Augustine became a Christian and thus entered into a deeper and eternal identity as an adopted son of God through Christ Jesus.
Catholics should resist attacks on the West as ultimately attacks on Christian civilization.
Moreover, the Church has never taught that having a culture or ethnic identity is a wicked thing as long as that ethnic identity does not become an idol or an obstacle to true charity.
Ultimately, our response to this assault on the Christian West must be one of charity and love, which will conquer the hearts of the Church’s enemies just as they did to the barbarian invaders who sacked Rome but were themselves conquered by the love of Jesus Christ.
Photo: ruins in ancient Roman Carthage, Augustine’s homeland, now modern Tunisia. Image by SofieLayla Thal from Pixabay
Jesse Russell writes for a variety of Catholic and secular publications.