Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 14-16.
There is a rising strand of Christian social thought inspired by a fresh reading of Augustine’s City of God. Those involved are prolific, erudite, and, for the most part, quite young. Their intellectual seniors include George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom helped to bring ecclesiology back into Christian ethics. But the young ones have taken off from there. Names like John Milbank and David Yeago in theology, Reinhard Hütter in ethics, and Richard Hays and N. T. Wright, biblical scholars upon whom the others draw heavily, are representative of this increasingly visible trend.
The movement, if it is cohesive enough to be called that, is committed to the construction of an independent and distinct churchly culture based upon the full narrative of Israel and the Church as it has been carried through the ages by the Great Tradition. Theologically, the neo-Augustinians are anti-foundationalists who believe that a religious tradition like Christianity is a cultural-linguistic system that cannot and should not be compromised by any standards not its own. They learned that from Lindbeck.
Biblically, they argue that the early Christianity depicted in the Pauline letters was a churchly "public" or culture of its own, flourishing along side of but radically distinct from the Roman, Jewish, and Hellenistic cultures of the time. "Paul already regards the Church as a new public order in the midst of the nations with its own distinctive culture," argues David Yeago. Christians who entered such a culture were "dying to the world" in the sense that they were entering a new ecclesial world.
Ethically, they contend that the practices of this distinct, living tradition form the Christian virtues that sustain such an ecclesial world. The Church’s worship, preaching, teaching, and communal life shape the virtues that maintain the practices of marriage and family life, charity, hospitality, governance, art, and thought that provide a real alternative to the dying world about us. The Church essentially needs no sources other than its own for the ethical task. Milbank asserts that the Church produces its own "ecclesial society," with an attendant ontology, social theory, ethics, and economics.
Ecclesiology, that formerly unexciting branch of systematic theology, takes on urgency in the neo-Augustinians’ writings. The Church is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel, manifesting a comprehensive new life. It is the Body of Christ in a direct and literal way, a people in continuity with the people of Israel. It needs to live truly from its own sources and forget about worldly relevance. "The Church is a public in its own right," says Hütter. "The world," when pressed hard, is simply another religious vision of life that is a poison when ingested uncritically by the Church.
The neo-Augustinians are sharply polemical. Above all, they are contemptuous of the "modern settlement," to use Yeago’s term, in which secular, liberal society, with its procedural definition of justice, has succeeded in marginalizing the religious vision. The modern settlement has insisted on a "naked public square" in which religion is relegated to the private sphere of life. Meanwhile, modernity’s own "scientific" way of understanding life is dogmatized as the only public meaning available. Rather than being "objective" or "scientific," secular social theories are, Milbank argues, "concealed theologies or anti-theologies." In this "settlement," Christian belief becomes a weekend hobby in no real competition with the really serious ways of understanding life in this world—sociology, psychology, economics, and political science.
A second object of the neo-Augustinians’ disdain is the religious individualism—both sophisticated and kitsch—that has accepted the modern settlement. The sophisticated are the highly educated "new class" that Ernst Troeltsch typified many years ago as "mystics" who wouldn’t be caught dead identifying themselves with a specific tradition or belonging to a real church. The kitsch-devotees are the practioners of the popular religion that searches for contact with the "divine spark" in each individual. This is the gnostic element ingrained in so much American religion. It has, these critics say, little moral seriousness and no people-forming capacities.
Almost as objectionable are the desiccated religious bodies that have accepted the modern settlement, albeit unconsciously. Mainstream church bodies have tacitly bought the argument that politics and therapy are more important than Christian faith, and have allowed their theologies to become handmaidens of ideology or psychology. They give sacred legitimation to secular knowledge and action and thereby become "relevant." (Several of the neo-Augustinians have made the surprising charge that the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr is best understood as a religious legitimation of liberal democracy.) These mainstream bodies, though they think they are involved in "transformation," are more likely being acculturated more deeply into the modern settlement. According to Hütter, such attempts ironically "deepen the Church’s irrelevance and undermine its public (political) nature by submitting and reconditioning the Church according to the saeculum’s understanding of itself as the ultimate and normative public."
Other churches—represented by the church-growth movement—tacitly accept the notion that the religious needs and wants registered in the open market should be the guiding signals for religious practice. They become "relevant" in another way. But, as with the mainstream, they are no longer drinking from their own wells. In the church-growth world, according to Hütter, "religion itself increasingly becomes another commodity regulated by market forces."
The neo-Augustinian project strikes some critics as a new sectarianism, but it is far from that. Its proponents believe in culture—Christian culture. They are not inimical to the arts, music, politics, economic life, education. But these cultural activities, they insist, will have to be renewed—if not entirely rebuilt—on Christian assumptions. Culture under the modern settlement is depleting its inheritance from the Christian past and is gradually descending into perversion and chaos. A new culture must arise from the Church.
The neo-Augustinians are also catholic—even if they are Lutherans, Methodists, or Presbyterians. They transcend modern Christian divisions by attempting to retrieve a premodern Christian consensus. They have a "high" Christology, sacramentology, and ecclesiology and are committed to maintaining strong continuity with the great catholic tradition. They emphasize Catholic substance over Protestant principle.
There is much that is attractive and compelling in this movement. Its confidence in and clarity about orthodox Christianity is highly persuasive. It is refreshing to encounter serious thinkers who argue unabashedly that the Christian vision is true and trustworthy and that it matters ultimately.
This neo-Augustinian outlook is particularly tempting in moments when one is convinced that the current culture of the West is unraveling. Modernity’s commitment to individual rights and procedural justice seems to have no way of affirming substantive moral notions as to how we should live together in community. Indeed, "rights talk" is used as a trump card to override the inherited moral substance of our common life. The Protestant culture that provided the social glue for most of American history is in shambles and shows scant prospect of being revived or renewed. What little remains of the Protestant Establishment indicates no commitment to such traditional Judeo-Christian notions as the sanctity of life at its beginning and end, of marriage as a lifelong convenant of fidelity between a man and a woman, of intrinsic, non-utilitarian moral norms, or of the grateful acceptance of given conditions of life.
As one watches the moral norms that make for decency and restraint slowly erode, it is tempting to declare a pox on our national house and opt out of the struggle for a common culture. It would be pleasant to lose oneself in an ecclesial culture that affirms orthodox Christianity and is eagerly building a parallel culture, one built on the rock of faith instead of the endlessly shifting sands of modernity. In such circumstances, one could quit the perpetual struggle with those in both church and society who seem to have wholeheartedly bought into the modern settlement. Who wants always to appear reactionary or nostalgic?
This new vision offers the prospect of creating a genuine "people," not merely a collection of political or psychological activists or, worse, religious consumers. It aims at incorporating full persons into a full ecclesial culture that can overcome the terrible fragmentation of modern life into semi-autonomous spheres of existence. One would have a coherent and cohesive "world" to live in along side the decaying world around it. Wasn’t this in fact what the early Church provided at the beginning of the common era?
Ah, but wait. As attractive as this neo-Augustinian vision is, it is finally more a temptation than a real option. The main reason is theological. If God is indeed the creator and sustainer of the larger world of economics, politics, and culture, then we as Christians are called to witness there. Our salvation is not in that witness, but our obedience is. And though we know that much of contemporary culture is debased, we also know that it is not beyond redemption. Indeed, reminding ourselves of the illusions of perfectionism, we might even grant that, relatively speaking, it is not all that bad. In any case, modernity’s own norms of procedural justice and individual rights offer openings for Christian witness.
From this theological perspective, it is better to side with those who are willing to struggle for a decent, common culture—even though success is by no means assured. The right-to-life groups, the Christian Coalition, Bread for the World, the American Family Association, and many others make a worthwhile difference in the struggle for America’s soul. And these religious groups have secular allies. The "principled pluralism" suggested by Os Guinness that aims at an overlapping moral consensus is not without prospects of success in the lively world of American politics. There is still much that is good—given and sustained by the Creator—in our common life outside the church.
We need also to remind ourselves how suffocating and stultifying it can be to inhabit an exclusively ecclesial reality. The ecclesial realities that have historically been constructed have often been as oppressive as their secular counterparts. When the neo-Augustinians write glowingly about ecclesial life, one wonders what church they are talking about. Even the strongest churches I have known could be characterized more aptly as bands of forgiven sinners than as shining knights in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, when one thinks of real, existing ecclesial publics, one thinks most immediately of the mega-churches that do in fact create a parallel culture for their members. Yet whatever the mega-churches’ contributions to Christian life and mission in the late twentieth century, they do not seem to measure up to what the neo-Augustinians have in mind. One wonders what church could measure up.
There is much to be cherished in the neo-Augustinian vision. We do need to become more of a people shaped by a richer and more comprehensive ecclesiology. We do need to center on the Grand Narrative of the Great Tradition. We do need to march to the beat of a drum other than the world’s. But at the same time we need to witness in and struggle for that world. That is our calling. That is the Church’s calling.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and author of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century.