Augustinian Ambiguity (I)

Augustine’s masterwork City of God raises terribly fascinating questions of what type of society Christians should seek to have, and how consistently they should pursue it. Joining education with social vision and maintenance (as both secular and Christian education do) “divinizes” politics as the Ancients prior to Augustine did. Moderns separate politics from the rest of life (particularly from ethics), but the Ancients thought that politics was life. The goal of politics was to direct man to his final end.

For the Ancients, constitutions could never be neutral, but were always partisan and relative to a concept of the Good. To change leaders meant to change the constitution. To change the constitution meant to change the nature of society. Democratic leaders produce a democratic constitution and society. Aristocratic leaders produce an aristocratic constitution and society. Tyrants produce a tyrannical constitution and society. In no case was politics ever neutral. Politics was always personal and directed toward a final end. In the best pagans, that end was “the Good,” or the virtuous life.

Augustine changed this by “de-divinizing” politics, by separating man’s temporal and spiritual ends. He claimed (radically) that the City of Man isn’t about man’s final end, because only the City of God can deal with that. Augustine destroyed Rome’s understanding of the civil religion as the glue holding Roman society together, freeing Christians to seek the supernatural end according to a different set of religious assumptions – namely, a “de-politicized” and “spiritual” one. But that wasn’t the whole story.

One stream of Augustine’s thought is that Christians should endure whatever government they find themselves under. Christians are strangers in an alien land, on their way to their true home, and it doesn’t matter what sort of society a dying man lives in. The City of God should always bear with (not mock) the City of Man, knowing that it is from the City of Man that she gets her converts to the True Religion.

On the other hand, Augustine viciously mocks the Roman City of Man, and extols the Theodosian establishment of Christianity as a good (if ephemeral) thing. Generally speaking, the City of God should uphold the laws of the City of Man, because those laws are designed to provide civil supports for the things which are necessary for the maintenance of their common mortal life. Though each City uses those things oriented toward different ends, they have the laws and social harmony in common.

Today’s widespread interest in Christian education raises fascinating questions about what sort of society Christians should seek, and how consistently they should pursue it. Plutarch calls education “the cement which keeps everything together,” because it is through education that one learns what the Good is and how one should seek it. And, provocatively, Augustine’s definition of a “commonwealth” is a band of people united with reference to a common object of love. What a people loves is its concept of society, and there are true and false loves.

It would follow, then, that since Christians love the true God, they must have a concept of society ordered toward the true God. A Christian’s understanding of civil society cannot be neutral, and Christian politics cannot truly be de-divinized, for God is the Lord of all things – including the political. The Gospel has substantial political-social ramifications. It further follows that Christians have to endorse Christian education, since education in the nature of the object of love and how to properly pursue it is, in Plutarch’s words, “the cement which holds everything together.”

So it seems that our common Augustinian legacy is somewhat ambiguous. If politics is to be de-divinized, such that man’s temporal and spiritual ends are separated, we wind up either with Medieval Christendom (less the tyranny of the Gregorian Papacy), or with our present secularism, in which the Good is, say, an obsessive quest for material prosperity and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of (relativistic) happiness.” And that’s OK, on one reading of Augustine, so long as politics doesn’t try to legislate the propagation of the Faith, but leaves us alone inside our homes and churches and free to hawk the Gospel in the neutral public square alongside Atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else. But if politics is divinized, then we as Christians, because we have a different love than unbelievers, must seek a Christian society and we must support Christian education. Fascinating questions, to which Christians have not yet come up with a consensus answer.

By the way, this all seems to provide more insight into the supposed drastic antithesis between pagans and Christians that many make so much of today. If we as Christians divinize politics (albeit, ordered toward the love of the True God, not false idols), then we are fundamentally agreeing with the Ancient “pagan” idea that politics is about seeking the Good and that it embraces all aspects of life. On the other hand, if we de-divinize politics, we are fundamentally agreeing with the Modern “pagan” idea that the spiritual has no business in the political, but should be kept isolated inside our homes and churches unless it is merely presenting itself as a “product” in the “free market.” Either way we’re agreeing with the pagans, so perhaps a lot of the ramped-up rhetoric about the Christian’s supposed duty not to agree with pagans is overdone. Maybe it’s better to just say that sometimes the pagans got things right and this is one of those places, and then avoid distracting attention from the important questions with Fundamentalist-like calls to separate from “the unclean” and have “purity.”

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