An Evening with Robert Louis Wilken

15 10 2009


AG and I went to a talk at Notre Dame Seminary here in New Orleans given by the noted Christian scholar, Robert Louis Wilken. A former Lutheran pastor and a convert to the Catholic Faith in 1994, Dr. Wilken this night gave a talk entitled, “Reading St. Augustine in the 21st Century”. Dr. Wilken, as many will know, is an expert in early Christian thought, having written and edited such books as Remembering the Christian Past and On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. He is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia as well as having taught at many notable universities around the world. He is also a New Orleans native, having grown up in the lower Ninth Ward, and gave a biographical prelude to his talk on how good it was to be back in his hometown. There was a good turnout for the event on a rainy Friday night, and the talk itself was followed by a lively and equally interesting Q & A session.

Dr. Wilken decided in his limited time to tackle perhaps the most prolific and influential of ancient writers, St. Augustine of Hippo. Wilken had to start out surveying the vast expanse of Augustine’s thought and writings, not to mention his equally impressive legacy on Western thought. He began with some rather broad yet profound themes that Augustine touched upon in his writings: time, memory, the self, and the soul. In these, what is most important is the “inner life” of man; it is the “most important part of being human”. In Augustine, above any other thinker in antiquity, we have a “turn towards the self”. In no other author then or now can we get a deeper sense of the “inner life” as it journeys towards the truth. For Augustine, reflection and the turn towards the self were a “step on the way back to God”. His task was to explore the infinitely vast universe within, of which the outer universe is but a mere shadow, and there find God.

Dr. Wilken chose a few suprising and not so surprising themes to explore during the course of the night. The first that he mentioned was that of marriage. Contrary to what many scholars have said about Augustine, Wilken stated that the saint’s view was much more optimistic than many of the Church Fathers in the sense that he saw marriage and celibacy as being complimentary to each other. Citing the lesser known work, De bono coniugali or On the Good of Marriage, he held to the idea that the primary end of marriage is the procreation of children, but also upheld marriage as a sign (sacramentum) of Christ’s union with the Church. For Wilken, the true breakthrough of Augustine’s thought was to apply both Scripture and natural law principles to the issue, both addressing marriage as the primary social building block of the body politic and a mystical sign of the higher reality of the Supper of the Lamb in Heaven.

Another unexpected topic discussed was St. Augustine’s view of lying. Dr. Wilken made the necessary distinctions of what lying is and isn’t. According to the professor, it is neither ignorance nor being rash, but rather asserting that something is true when one knows it to be false. He then posed the question if it is defensible to lie in any particular circumstance. Here again he cites St. Augustine’s two prong approach of Scripture and natural law, bringing up the appropriate verses of Holy Writ that condemn lying without any nuance, as well as the philosophical principles of human speech. For Wilken’s Augustine, speech is grounded in God’s truth, and to speak is to partcipate in the Word that made heaven and earth. Thus, the lie breaks the relation between us and God. In this I was reminded of one scholar’s summary of Proclus’ idea of the human speech when she stated that for the pagan philosopher, to speak is an hieratic act. The lie then is not just a social misdeed the affects of which can be destructive, but a violation of the metaphysical principles at the heart of the universe.

Politics was the last theme touched upon by Dr. Wilken, and Augustine’s idea of the two cities was discussed in the context of our own political situation. He began by giving a bit of historical background to Augustine’s writings, stating that Augustine was living at a time when people were waivering in their idea of the marriage between Church and empire. With the barbarians at the door, people were wondering whether it was a good idea to have a sacred Christian power existing as the strong arm defending the Catholic Faith. This is where Augustine’s two cities, the city of God and the city of man, entered into the picture. Wilken stated that Augustine was not trying to create an ideology of how the two cities would interact, but rather trying to create a peace between the two which would allow human life to flourish. They would “coalesce by remain distinct”, always allowing man to be open to a “higher order”. In all of this, however, God could never be relegated to the periphery or the “private world”.

Thus, far from Augustine advocating a complete separation between the city of God and the city of man, he stated that without the former the latter could not really exist. Wilken said that no genuine justice or peace can be had without giving God His due. The absence of this right ordering would only lead the earthly city into decline. The caveat he gave here was that he was not agreeing with the Roman philosopher Varro who thought that people should participate in the cult of the State merely out of civil duty. The professor said that to promote religion for any other reason than giving God His due leads to the decline of religion. “To spread faith,” he stated, “faith is needed”. Christianity may have many advantages over the ancient pagan cults, but its true advantage is that it can show man ” a glimpse of the heavenly city”. No earthly benefit of religion can be better than that.

Wilken ended his talk by discussing Augustine the man. He died with the Vandals at the door of the city where he had been bishop for decades, and within a generation the Church in north Africa would be on its way to extinction. According to one contemporary biographer of Augustine, he had penitential psalms scralled on the wall next to his death bed, and he spent his last hours gazing upon them and reciting them over and over again. While his legacy would die a tragic death in his homeland, he would bequeath to the Church and the world a treasury of writings that will be valued and studied until the end of time.

The question and answer section was equally interesting and lively. A few questions put Dr. Wilken “on the spot”, but he handled them admirably, drawing interesting gems of wisdom out of them. The first was about Dr. Wilken’s conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, asking him to relate it to St. Augustine’s own transformative religious experience. Dr. Wilken, like many in his situation, was quick to dismiss the “conversion” paradigm in describing his entry into the Church. I found this a bit problematic, but I will leave that theme alone for now. He did say, however, that it was only in the Catholic Church that he felt that he was indeed in the same church that the Apostles had founded. According to the former Lutheran, it is not enough to have the “same doctrine” as the past, but one must have the “same people” as well. In other words, the communion of the Church rests just as much in persons as it does in ideas. That is the essence of Apostolic succession, and it leads to a certainty that he did not have as a Protestant.

I myself had another question that may have made Dr. Wilken squirm a bit. I wanted to know what he meant about promoting religion for strictly political purposes, and whether he thought that such a phenomenon was occuring in the United States today. He would not be specific, probably because he was personal friends with Fr. Richard Neuhaus and the group surrounding the magazine First Things, the conservative religious think tank of the nation. He did comment, however, that the “thickness” of Catholicism in this country has been lost in the decline of Catholic culture. One concrete example of this for him is the moving of such feasts as Epiphany and Ascension to the following Sunday, as if there was ever such thing as an “Epiphany Sunday” or “Ascension Sunday”. I would draw this thought out in saying that if we create a religion of convenience, we not only lose ancient symbolism, but we lose the people. People will “convenience” themselves out of the Church altogether. This already seems to be what is happening in many places.

I don’t know if the evening will make me want to read any more Augustine than I already have. I have found that my readings in Patristics have both helped and hindered my Faith in multiple ways. On the one hand, one can find the voice of the ancient Church intoxicating in its poetry and splendor. On the other hand, one has to realize that a lot of that fascination is due to a romanticism for a past that never was. The written word is very feeble and makes it through history only with the great distortion known to the modern scholar as “hermeneutics”. We cannot help but read ourselves into the past. I for one chose to take the more recent past, that which I know best, and place it at the forefront of how I read the world. If the far distant past can enforce and inform the past that I have known more immediately, I will accept its lessons. In places where it seems to not fit as well, I have to chalk all of that up to the frail nature of human knowing. But I refuse to sort through ancient blueprints to make ships in bottles. That is just futile in the worst sense.

From Dr. Wilken, however, I did come to realize how deeply in the soup non-Catholics really are. When Dr. Wilken was growing up Lutheran, there was an orthodox Protestant culture in this country that could lead one to believe that it was part of the Church of Christ. In Dr. Wilken’s lifetime, that has become less and less evident. So there is nowhere to turn for people in his situation other than the Catholic Church. When everything else is moving, sometimes the thing that moves the least looks as if it is standing still. That I suppose is the Roman Church in the context of the 21st century. And that is, perhaps, the reason we should all hold on for dear life.



17 responses

4 02 2013

“No one can come to The Father except through Me…” – Jesus The Christ, Who Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be.

4 02 2013

“Pope Benedict is friends with Hans Kung”, and yet Pope Benedict as his friend has not made it known to Hans Kung that he is a prodigal son who is no longer in communion with Christ’s Church. Hans Kung does not profess to believe in The Word of God in The Deposit of Faith, as Christ Has Revealed Himself to His Church in the Trinitarian relationship of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and The Teaching of the Magisterium. At some point you realize that the spirit of Vatican II was a false spirit of ecumenism, and the Time has come for a new Vatican II, for Christ Has Revealed through His Life, His Passion, and His Death On The Cross, that Perfect Love Is desiring Salvation for one’s beloved.

14 01 2013

I personally question exactly why you called this
specific posting, “An Evening with Robert Louis Wilken | Reditus”.
In any event I really appreciated the post!Thanks-Curtis

1 12 2009

Pelikan most likely became Orthodox b/c he was a student and good friend of George Florovsky and John Meyendorff. Many people convert for theological reasons, but also for personal reasons as well.

22 10 2009

Wilken’s comments were in answer to a question about which works one should read first – he enthusiastically endorsed the New City Press publications, then thought awhile and said the Confessions, thought a little longer and said the homilies, Augustine’s work on marriage (described above), but that reading the City of God straight through was like deciding to read the whole Bible starting at Genesis – by Exodus one is running out of steam. He then looked over at the seminarians (in the auditorium, people had segregated themselves into laity on the left of the aisle, clergy on the right, with all the seminarians dressed in suits among the priests in attendance) and recommended Augustine’s sermons, I suspect to make his further comment on the poor quality of most homilies.

In other words, I don’t think Wilken was saying that one group should read some works first and not the others, but that having the sermons would be of particular usefulness to the seminarians – the talk was at Notre Dame Seminary, after all.

Sorry I didn’t state that better originally.

22 10 2009
random Orthodox chick

I wonder why he suggested that newcomers should read Confessions and seminarians to read the sermons, when sermons are better suited for “mass consumption” (at least I thought).

21 10 2009

A few more disjointed notes from Dr. Wilken’s talk:

He offered a personal anecdote about his name: prior to his reception into the Catholic Church, he went by Robert L. Wilken, but shortly afterwards he found himself back in N.O., attending Mass at St. Louis Cathedral as a Catholic for the first time. Reflecting on his middle name, he mentioned to Fr. Neuhaus that perhaps he should go by Louis also. When his next article was published, Fr. Neuhaus had listed the author name as Robert Louis Wilken, and so he has been ever since. He also mentioned later that he was very moved in his conversion by monasticism, and how he doesn’t think people realize the importance of the presence of a monastic tradition.

He talked about St. Augustine as the greatest mind between the time of Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas. And although Augustine wrote volumes of works, he was willing to offer corrections near the end of his life to those works, both an act of humility and a demonstration of his deep intellectual and spiritual engagement and wrestling with issues.

On Augustine and marriage, Wilken said that Augustine had the most positive outlook on marriage among the Fathers (he mentioned St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa). He noted that Augustine has been criticized for his outlook on human sexuality within marriage (I’m sure he was referring to Augustine’s opinion that the act of intercourse even within marriage can be a venial sin), but that Augustine, possibly because of the personal experience that the first two Fathers above lacked, realized how powerful and destructive sexuality can be – that the very act of intercourse depends on a loss of control. In this Augustine was again demonstrating great insight and acknowledgment into the inner life of man.

On lying, during the Q&A session, a priest asked Wilken how to explain Augustine’s comment that Jacob did not lie to steal the birthright, but that it was a “mystery” (meaning something that followed God’s laws). Dr. Wilken laughed and said something about expansive exegesis to get around that passage.

On politics, it did seem Wilken was hemming and hawing a bit to avoid stepping on any toes re. the separation between faith and politics. He did say that he had in mind conservative Jews who argue how important religion is in maintaining a societal structure, but then don’t believe religion is that important as faith. His emphasis was that religion will die if it is not primarily viewed as what it claims itself to be: a call to personal conversion. It will never survive if it is promoted as something to hold together the social fabric of a community (my words).

Re. “Epiphany Sunday,” Dr. Wilken said how great a witness it was to have Ash Wednesday – people attending services in the middle of the week, and mused about why they hadn’t tried to push that day to a Sunday too.

Finally, Dr. Wilken’s recommendations for those interested in reading St. Augustine:
New City Press is currently publishing all the works of Augustine in new translations in idiomatic, 21st century English. He highly recommends these. For those just starting out on Augustine’s writings, he recommends the Confessions. For all seminarians, he recommends all the volumes of Augustine’s sermons. This last recommendation provided another opportunity for Dr. Wilken to mention a pet peeve of the current RC Church – the tendency, after the reading of the Gospel, to start the homily with some story. According to Dr. Wilken, it takes the people right out of the beautiful words of Scripture into something mundane. He notes how Augustine starts all his reflections on a particular passage first with another Scriptural passage, and said that is an excellent model of how all sermons should be organized.

19 10 2009

A great post, as usual.

I have one question: if Catholicism is a refuge of sorts for Protestants will they stay, long term?

17 10 2009

Pelikan had some Orthodox blood in his ancestory, although that does not mean that his conversion was not genuine.
Pelikan was also fairly ecumenical and pro-Catholic. His book on Mary notes the Latin/Western devotions with a great deal of respect.
He was close to and wrote well about Pope John Paul II.

Vito, I think you are right, “Catholic” will do just fine. We should not try to put people we disagree with (assuming some parameters of being “Catholic”) in a box or use describing words that seem to diminish (or maximize) their own Catholicism. Pope Benedict XVI is friends with Hans Kung. It does not follow that they are ideologically the same.

16 10 2009
Robert Thomas Llizo

I think we’re on the same page, then.

I don’t know if his writings provide any hint of an answer, but it would be interesting to review the first two volumes of The Christian Tradition, and some of his later writings, with that question in mind.

16 10 2009

This makes it sound as though he had no good reasons to become Orthodox other than ethnicity.

Actually, what I wrote doesn’t sound like that at all. If I had wanted to suggest that, I would have said: “I think Pelikan became Orthodox because he was a Slav.”

But rather I indicated my genuine curiosity about whether ethnicity had “anything” to do with his conversion–assuming he had resolved the theological issues he had had as a Protestant in favor of the great tradition of both the eastern and western churches–because there is no doubt he delighted in his Slavic heritage (see, e.g., the preface to his book on Cardinal Slipyj).

Apart from the theological and ethnic issues, though, I know that he had very good personal relations with the folks at SVS. And I guess that he simply never could solve the “Riddle of Roman Catholicism.” Whether, like C.S. Lewis, he couldn’t overcome an inherited disinclination toward Rome or whether he found the East the more congenial embodiment of the great tradition, I don’t know.

16 10 2009
Robert Thomas Llizo

“I’ve wondered if Prof. Pelikan’s turn eastward had anything to do with ethnicity–with an idea that Slavs are somehow naturally Orthodox?”

This makes it sound as though he had no good reasons to become Orthodox other than ethnicity. Quite a number of us have, with reasons we think are cogent, turned to Orthodoxy as the Mother Church. I believe she is the Church that Christ founded, and I think it a reasonable assumption that the late Dr. Pelikan did too. You are free to disagree about the claims I make for the Orthodox Church, but this is a claim I make without any hint of triumphalism.

All this to say that many of us have good reasons for the decisions we made in pursuing union with the Orthodox Church that go way beyond questions of ethnicity.

Having said that, I am not an anti-Roman ideologue. I want nothing more than to have a good conversation with you all over a pint of ale, maybe a good merlot, pufing away at a pipe, and talking about both what unites us and what still divides us, talk about folk customs and folk expressions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, etc.

15 10 2009

I’ve wondered if Prof. Pelikan’s turn eastward had anything to do with ethnicity–with an idea that Slavs are somehow naturally Orthodox? (I ponder this as my own maternal grandmother was also Slovak Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism in the 1950s.)

15 10 2009
Robert Thomas Llizo

“What was of most concern to him was the idea you describe here – that Pelikan had abandoned certain persons, especially St. Augustine, by making the choice for Orthodoxy.”

In my experience of Orthodoxy, I think the better word would be “downgraded” rather than abandoned. I know man pious Orthodox Christians who venerate him, and see in hi a father of Orthodox piety (like Fr. Seraphim Rose). Some Greeks I know read a Greek translation of the Confessions every Lent, and are quite moved to prayer and greater piety because of it.

Sure, he is not the towering lion among the Byzantine/Slav Orthodox that he is among Catholics and Protestants in the west, but (zealous hyperdox and meta-narrative-driven ideologues notwithstanding) he is part of the tradition, his feast day being June 14 in the Orthodox calendar (August 28 in some others)

From the Greek Archdiocese:

Didn’t want to derail from the topic of Wilken’s talk and conversion, but thought this would clarify my church’s position on the great Father of Hippo. As I said, he is a bit downgraded, but still part of the communio sanctorum.

15 10 2009

“Wilkens…is a bit hard to place in contemporary Catholicism…” Sometimes the label “Catholic” suffices.

15 10 2009

As more evidence of Professor Wilken’s concern for the “thickness” of Catholic culture in the United States, I’ve heard him lament the introduction of the Vigil Masses on Saturday evening. It is another example of making the Faith more convenient at the cost of losing a key cultural/religious marker.

Wilken is close with the First Things crowd, but he strikes me as being in the mold of Russell Hittinger–my link to Professor Wilken. Wilken’s association with First Things reveals more about personal relationships rather than shared ideologies.

15 10 2009

This was a very interesting post for me to read. Wilken once came and gave a talk in Stillwater, MN at the invitation of my then boss, who owned a large Catholic antiquarian bookstore.

His talk was on his conversion, then only a year or two fresh. He handed out to the crowd (of at least a couple hundred) a copy of the letter he sent all of his Lutheran friends explaining his reasons for converting. It was a well written and clever letter, but it struck me as odd.

In a conversation with him at the bookstore, we talked about Jaroslav Pelikan’s (then recent) conversion to Orthodoxy. Wilken was good friends with Pelikan and said that he had only briefly spoken to him since Pelikan’s conversion and planned to have a long conversation with him in which he asked Pelikan hard questions about his choice. What was of most concern to him was the idea you describe here – that Pelikan had abandoned certain persons, especially St. Augustine, by making the choice for Orthodoxy. In Wilken’s mind Westerners could not naturally abandon communion with those Western “same people” that are a part of the patrimony of faith in the West. He also pointed out that the whole existence of the Lutheran faith stood upon a quarrel with Rome, and if one came to a point where that quarrel ended (Pelikan had been Lutheran as well), then it made most sense to return to Rome, and if one did not do this one had explaining to do. Wilken said that he would press Pelikan to write something that specifically articulated why he went Orthodox over Rome. While Pelikan later briefly touched on that issue, he never directly dealt with the matter before his death in the manner Wilken had hoped.

Wilken is a gentleman, and he is a bit hard to place in contemporary Catholicism. You are right that he has a lot of First Things connections, but he also has a lot of connection with the Communio crowd of Catholic intellectuals, whose political bent is decidedly at odds with the First Things folks (Wilken is, for instance, good friends with Catholic scholar Robin Darling-Young). At the same time, he struck me as having Traditionalist-lite sympathies – when he talked about the monasteries he liked to visit, and his views on liturgy, and his complaints about contemporary Catholicism, he talked a bit like a Trad. He definitely did not have the overly peppy optimism that one sees in most neo-Caths.

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