In this Orbits post, we’d like to feature a recent essay by Contributor Charles Mathewes, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia with an expertise in Christian worldview and the major influence of St. Augustine on Western thought. His essay “Another City” (linked above with excerpts below) develops several themes touched on in his interview with Praxis Circle. Below are some key excerpts from the article with corresponding clips from our interview.
Of course, St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.) was the West’s central transitional theologian and philosopher (see intro video, 6:24) who did much to steer it from the pagan Greek-Roman world into the Christian Middle Ages. From our point of view, he remains even more important and relevant today than in the early Fifth Century.
To Christians, Augustine’s foundational insights in his masterpieces Confessions (written 397 – 400 A.D.) and The City of God (413 – 426 A.D. after the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410) are timeless. They suggest how the new West should orient itself and why a Christian world is stronger and superior to the ancient pagan world. He was an extremely rare genius who died in Hippo of natural causes as Vandals had his North African home under siege. The Vandals destroyed all of the city, except for St. Augustine’s cathedral and library.
Yes, times were different then. The late ancient world was not a place for sissies. And yet the same is true today.
In many ways, Augustine’s life was a miracle that set the course for the greats who followed him, like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Paul II, to offer a very small sample.
We would like to finish this introduction with a question: What is modernity? Dr. Mathewes tells us in his article that the word modernus was first used in the Sixth Century. We would also suggest that perhaps our crazy times today need to answer St. Augustine, more than he needs to answer us. How arrogant are a people, the living, who perpetually assume that they are superior to those who came before? Are we perpetually better? Is ours a religion or disease? A Christian one? A human one? What would St. Augustine say?
Perhaps we are experiencing similar times of transition. In hindsight to many, the late ancient world seemed to descend into chaos as the Western Roman Empire experienced its last years. And yet, where is the West today given the chaos we are inflicting on ourselves in Europe and America?
Turning to Dr. Mathewes’ analysis and comments are insightful and reassuring.
Augustine and Secularism
In every age, humans learn only what their experience of the world renders them capable of learning. So it is, as well, with our own: To understand the value of Augustine, it helps to understand our world in light of our larger ongoing reflections, particularly in recent years, on the nature of the common world we inhabit, a world that we might describe as “secular.”
Consider how we see our world today. Most would agree that we stand at the end of Christendom. This is so in two senses, one well known, the other not so well known. The well-known sense is clear: Christendom is over. If we understand that term to designate a large-scale effort to shape and sustain civilization on explicitly Christian terms (and it was always at most an effort, never an achievement), states, citizens, and even most Christian churches have effectively surrendered that ambition. The status of religious convictions, confessions, and practices—their legitimacy in public, and the claim they make to organize our lives for us—is much more contested, far more fragile and recognizably contingent, than it has ever been before, and there are no signs that that trend is being reversed. Our world has been “secularized.”
But there is a second, less known sense to this claim. If Christendom has in one way ended, in another way it has been accomplished. Don’t look now, but we are living in the midst of a huge “moral revolution” that has occurred over the past several centuries. Slavery is now internationally illegal; equality is a watchword; we feel obliged, however faintly, to care about people far away; we feel morally outraged at our own history. This moral revolution is one deeply oriented and driven by Christianity. Materially, of course, this revolution has happened in no small part because of the vast increase of power and connection among humanity’s disparate peoples across the globe. But those material powers have been oriented, motivated, shaped, and sharpened by the thinking of those who enact them, and that thinking has been basically shaped by Christian concepts, convictions, and ways of inhabiting the world. We live in a world that has become radically Christian in shape and deep structure, even as it has lost the surface appearance of being Christian.
Augustine and Christianity
The City of God is also crucial, though complicatedly so, for understanding the inheritance of Latin Christianity, not just historically but for today, both for Christians and for those who are, in one way or another, post-Christian. If we are to understand contemporary Western Christianity, whether as members of the Christian churches or as those who wish to engage them, a serious acquaintance with The City remains urgent.
Similarly, to understand the “post-Christian” world we inhabit today, The City of God is equally essential. It has exerted an unparalleled influence upon Western thought, which can be read as a history of readings of Augustine. Consider where he stands in the history of philosophy: Born in 354 CE, he lived roughly 800 years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and roughly 800 years before Aquinas, and there are roughly 800 years between Aquinas and today. Augustine marks the transition between ancient and medieval philosophy. In many ways, modern thought “got beyond” the medieval by returning to the latter’s origins in Augustine. The “humanism” purportedly rediscovered in the Renaissance, the Protestantism and Catholicism discovered in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the secular liberalism that began with the Enlightenment: All these defined themselves in terms of Augustine. The Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation did so by drawing powerfully from themes in Augustine’s writing and thought; modernity, by setting itself self-consciously against themes in his thought. A precursor to Descartes’s cogito has a walk-on role in the City, and the voluntarism that undergirds so much of nominalist philosophical anthropology and ontology claimed sponsorship by Augustine’s theorizing about the will, across all of his works. Indeed, even our purportedly most “secularized” understandings of the world today themselves descend from the very theological idea of the saeculum that Augustine pioneered. Hence, even to understand our own contemporary and resolutely secularized “social imaginary,” a deep appreciation of those assumptions, arguments, and influence of The City is invaluable. If we want to “provincialize Europe,” and make it just one participant in our global conversations, not the unquestionable judge of everyone else, then engaging Augustine is a very good place to begin.
Augustine and Modernity
As one grows more aware of the pertinence of Augustine’s project to our world, his message to us becomes both pressing and perplexing. After all, his situation was not so different from our own: The City depicts, and tries to inhabit, a culturally turbulent age when people with very different philosophies and religious connections had to find some way to live, if not together, at least cheek by jowl with one another. In the book, Augustine thinks hard about living faithfully and unapologetically, but also collegially, in a bewilderingly pluralistic society. Furthermore, The City invokes and engages a complicated, enormously rich, and inescapably ambivalent cultural legacy, one whose organic relation to a previous social order perpetually tempts those who admire that legacy toward a reactionary and sterile nostalgia. In its resolutely anti-nostalgic attitude, the work helps us reckon more carefully with our own relationship to that past. One can even argue that it is the first “Modernist” text, that is, the first text in which a proximate and immediate past is available but problematic for the present day, and can be apprehended only after radical and critical reinterpretation.
But while its influence is unquestioned, we can reasonably wonder whether the lessons we take from The City of God are the ones it meant to teach. The Middle Ages drew on Augustine’s writings, to be sure, but for very different purposes and within a very different social order and social imaginary than his own; hence, his worldview was largely obscured, and his thinking misunderstood. Only in the past hundred years have we come to understand something of the context in which Augustine wrote, and in the process come to understand something more of him.
If you consider yourself a Christian, would you take issue with anything Dr. Mathewes asserts? Have Christians surrendered? Statistics globally say otherwise, and many of similar stature even in elite Western academic circles would characterize today merely as a period of Christian reformulation and realignment.
Are we truly in a “post-Christian” world, or, as Dr. Mathewes suggests, are we simply fulfilling it? We would be most interested in what you, the Praxis Circle reader, has to say.
In a society looking more like the City of Man than the City of God with every passing day, there is still much to learn from Augustine. Concepts within Christianity, secularism, and modernity can all be traced back to the “Second Father of the Faith”—a man who illuminates the past but who also, if we are careful readers, demonstrates a very relatable struggle in a very similar worldview jungle.
Thank you, Dr. Mathewes, for your continued academic pursuit of all things Augustine.
To read more blog posts featuring Contributor Charles Mathewes: