Reading This Book Will Not Change Your Life: Review of “You Are What You Love”

you are what you loveMy title’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it cuts to the heart of James K.A. Smith’s thesis in his new book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Over a number of works, especially his Cultural Liturgies series (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom), Smith has argued that modern, Western Christians (especially Evangelicals) have been held captive by a false picture of the human person as “thinking thing.”

On this view, you are what you think and there’s something of a simple correlation between what you believe and the way you live. Discipleship, then, is mostly a matter of proper spiritual data input.

But we’re not just thinking things. No, following Augustine (and the Scriptures), Smith argues that we’re worshipers. We’re desirers. We’re lovers who are shaped by those things we love most.

The hitch is that our deepest loves aren’t necessarily those things we consciously think we want most, but those drives that reside within us at an almost unconscious level. And they show up in our habits, our basic patterns of life.

If that’s the case, then, discipleship is not mostly a matter of data input, or simply reading the right book, but about the long, arduous path of having your desires transformed through the power of habit. Yes, our loves show up in our habits, but it’s also the case that our habits and practices give testimony to and shape our loves.

And so, we are constantly being shaped in one way or another by the various practices (liturgies) we’re engaged in, whether it’s checking our smart phones, visiting the local mall, eating fast food, or consuming varieties of ideologically-loaded pop cultural artifacts.

For this reason, the transformation of desire isn’t simply going to happen by rearranging some of our beliefs, but by adopting the sorts of practices that shape our loves to conform to the Kingdom of God. These liturgies train our hearts, sort of like batting practice trains our arms or training wheels our stabilizer muscles, in the way they should go.

Now, for those who have read Smith’s other works, much of this will be familiar. It’s an Augustinian call to virtue ethics. Indeed, it might seem so familiar that you’re wondering why Smith wrote the book. I’ll say that this work is different from the Cultural Liturgy series in a number of ways.

First, you’re not really wading through any of the French, continental philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, or the social theory of Pierre Bordeau. It’s full of all the wit, the basic insights, made in a more direct, concise fashion. For that reason alone, the work is far more accessible and user-friendly than the earlier iterations.

Second, Smith’s fleshing things out more practically on the ground than he does in the earlier works. I think this is what I loved most about the work. Smith’s vision of the habits that form us is worked out in some fairly pedestrian realities like church, marriage, educating your children, and your everyday vocation. This aspect makes it more immediately useful for both pastors and laity who might be intimidated to wade into the earlier works.

Third, because of that fleshing out, Smith does make plenty of new points. Some on the theoretical end, but the applied practice gets far more attention in this work in a number of helpful ways. Plus, there’s a load of new examples and fascinating little bits of cultural analysis (which are usually the most fun parts of Smith’s works, to be honest). I laughed multiple times throughout the work, tweeted out several segments, and flagged a number of pages as helpful preaching illustrations.

I think the most personally impacting section for me at this phase in my life was the bit on the liturgies of the home and the way a marriage is a formed through the various, liturgical practices we craft our life through. I’m in a Ph.D. program. I spend the vast majority of my day as a “thinking thing.” And as much as I think I’ve grown in theoretical knowledge and insight, the reality is that my choice to eat at the table with McKenna instead of in front of the TV shape is probably more important for shaping my understanding of the little kingdom God has given us in the world. How are the countless, daily rhythms we have adopted preparing us for life in the kingdom to come? Or for a life of discipleship and fidelity now?

Now, on a critical note, I must admit that as sympathetic as I am towards Smith’s advocating for more traditional, liturgical (in a modest, Reformed sense) worship, I did wonder if the critiques of contemporary worship services and styles was applied a bit too thickly. Or again, whether the critique of current youth groups obsessed with relevance at the expense of substance was representative of the healthy youth groups I’ve seen and the earnest youth pastors running them.

Also, Smith does open himself up to critique in that he’s over-exaggerated the power of habit and downplayed the properly cognitive dimension to the Spirit’s work of transformation through the preached Word and so forth. Now, while I can see it, I’m not sure Smith’s actually guilty of it. Especially if we take the work less as a total program or theology of sanctification (which I’m not sure Smith intends), than as a corrective of the lopsided one with which we’ve been operating. Taken in that sense, Smith’s work is a vital and timely work, full of much-need wisdom for the church, both gathered and scattered abroad in our homes and workplaces.

I suppose I’ll wrap up this brief review with a simple commendation: if you’ve already engaged Smith’s work as I have, I think you’ll find plenty that’s worth your time. If you’ve never read Smith’s work, this is probably the best place to start.

As I said in the title, reading this book won’t change your life. But it will point you to the practices that, graced by the Spirit, just might do the trick.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Spirituality of Time

Mere FidelityThis week Alastair, Matt, and I get into the issue of time and how it affects our spiritual life. I’m not gonna lie, this one was pretty fun. We jump into everything from Augustine, to the musical nature of keeping time, the various spiritual dimensions to our awareness of time and eternity, and we manage to avoid speaking about A-Theory and B-Theory, which I’m sure everyone will thank us for.

I hope you enjoy this one. And if you do, feel free to share it.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

*WE ARE CURRENTLY LOOKING FOR PEOPLE TO HELP US TO COVER THE MONTHLY EXPENSES OF THE PODCAST. PLEASE VISIT OUR PATREON PAGE*

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Murders, Two Cities, Two Loves

William_Blake's_Cain_and_AbelAccording to Augustine, it is common that earthly cities are founded by murderers. Fratricides to be exact (City of God, Bk. XV.5). In Scripture, we learn that the first city Cain who slew his brother Abel was the founder of the first earthly city. He was jealous of Abel’s favor before the Lord in offering a right sacrifice and so the sin crouching at his feet overwhelmed Cain as he overwhelmed his brother.

It’s no wonder, then, that he was followed in this “by a kind of reflection” in the founder of the archetypical “capital” of the earthly city of Rome. As the founding myth would have it, there were two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Disagreeing about which hill to build their future city on, they quarreled and Romulus slaughtered his brother, founded the city, and named it after himself. After that, Romulus built his armies, legions, and spread from there.

The two foundings, while similar, also reveal different conflicts at work. In the case of the second pair, Augustine thinks it is obvious what the root of the issue is: both Romulus and Remus were citizens of the City of Man whose aim is self-glory.

Both sought the glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single founder would enjoy. Anyone whose aim is to enjoy glory in the exercise of power would obviously enjoy less power if his sovereignty was diminished by a living partner. Therefore, in order that the sole power should be wielded by one person, the partner was eliminated; and what would have been kept smaller and better by innocence grew through crime into something bigger and worse.

As the lust for glory provokes Romulus to kill Remus, it would spill into further violence and bloodshed. The lust for dominance and glory is insatiable, and once it has found a crack in the wall, the dam inevitably bursts forth.

But what of Cain and Abel? There was a difference there, right? Cain was the founder of the first city and a representative of the City of Man, but Abel was a citizen of the “Eternal City” of God whose glory is the love of God. There was not “the same ambition for earthly gains”, and Cain was clearly not jealous of Abel’s power–he was a poor shepherd and their was no city to be founded yet. Instead, Augustine says that “Cain’s was the diabolical envy of that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil.”

Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men. Thus the wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked.

The city of man built on love of human glory and power is inherently destructive. It not only opposes the good, but eventually tears itself apart. Because human glory is a limited resource, those who desire it cannot share it. And, what’s more, they even hate those who do not seek it, because it seems to diminish their own pursuit of it. Try to opt out of the competition and it makes the prize at the end seem all the less desirable.

But what of the love of the city of God? What of the desire to possess goodness?

A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.

Love of good and the God who is the Good is an inherently social love. Those who have it naturally seek out fellow citizens who with whom to delight and rejoice together. And this is the joy of the Heavenly Jerusalem that descends from above. There the citizens of the City of God will have their eternal good and delight together in their unchanging possession of, or rather, possession by, the Infinite, Unlimited Subject of their affection.

 

Soli Deo Gloria 

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

do ya punkFor some reason, theologians don’t often get associated with the Christian virtue of humility. It’s ironic that studying the infinite Creator of all things, when undertaken without prayer or community, can lead to a puffed up and inflated sense of self. The greater the subject, the greater the pride when you feel you’ve mastered it, I suppose. In any case, this is one of the reasons I so enjoy running across encouragements to humility in theological exploration.

Yesterday I ran across a particularly fantastic example in Augustine. In one section, he takes up the question of whether God’s sovereignty implies an eternal creation. In other words, if we say God is eternally sovereign, does that require him to have been eternally creating something alongside himself to be sovereign over? Wouldn’t that be another co-eternal? Or how does the fact that God created time itself affect the question? In other words, if God created time along with the world, there’s a way in which you could say there’s never been a time where he hasn’t been sovereign Creator, but that’s because there was no time “before” he made time.

Confused yet?

At the end of a couple pages of this, Augustine wraps up his discussion like this:

And so I return to what our Creator wished us to know. What he has allowed wiser heads to know in this life, or has reserved for the knowledge of those who have reached their fulfillment in the other life, that I confess to be beyond my powers. But I thought I should discuss this question, without reaching any positive conclusion, so that my readers may see what questions they should refrain from tackling, as dangerous, and to discourage them from thinking themselves capable of understanding everything. Instead they should realize that they ought to submit to the wholesome instruction of the Apostle, when he says, ‘In virtue of the authority given to me by God’s grace I say this to all your company: do not be wiser than you ought to be; but be wise in moderation, in proportion to the faith which God has allotted to each of you.’ For if a child’s upbringing is adjusted to his strength, he will grow, and become capable of further progress, but if he is strained beyond his capacity he will fade away before he has the chance to grow up. (City of God, BK. XII.16)

There’s so much I love about this passage.

First, the fact that he did all of that in order to sum up and say, “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Now, this can sound a bit arrogant. But what have to see here is a humble vulnerability in the theological process in which Augustine is exposing his own finite understanding in the process of stretching himself to the limits of his own powers. It’s not easy for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” All too often, the temptation is the fake a certainty you don’t possess, or hastily land on a conclusion just to have an answer for those who look to you for insight. Augustine refuses to play the expert at the cost of the truth.

With a pastoral heart, he decides to engage the difficulty that he knows might trip up some of his more inquiring readers should they wander down certain paths. The flipside is that he still discusses the issue. It’s this odd movement of saying, “Alright, I’ll go here with you if only to show you that going here might lead to trouble.” It’s not the simple wave of the hand that dismisses such questions as foolish or entirely off-limits, but one that humbly acts as a guide to the theologically perplexed.

Finally, Augustine’s example at the end is one of both caution and invitation. If you press too deep beyond what it is given to you to know at this point, beyond your spiritual and intellectual powers, you might hurt yourself. But the point isn’t to warn against theological study, but about taking care so that you may continue to proceed at the pace of growth the Lord himself intends. There are times when, for the sake of growing in a healthy knowledge of God, it is okay to say, “I’ll put this question aside for now and return it at some future point. I trust that God will continue to reveal himself to me in ways that are appropriate to me in areas that I can handle right now.”

As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Soli Deo Gloria

When the Trinity said, “Let there Be Light”

lightOne of the problems with reading Augustine as a blogger is the pain at not being able to write about every little choice tidbit or argument you run across. Unfortunately, it’s not possible without simply turning your blog into a commentary on City of God (a not unworthwhile proposition). For now I simply want to highlight one fascinating bit of trinitarian theology Augustine does in his discussion of creation in book 11.

In this section, he begins to treat the truth of the Christian faith against the pagans and so moves to discussing the reality of the world, God’s creation ex nihilo and the fact that creation had a beginning. At one point he sets himself to meditate on the statement, “God saw that it was good” after declaring “let there be light.” He argues that this doesn’t mean that God found out after creating that he’d managed to do a good job. Scripture indicates God’s delight in what he has made according to his own eternal wisdom and will. God’s thoughts are not successive or time-bound like ours. He knows all with a perfect knowledge we cannot imagine. After some elaboration in this vein, he concludes by reflecting on the way Scripture communicates the truth of God’s creation in Genesis 1:

For this reason, if we were merely being asked, ‘Who made the light?’ it would be enough to answer, ‘God.’ If further information regarding the means by which it was made had been intended, it would have sufficed to say, ‘And God said, Let there be light, and there was light,’ that we might know not only that God had made the world, but also that He had made it by the Word. But there are three things above all which we need to know about a created thing, three things we must be told: who made it, how he made it, and why he made it. That is why the Scripture says, ‘God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.  And God saw the light that it was good.”‘  If, then, we ask who made it, it was ‘God.’  If, by what means, He said ‘Let it be,’ and it was.  If we ask, why He made it, ‘it was good.’  Neither is there any author more excellent than God, nor any skill more efficacious than the word of God, nor any cause better than that good might be created by the good God. (Bk. XI.21)

Three questions give three answers. Who made the world? God. How did he make it? His Word. Why did he make it? Because a good God makes good things. Where is the Trinity is all this? Well, just a couple of chapters later he concludes a section critiquing Origen by asking:

As I suggested above, there are three questions to be asked in respect of any created being: Who made it? How? and Why? I put forward the answers: ‘God’, ‘Through His Word’, ‘Because it was good.’ Now whether this formula is to be regarded as a mystical revelation of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or whether there is anything which prevents this interpretation of the passage in Scripture is a question meriting extended discussion; and we are not to be forced to unravel every question in a single volume. (Bk. XI.23)

So it seems he might be shutting the question down. But then he moves on to discuss the revelation of the divine Trinity in Creation in the very next chapter, suggesting an answer to the question. He begins that section by affirming the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and the Holy Spirit’s procession from both so that we have these three who are co-eternal and consubstantial with each other, one, undivided, distinctive according to the persons, but inseparable according to the divine nature and action. He then begins to connect some interesting dots by way of examining the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Father and the Son. He says this:

As for the question whether the Holy Spirit of the good Father and the good Son can rightly be called the goodness of both, as being common to both, I should not dare to hazard a rash judgment about that. I should however be more ready to risk the statement that he is the holiness of them both, not as a mere quality, but being himself a subsistent being — a substance — and the third person in the Trinity. What lends probability to this suggestion is the fact that although the Father is spirit, and the Son is spirit, and the Father and the Son are both holy, it remains true that holiness is the distinguishing attribute of the Spirit, which suggests that he is the holiness of both, in substantial and consubstantial form. Now if the divine goodness is identical with the divine holiness, it is evidently not a rash presumption but a reasonable inference to find a hint of the Trinity in the description of God’s creative works, expressed somewhat enigmatically, so as to exercise our speculations. This hint we may find when we ask the questions. Who? How? and Why? (Bk. XI.24)

Now we come to the heart of Augustine’s speculative investigation of whether God’s act of creation points us to God’s Trinitarian being.

It was, of course, the Father of the Word who said, ‘Let it be made.’ And since creation was effected by his speaking, there can be no doubt that it was done by means of the Word. And the statement, ‘God saw that it was good’ makes it quite plain that God did not create under stress of any compulsion, or because he lackes something for his own needs; his only motive was goodness; he created because his creation was good. And the assertion of the goodness of the created work follows the act of creation in order to emphasize that the work corresponded with the goodness which was the reason for its creation.

Now if his goodness is rightly interpreted as the Holy Spirit, then the whole united Trinity is revealed to us in its works. Hence comes the origin, the enlightenment, and the felicity of the Holy City constituted by the angels on high. If we ask whence it arises, God founded it; if whence comes its wisdom, it receives light from God; if whence comes its bliss, it rejoices in God. It receives its mode of being by subsisting in God, its enlightenment by beholding him, its joy from cleaving to him. It exists; it sees; it loves. It is strong with God’s eternity; it shines with God’s truth; it rejoices in God’s goodness. (ibid.)

All of this may seem a bit far-fetched and strained to modern readers and exegetes. And that may be. Staring at the sun too long can strain the eyes, and Augustine as known to strain a bit in his ardent desire to see the glory of the Triune God in all things. Of course, we might stop and consider that it is our eyes are weak from lack of effort to penetrate beyond the shallows into the depths of Scriptural texts by reading it in light of the broader confession of the Canon and the Church.

In either case, Augustine has given us hints at a rich vision of activity and purposes of the Triune God in creation. God does not create in some impersonal, mechanistic fashion, but via his powerful, personal Word. Father and Son are good with the goodness that is the Holy Spirit. For that reason, God does not make in order to fulfill some existential gap in his own being, but because the good God makes good things. It is from the fullness of his own Triune life that God says, “Let there be light” and rejoices in the good work of his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Predicting the Moral Weather 16 Centuries Early

crowdContinuing his defense of Christ against the charges of the pagans who attribute the fall of Rome to abandoning, the old Roman gods, in Book II chapter 20 Augustine takes a brief chapter to discuss the preferred moral ethos of the pagan critics. As I read his, obviously unsympathetic, exposition of the “kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy”, as the title of the chapter goes, I couldn’t help but note the numerous parallels to be found in the reigning ethos of our contemporary, capitalist, liberal (in the classic and modern sense), democratic culture. At the heart of Augustine’s critique is how little they care about the actual moral character of their citizens. As long as they are materially okay and everyone is broadly freed to do whatever they want, then they’ll be happy.

What I’d like to simply do is quote and then comment, drawing out links to the present.

‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of piece, why should we worry?

I mean, right off the bat: material prosperity, military victory, and peace. What’s more American than that?

What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right for the poor to serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make sue of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride;

An increasing gap between rich and poor, with varying responses to the problem, at once sounding like liberal and conservative solutions to the problem.

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice;

There are any number of examples here but can we stop and think for a minute about the glorification of celebrity culture for a minute? Name the last ethicist who got serious air-time or public accolades? Now, how many film, TV, and music awards shows do we have every year?

if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights;

Self-explanatory, but we are not a responsibility culture. We are a culture of personal freedom and autonomy that extends in all directions. Well, as long as nobody messes with each other’s stuff:

if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect.

Here we begin to get into those features of modern culture caught up with our differing conception of the role of government, but it’s been a long time since we’ve understood it as an instrument of moral formation for our society. Governments are increasingly seen as referees making sure nobody plays too rough.  Governmental respect is low, but as long as we fear its power.

The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a mans own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s proper, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his won, or with others, if they consent.

Again, the assumption that the character of the citizenry is a moral concern of government is gone–and there’s something inevitable about that when you’re trying to manage a pluralistic culture. Still, minimalistic, consent-based moralities are increasingly seen as the norm to which we should be aspiring.

There should be plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses.

Don’t mess with my porn, bro.

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence.

Luxury and opulence are not an object of reproach. The idea that certain forms of financial extravagance are obscene–that there even is such a thing as financial extravagance–is for communists. Various forms of gluttony, both of the garden-variety or the more delicate tastes of the foodie class, binge-drinking, and so forth, can be noted to be on the rise.

Most interesting is the reaction of the mob against anybody who raises a protest:

Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority; he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.

If this sound unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the drift of most public discourse over the last few years. Obviously, the rhetoric is a bit soaring, but the fact of the matter is that dissent from the partyline on the nature of freedom, autonomy, and so forth is increasingly marginalized and given no space in academic forums and eventually the public square.

Finally, the idolatrous root is arrived at.

We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters.’

Whether it’s the hands-off god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that only wants us to be happy or just your more average cultural deification of created goods, we trust the “gods” who promise to give us these basic ultimate values. We will serve whatever god serves us best.

Obviously, this is all a bit dark and pessimistic. It’s an evaluation that needs to be paired with Augustine’s underlying confidence and hope for history because of the work of Christ. Still, the moral insight is prescient, revealing a pattern, a tapestry that seems to be reweaving itself before our very eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the Church then and, though in post-Christendom we face a somewhat different challenge, it won’t be now. Still, it’s good to recognize the pattern for what it is–its interconnections and precedents.

Soli Deo Gloria