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Justo González on the Mestizo Character of the Christian Life

In this episode, Justo Gonzáles takes us into his book "The Mestizo Augustine," which offers a fresh look at the life of Augustine of Hippo, son of an African mother and a Roman father. How does Augustine deal with this mestizo identity in his life and his theology, and what insights does that provide for us today?

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Episode transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, listen in to this conversation with Justo Gonzáles as he takes us into his book The Mestizo Augustine, in which Justo offers a fresh look at the life of Augustine of Hippo, son of an African mother and a Roman father. How does Augustine deal with this mestizo identity in his life and his theology, and what insights does that provide for us today?

Noel Snyder: 

My name is Noel Snyder, and I am a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. And I'm joined here by my colleague Satrina Reid, who is also a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Hi, Satrina. And the two of us have the wonderful privilege today of talking with Justo González. Hello, Justo.

Justo González: 

Hello, hello! Good to be here. Good to talk with you.

Noel Snyder: 

Thanks. Thanks for joining us. A brief introduction to who Justo is: Dr. González is an ordained United Methodist minister, a retired professor of historical theology, the author of many, many books on the history of Christianity, including the very well known three-volume A History of Christian Thought and his two-volume The Story of Christianity, which as far as I know are used throughout many classrooms throughout the United States to teach the history of the church and of the Christian faith. Dr. González has previously taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. And the reason for our conversation today is that in 2016, Justo published the English version of a book that had previously been published in Spanish in 2013. I'm only going to attempt the English title today. The title of the book is The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian between Two Cultures. And so we're very pleased to be able to talk a little bit more with you, Justo, about this book. Thank you for joining us today.

Justo González: 

It's a pleasure to be with you. I'm looking forward to this conversation

Noel Snyder: 

And we are as well. So, without further ado,  we can start our discussion about this book. So if we could start by having you tell us about the story behind the book. What were some of your reasons for writing it?

Justo González: 

Well, as you correctly said at the beginning, the book was originally written in Spanish, and at that point it was part of a series an organization that's called the Association for Hispanic Theological Education was publishing and still publishing of introductions to different fields in theology, history, Bible, pastoral ministry, and so on. And they were called "Introduction to . . . " something or other. We have some of the basic introductions, but then there were introductions to people's specific problems. We had one to Calvin, one to Luther, one to West, et cetera. In the Spanish is a very long title . . . which really means An Introduction to the Mestizo Theology of Augustine. And honestly, I don't think that's a good title . . . it was received pretty well, but mostly among people who are interested in another thing, not as a more general thing, because the title didn't have the oomph necessary to create interest. So that took a while to get going. And it's been going well lately. Now that's part of it. The other reason behind that book and even in the Spanish is that I didn't want to do an introduction to all those things that everybody does. Introductions that you have some people that begin with his life and then going through his various controversies and use those controversies to explain what his positions were; I have done that myself elsewhere. There are some others that begin again . . . with his life, but then go much more into a systematic order of his thought. How did he think about revelation? When did he thing about God, and so on? And I wanted to do something that touched more the people for whom I was writing. And one of the themes that have touched the Latino community very strongly is emotional mestizaje, which literally means a mongrelism. It's originally a bad thing to be, to be a mestizo.

Noel Snyder: 

You said mongrelism.

Justo González: 

Yes. Yes. Like occur in the street as a mongrel. It's a name that was given in the old caste system in Spain--I mean the Spanish colonies--to people who were partially Spanish and partially Native American. There was another word for people who were also partially African American, but that's another matter. We had all these various other things. And so to me, a mestizo was not a very good thing. Now what happened, it began some time ago in Mexico, a recovery of that mestizo identity, that mixed identity. Mexico was just the place where that began and then elsewhere. Actually, a good, very good friend and colleague of mine, a priest who did his doctorate at the University of Paris . . . wrote his dissertation on mestizaje as a way to understand Jesus himself. And that [led to] all kinds of things. Latino theologians began thinking about mestizaje, talking about it. And so that was an item that I want to discuss.

I said I read all these things about Augustine. Everybody talks about Monica, but nobody tells you that she was African. She was born in Africa, but she actually was Berber, most likely, this or some other of the populations of Northern Africa. And that's usually forgotten. And so I wanted to do this. Now here's this man, Augustine, whom we know as great theologian and so on, and was always presented as a great thinker, almost in a very existential way because we do the Confessions, but after that, it becomes mostly a question of doctrine and so on. And what I wanted to look at was how did he, Augustine, bring into himself, into his life, and then into his theology the fact that he was the son of a Berber mother and of a Roman father . . . who was a big fish in a small pond. Of a mother who wanted her son to be like her, but no, she wanted him to be Roman, which is also very typical of that kind of situation often because all the social pressures. And how does he deal with that? And how much of Monica appears in his thought all through his life? How much of his father appears throughout his life--and by his father I mean the whole Roman culture and all that he studied for years and years and years. So that was the background of it. And then one day, somebody at InterVarsity who had read it in Spanish, asked me "Why don't you publish it in English?" And I said, all right.

I'll tell you an anecdote about that translation if you're interested. I don't know how much time we have, but that's the history behind the book, the context of the book, the content of the book itself.

Noel Snyder: 

Sure, go ahead and tell us the anecdote about the translation.

Justo González: 

That was fascinating. I was very busy with many things, and my wife, Catherine, who is also a retired professor of church history, offered to transcribe a translation. So I dictated the translation all the way through, and she was working several hours a day trying to get all that done before we left for a trip to Ecuador. And when we were in Ecuador, she hadn't quite finished, but she had been working so much on that. When we were in Ecuador I was supposed to discuss some of my smaller books in different days with a group of pastors who were there, and one day it was going to be the Spanish version of The Mestizo Augustine. And Catherine said, "I hope you don't forget about the African cook." Say what? She said, "The cook!" I said, "What cook?" She said, "Remember what you said, when Augustine and Monica were getting ready to return to North Africa after the sojourn in Italy, and his mother said, now I know this very good Roman cook that can really cook food for you when you are back in Tagaste. And Augustine said, no, no, I won't prefer an African cook." And I said, "What? I've never heard of that!"

Well, it turned out that she had been working so intensive, . . . and I think that she dreamed that she had typed that. She was sure she saw herself typing it. She was sure! And she made me go and do a search in the file to make sure that there was no cook in the file. Part of the reason for that is I find that very interesting because obviously if it were true, it would be part of the story. Sometimes that's how history is made!

Noel Snyder: 

So, just so our readers aren't disappointed, there will be no cook in the book.

Satrina Reid: 

No cook in the book.

Justo González: 

No cook in the book. The book may be half-cooked, but that's another matter.

Satrina Reid: 

Justo, the book was written or published in 2013, or at least this translation was 2013. Wondering what has been the response to the book thus far since it's been written? And then what do you hope about how people will engage with the book today in light of where we are?

Justo González: 

Well, the response has been, at the first burst, a great deal of response, and then much less, and then growing all the time. And I think it's basically all the people who are really interested in the subject immediately picked it up. And then that group more or less had the book. To use those words, the market was exhausted and it took a while for other people to begin looking at it and say, you know, that this is something that would be interesting. And now you're getting that wider interest.

What did I hope to accomplish? Several things. First of all, I wish that, for my original audience I wish for them to be able to read one of the great theologians of the the history of the church and find themselves in it somehow. That is not something that my professor was telling me about what he said about Donatism or what he said about the Trinity or whatever, that somehow he had struggles similar to the ones that I have. And to give them permission to think authentically from their own perspective of their various mestizajes that they represent, or the various mixtures that we all represent. I think that was originally thought that in the English version, I was thinking. By the way, when I translate the book, I always insist that I won't translate it because it's not really a translation. I have to because I'm thinking of a different audience. So he has many, many paragraphs that are the same both here and there; there's small nuances that make it a little bit different relating to the other audience. But what I was hoping would happen would be, first of all, that those of us who realize that we are of mixed races and having told that all the time, we'll be able to take that as a matter of pride, in a good sense of self-respect and allow ourselves to think about the Christian faith and about worship and theology and the church from that mixed perspective that we have that other people don't have. That was the first thing.

The other thing that we were hoping, and I'm still seeing that happening very often is that people realize that we are all mestizos, that the kind of thing that's very clear in the case of Latinos because of the tremendous struggles of the conquest and all that. That's the history of most of us. Part of the problem is that we have been told a one-sided history. Just as we were told that . . . when we were talking about being mestizo, being Spanish was good and being Indian was bad. I'm talking about, you know, some generations, some decades ago. And how first of all, you learn to accept that, but then how does the person who's been told, "Oh, you belong to a pure race and so on and so on"--how do you begin to discover the different threads in that history? They'll say a white Anglo-Saxon male in the U.S. discovered the mestizajes within their own person, their own language, and therefore is able to get rid of this purist myth about race and culture and so on. So that was part of what I had in mind. I was hoping that people would realize, you know, there's some mestizaje I have in me. There's some different trends and struggles within myself, and that's okay.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Noel Snyder: 

I think one of the things that's striking about the book--and it's similar to some of your other writing that I've read--is you're able to take this concept of mestizajes and carry it through in a very engaging way. So you're able to tell the story in a way that there's movement, and it's understandable, and you can weave in between elements from his life, but then also elements from his thought and his influences. And I love the way that that concept of mestizo or mestizaje is able to be carried through. Have you found that, from what people have said when they respond to the book, has that been some of the themes that have been emerging as in the helpfulness of that concept or that realization?

Justo González: 

I think so. I received a few days ago a comment from somebody whose emphasis was much more, well, you have shown that theology is a history and that it's a history of the big picture of the whole church, but it's also a personal history in many ways. The struggles of Augustine didn't end with the Confessions; they didn't end in the Garden of Milan. Those struggles continued. And it was precisely those struggles that made him valuable.

Noel Snyder: 

And you also then described how there was this initial burst of response when it first was released and then kind of dropped off a little bit, but then there's been kind of a steady re-engagement with the book. I'm wondering also over that time, if your own thinking has changed or developed in any way based on having released it and then now seeing it engaged with, by so many people.

Justo González: 

My thinking has never changed. I was born knowing everything I know now, [laughter] and I have never changed my mind. No, obviously, my thinking has changed in many ways, partially I think due to two things that have really been bothering me, obviously, and everybody else over the last months, last years. And it's been obviously the pandemic, which would have led me to think more about the church, about what's next for the church, and what's the mission of the church, and how has the church responded. These are the kind of situations--we need to have a new ecclesiology, I think, that is informed by that. And the other side, the whole knowing, I mean, gaining tremendous power of the myth of purity, racial purity and all that and the damage that's all been doing to churches, to people, to the country and to the world. And that to me is something that I would probably want to hit harder on if I were doing something like this again.

Satrina Reid: 

I see all of that as well. And you were talking about thinking more about the church as we find ourselves in this pandemic and political divisiveness. And in a lot of ways, the world is getting--I was going to say different, but maybe it's like it's always been, but we can see it now because of technology and things of that nature. But I'm wondering with the thoughts that you have now, how do you think this book connects with the church and public worship practices within congregations across the U.S. or North America and abroad?

Justo González: 

All right, that's a crucial question. I would hope that if the book has a great impact, which obviously I don't expect, but if it did, I would hope that people will realize the mestizaje, the mestizo nature of practically all our congregations, and that we would take that into account in all of worship. That would mean also that we would have to recover the importance of symbol and gesture that we have lost. Many of us, particularly because of what happened at the time of the Reformation, and later on with rationalism and so on, we tend to think that worship that is not understood is not worship. It's all words. You have to make sure you have the right words. And there's another dimension beyond that, and that is when people who are different meet, even if they cannot understand one other's words, they can understand one another's gestures. One of the advantages that the people at the time of Augustine had, which also had its problems, but one of the advantages they had was that the service of the church--the latter part of the service--was a great drama, and everybody could join it, and it was not just look at it, it's the power of good theater. It's not that you see it; it's that you get into it and you become part of it. And in many ways part of what was happening in that worship in the fourth century and throughout the church was that you had this drama that could be understood by the Punic person, by the African person who didn't understand too much Latin . . . but they could be part of the drama. That could be understood by a Visigoth, or let's say a Frank who suddenly invaded the Roman Empire in the next generation. And obviously eventually they were able to understand the words, but the essence is not the words. There's a dimension beyond that. . . .

Years ago we were in Nicaragua, my wife and I with a group of students, visiting a native church and we were at this open church where (it had) a very folksy atmosphere, hundreds of people there, and because at that time everybody was going to Nicaragua to see what was going on, and there were lots of visitors. And the priest said, "You know, all these visitors are standing back there. I'm going to ask all the children to leave their pews and their chairs and come here and sit around the altar with me on the floor. And I was coming from a church where they give children little packets so they can keep busy and not bother anybody. It was almost 100-120 kids of all sizes all sitting up there on the floor, and I felt, oh, this is going to be bedlam! But they behaved, because there was this drama going on. And when the time came for the consecration, the priest said, you know, you never have a chance to see . . . come and stand around me, stand around the altar. And those kids were looking. I saw a child crying. It was not the words, it was something else. And can we recover that? In our tradition very often the words are all-important. You have to write your sermons because they have to be exactly the right words, and the rest is very secondary. And I think part of what happened in the ancient tradition of the church is that you had that kind of . . . But I'm digressing way beyond Augustine. That's the next book!

Satrina Reid: 

We'll be waiting for it. I think that would be very timely now that we're having to do church behind masks, and singing is limited, and maybe we can embrace gestures and embodied worship even more. There's so much that we can learn from those who are not like us.

Noel Snyder: 

You talked about gesture and embodiment, and I'm wondering if there are any other opportunities or challenges that you think the material in this book might present for worshiping communities?

Justo González: 

I think to me the most important one is what I said earlier: to acknowledge the mestizo character of every congregation. You look at it from outside, it looks very homogeneous. But you really get into it, you begin seeing the nuances. And very often, what happens very often, is the people who are leading worship don't even see those nuances. And I think that also implies something else that has always been bothering me for years, and that is that people say that if worship doesn't say something to me, it doesn't mean anything. And what happens if worship says something to my neighbors? Am I not supposed to be praising God for what God is doing in my neighbor through what's happening, even if not in me? I think that's part of recognizing that these differences that we have in the church have always existed. And this is the best time to find ways to bring people together around those differences.

Noel Snyder: 

Yes.

Justo González: 

We have generational differences, we have worship wars and this kind of music and that kind of music and that music I don't understand, or that music--can we acknowledge that this is who we are? This is what we are called to be?

Noel Snyder: 

I like that. Can you say that one more time? This is who we are and who we're called to be.

Justo Gonzalez: 

That's right. That's right. And that's because that's what we are called to be. That's what we shall be whether you want it or not. I always say we look at the book of Revelation--I mean, people look at it as a matter of fear or something--but the book of Revelation talks about a very mestizo kingdom where you have people of various tribes and languages and nations, and they're all singing together somehow--I don't know how you sing together. If Zoom engineers can bring choirs together I think--I'm sure that God has no difficulty bringing people together from all the ages. But if that is what you believe that means, that's who we are promised that we are going to be. And if it's God's promise, and God's promises are true, then that's who we are going to be. And that's where we're going to be. Now, can we live life now as people who really believe in that and therefore are practicing for it? And that takes place in worship, that takes place also in politics, and it takes place in human relations, wherever.

Satrina Reid: 

Let it be so, Lord! What a beautiful hope we have. That's a beautiful hope.

Noel Snyder: 

Justo, this has been such a great conversation. The book is so helpful. And this concept of mestizaje I know will richly challenge and bless so many readers. We're very pleased to be able to sponsor groups to discuss it this fall at the Worship Institute. And we are so thankful that you have taken this time to introduce us to the book and some of its concepts and to speak with us about some of the implications that you see. We're very blessed by this, and thank you very much.

Justo González: 

It's a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you. Thank you both.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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