Saturday, March 04, 2017

Augustine the pilgrim

Ruins of Hippo

The City of God was completed three years before Augustine died. The Barbarians overcame this Roman province of Africa later in the century. They reached Hippo in 430, the year of Augustine’s death. Christianity was wiped out. In this case at least Tertullian’s saying that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church was inapplicable. The retrenchment of Rome from its outer provinces, the division of the empire into two halves centred on Rome and Constantinople, accentuated the importance of Rome in the West, and this was underlined by the Crusades, leading to the Holy Roman Empire of which you and I are heirs. The rest is history.

The book, long in Augustine’s mind, was begun in 413, with various pauses, - Books IV-V  in 415, Book XI by 417, Books XV - XVI by 425, Book XVIII in 425, with the work finished in 427, fourteen years after it was begun. It is a massive, meandering work, full of learning and argument, but rather higgledy-piggledy on first inspection. Augustine planned it, from the very beginning to answer the pagan Roman charge that the disaster of 410 had come about as a result of the Romans’ foolish adherence to Christianity, and their rejection of the old Roman religion.

The book is about the nature of Rome, its destiny as a city, and the contrast with the city of God. It is of interest to us as providing indicators of Augustine’s mature thinking of the Roman empire, and of its place in the history of salvation.

Augustine identifies the city of God with the Christian church,  the kingdom of God. Not the ‘mixed’ empirical church, but the church of the elect on earth at any one time. It is to such people that Augustine is addressing his sermons.  The City of God is composed of Christians, and the dead departed, and the yet to be born. They have a king, Jesus. Sociologically in this present era this kingdom it is seated within the terrestrial city, Babylon.  It does not have one discrete social identity, but worships as social groups,  as churches scattered throughout Babylon, the country of Israel’s exile, as referred to by Peter in his first letter. (I Pet. 5.13)

So the people of God are physically within Babylon, and are also inhabitants of Babylon. There is friction between the two. The horizon of Babylon is this life, that of the members of the city of God, God’s eternity, and the coming of the seventh age. Babylon is governed by cupiditas, selfishness, the city of God by caritas, love of God and neighbour, the life of which will culminate in the age of glory, Jerusalem the golden.  Unappreciated by the citizens of Babylon, the citizens of the City of God also are destined to live again after their deaths and, and those who have never been other than citizens of Babylon are to be punished eternally. To  our taste, at least as this is judged by what we talk about,  there is a disproportionate emphasis on this side of things in the book. Augustine never ceases to extol the state of glory.

So the word ‘city’ in ‘City of God’ operates differently from ‘city’ in the city of ‘Babylon’. We must put from our minds the idea that between the two there is any political concordat or covenant, or could be, but also that between them there are any physical barriers. The people of God are in Babylon in the sense that they live and work alongside Babyloners. Unlike the later Anabaptists, they are to actively promote their inevitable participation in it.

Augustine has an interesting chapter in the City of God on neighbourliness in Babylon headed ‘Of living sociably with our neighbours: how fit it is, and yet how subject to crosses’. (City of God, 19.5)

He also has things to say about the emotional state of pilgrims.

[A]ccording to our religion and the scriptures, the citizens of God, as long as they are pilgrims, and in the way of God, do fear, desire, rejoice and sorrow. But their love, being right, straighten all these emotions. They fear eternal pain, and desire eternal joy. They sorrow for the present, because they sigh in themselves, waiting for their adoption, even the redemption of their bodies. They rejoice in hope, because that shall be fulfilled which is written. They fear to offend, and desire to persevere. They sorrow for sin and rejoice in doing good….And as they are strong or weak, so do they desire or fear to be tempted: rejoicing or sorrowing in temptation. (City of God, 14.9)

The days of state and church and their relations was not yet. Constantine did not bring in a positive church-state relationship as part of the constitution of the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire and its dissolution into various national concordats between church and state, and the life of those churches that dissented from any such relationship, was still to come. In Augustine’s day the only relation is that of the tolerance or intolerance of the city of God by the current political authorities. This is one important way in which Augustine’s conception of two cities is more than verbally distinct from Luther’s and Calvin’s conceptions of two kingdoms. For ideally, one of these kingdoms is ruled by the magistrate in a formal arrangement with the church, upholding the confession of the church. Augustine conceives of no such relationship

For Augustine the relationship between the cities is much less formal.  The ethics and ideals of Babylon and those of the church make living together possible. In the last section of the book Augustine makes this clear in  the chapter mentioned earlier, City of God, 19.5. subtitled ‘Of living sociably with our neighbour: how fit it is, and yet how subject to crosses’, and two others: ‘The grounds of the concord and discord between the cities of heaven and earth’.  (City of God, 19.5) And ‘The peace of God’s enemies, useful to the piety of His friends as long as their earthly pilgrimage lasts’. (City of God, 19.26)

Wretched then are they that are strangers to that God, and yet have those a kind of allowable peace, but that they shall not have for ever, because they used it not well when they had it. But that they should have it in this life is for our good also; because during our commixture with Babylon, we ourselves make use of her peace, and though faith does free the people of God at length out of her, yet in the meantime we live as pilgrims in her. And therefore the apostle admonished the Church to pray fore kings and potentates of that earthly city, adding this reason, ‘that we may lead a quiet life in all godliness and charity’. (City of God, 19.26) 
The suggestion behind these words is that the relations between the two can be beneficial, and will ebb and flow. Very different from his earlier ‘Christianisation’ views.

So the citizens of the city of God do have business in the city of Babylon. Reading some of Augustine’s letters one is struck of the seriousness and naturalness with which he corresponds with Roman officials in Babylon about matters of administration, and how he seeks the advantage of the church thereby. But it is not that Augustine is two-faced, but that he is, as a cultivated Christian Bishop, at the interface of church relations with Babylon. He wears two hats, as all Christians do in Augustine’s conception of the two cities.

Augustine does not have a concept of common grace, though there are occasional references to the ‘good gifts’ that God grants to the inhabitants of the city of this world. (City of God, 15.4) And he does have a rudimentary idea of natural law, the eternal law, from Scripture and from the Stoics such as Cicero. The members of the city of God have duties to their pagan neighbours. Earthly peace is important though not all-important. Hence his discussions of just and unjust wars in the City of God

But, so it seems to me, such activity in the ‘cities’ is thoroughly consistent with Augustine’s conception of their different character. Augustine was not an Anabaptist, and though other - worldly, he does not seek to flee from duties and responsibilities arising from the intermingling of the two cities. As a citizen of the heavenly city, he was also within the earthly city. The discharge of earthly duties is a social and may be a political matter.  But a person’s religious view as a Christian is not for Augustine a political matter as far as the earthly city is concerned. So at leastAugustine seems to have argued.

This is an extract from a paper given at the Affinity Theological Study Conference, 2017 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Unique times?

What has been is what will  be,
and what has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?
It has been already in the ages before us.

As we saw in the previous post, claiming that these times are the best of times is fatuous, a part of the Sunny Side of the Street approach to history. But are there unique times, without parallel in human affairs? I argue that it is equally fatuous to say that these times are unique, uniquely bad, or good, having unique moral and social features. 

It is stretching things even further to say that these are uniquely difficult times for churches to maintain their faith in our day. Of course, if we were landed in some era in the past, we would be uniquely shocked, in many different ways. And so it would be if we could fast forward. But aren’t suffering, temptation, doubt, the experience of backsliding, departure from the faith, puzzlement at the ways of providence, the operation of false prophets, persecution, the stuff of the Christian church in every age? There is this reminder from Jesus himself. “Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name’. (John 15. 20.) Of course if people have come to be attracted to Christianity as a leisure pursuit, or as the way to riches, or as give a rounding off to their life as consumers, that’s another thing.

Isn’t Calvin's a more realistic estimate of things?

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating and halting, and even crawling on the ground they make little progress, let every one of us go far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. (Inst. III.6.5)

These two attitudes - being on the right side of history, and the judgment that the times are uniquely bad - have this in common, that they are each kinds of exceptionalism. To claim that is common to each is that we live live in exceptional times, exceptionally good or bad times, as the case may be. Exceptional such benefitting from our technological advances, and having a Twitter account! For the present day exceptionalist, the ability to send emails or Tweets effortlessly around the world at no cost, creates unique conditions.

Think about the gift of the internet. Such gifts are not only a blessing, but also a curse. For they are pervasive and intoxicating, so it seems. They enable human beings to dissemble on a grand scale, to spread lies as if they were truths, to vent hatred, and to indulge in narcissistic self-promotion. These in turn raise levels of human anxiety. People may feel vulnerable as never before, and their minds set to  continually race. Lives are ruled by these new circumstances. Many seem to be without any anchors that ensure stability in our existence which has become a daily, 24 hour whirl. Sources which we have previously trusted have become suspect. Paradoxically, perhaps, scepticism and cynicism on a grand scale leads to action, to protest, mass demonstration, coarse language, and even insurrection. All the world’s a stage. In this maelstrom, people do not know whom to trust. 


But there is another thing that these two attitudes have in common besides being exceptionalist. Each are instances of environmentalism. The currency of the environmentalist is external states or activities, parts of the world around us and outside us, and the reactions that observations of these promote. So this does not mean they don't affect us? Or that we can turn their effect on us on and off at will?  Certainly not. Malign environments are the subject of warnings by Christ and the apostles. They might strike to kill but they do not succeed. For they do not touch the character or worth of men and women, the springs of heir action, the thoughts and intents of their heart.   A possible case in the New Testament is that of a state of affairs that would, if possible, lead astray even the elect. (Matt. 24/24 )

Those who aver that these are the best of times come to these conclusions by adding up commensurables, those factors which make up our standard of living, our ‘quality of life’. So it’s not simply a question of pounds and pence, but factors that it is not easy to give a monetary value to,  a cost and benefit analysis. Activities as varied as walks in the country, breathing in polluted air, the exercise of freedom of speech, people everlastingly talking loudly into their mobile devices, and many more together make up the quality of life. These are not possible to assign a monetary value to, but they are matters which people value or disvalue, in varied amounts.

And when people, even the same people, tell us that these times are uniquely bad, as compared with earlier times, they play the same  environmentalist game.

The New Testament

Since this malaise is allegedly unique to now, and general in its effects, it must influence religion. For religion depends on who a person trusts who or what that person believes. After all, congregations are not made of theological experts. The congregants may trust Jesus. But can they follow the twists and turns of debate about the person of Christ, say, of monotheletism or diotheletelism, or the latest effort of some ill-informed social critic? They struggle with these handicaps. Worse, such challenged people here other voices than that of their pastor from the omnipresent internet, influences which have the tendency to crowd out the local pulpit and the Christian community.

However, a Christian will see at a glance, these changes in our circumstances – clean running water, central heating, antibiotics, computers – welcome though they are, are not so radical that they require a re-think of the basic conditions of human life.

The New Testament is markedly anti-environmentalist. The word ‘regeneration’ (palingenesis) is used only twIce in the New Testament, but it is nevertheless a key concept. We are familiar with the soteric sense of regeneration, (Titus 3.5). It is in view of being regenerate in this sense that it is impossible for the elect to be deceived. But the same word is used of the cosmos: ‘Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration [‘new world’, unfortunately, In the ESV] when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. This is not a new world from the outside in, but one from the inside out, indelibly new in its very nature. (That’s why the ESV translation is unfortunate). (Matt. 19. 28)

Other words of Jesus support this
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said “What come out of a person  is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander. pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”(Mark 7.18-22) 
Unique times, then? No, different times, but with the same problems, and the same solution.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Which side of history are you on?

The beginning of a new year might be thought the appropriate time to begin it by identifying whether we are on the right side of history or not. That phrase, ‘the right side of history’ is not mine of course. Nor is it the best way to think of our relation to the past. But  it  is common to think in these terms. Lately it has been used as an argument for the UK remaining in Europe. To remain would be to join or continue to be on the right side of history, the Sunny Side of the Street, as we might call it. But Brexit is on the wrong side, though the Spectator, a magazine which is for Brexit, opined in a recent editorial that  ‘the world is doing rather well’.

‘Which side of history are you on?’ is also raised in connection with other contentious issues in current politics and culture. This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history.  Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light.  Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming.  Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism,  two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.  (An oldish sceptic might wonder what has become of a fad of yesteryear, the ‘Small is Beautiful’ claims of Schumacher, which at the time seemed attractive to some, but whose norms seem to go in the opposite direction, or are nothing other than a nostalgic hiccup in the upward march).

What the inevitability of the triumph of such enlightened forces is grounded in is not made clear. Besides, it encounters competition in the ‘sides of history’ stakes. For example Marxism in its pure form holds to the historical inevitability of the international revolution that will usher in classlessness, and so Nirvana. These inevitabilities are not strictly speaking fated. For it seems to be possible to hold to the inevitability of history and yet get one’s timing for meeting the train that will carry you to the destination of personal liberal freedom and plenty, or of communist revolution, wrong.  Nevertheless, he train is to continue in its destination even if presently it is shunted into a siding. But such a view of history is obviously false. There is change and decay as well as periods of seeming advancement.

But though history records moods, and changing habits and priorities, trends and tendencies, it does not have a side, nor two sides. It has, and has had, many sides, some of which have come to an abrupt halt and others which still run. Other sides suddenly appear and invite you to ride, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland – ‘Jump on me’. The rise and fall of empires bear testimony to these, and empires rise and fall still.  It is hard to think that we are at the end of history in this sense. The sun never set in the British Empire, but time has set on it.

The belief in the course of history, if it is worth the name, is an empirical belief, based on the study of the way in which it is going, and then extrapolating that.  It is in this sense of history that in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. He did not assert that history as a sequence of events has ended, but that with the course of Soviet communism being stopped, history as a fundamental clash of ideologies was no more. Fukuyama held that this was true of 1992, when it seemed for a few moments that liberal democracy, helped by global capitalism, was dominating the globe.

History and pilgrimage

Is historical inevitability of any use in understanding the gospel or its spread? I am asking this not with a modernist or liberal form of Christianity in mind, but Christianity in its historic, orthodox expression. I suppose certain millennialist positions of the end of time held by such Christians may be said to take such a view. But is the idea of history having a right or wrong side part of the Christian outlook?

From time to time in Christian history, there have been groups who have pinned their hopes - not usually their fears - to some passage of biblical prophecy or other. Not only radical sects, who have tied their Christian faith to the  events of history, interpreting this and that as giving direction of the progress of the gospel to far islands and to the courts of kings, and to interpreting the ‘signs of the times.’ We  see this temper also at work in those who have a programme of Christian ‘cultural transformation’, perhaps as part of some postmillenial aspiration, or perhaps not. One might think too, that those who stress divine sovereignty, in providence and in saving grace, might be tempted in this direction.

The inscrutability of history

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it - cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this?  Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history.  There were times in which the purposes of God  with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed.

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. (Eccles. 9.2.)

There is some other evidence in Scripture for this, in eschatological contexts.   ‘So, if they say to you, Look, he is in the wilderness, do not go out.  If they say, he is in the inner rooms, do not believe it’. ‘ For as in those days before the flood…so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’  (Matt 24 36f.)

Such an  understanding of  history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city  whose maker and builder is God.  Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts - as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Augustine of Hippo had his cap on the right way.

When, therefore, death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things will not be there, and there shall be peace – peace full and eternal. We shall be in a kind of City. Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop.