In the car today, I happened upon a disturbing radio interview. The guest was a poet and designer of transgender and queer clothing whose world (ironically) seemed morally black-and-white. Those who “express their gender and sexuality, whatever it happens to be in that moment,” are free. Those who happen to think people have inborn natures are “body police,” living in slavery to their embodiment. The guest’s underlying philosophical conviction was that embodiment is a constraint to overcome, not a gift to receive.
In the fourth century, Augustine, who would eventually become the bishop of Hippo, was saved from a Manichean cult. Manicheism taught that everything material—the body, the visible world, and natural and moral laws—was designed by an evil creator to enslave us. The innocent soul must express defiance against its fleshly cage in order to be free of its captor, which some Manicheans expressed through punishing their bodies, and some by indulging them. I’m sure you can guess which of these paths the teenage Augustine chose. Augustine’s way out of this morass may be instructive for us. It required both truth and kindness.
Augustine’s conversion to the truth of Christianity took twists and turns. Take his interest in Neoplatonism. That philosophy didn’t have much good to say about the body, either, but at least it taught that there was one divine source from which all things flowed, not separate gods for spirit and matter. At the same time, this insight wasn’t enough until he encountered the truth of the gospel. Augustine admitted in his Confessions, “I never read in the Platonist books that ‘the Word became flesh.’” That’s just it: In the fleshly world—not only of our own bodies but in the church and society—we meet sin and temptation but also the image of God and especially Jesus giving himself to sinners through water, bread, and wine.
Yet Augustine’s turning point came only after he met a wise and godly Christian teacher. He wanted to meet the famous Ambrose, bishop of Milan, because he heard of his skill as an orator. But what immediately captured Augustine’s heart was not the bishop’s eloquence or teaching but his kindness—even to someone like Augustine. Augustine recalls, “I began to love him, of course, not at the first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in thy Church—but as a friendly man.”
I’m sorry to say that my first reaction to that interview, while truthful, wasn’t friendly. My first thought was not to argue but to dismiss in disgust, which is easy to do with a radio program—or cable news, social media, or the other carefully guarded silos we all live in these days. Peter, however, urges Christians to be ready always to give a reason for our hope, “but do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Truth with kindness. Evidently, this has been a challenge for a long time. Augustine found both in Ambrose, despite his past sins as a religious and sexual rebel against his Creator. Through such truth and kindness, the church received the gift of Augustine of Hippo, the theologian of grace.