Jonathan Teubner’s Prayer after Augustine: A Study in the Development of the Latin Tradition is a book of many moving parts.
There is the historical part. This comes in the form of the close textual analysis of a select set of Augustine’s writings on prayer (in part 1) and then (in part 2) some of the critical writings that appeared after Augustine in sixth-century Italy by the philosopher Boethius and the monk Benedict. On the face of it, Prayer after Augustine could be read as a valuable piece of historical theology that traces the twists and turns in Augustine’s theory and practice of prayer and how, in turn, those writings shape and are shaped by those writing after Augustine. An assessment of the book on the basis of its handling of these texts alone, however, is to miss something fundamental.
There is the doctrinal part. This comes in the form of an investigation of some of the central doctrines that animated Augustine’s theological imagination—Christology (especially Teubner’s discussion of the process of “putting on” Christ and the totus Christus motif), pneumatology (especially in Teubner’s theory of “pneumatological failure”), the Trinity, as well as theological themes close to the heart of any study of Augustine: desire, the ascent of the soul, wisdom, and patience. The twist in this particular study is that each of these doctrinal and thematic loci is explored via the practice of prayer. In fact, in Teubner’s telling of Augustine’s ideational development, his doctrinal thinking intensifies as his spiritual life matures such that it is impossible to get a measure of one without the other.
There is the spiritual part. This is the contribution Prayer after Augustine makes to the understanding of how one of the giants of the Western tradition comes to appreciate prayer. Despite all that has been said about Augustine and for all the agreement that prayer is central to his theological imagination, there has been surprisingly little scholarly investigation into what Augustine actually thought about prayer. However, Teubner resists the instinct of others to head straight to the go-to text on prayer (the Confessions) by coming at Augustine’s theory of prayer via some of his more speculative writings: such as Soliloquia and De trinitate and through the doctrines mentioned above. If nothing else, the exchange with Luigi Gioia in this symposium demonstrates just how difficult it is to talk of Augustine’s theory of prayer without talking about his Christology or pneumatology or the doctrine of the Trinity. But again, the full significance of this book does not lie in its efforts to understand the phenomenon of prayer alone, and to focus on the theory of prayer that emerges from Teubner’s analysis also misses something fundamental.
There is the part on tradition. This comes through Teubner’s resourceful categorisation of “Augustinianism 1” and “Augustinianism 2”. While the former is concerned with the direct literary borrowings “from the pen” of Augustine (15), the latter investigates “the use of certain general orientations and constellations of thought from Augustine without necessarily sharing specific doctrinal positions” (15).
Then, there are the programmatic interventions. Interweaved through the book are the interventions in theological methodology (in the “Theological Prelude”), historiography (in the “Historiographical Interlude”), and contemporary ethical theory (in “An Ethical Postlude”). That Teubner is as deft at handling under-researched writings of Augustine as he is battling Harnack’s historiography and reframing contemporary debates on the “kinematics of tradition” (209) in dialogue with Alasdair MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout suggests something of this book’s bang for buck.
It is not a case of Prayer after Augustine being more than the sum of its moving parts as this does not seem to do enough justice to the important contributions each of the parts make to their respective disciplines in and of themselves. It is more that this is the sort of book that is best read in sum: that is, to see each of the parts moving together and (to an extent) disrupting each other. Read this way, and marked by its unashamed refusal to play by the usual rules of doing historical theology or straight down the line ethics, the chief contribution, I think, Prayer after Augustine makes is found in its reimagining of how these categories play out in a more comprehensive than otherwise systematic theology—and some of this reimagining is fleshed out in the discussion below.
Because of its many moving parts, this is an awkward book to categorise. Yet there is something thematically appropriate about the disciplinary awkwardness of Prayer after Augustine. Any familiarity with the processes of praying will know that prayer bends around otherwise cleanly cut categories. It is affective, cognitive, embodied; it is traditioned and irreducibly particular; individual and corporate; now and not yet; possible and impossible; and, for a figure such as Augustine, fully divine and fully human. A good deal about “learning to pray” (the focus of chap. 1), then, is about learning to live with these paradoxes, tensions, and awkwardnesses. Perhaps the full complexities of these dynamics are most articulately felt in precisely that: in the realm of feeling, experience, and actual embodied practice. Whether, then, this book does and can do full justice on the page to these dynamics leaves Kirsty Borthwick wondering what has happened to the corporate dimensions of prayer in the tendency she perceives in the book to focus on the individual pray-er. By the same token, Han-Luen Kantzer Komline is concerned that the book “over-emphasizes” prayer to such an extent that it becomes, unrecognisably for Augustine, so much a human work it cannot avoid getting implicated in his own critique of Pelagianism and then, in his response, Andrew Prevot is interested in whether the over-emphasis he senses in Teubner’s account of the worldly nature of prayer (underpinned conceptually by the ever-present reality of prayer’s “failure,” into which Kevin Grove also probes) could be balanced by an eschatology that moves closer to the “theosis-friendly” account of prayer Prevot has in mind and is developing elsewhere.
To gain a better handle on what Teubner is up to across the volume, and so frame this symposium, I focus the rest of this introduction on what to do after Prayer after Augustine. One of the many merits of this particular book is the way it quickly becomes as much a book to think “with” as to think “about” any particular aspect of Augustine’s theology. We get a sense of its unusually long half-life when Komline notes that, despite its ambition and reach, this book makes no claims for finality—it does not aim to be the book on Augustine on prayer any less than it claims to settle all the questions about tradition it raises. But it does seek to raise those questions and generate new conversation (the beginnings of which, as we’ll see, are already taking form for Teubner in this book’s sequel: Charity after Augustine). There are three aftereffects I would like to highlight.
- In the “Theological Prelude,” Teubner aligns himself with Michel René Barnes, Lewis Ayres, Rowan Williams, and others who have called for a broadening of the interpretive parameters operating within Augustine studies to include more marginal but no less vital writings of Augustine. It is not only the fixed canon of texts that need loosening, but also the grip of historical frames through which those texts are read (e.g., the Pelagian Controversy). I think this sort of hermeneutical reframing has something to say about how other historical figures are read as much as it does about the reading of Augustine. Sarah Coakley has shown just what comes of approaching Origen and others by what they wrote de oratione rather than first through their more doctrinal or philosophical teaching. Likewise, Randall Zachman and others have argued convincingly that there is much more to Calvin than the Institutes. But, following in the footsteps of Teubner, there is more work to be done to improve the way other magisterial theologians are read—Barth studies, for example, is still largely reliant on the Church Dogmatics, and for a long while was framed by the grip of the Trinity-election debate in a way almost akin to the interpretative hold of the Pelagian Controversy over Augustine studies. Related are larger questions Teubner provokes concerning the geographical sites in which theology is said to take place. In his “Historiographical Interlude,” Teubner issues a call to confront the hangovers of the interpretive biases operating within late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship that kept sixth-century Italy off the map of the development of the Augustinian tradition. Again, the question Teubner is pursuing has implications beyond the reception of Augustinianism in providing some conceptual resources to confront other interpretive biases that continue to see the neglect of some parts of the world in the production of the right sort of theological knowledge.
- Another aftereffect of Prayer after Augustine concerns the double-dynamic of Augustinianism 1 and Augustinianism 2. Teubner’s account of the formation, transmission, and adaption of tradition is explored by nearly all the panellists (Pervot, Komline, Grove, and Borthwick). While I will leave it for the panellists to assess the helpfulness of these categories for understanding Augustine and his tradition, it strikes me that Teubner’s categories of Augustinianism 1 and Augustinianism 2 are handy to think through the idea of tradition in other traditions. What would it mean to think in terms of Lutheranism 1 and Lutheranism 2; Methodism 1 and Methodism 2; Pentecostalism 1 and Pentecostalism 2; and so on?
- Finally, perhaps the most significant aftereffect of this study has to do with prayer itself. Has prayer become, in Teubner’s reimagining of systematic theology, as much the domain of the scholar as the monk? This is something Gioia seems to be reaching for in his review: here, there is an explicit concern to get Augustine right which, for Gioia, means being completely clear about the trinitarian shape of prayer that he feels is lacking in Teubner’s theorising. But the real issue, it would seem, is not only about getting Augustine right, but the even graver concern of getting prayer wrong. For Gioia at least, the stakes of Teubner’s reframing of systematic theology could not be higher.
Before the symposium gets properly underway, it remains for me to thank Jonathan for writing what I think is a compelling and engaging study and for responding with such eloquence and generosity to his reviewers all the while negotiating the complexities of lockdown. And, of course, my thanks to Andrew, Han-leun, Kirsty, Kevin, and Luigi for providing such generative and provocative engagements with the book. It has been an immense privilege curating a panel featuring such inspiring and creative people.