Friday, October 24, 2008

The Augustinian Turn: Will Evangelicals Make It?

Caleb Stegall has a brief, but highly fascinating article in Touchstone on Evangelicals.

He says that 2008 may be remembered as the year that "the Evangelical political consensus - which had cohered so strongly around family values, industrial capitalism, and American exceptionalism - fell apart." He goes on to describe Evangelicals as believers in what Herbert Butterfield famously called "the Whig view of history" in which there is a progressive march through time to a glorious future.

This Whig interpretation of history can be seen in both left wing and right wing Protestantism: in George Bush just as much as in the Clintons and in Mike Huckabee as much as in Barack Obama. Jim Wallis is convinced that utopia is possible through the welfare state and for Michael Novak it can only come through capitalism.

Both liberalism and its daughter, neo-conservatism, are products of modernity. They both owe much to assumptions that lie at the roots of the two great Enlightenment secular religions: socialism and capitalism. And both are deferential to the great invention of the early modern period: the modern State. Neither the left or right have a specifically Christian political philosophy: they both function with a lame version of "What would Jesus do?" thinking.

Stegall notes, however, that an older (pre-modern) Christian tradition founded by St. Augustine is an alternative to what he calls the "restless Evangelicals." They are restless because they are sick of the corruption in the Republican Party, the failure of the leadership to appreciate them and the failure to derail homosexual "marriage" and abortion. Is there something more? Stegall recommends Augustinianism.

I believe that Stegall is right to say that Evangelicals are restless and he is right to commend Augustinianism. But I see the stakes as higher and the situation as more urgent than he does. If Evangelicalism does not make its way home to a more catholic faith it is doomed to go the way of Protestant liberalism. Already, we see Wallis and co. leading Evangelicals into moral compormise as they exchange a capitalist mess of potage for a socialist one.

And as Carl Bratten points out in an article entitled "The Gospel for a Neopagan Culture" the gnostic spirituality of late modern North America finds fertile soil in the pietist tradition. He writes:

"Evangelical pietism that has lost the catholic elements of the great tradition provides a fertile soil for such ahistorical spiritual religion. There are signs that American evangelicalism with its pietist background is breaking up under the impact of the "culture wars,' with one wing seeking to reattach itself to catholic and orthodox traditions, which we welcome, and the other wing allying itself opportunistically with the culture-conforming progressives in American religion." (Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism, ed. C. Bratten and R. Jenson, Eerdmans, 1995, p. 20)

The political problem identified by Stegall is intimately related to the spiritual problem identified by Bratten. Gnosticism and liberalism go hand in hand and both are inimical to catholic orthodoxy.

Stegall describes Augustinian political thought as being built on the idea that what a man (or community) loves is determinative of the kind of man (or community) he will be. Modernity seeks a rationally-designed political system that is so perfect that no one need be good. This is seen in the neo-conservative idea that the greed of individuals results (miraculously!) in the welfare of all. It is also seen in the naive faith placed in the all-encompassing state and its rational planners by liberals. But Augustine will have none of that. He knows that who we worship determines what our community will be like. If we worship "Choice" we will have blood-stained hands as our will to power is exercised against the weak and helpless children who are inconvenient to our plans. Only the worship of the true God leads to shalom.

Augustinians do not see history marching toward glorious things and progressing inevitably toward the good society. Augustinians view life as eucatastophe - a joyful catastrophe. History is a long defeat with a twist at the end that saves the day. This is what it means to believe in the return of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This life is important, not because it is an end in itself, but because it is the preparation for eternity and the place where our souls are formed for the telos of our lives - to see God and enjoy Him forever.

This is a spirituality with political implications and a politics that is spiritual. It is historic Christian orthodoxy and Evangelicals will either embrace it or they will pass out of the Church and into post-Christian Western paganism along with the rest of the Protestant Gnostics.

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