This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of St. Augustine.
I am beginning to suspect that Christians have things rather backwards when it comes to the topic of “evangelism in the workplace.” The conversion story of St. Augustine has made this point increasingly clear to me. It seems to me that most Christians are under the impression that “successful evangelism” centers on their firm grasp of things like intellectual truth, philosophical rhetoric, and quick-witted debate. Their questions often seem to surround the questions of “What do I say?” or “How do I say it?”
In the ever-sensitive matter of “workplace evangelism” I would like to argue that Augustine’s story appears to indicate that “conversion” is more a matter of food than philosophy, more a matter of wine than wit.
In book five of his autobiographical Confessions, the young Augustine has transferred his way through three different teaching jobs in Carthage, Rome, and finally Milan. These significant career moves were largely inspired by Augustine’s restless search for a more disciplined and respectful brand of student. Tired of the classroom tomfoolery and general ballyhoo of Carthage and Rome, Augustine moved to Milan longing for students who could sit still and listen.
Book five of Augustine’s Confessions finds the young teacher of philosophy and rhetoric deeply torn on personal matters of religion and truth. Augustine has dabbled in astrology, radical skepticism, and the sect of the “Manicheans.” Augustine’s confidence in each of these philosophies is waning at this point. He is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their leaders, their theories, and their ability to make sense of the world. With great effort Augustine makes contact with a famous philosopher by the name of Faustus. He brings Faustus his religious questions and troubles, only to find the philosopher’s answers thin and empty.
At this point Augustine has displayed an ambivalent interest in the faith of his mother—Christianity. Much to his mother’s disappointment, Augustine is still refusing to convert. He simply cannot make logical sense of certain Christian doctrines like the incarnation, sin, and the interpretation of the Old Testament. Augustine cannot fit the ideas of Christianity together into a coherent and logical philosophy.
Then Augustine meets Ambrose.
Introductions matter in any story, and the introduction of Ambrose into the story of Augustine’s life is unlike any other in The Confessions. Other figures in Augustine’s life are rather thinly described in terms of their philosophical ideas and their oratorical skill. Characters who are unable to intellectually impress Augustine (all of them) are quickly left behind as the protagonist moves on in his pursuit of “truth.” Augustine notes that Ambrose is indeed intellectually gifted and persuasive. That said, what ultimately sets Ambrose apart is not his intelligence.
In his introduction of Ambrose, Augustine shifts rather suddenly and surprisingly from the abstract language of philosophy to the flavorful language of food and drink. He describes Ambrose as a speaker who gives his listeners the “finest wheat” and provides “wine that makes men merry and sober.” In another translation Augustine declares to God that his servant Ambrose provides “the abundance of your sustenance, the gladness of your oil, and the sober intoxication of your wine.”
Why the sudden shift from philosophy to food, from wit to wine?
Historians note a number of possible explanations for this reference to wheat and wine. Some rightly point out that Augustine is making an allusion to several “food Psalms” which discuss the wine, wheat, oil, and nourishment that is found in God. Others explain, rather simply, that since Ambrose was a bishop it was his job to give people bread and wine in the Eucharist. Still others point out that these words are a subtle reference to a hymn that Ambrose had written:
And let Christ be to us food
And faith be to us drink
May we drink the sober drunkenness
Of the joyful Spirit.
These scholarly observations seem to me to be entirely correct. That said, I think they each miss a larger and more expansive point about the conversion of Augustine and the conversion of human beings in general.
Augustine’s conversion through Ambrose, I would argue, had more to do with the bishop’s flavor than his philosophy, more to do with his drunkenness than his didactics.
In his encounter with Ambrose we discover that Augustine is not simply searching for bare spiritual truth; he is searching for spiritual food and flavor, sustenance and sweetness. Throughout his Confessions Augustine continually describes himself as a man of desire, hunger, and thirst. God, likewise, is repeatedly referred to as his “Sweetness.”
What sets Ambrose’s witness apart is that he is not simply able to respond to Augustine’s philosophical questions, he is able to display for Augustine a life of flavor and sweetness, richness and nourishment. Jesus is not simply Ambrose’s “answer;” Jesus is his food and drink. Jesus is not simply an intellectual solution; he is the seasoning that gives flavor to the whole of Ambrose’s life.
In the end the invitation Augustine receives from Ambrose is not simply to “know” Jesus; the invitation is to drink and be drunk on Jesus, to experience him as his Savior and his Sweetness.
Salt in the Workplace
Regarding the topic of evangelism in the workplace, Christians will speak often of their desire to “be a light” amongst their coworkers. This usually means “to speak up,” “tell the truth,” and “do the right thing.” This all seems right, however, it seems to lack the flavor and richness Augustine found in the witness of Ambrose.
It is true that Jesus commanded his followers to be a light in the world, but didn’t he also (in the same breath) command us to be salt as well? Didn’t Jesus also want his church to add flavor to the world? Moreover, if the church ever lost its flavor, didn’t Jesus claim that it had lost all value? The apostle Paul seems to back this up as he exhorts the Colossians to
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
This language of flavorful and nourishing witness in the words of Augustine, Paul, and Jesus leads me to ask the following questions: Rather than march into the workplace armed with religious words, answers, and truth, what would happen if Christian professionals sought to be people of flavor, richness, and nourishment in the workplace? How might that impact their interactions in meetings with clients, students, and coworkers? What if Christians yearned to be workers who provided sweetness and sustenance to their workplace? Rather than always seek to provide an answer, might we seek to quench a thirst for a wine not yet tasted?
“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense, if God did not exist.” -Cardinal Suhard