Goodness in the Order of Things

Discerning the Good in the Letters & Sermons of Augustine, Joseph Clair, Oxford University Press, 2016, 190 pages.

Joseph Clair’s Discerning the Good in the Letters & Sermons of Augustine is a powerful reminder of what a deep wellspring patristic writings provide, especially, in this case, the writings of Augustine. The author, who serves as director of the William Penn honors program at George Fox University, has penned a beautiful book, full of scholarly and practical insight. I think it could play an important role in evangelizing our culture.

Readers might be surprised that the textual focus of Discerning the Good is not on the usual Augustinian giants. Not much time, for example, is spent on Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity. Rather, the book guides us through Augustine’s letters and sermons. Focusing on the Bishop of Hippo’s kind, sage counsel to his flock and a range of correspondents, Clair unfolds for us Augustine’s profound grasp of the workings of the good in us.

At the center of his study we find Augustine’s vision of human desires. Our desires are related each to the others, frame-worked as if in concentric circles and bonded by the good—an order of goodness from God all the way through our humanity. As one might expect from Augustine, both the human good and human action find their fulfillment and measure in love, specifically the love of God supremely manifest in the person of Christ.

What is particularly striking in Clair’s analysis is how the Incarnation transforms human desires. The working out of this transformation is located in oikeiosis, translated as appropriation—that is, how our choices, especially the choices we make regarding our relationships with our neighbors and with God, manifest and encourage the good: they join us to the others, and they constitute a vital component of our participation in the good. What, for Augustine, is the role of the Incarnation? “In Christ, [God] has appropriated the concerns of humankind (both physical and psychological) into the sphere of his own self-regard—identifying himself fully with humanity in the most intimate way.”

For Clair, Augustine’s understanding of the Incarnation “ultimately reveals God’s respect for humanity.” At its highest and widest mark,” he explains, “the good itself…unites temporal and eternal. God makes his home in us through Christ, and through us, in others.”

As Clair recounts it, Augustine’s vision of the good retains the grand aesthetic beauty of the rhetoricians who shaped him. For example, one can discern the influence of Plotinus’s fountain with its cascading flow of divine wisdom. At the same time, the vision bears a beautiful re-direction. As Clair describes the big picture here, it is as if Plotinus’ fountain, now baptized in Christ, flows in two directions: the practitioner of the good both experiences the love of God and extends it at the same time—to one’s neighbors and back to God.

This is all possible because the order of things is incarnate in Jesus. In other words, what Clair has unfolded for us is the practical structure in our lives of the reality St. Paul speaks of in Ephesians 1:10—that the Father is uniting all things in Jesus. And what does that unity look like? By the power of the Holy Spirit we are able to see Christ in others and to be Christ to them as we lovingly foster their good.

This analysis of one of our greatest classical writers stretches our imagination for and understanding of the way goodness works in the order of things. It  inspires us to think through the practical applications of Augustine’s insights. What if our vision of the good meant that we see our students, colleagues, elders, constituents and inmates as Christ? What if they experienced Christ in our loving service? To think and act Incarnationally would transform our schools, workplaces, missions, shelters and retirement communities; it would transform every practice from public service to prison life.  

Joseph Clair’s beautiful work is an important contribution to the Christian vision of our humanity. It advances our ability to discern the good anywhere we are, an absolute necessity in building the best culture.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.

The header image of Augustine is public domain under PD-Old.