David J. Dunn has kindly responded with a censure to my post on St. Augustine. It seems we are both fans of the bishop of Hippo, yet disagree on what that means for Christianity in the 21st century. I thought I’d briefly answer some of his questions and concerns, especially with regard to my intention and meaning with various phrases and terminology.
Dunn’s first worry is that “[t]he author appears to have conflated political with theological liberalism.” I generally try to keep the categories separate: liberalism vs. revisionism/heterodoxy. The latter term is strong language—stronger than some adherents of the emergent/emerging/neomonastic/evangelical-yet-leftist movement truly merit. In my humble opinion, progressivism can be a more all-encompassing term used in both instances. In my Augustine post, I meant it to mean both kinds. I was referring to folks like Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Shane Claiborne, and Greg Boyd who have both progressive theology and progressive politics at the same time. We often call this group the Evangelical left since they tend to attract disenchanted adherents from the evangelical folds while also lacking the institutional loyalty of the older Religious Left. There’s often a latent attempt to revive Social Gospel precepts. I have seen slights to either Augustine or Augustinian theology from emergents arguing for both liberal politics and revisionist theology. Thus, I am not conflating terms in this instance.
Dr. Dunn then assumes that when I mean Just War Theory, I mean jingoistic saber-rattling. I do not; in all honesty, the War of 1812 was probably America’s last just war according to Augustine’s principles. The others probably fell under the category of unjust or (in the cases of the Civil War and WWII) preventable had the U.S. not been involved with previous unnecessary engagements. In other words, Just War theory doesn’t exactly justify war. On the other hand, I think Dunn is quite erroneous in interpreting Augustine through the lens of Neo-Anabaptists Yoder and Hauerwas. Just War Theory does NOT fall in line with Yoderian “policing.” I think it’s a calumnious stretch to align Hippo’s ancient bishop with 20th-century pacifists. Even if they “write approvingly” of Augustine’s concerns, they certainly don’t approve of his allowance for war. That’s why they are pacifists, and Augustine is not. Emergent pacifists mark him as the point at which the church left its apostolic-early patristic roots of nonviolence (whether or not that is the case is neither here or there when it comes to the terminology we’re establishing).
Next, Dunn condemns my assertion that liberalism—here I refer more to politics than theology—is utopian. This is his most effective point. First, he brings up Reinhold Niebuhr as the providing one of the definitive liberal readings of two-cities doctrine. He mentions that Niebuhr is President Obama’s favorite theologian. This is more of a rhetorical hint rather than a logical warrant. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Niebuhr might condemn Obama’s (naïve?) “Hope” campaign if not the current executive’s policies. Theologically, Niebuhr was neo-orthodox rather than modernist. In foreign policy especially, he argued for an aggressive “realism.” As such, I don’t know if we can honestly say that Niebuhr is really definitively progressive in politics and even less so in theology. I still don’t agree with him, but he’s not the strongest example of progressivism.
Niebuhr receives a William Jamesian flare from Dunn, who argues, “Niebuhr said our politics will always be fallen, so we must not seek social perfection but content ourselves to seek consensus and compromise in order to achieve the best society we can hope for.” I think this is rather accurate for Niebuhr’s stance, but is it liberal? The best way to answer this is with what we mean by liberalism—something that can only be inadequately addressed in a single blog post paragraph.
Liberalism was the offspring of the Enlightenment. Equality and (at least at the beginning) freedom stood as its goal and end. As such, hierarchies and non-elected authorities were suspect at best. Thus, there was a strong impulse to strip away and tear down the accumulated habits, morals, dogmas, and responsibilities from the past. A belief in progress is innate to this idea: strip away these dusty encumbrances, and we shall be free to make the world a better place. Eventually, society will be perfected. The nightmarish manifestation of this impulse came out in the radical form of liberalism as embodied by the Jacobins and other revolutionaries (Marxists come to mind). A much more moderate approach could be found in the Whig, which incidentally stands as quite popular and foundational to Anglo-American political theory (many if not most Republicans are classical liberals in their advocacy for free market economics and greater freedoms). In 1800s Whiggish theological circles, it should be noted that postmillennialism (in which the Church would usher in utopia through shrewd politics and cultural enrichment) became quite popular. The progressive view is there—it’s just slower. Thus, there is indeed a kind of utopian tendency—a future worship—in liberalism. [See Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair McIntyre, and G.K. Chesterton on these matters; if you want to bring in Augustine, James V. Schall and David VanDrunen come to mind].
Niebuhr had tasted the bitter fruits of the Enlightenment naiveté. If he is Jamesian, we should realize American pragmatic impulse still refuses authority as most of the church understood it until the 1500s. Many still believe that society will muddle on through to ever-greater improvement. So, I don’t know Niebuhr well enough to say whether he’s a definitive liberal or not (his domestic policy certainly leaned that way). But from what I’ve seen out of the Evangelical Left, there’s a strong Social Gospel utopianism lurking in the background. They certainly aren’t speaking of Niebuhr and the Realist school with any particular fondness.
As for John Milbank and the other Radical Orthodox, I disagree but appreciate them. I am a bit Anglo-Catholic myself and hate the Enlightenment. As for his politics, he’s either Blue Labour or Red Tory—radical branches of English politics that I don’t necessarily endorse. Sometimes I don’t know if he’s a kind of socialist or a kind of distributist. The fact that he has to modify Augustine to fit his theory is somewhat telling. Lots of people can modify Augustine or take away contradictory policy positions from his insights. I’m not arguing that all Augustinians will vote for such-and-such a party. Augustine’s neither conservative nor liberal since he precedes the Enlightenment, but I find that most of his recommendations agree more with conservative concerns (in more anti-religious liberalisms, he would be an opposition). I do find it revealing that Augustine was “liberalized” less than a hundred years ago; I also think any Augustinians would be chastened against many of the political recommendations coming from the emergent movement.
The most presumptuous detraction was that I somehow claimed that Augustine was a literalist. I did no such thing. For example, I know full well that Augustine took the creation story in Genesis to be metaphorical. In his view, to elicit a “scientific” reading of the text rather than its analogical meaning and significance (“spiritual sense”) was a sign of poor learning. Besides, when we get to six-day creationist literalism, we’ve assumed Francis Bacon, where experimental-scientific knowledge is the golden standard truth that “really matters.” As a fan of Owen Barfield, I resent being placed in that category. As for Augustine and his “two books” view of nature and Scripture, he’s pretty open for all comers, young and old earth alike. Both quote him in their arguments for various positions. Thus, it’s debatable on where he would stand today. He’d probably find the entire argument frustrating and silly.
When I said “entirely true,” I mean that what God wanted to be passed on to his people is there. The entirety of the text is unified since Truth is one and the Scriptures are true. Please notice that I used “God’s Word written,” not “the inerrant Holy Bible” or “sola Scriptura.” Dunn has inferred what I never implied. I would contend that Augustine didn’t just believe that the Bible “contained truth” (as if there were lies jumbled in there). What I meant to indicate was that we don’t get to nit-pick out portions here and there while sloughing off the inconvenient. This is not solely an orthodox Protestant doctrine. Pretty much all traditional branches of the church hold to this.
Finally, Dunn resents that I allude to Marcionism within the emergent circles, thus making them truly heterodox. By this I mean “would like to get rid of parts of the Bible they do not agree with,” not the mythology. Not all theological progressives are Marcionites, but many in the Evangelical Left have definitely been trending that way. Luke Moon and I have both expressed concern over this development. I really wasn’t going to make that the focus of my allusion. I meant to show that Augustine is on the complete other end of the spectrum when contrasted with Marcion.
In all honesty, it was my intention to encourage IRD’s typically-conservative constituents to pursue some great reading. As it was a mere 720-word introduction to a scholar with a massive corpus, then—yes—it would turn out somewhat “shallow.” Nevertheless, I do believe that my statements are accurate takeaways that are established (even if contested) in the theology/political theory community. These positions of Augustine that I mentioned in the post are consistently disliked by progressive theologians. No, he isn’t the property of political parties, but traditionalists in the theological communities seem to be in the most alignment with the bishop of Hippo. Anyone can show appreciation for a person with whom they disagree on a fundamental level. Just because St. Augustine influences the thought of some progressives does not mean they agree with him. He is constantly derided in emergent presentations. Thus, he is indeed a bugbear for the Evangelical Left. However, as history has shown, the truths of his writing will outlive the detraction from his critics.
With what I’ve seen of Dr. Dunn’s HuffPo page, I doubt we’ll be agreeing on a lot of political things any time soon. But I am grateful for his concerns and his willingness to contest my claims. It keeps us all honest.