St. Augustine on text and reality (and a little Gadamerian spice)

Heythrop Journal 50 (1):98-108 (2009)
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One way of viewing the organizing structure of the Confessions is to see it as an engagement with various texts at different phases of St. Augustine’s life. In the early books of the Confessions, Augustine describes the disordered state that made him unable to read any text (sacred or profane) properly. Yet following his conversion his entire orientation— not only to texts but also to reality as a whole—changes. This essay attempts to trace the winding paths that lead up to Augustine’s conversion through his various encounters with texts (and individuals) and to examine his struggles both intellectual and spiritual along the way. In the final section, I bring Augustine into conversation with Hans-Georg Gadamer in order to highlight a number of hermeneutical continuities shared by premoderns and postmoderns. After comparing premodern and modern hermeneutical orientations, I conclude that Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical biblical methodology, whereas premodern hermeneutics share a number of continuities with Gadamerian and postmodern emphases. Lastly, in light of Gadamer’s famous statement, ‘all of life is hermeneutics’, I suggest that perhaps we could read Augustine’s life as affirming this claim. By taking a close look at Augustine’s story, I will attempt to show how pre-judgments, interpretative traditions and a dynamic/analogical rather than a static/univocal understanding of text (and reality) decisively affected his spiritual and intellectual vision—observations Gadamer would no doubt heartily affirm.

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Cynthia R. Nielsen
University of Dallas

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