Open Resistance or Cautious Compromise

So, between Tertullian and Augustine we have two different views of culture, both of which have had enduring influence on Western Christianity. From Tertullian we have inherited a view of culture and the church as discrete realities, in which the surrounding culture is essentially a great expanse of human activity riddled with idolatry that beckons as a sweet poison to the pious. From Augustine we have received a view of culture and church as two intertwined cities with many common spaces and activities. Where and when the earthly city grasps truth and promotes charity, it may be used by the pious as a means to know and love God and neighbor. Religious movements in the lineage of Tertullian promote the idea of withdrawal from, if not open resistance to, the world and its snares; those in the lineage of Augustine seek compromises with the surrounding culture, leveraging the good where it is found, and acknowledge their participation in the general life of the world. Ernst Troeltsch, a German theologian writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, identifies these two trajectories as distinct models of religious community, which he calls "sect" and "church," each promoting a different social theory. The sect type, he explains, views the world with indifference, if not active hostility, is suspicious of institutions, even those it creates, and demands purity of heart in all things. The church type maintains an openness to the world, accepting the political order as a remedial form of grace that mitigates the grosser effects of sin.45 The church-type endorses the participation of Christians in the secular world as agents of reform, and accommodates itself to prevailing practices of scientific inquiry, artistic expression, and modes of communication.

Troeltsch had certain affinities for the church-type, but recognized that over the centuries it was in the interaction and tension of church and sect that Christianity had sustained its vitality. Both types, he argued, have their point of origin in the Bible. The sect seeks to follow the strict teachings and example of Jesus in the Gospels; the church is a response to the message of Paul, who in his efforts at bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles had found it necessary to reach compromises, adjusting the radicalism of the kingdom of God teachings to the political and social realities of the diverse communities he encountered in his travels. Visiting Athens, Paul entered discussions with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and acknowledged that even this city full of idols had not been without a witness to the one true God, and he acknowledged with the Stoics that a divine Logos pervaded everything in the universe and that a universal moral law had been written on the human heart (Acts 17). Theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would develop this concession to

Stoicism into a full-blown doctrine of natural law, rich with possibilities for understanding how divine grace and providence persist in guiding, sustaining and sometimes overthrowing the political and social order, convinced that the close inspection of the secular order will uncover the work of God operating deep in its proceedings.

Tertullian's heirs are found in a great variety of Christian movements and individuals who have made it central to their piety to promote a way of life separate from, and standing in judgment of, the surrounding culture. The early monastic movement, Anabaptists, radical Baptists, Quakers, and Adventists are movements that at least began with this impulse. Leo Tolstoy was a powerful advocate for those who would withdraw from the world and erect alternative societies, and an incisive critic of the means by which cultures stupefy people into perpetuating violence and oppression. On the present scene are North American theologians like George Lindbeck, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, whose theological views have been described as "postliberal," and British theologians like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, who have adopted the banner of "radical orthodoxy." Postliberalism and radical orthodoxy claim that biblical language and narratives - and theologies that are consistent with them - offer a cohesive world that stands as an alternative to the "Enlightenment project" of modernity, an alternative world that faithful Christians are called to inhabit.

Hauerwas is particularly adamant about this.46 In his view, the church is "an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure," and the history of the true church, or, using his term, the "confessing church," is at odds with the history of the West. He treats the church and its practices and narratives as if they were the products of an independent development in the midst of Western history. While he denies that the confessing church aspires to withdraw from the world, he insists that it will, if true to itself, reject modern culture "with a few exceptions."47 When the church is the church, it is composed of "people who live here as aliens," a "colony of heaven" that does not recognize the sovereignty of nation-states nor easily acquiesce to the grasp of reality asserted by the surrounding culture. The confessing church has been shaped according to a different story and by a different set of values than the stories and values of the surrounding culture. What it offers to the world is an alternative vision and a community to which exiles from the culture can come to be converted, detoxified and transformed. Hauerwas's view, in short, is that the Christian community represents a counter-history to the history of the emergence of modernity, and it is this counter-history which ought to be a Christian's deepest moral and metaphysical framework. Theologies of culture, along the lines of the work of Paul Tillich, Hauerwas claims, are engaged in the "Constantinian enterprise of making the faith credible to the powers-that-be so that Christians might now have a share in those powers."48 Such theologies are, in the end, he says, hard "to distinguish from journalism."49

Echoes of Tertullian resound in Hauerwas, as they do in postliber-alism and radical orthodoxy in general. Tertullian's question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?," his searing critique of the seductive idolatries that divert Christians from worshipping the true God, and his insistence that our economies are inextricably dependent upon the manufacturing of idols are central themes in the writings of these thinkers. And as Tertullian appealed to those who had a taste for the "literature of the stage" by tantalizing them with the alternative literature of the church, a literature full of "fightings and wrestlings" that are narrated toward radically different endings, these contemporary Tertullians invite their listeners to enter the Gospel as an adventurously alternative way of thinking the world and acting upon it.

Augustine's heirs have been more sympathetic to the continuities between Christianity and culture than have Tertullian's. Indeed, Augustine was a post-Constantinian thinker who was trying to understand the place of Christian faith in a culture where Christianity had finally gained legal standing. While Augustine thought the course of history through in terms of the unending tension between the heavenly and earthly cities, he allowed at the outset that the underlying desire that kept both in play was a love for the metaphysical goodness of being - a goodness of being which can be found in both cities. According to Augustine, "there cannot be a nature in which there is no good."50 Every being, insofar as it exists, is good. It is human concupiscence - our boundless, pulsating, heedless desire - that corrupts this goodness by latching onto creatures to satisfy our craving for God. By desiring finite goods (e.g., power, friendship, romantic partners, food, material goods, comfort) for more satisfaction than they can deliver, and organizing our lives around them, it is as if we suck the goodness out of them. When the inherent goodness of something is in this way desiccated, its being is diminished, although it retains something good until the point that it ceases to exist.

The earthly city is the world we create through our concupiscence, attaching greater expectations to the finite world than it is designed to uphold, seeking in creation a degree of fulfillment that can only be found in God. With Augustine, finite goods exist to facilitate our enjoyment of God. Loading our friends, possessions, families, political institutions, artists, scientists, or entertainments with the full weight of our boundless longing results in their recoiling under the pressure and our resentment that they have disappointed us. Concupiscence sets in motion burdens and disappointments that spiral out of control, which is the core of the human condition for Augustine. We are all already born into this earthly city which sizzles with the dissatisfactions and betrayals of misplaced and inordinate desire. Nevertheless, where being is found, goodness is found. And our world is earthly to the extent that we enjoy it as an end in itself; it is heavenly to the extent that it is loved as an exercise in our enjoyment of God.

In league with Augustine's guarded endorsement of all things finite, Martin Luther popularized the leveling formula of finitum capax infiniti (the finite has the capacity for the infinite) according to which divine goodness is understood to have the power to appear wherever God wills and a believer is receptive - in the basic sacramental elements of water, bread and wine, but also in the humble phenomena of a crib, a cross, skin, muscle and bones, parental love, and the tools of one's trade. Indeed, according to Luther, "God in his essence is present everywhere, in and through the whole creation in all its parts and in all places, and so the world is full of God and he fills it all, yet he is not limited or circumscribed by it."51 John Calvin, whose severe views on the corrosive effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve are well known, still insisted that a "common grace" continues to work outside of the church, both in nature and in human affairs. Friederich Schleiermacher located an opening onto the infinite in the very structure of human consciousness, through a deeply residing awareness that he called the "feeling of absolute dependence," an aperture in all of us through which the constant presence of God enters the world. The fundamental insight which each of these thinkers has handed on is that even the most common productions of human creativity can be interpreted theologically as indicating the presence and activity of God in the midst of human existence. Paul Tillich attempted to transform this insight into an actual discipline of inquiry to which he gave the name "theology of culture." At the heart of this inquiry is his formulation: "Religion is the depth of culture, culture is the form of religion."

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