Since 9/11, much ink has been spilled on the way that religion has shaped and mis-shaped our politics. But little has been said about the reverse question: how has American politics shaped and mis-shaped our religious lives, and how can believers more faithfully and fruitfully inhabit their lives?
The Republic of Grace offers an answer to this question. It seeks to teach its readers, believers and non-believers alike, something of the distinct wisdom of the Augustinian Christian tradition of thinking about life in this world and before God. This tradition is one of the oldest, richest, and most profound traditions that Christians possess to think about their lives. It offers a distinct way of understanding the proper role and political machinations of states, the moral and religious struggles of individuals and communities, and how all the manifold features of human existence relate to one another and to what it sees as the central driving force behind all history: God’s loving pursuit of an errant humanity, one hell-bent on attempting to escape its inescapable desire for God, and perpetually self-wounded in that futile effort.
This book displays the riches of this tradition for thinking about our world today, aiming thereby to instruct readers both about that tradition and our world, offering them crucial insights they might not otherwise possess. After all, Christians should have a distinct way of thinking about these questions, one based on their ongoing need to cultivate their faith. While Christians do share a number of civic commitments and concerns with non-Christians, they have peculiarly theological commitments as well. Their necessary attention to those commitments–and their earnest effort to deepen their understanding and affirmation of those commitments–inevitably shapes their civic engagement in important ways.
This distinctiveness is first and foremost a way of seeing the world, a form of virtuous vision. To understand the Christian life in this world, particularly in its political dimensions, we need to see that life in its full ambivalence–recognizing our real joys while also acknowledging the distance we have yet to travel to the Kingdom. This brings us face to face with the discomfiting condition of having to endure our lives as much as (if not more than) we enjoy them. How can believers cultivate that vision? What, that is, are the categories that a believer should use to see the world and its challenges, and how will such believers use that vision to act?
This book proposes that we follow the guidance of Augustine on this issue. Augustine is known for his vivid theological anthropology, picturing the human as a God-haunted creature, and also for his understanding of human communities as inescapably organized around what they love – which is to say, around what they worship. In order to formulate the moral and political theo-psychology entailed by this vision, he uses the language of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love–virtues that, on his understanding, are very richly oriented towards proper Christian aims, with each one highlighting distinctive contributions that Christian citizens can make to public life. Understanding our lives through the organizing framework of the virtues gives us the fundamentals of a distinctively theological way of talking about our lives, and therefore of understanding them.
This is especially important now because, by and large, the churches lack such theological interpretations and the theological languages that could ground them. Too often we unreflectively accept the workaday languages of our fallen world as primary, as “natural,” and try to cram what we can of what our faith says within its confines; what doesn’t fit gets lopped off or left to wither from lack of articulation. This not only leaves us with a random heap of amputated limbs of a genuinely Christian vocabulary; it also means that what words remain, survive in fragmented isolation–unmoored from their symphonic relation to the rest of the Christian vision, and thus invariably “out of tune” with one another, losing their practical purchase and spiritual depth.
In theology today very little effort is given to the project of transforming the way believers see the world. Few theologians seek to give Christians a rich and useful language through which certain aspects of the world become more or less salient, relative to an overall Christian vision of what is, and is not, important. Yet such a transformation is central to what Christian faith is all about.
Such transformation happens, in part, through proper Christian engagement in civic life. If life in this world can be led as a form of training in virtue for the life to come, then perhaps the civic virtues are themselves, in a way, the theological virtues in a strange land. And so they are. Engagement in civic life–just like every other part of our ordinary, mundane lives–is fruitful for cultivating our character; engagement in the earthly city helps fit us for the heavenly city to come.
Using these theological virtues as a prism, then, the book discusses the nature of terrorism, the challenges of American geopolitics, the promise and perils of globalization and the challenges of “millennial capitalism” for the cultivation of real faith, the value and seductions of patriotism, the meaning of political authority, the proper understanding of war, and the virtue and power of Christians’ hope for the coming Kingdom of God. In all these discussions it aims to make believers and non-believers alert to the challenges facing our common inhabitation of this world and to make them aware of what can be done about those challenges; furthermore, to believers in particular, it teaches them how confronting those challenges can enrich their faith.
Audiences and Pedagogical Purposes
Hence this is a book in an unapologetically confessional vernacular, the vernacular of the theological virtues. It may seem oddly limiting to write a book primarily addressed to Christians; that may seem a strangely narrow audience. But the appearance of narrowness deceives. It is ironic that explicit appeals to Christians are all-too easily labeled “narrow” or “sectarian” when there are roughly two hundred and fifty million Christians–of quite diverse flavors, of course–in the United States today, and more than two billion around the world. How “broad,” in comparison, would be an argument addressed to readers of The New York Review of Books?
On the other hand, the book does not mean to expel non-Christians from its audience; I hope they can learn something of import–namely, one major idiom of the deep structure of the faith that many of their fellow citizens profess, and perhaps they can pick up a tip or two about their own lives as well. (Not to mention that Christians have much to learn from non-Christians; after all, many secular critics of Christianity are spot-on, and should be heeded.) Furthermore, even many non-believers today agree that the received secular solutions to the challenges enumerated above seem tired; so many non-Christians may find that a richly theological interpretation may well be peculiar enough to offer new insights into these civic debates. There is nothing new under the sun, and the Christian traditions have dealt with similar concerns before; they offer resources to help, and all of us–believers and non-believers alike–would be fools not to attend to them. Hence the book does not try to offer an apologetics, nor an evangel to the heathens; it is a pedagogy of discipleship, particularly in its public dimensions, displayed unapologetically for all who have ears to hear.
Furthermore, the book is not meant to fuel our pervasive political partisanship today, nor to provide ammunition for one side or the other in the culture wars. God knows there’s enough of that going around today. But we have enough demonologies in our lives; what we lack, and what we palpably need, are sober and unflinching assessments of our situation, not further enchantments that would help us avoid such assessment. It seeks this assessment in order both to teach us where we are, and where we are, God willing, going.
In the Middle Ages, scholars wrote guidebooks for kings, known generically as “mirrors for Christian princes,” wherein the contours of a virtuous sovereign were displayed, the better for flawed human rulers to see and address their own shortcomings. Today we may use the virtues analogously, to detail a mirror of Christian citizenship–of faithful engagement in broadly political matters, matters pertaining to the common good, where there is no prince, where “the sovereign” is us–you and I and our neighbors, those we like and those we cannot stand. In our age, inescapably political as it is, a pedagogy once reserved for the prince must become a pedagogy for us all.
In short, the book aims to help its readers realize something of the sacramental possibilities of a political life: to remember what it is to work together for a good larger than each of us, larger than our local faction, party, or nation, a genuinely common good, rooted in commitment to the kingdom of God, the Republic of Grace.
Convincing readers of all this is the aim of this book. After an initial stage-setting in the first chapter, Part One (Chapters Two through Four) explains how we might live our lives through the theological virtues, and it explores how living our lives through that effort can alter our vision of what is going on in the world. It shows us, that is, how to use the Augustinian dialect of Christian theological language to understand our world today.
While the virtues have an organic structure in themselves, we always meet them somewhat deranged–both deranged in themselves, as we only partially inhabit them, and also deranged in their order, as our world always presses more obviously and immediately upon one than another. In the contemporary setting, of the “war on terror,” the proper order to address them is hope, faith, and love, as existence presses most immediately on our hope, with terror; then on our faith, with temptations towards various idolatries; and then last (but probably most profoundly) on love, with the temptations towards a consumerist pursuit of finally shallow and diversionary pleasures. Understood in these terms, we exist in the midst of three interacting dynamics–sometimes canceling each other out, sometimes reinforcing one another–that collectively challenge our ability to be shaped by these virtues into the sorts of Christians we are called to be. I abbreviate them as “9/11,” “11/9” (November 9, 1989–the day the Berlin Wall fell), and “Millennial capitalism,” and I speak about these sequentially in these chapters. This is an important lesson: Good Christian sight is a matter of discernment; what we see, and don’t see, is just as much a matter of concern as what we do and don’t do. Hence, this Part is called “Seeing as Christians.”
Next, Part Two (Chapters Five through Seven) turns the gaze around and asks: if people do come to see the world in this way, what do they look like to others? To answer this, we must step back from the immediate challenges of the moment and ask about the basic patterns of belief and behavior, disposition and dynamism, that are grooved into Christians by long practice in this language: what, in short, they aim to become by using it. This means attending to the fundamental challenges that our inhabitation of those virtues faces not just today, but throughout history–after Eden, as it were–and how Christians’ inhabitation of those virtues may make them appear both strange and appealing to others. So these final chapters are a bit more programmatic, and reflect more broadly on the vocabulary and general orientation implicit in this book’s proposal.
Here, then, I must talk more about what it means, in Christian love, to accept responsibility politically–and thus discuss issues related to authority and just war; how far one’s Christian faith will allow one to “believe in,” as it were, one’s political community–and thus discuss issues related to patriotism; and finally, just how one’s Christian hope can energize one to resist despair about all possible courses of action, while not yet, exactly, falling into a problematic optimism or naïve progressivism. Thus these chapters aim to offer the rudiments of a richly theological language, in order to help Christians deepen their believing into a way of life, and particularly into a way of being citizens, as a discipline of soul-formation for themselves and as a witness to others; and this is why this Part is called “Looking like Christians.”
In the end, the book seeks to help its readers recognize and respect something of the power and significance of this religious construal of our public situation, whether those readers affirm that construal or not. Attempting to connect the millennia-deep reservoir of Christian reflection on politics and life in this world with current questions about the fragility of our global order–economically, culturally, socially and politically–it aims to help reignite and orient a fierce commitment, within believers and perhaps beyond them, to the common good of our society, to care for the least and most vulnerable, and to use each person’s gifts and power and wealth as a force for good and justice in the world. Such concern for the common good–no matter how earnestly or purely pursued–is inevitably, inescapably a political task, involving compromise, negotiation, and bargaining. This truth need not sully the product of our labors, but it does inescapably accompany it. That is why the book is best described as an Augustinian primer on politics for Christians–to help us find hope in public life, while disenthralling us from the possibility of having that hope redeemed by, or in, the world as we find it.
That word “primer” is important. In this book I am not primarily trying to convince readers to share my judgments, but to enter into a more serious–and seriously theological– way of thinking about these matters. It is quite possible to understand and affirm the vocabulary that the book uses, but yet to dissent from the book’s particular prudential judgments about what will happen and how we ought to live in this world. And it is equally legitimate for readers to understand this vocabulary, but still to dissent from it in favor of another functionally similar vocabulary–a Thomist one, say, or Lutheran, or one found in the Eastern churches. My tactical use of particular arguments is not identical with my strategic aim of having people think more seriously, and more richly, in political-theological terms. I am happy for this book to have as many friends as it can find, in whatever ways it can find them. But even if it finds no friends, I hope it at least provokes others to do better than they have yet done in thinking about what is going on and how we should respond.
A Hauerwasian Niebuhrian and a Liberal Augustinian?
On that last point, it is worth noting that the book’s reception has so far been interestingly contradictory. I’ve been surprised to find myself being reviewed in two very different ways. Some–particularly some younger disciples of Hauerwas–have called me a closet Niebuhrian and a “Liberal Augustinian” who insidiously dilutes the theological heritage with the water of liberal individualism and an openness to cooperation with, and inevitably cooptation by, non-Christians. Others–older, more traditionally theologically liberal colleagues–suggest that I am too conservative, a kinder, gentler (and thus more insidious) Hauerwas who is tacitly pursuing the destruction of our liberal polity by urging readers to retreat to a form of theological tribalism.
I suppose the diversity of such interpretations says at least as much about our current situation as it does about the book itself. People are working out of entrenched positions that have hardened over several decades of attrition warfare, lobbing epithets (“liberal!” “fideist!” “sectarian!” “bland revisionist!” “ecclesiastical tribalist!”) at each other across the no-man’s-land of real Christian life. But the truth is that the clear lines of opposition are breaking down. The best work in Christian ethics and theology in recent years has been sensitive to both the particularity of the traditions into which believers must be trained and out of which they speak, while also recognizing the enormous complexity and ambiguity of moderns’ enmeshment in multiple communities of commitment and conviction. Consider the work of Charles Marsh or Jean Porter or Robin Lovin or Sarah Coakley or Luke Bretherton or Mary McClintock Fulkerson or Eric Gregory in Christian theology and ethics; or consider the work of Randi Rashkover or David Novak or Michael Wyschogrod or Peter Ochs in Jewish thought: all of them, and many more, to different degrees, and in different ways, are attempting to transcend the stale polarities of “tradition” versus “modernity” or “liberalism.”
As for me, I am definitely attracted to certain parts of Niebuhr’s realism, and his ethical vision in general; but I am convinced that Christians have a particular, perhaps peculiar, calling in the world, and that this calling ought not be divorced from the concrete life of the church and the church’s practices, and the intentional cultivation of particular Christian virtues. (By the way, I don’t think Niebuhr thought very differently on this matter, either. But that’s a fight for another day.) On the other hand, I have been influenced by Stanley Hauerwas since college, when I wrote my B.A. thesis on his work. But I have grown increasingly worried by those who think that a faithful advance on his work involves a conceptually lazy jeremiad against “liberalism.” Such moves obscure some very important distinctions and allows us to be too pleased with ourselves, while some of the concrete obligations of the Christian faith–such as caring for the least and lost, and caring for the good of Creation–get bypassed in our easy, because empty, polemics against an ideological bugbear. That is, I find myself compelled both by dimensions of Niebuhr’s realistic attention to the lived realities of Christian faith–as they are actually lived out, in ambivalence and ambiguity, in our world–and by Hauerwas’s (and others’) insistence that the momentum of that faith’s historical tradition, in all its deep particularity, as best as we can apprehend it, must be given a powerful normative weight in all our theological and ethical reasonings, no matter how “modern” or post-modern we are.
I don’t think I’m alone in finding myself attracted by both sides. Eric Gregory, Luke Bretherton, Tim Jackson, Kristen Deede Johnson, Ted Smith, John Bowlin, Jennifer Herdt, and more–there are a lot of us out there now, who have drunk deeply at the wells of Hauerwas and the “Yale School” and the turn to particularity and tradition and historical self-consciousness, yet still insist that we needn’t be trapped in the cul-de-sac of stale reiterations of tradition as a deposit. We know that tradition must come alive, and that in our world, that means it must be a tradition that continues to move forward, to be as unafraid of our enmeshment in modernity–and even perhaps in liberalism–as we are proud of our embeddedness in tradition; to think with the past, and then beyond it, to see that these dry bones can live, and that some of the wine can go in new wineskins, and, further, that these attempts to make it new are perhaps some of the oldest, and most authentic, moves that a genuinely Christian ethics and theology can enact. There are, indeed, a lot of us out there now; and more are coming. I think that the confusions and vexations that have met my book in some circles will likely meet other books of my colleagues in coming years as well; till at last we come to see that these vexations and confusions are ones we no longer need to feel.
It’s important to realize that this is not just, nor most basically, a methodological or formal point: it is also and more importantly a material one, a first-order theological one, and if the method of the book speaks to that material point, it is perhaps not an ungracious alignment. For after all, The Republic of Grace means to offer an extended account of why and how we, Christians and non-Christians alike, must learn to understand ourselves as continually, graciously, coming to be re-habituated, and recalibrated, into the grammar and language of love, even–and perhaps ultimately–in the public realm. If in our contemporary cultural malaise that journey of endurance begins in hope, as I believe it must, this is in large part a hope that sees a goal beyond the vitiating impasses that pit one against the other, each against his or her neighbor; that sees not just a truce but a true peace that disarms our habituated enmities and hostilities; and that sees instead, in the end, a way to embrace competing alternatives in a more productive vision for how we can live and love–haltingly, brokenly, all too-often stutteringly, but nonetheless really–together.Charles Mathewes is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition and A Theology of Public Life, both with Cambridge University Press; Understanding Religious Ethics from Wiley-Blackwell; and The Republic of Grace, from Eerdmans. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.