Saint Augustine and the Earthly City of God

October 30, 2015

Obeying Christ without Withdrawing from the World

Christians cannot withdraw from society, even though they now increasingly hold a disfavored position, traditional Christian faith and morals now having been judged oppressive and reactionary by the Western establishment. Such withdrawal is not possible even if it were legally practical (which seems increasingly unlikely as more and more areas of Christian life come under secularist attack) because Christian faith requires that Christians remain in the world, but with a transcendent allegiance. This was the answer of Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. to the question Christian leaders are now struggling with: how Christians can live in the world and yet advance the Kingdom of God to a new post-Christian, and even anti-Christian world. He spoke at a presentation sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Institute on Capitol Hill on Oct. 23.

While people still speak of there being a “culture war” which social conservatives have lost or are losing, Cromartie noted an informed comment of twenty years ago that “the other side won.” As a result, America is now “one nation with two cultures.” In a similar vein, Cromartie referred to University of Virginia Professor James Davison Hunter, who has focused his work on the situation of Christians given the religious and moral developments of the West in late modernity. Hunter has observed that the now dominant post-Christian culture is characterized by a miasma of meaning, with “no authority, no family, no civility, no high culture, and the degradation of popular culture.”

This leads some, including Rod Dreher, whose presentation this writer reported on earlier in the month, to propose Christian withdrawal to truly Christian communities, an alternative that Dreher calls the “Benedict option.” Cromartie noted that St. Benedict of Nursia was repelled by vice of the city of Rome, and responded to the vice and decay by establishing monastic communities, which were later a powerful force in shaping the Christian Middle Ages. In this vision, Christians will defend the remnants of Christian culture. “Divorce from maintenance of the American Empire” will be necessary in this vision, and a change in the way we teach our children. Christians indeed will be seen by the larger society as “exotic at best, dangerous at worst” in the new world we are entering. Cromartie fears that an attempt to establish thoroughly Christian communities today which would be separate from the world might “leave Christians totally sealed off” from the world, a condition which Biblically, we cannot accept for ourselves (Jn. 17:14-15, Rom. 12:2, I Cor. 5:10).

Cromartie believes that Christians were mistaken in thinking that they ever had American culture grounded and functioning on a Christian basis in the first place. He proposes another alternative which he calls the “Augustine option.” This option recognizes that the “City of Man” is always at odds with the City of God. This does not mean that we cease to love and care for the world, although it will be difficult in a society which is “no longer neutral” to Christianity. Christians can never claim “to have the culture.” We must “be realistic about goals and expectations.” Cromartie proposed that a good mission statement for the “Augustine option” would be God’s admonition to the captive Israelites through the prophet Jeremiah to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find welfare” (Jer. 29:7) Everyone, friend and foe, should be treated alike, Cromartie said. He turned to the late Richard John Neuhaus for an articulation of specifics. He said that “it is our duty to seek a world in which the strong are just and power is tempered by mercy, the weak are nurtured, and the places of life’s entrance and exit are protected.” The position of Christians is that of “resident aliens” in the world. Thus we can expect hostility. Cromartie noted the opinion of Flannery O’Connor, that “we need institutions that push back against the world as the world pushes against us.” Because the Kingdom of God is never fully attained in this world, and we are always in struggle with an adversary city, we “always live at the intersection of the ages,” and need “an aesthetic of the interim” which is fitting to this situation. To this end, we should “put off ostentation.”

Because we are Christ’s ambassadors in a world which is hostile but which we are yet trying to save, what Christians “say in public matters.” Cromartie indicated that too often in the past, Christian spokesmen used highly polemical language, which may have correctly stated Christian doctrine and was well received within the Christian community, but only engendered hostility in the wider world. He said that civility means kindness, not weakness. We should “speak with confidence and tranquility,” or as a motto, we should “speak with a Galilean accent.” We must remember that we are always living in a time of transition. Christians “are not and will not be losers in this transition.” We must remind people of the wonderful truth of the gospel, and the world will come to our churches if we continue to preach the gospel. The ultimate end of the gospel is not only personal salvation but the “restoration of the entire universe to its original created glory.” To that end we must be faithful in this life

Questioners asked how to deal with particular situations. Much of what we receive from the world is incivility, but Cromartie said that Christians must respond to incivility with civility. In an example offered of a boss forbidding a subordinate to speak of the gospel, Cromartie said that we must counter that the gospel is more important, and in America, the First Amendment protects religious freedom. Belief is freely chosen, not forced. Mere expression of ideas is not “forcing” them on anyone. We can find a defense of Christian morality in the natural law tradition. The use of this tradition to support Christian morality is attacked by those who point out that many people no longer believe in human nature, or that there is a “nature to nature,” but it is our duty to make the case for natural law, and its testimony in agreement with God’s revelation. We can be a testimony to our oppressors, who are also, whether they understand or not, oppressors of the world.


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