16 July 2013

Neither Futility Nor Blind Optimism

In light of recent developments--political and legal, social and cultural--some among conservative evangelical sorts have pronounced that the end is nigh. The end, they mean, if I read aright, of the peculiar amalgam of an individualistic but socially active Christian faith and (and perhaps in) American exceptionalism (see here). Whether America is as exceptional as many have believed I'll leave to historians hundreds of years hence. But for now some thoughts from Charles Norris Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture (go here for an earlier thought spurred by Cochrane.

Part III of Christianity and Classical Culture is subtitled "Regeneration." It follows Part II that addressed the failure and collapse of classicism as it had come to expression in the concept of Romanitas. Even the combined efforts of Augustus and later Constantine were unable to keep the wheels on the increasingly creaky vehicle of classical thought as it veered off the road of classically virtuous practice. It thus fell to Augustine to found a new basis of thought and practice on which Western civilization was to advance for more than a millennium. But consider what Augustine did not do:
He clung doggedly to a faith that, however "vicious" or defective in principle, the secular effort of mankind had not been wholly in vain; and he was determined not to resign himself, like so many of his contemporaries, to the cult of futility. (424)
In other words, Augustine did not throw out the insights and positive developments that classical thought had achieved.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. It may be that the wave of radical secularism that is sweeping the West today wishes to suppress everything that came before but that effort is doomed ultimately to failure. (Read my Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition for some insights on why I believe this to be the case.) But my current point is slightly different: What can the Christian faith make of radical secularism? Can any of its strains of thought be put to positive use in formulating a Christian way in the world for the subsequent centuries? Here another quote about Augustine from Cochrane is helpful:
In the Trinity, Augustine discovered a principle capable of saving the reason as well as the will, and thus redeeming human personality as a whole. It saved the reason because, while denying it pretensions to omniscience and infallibility, it nevertheless affirmed the existence of an order of trust and value which, being in the world as well as beyond it, was within the power of man to apprehend. (424-425)
In many ways contemporary secularism has rejected not only classicism's exultation of reason but also Augustine's chastened place for it. Technical rationality is fine but, as the Supreme Court has recently implicitly held, there is no Reason in the world (or at least in marriage). For the secularist, it's politics all the way down; the will is exalted.

Another sentence from Cochrane: "And in saving the reason, at the same time [Augustine] saved the will, by imparting to it that element of rationality without which must degenerate into mere subjective willfulness." (425) In other words, without rationality the will is exceedingly willful, which seems to sum up where we are today.

Was Augustine wrong? Is there no place for chastened reason much less classical Reason as a standard by which to orient the will? Is nihilism the inevitable outcome in an increasingly irrational world? While I believe Augie was right (read my God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law for some reflections on Calvin's thoughts on the matter) I must admit that there's not much contemporary evidence for his correctness. And I suspect we'll go some way down the road to willful perdition before seeing significant change.

What I'm hoping to see sooner than later is a new Augustine, someone who can take the truths of the Christian faith and use them to reorganize the detritus of contemporary thought and provide a platform for the City of Man. Christ's Church will never fail no matter what we perceive or fear yet the even the kingdom of this world can do better than what we see today.

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