Augustine and Social (Distancing) Trinitarianism?

On Distance, Belonging, Isolation and the Quarantined Church of Today by Pablo Irizar

(London: Bloomsbury, 2022), $40, 176 pp

I first admitted to myself that the pandemic might disrupt worship after a smiling, elderly woman refused to shake my hand. At an Episcopalian eucharist in March 2020, after the priest declared, “Peace be with you”, I followed liturgical tradition and turned to my nearest neighbor with an outstretched hand and the greeting of “The Peace of Christ”. The woman kept her hands at her sides, but smiled and bowed her head. Turning around to others, I then received a fist bump and more than a few peace fingers. I hoped these cautious congregation members’ liturgical innovations would be short-lived. Less than a month later, I “attended” Easter Sunday worship at my church over YouTube.

In On Distance, Belonging, Isolation and the Quarantined Church of Today, the most recent entry in Bloosmbury’s Reading Augustine series, Pablo Irizar explores the nature of belonging in the Church, addressing especially what belonging means in an age of social distancing, quarantines, and lock-downs. As with all the books in this series, Irizar draws on the theology of Saint Augustine to interrogate and illuminate a contemporary question or problem (and I ought to inform readers at this point that I have published a book in this same series). Irizar’s main argument is that physical distance does not lessen or compromise ecclesial belonging; instead, for those with eyes to see, distance is a requirement of true belonging.

In four of the five chapters, Irizar offers loosely connected meditations that reframe and reinterpret the meaning of distance, drawing on some of the most challenging features of Augustine’s theology, including the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of the human soul, and the unity of the Church. In the fifth chapter, Irizar turns to the relation between time and eternity, as a means to address the wide-spread sense that the pandemic has robbed us of that most precious and fleeting of gifts: time itself. Throughout this book, the reader can discern Irizar making theological arguments with a decidedly pastoral purpose: as we emerge from the pandemic, each with our own set of losses to mourn and changes to make, Irizar invites us to put our suffering at the service of love of God and neighbor. I am most grateful to Irizar for the hopeful perspective he shares at this disorienting time.

Even so, I found the writing frequently impenetrable and the argument consistently problematic. My main concern is that Irizar may end up using Augustine’s theology to avoid—perhaps even evade—thinking concretely about the challenges that physical distance poses for the Church. While he makes constant references to “distance”, the term gets reframed and reinterpreted a number of ways that I found difficult to follow. As far as I can tell, in the first two chapters “distance” is taken as analogous to “difference”; perhaps because distance is itself a kind of difference (I’ll admit I don’t fully understand Irizar’s thinking here). In the third chapter, “distance” is taken more literally to refer to the geographical and chronological separation across place and time of members of the Church. These two approaches to distance are not equally successful, and so for the remainder of this review we will reflect on the weakness of the one and the success of the other.

In the first two chapters, Irizar charts how Augustine’s deepening appreciation of the mystery of the Trinity alters his perception of difference. In Augustine’s mature theology, he suggests an analogy between the unity of the Triune persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and that of the activities of the human soul—existing, knowing, and willing. Irizar underlines that, for Augustine’s thoroughly orthodox understanding of God and the soul, difference does not disrupt belonging; instead, it is an essential feature of it. Irizar summarizes in his conclusion, in two sentences reflective of his prose style: “Belonging is possible irrespective of distance because the interplay of the triadic divine alterity is inherent to what it means to be human. In other words, distance, considered as difference, is part of belonging, whether by presence or absence.” (59)

A defining feature of the argument in these opening chapters is how indirect it is, as we take a long, circuitous journey before Irizar brings us to conclusions that apply to physical distancing. One way to more precisely consider this indirectness is to identify how many analogies there are at work here. First, Irizar seems to see an analogy between difference and distance, so that what we learn about difference from Augustine can be applied to physical distance. Then, there’s Augustine’s own analogy, between the three persons of the Trinity and the triad of activities within the human soul (it’s worth noting that Augustine himself underlined how provisional all the versions of this analogy are). Irizar then builds another analogy on top of Augustine’s analogy, concluding that what we learn about the relationships within the Godhead and the human soul can be applied to human beings’ relationships within the Church. If difference does not disrupt belonging, then neither, Irizar contends, does distance. I have lots of questions—and, yes, some pretty severe doubts—about all of this. For one, “difference” and “distance” are treated in very abstract ways. Irizar is right, I think, to affirm difference on good Christian grounds, including the distinction of persons within the Trinity, and the wondrous variety present within the creation that God declared good. I think distance could be affirmed more directly than Irizar does by considering its positive role in creation; perhaps the gift of place would be one way to do so. All this to say, while I don’t doubt that Christians should affirm the goodness of difference and distance too, these affirmations come close to hollow pieties if we don’t get specific. What kinds of difference, exactly? And how much distance?

That brings me to Irizar’s most concrete treatment of distance in his third chapter, the strongest section of this book. I’m pleased to say that the insights of this chapter have returned to me repeatedly since I read it some months ago. In it, Irizar focuses on Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms. Augustine believed that the Psalms are the prayers of Christ, addressed to God on behalf of the Church. The distance at issue in this chapter is the literal distance of the members of Christ’s body, across time and place. This distance is essential to the realization of the Church’s mission: only if the Church’s reach encompasses people throughout the globe and across time does it serve to draw the whole of humanity together into the body of Christ. If a believer’s primary association with the Church is, say, that building she loves or her friends at her congregation, that may obscure the splendid universality of Christ’s body. The pandemic’s disruption to our usual ways of being Church, then, may serve as a helpful call to reconsider the Church’s unity.

Irizar gives an inspiring and challenging interpretation of one essential feature of the spiritual unity of the Church. By drawing on Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms, Irizar argues that the spiritual unity of the Church lies in the prayers of Christ; in particular, the Christ who prays the Psalms is a Christ constantly praying in, through, and for the members of his body. By these prayers the depths of human suffering are offered to God, and the full range of human pain is gathered into the body of Christ. In a thought I find as insightful as it is inspiring, Irizar suggests that the Church’s universality also encompasses all the ways in which human beings can suffer. Further, he repeatedly underlines that when we pray for the suffering, we are experiencing Christ’s unending prayer in us; and when we have compassion for the suffering, we are experiencing Christ’s boundless compassion in us. So no matter how physically isolated we are, the members of the Church are united to Christ and one another when we pray. That experience is one of belonging within the Church universal. To quote Irizar on this point: “Belonging in the midst of absence, and even in spite of presence, is the result of the ability to voice the otherwise mysterious depths of human passions and affection. This is possible by enjoining our voices to the voice of Christ in the Psalms.” (79)

By way of conclusion, despite my serious reservations about this book, I share Irizar’s belief that the pandemic may have been a school of prayer. The upheaval it has caused has forced many of us to learn to pray, whether that learning involved praying in new ways or just learning what it means to pray at all. I hope Irizar, following Augustine, is right: despite isolation and distance, anytime we pray we express and enact our belonging to Christ and one another. There is, I think, deep comfort in that.

Ron Haflidson is a faculty member in the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and the author of On Solitude, Conscience, Love and Our Inner and Outer Lives (Bloomsbury).


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