Saecula Christi – “the times of Christ.” I have chosen this title for this new blog with a deliberate nod both forward and backward.
Backward because I used to maintain a blog called Societas Christiana, “Christian Society,” which, following the Medieval pattern the term came from, explored the relationship of faith and culture by assuming the existence of and normativity of an openly Christian society as a fruit of the Gospel’s progress in the world.
Forward because some years ago an intensive study of Augustine’s City of God, challenged much of my thinking about the shape, scope, and meaning of Christian society. I became more aware than I had been in my earlier Medieval studies of several important angles on the question of Christian society. (More on this to come.)
Augustine is one of those Great Authors from whom it is easy to draw multiple and contrary views of a topic. Historical Christian politics is packed with different takes on Augustine. People on radically different sides of major political issues in Medieval Christendom all believed passionately that they were being faithful to Augustine – and they all had their favorite texts to prove it.
This historical fact shows the problematic relationship of texts to the external world they come from and address. Texts mean things, both when they are written and for later generations. Often it is easier to determine what a text did mean to its original audience than what it ought to mean when later generations receive it and engage it. No one has a “view from nowhere.” All inquiry is traditioned inquiry. Yet, not all interpretations are created equal.
My interpretation of Augustine (which is, of course, reformable) is that he neither holds Christian society a bad goal nor a necessarily preferable goal. Having been formed intellectually and spiritually firstly by American Fundamentalism, which in every way foists upon the world a simplistic Black-and-White interpretation, and secondly by the Magisterial Protestant Reformation, which does not, I have found this “Augustinian agnosticism” about the desirability and value of an openly Christian society quite challenging.
Here is where I am now:
I have not given up the imperative of Psalm 2 that kings should “kiss the Son,” that earthly governments should submit to Christ.
I have not apostatized from Daniel 2:34-35 that the “stone cut out without hands” – the Kingdom of God – has come and will grow until it pulverizes all worldly competition and becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth.
I have not given up the eschatological fact of Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
I have not embraced the “R2K” understanding popular in some Reformed circles, in which there are two entirely parallel and forever separated societies, The Church and The World.
I have not adopted a cynically “Anabaptistic” view of so-called “Constantinianism” as a twister and compromiser of the Gospel.
Nevertheless, one big question animating me is whether “kiss the Son” might take other forms than a culture openly bowing to Christ. When I reflect on both my background and the present, I think much of contemporary Christian cultural engagement confuses external prostration to Christ with internal submission to Him. But the possession of what Augustine called “temporal felicity” is not the same thing as faithfulness to Christ.
Hence, Saecula Christi, “times of Christ” – or “Christ’s Times” – stakes out a related, but different, intellectual space from Societas Christiana. I do not here assume the normativity of an openly Christian social order. I here assume only that “the times” (saecula) belong to Christ, but perhaps we ought not expect of them a particularly Christian look or feel – and our duties as Christians “not of this world, but in it” may accordingly look different in different times.
Today, some speak of the tottering dominion of “White Christian America,” and of a “Post-Christian America” supplanting it. As in most of our history, so today: Christians have no consensus position on what H. Richard Niebuhr famously called “Christ and Culture.” As a recovering Fundamentalist, I have found that the questions come easily but the answers do not. Here I seek, here I hope to find.