In the 3d chp of Gilbert Meilaender’s exquisite volume, The Way That Leads There, we are treated to a meandering through Augustine’s City of God in quest of a Christian perception of politics. After last night’s debate and as we wind up once again to cast our votes, it is perhaps a good time to think again about politics.
Expectations seems to be a driving theme of this chp. What can we expect of our government? Are our expectations “redemptive” in a meaningful sense? What role does an eternal eschatology play in our understanding of earthly politics? Emerging Christians, as I observe ourselves, tend to downplay eschatological hope — the eternal City of God — in order to concentrate on the kingdom of God now. But how vital is the eternal for a proper understanding of the earthly? Is there a way to avoid ignoring the earthly because of the eternal without letting the eternal become swallowed by the earthly?
Here are two quotations to get us going:
“It is hard not to hope for more from politics than it can deliver” (79).
“If we offer our ultimate loyalty to the political community and its goods, we suppress the desire for God that marks the deepest reaches of our humanity” (79).
And yet, we are to “cherish the brilliance of this earthly life” as long as we don’t forget that it is the “fragile brilliance of glass” (Augustine, City of God, 4.3).
Meilaender sees in Augustine’s monumental, massive and rarely-read chunky book a chastened politics — namely, a rejection of Eusebian triumphalism (Constantinianism — equating the kingdom of God with a political power) as well as a rejection of an apocalyptic mindset (thinking one knows from events when the end of the world is) and instead opts for a potent agnosticism. That is, what the Christian knows is that we stand between two poles: the resurrection/ascension and the final kingdom and our task now is to be faithful to the will of God. During this time two loves struggle in the soul and two cities struggle on the world’s stage.
Meilaender thinks Augustine demythologizes politics. That is, if the will of God is to love God and love others, and the city of man does not love God, then a proper justice can never be achieved. Everything falls short. I think more Christians today need to think through this more completely — far too many have too much hope in the political process or in a political party.
He wanders a bit here for me but the final section comes to the Church, which is the alternative society. It is not that the Church has not interest in the political, nor does he think Augustine believed in a separation of church and state. Instead, he sees a chastened but not denuded politics. A peaceable state permits the church to carry out its mission, so by all means work for peace. Only the Church can be “Christianized.”