A “mestizo,” writes the historian Justo González, is a person who belongs to two realities simultaneously—and by virtue of this “both-and-ness” does not feel entirely at home in either of them.
A Mexican-American reared in Texas among people of Euro-American culture is repeatedly told that he is a Mexican—that is, that he does not really belong in Texas.
But if that Mexican-American crosses the border hoping to find there his land and his people, he is soon disappointed by being rejected, or at least criticized, as somewhat Americanized—or, as Mexicans would say, for being a pocho.
The passage comes, of all places, in a book about Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century church father (here).
For González, Augustine’s youthful restlessness
was due not only to his distance from God … but also to the inner struggles of a person in whom two cultures, two legacies, two world visions clashed and mingled—in short, of a mestizo.
WHAT DOES HIPPO HAVE TO DO WITH TIJUANA?
This may seem like a strange description.
Saint Augustine, after all, was a Latin-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, steeped in neoplatonic philosophy and converted to Christianity before becoming the most influential theologian after the apostle Paul.
How is he “mestizo”?
González’s point is that despite his classical (Latin) learning, Augustine was born and raised in Africa.
Thus when he finally made it as a rhetorician in the emperor’s court, he never belonged entirely. The accent gave him away, says James K. A. Smith, like “a stubborn hayseed halo around his eloquence.” And when he returned to Africa to live as a monk, the Berbers and the Donatists could see him only as an uppity “Roman” who was too big for his britches.
I encountered these passages in Smith’s new book on Augustine (here), and they made me consider how all of us feel this restless in-between-ness in one way or another.
Take me, for example.
In many ways, I am the ultimate “insider.”
I am a white Christian male in the buckle of the Bible-belt, residing in the same town where I was born. As a theology professor, I couldn’t be more “basic” if I drank coffee from a handmade mug, wore sport coats with elbow patches, and listened to U2 past 2004 (which, I do).
Yet even I feel caught between “tribes” in certain ways: Neither fundamentalist nor Liberal; neither Republican nor Democrat; neither OU nor OSU. 😉
For González and Smith, it was precisely Augustine’s “mestizo” status—that is, his painful awareness of his restless hybridity—that helped him grasp a crucial insight. Neither Rome nor Hippo Regius was the “City of God” (civitate Dei). To be a Christian is to be a pilgrim and a foreigner, and the civitate Dei is, for now, a tent city that is closer to a refugee encampment than the hulking cathedrals made of stone.
The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge. The Christian life isn’t just a pilgrimage but a journey of emigration.
This is not because our greatest hope is leave earth (though Augustine flirted with that error on occasion). Rather it is because we were made to find our rest in God, rather than in the things God made.
Much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to fine the hometown we’ve never been to. … God is the country we’re looking for.
In the face of Rome’s decadent decline (sound familiar?), González sees Augustine’s mestizo mentality as a saving grace.
he, who was both African and Roman, and therefore both and neither one nor the other [could] develop a philosophy of history, a vision of God’s action, that did not depend on Roman civilization… .
If American evangelicalism is to survive, it will have to embrace this mestizo mindset, along with Augustine’s famous line from the Confesssions—the book Smith describes as “a hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos for wandering hearts”:
“You made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in thee.”
Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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