Monday, April 11, 2016

Beyond Political Augustinianism

by Clinton E. Stockwell

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

It is a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to respond to one of the chapters in the forthcoming collection, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy, by Professor Lambert Zuidervaart of the Institute for Christian Studies. On the surface, this is a daunting proposition. While I did minor in philosophy as an undergraduate, and I find myself always coming back to it, I must confess first off that my graduate level training was in theology and church history, and later in the social sciences, history and sociology. Even so, there is much that dovetails over that which I feel somewhat qualified to make some provisional comments. Provisional, because I do not feel that I have the final answers on these matters, and because I am anxious to hear from the author, or from other readers if what I have to share is close to being on target.

A few preliminary comments. First, I am taking the author’s title of the book seriously, that fundamentally the thematic emphasis that ties the essays together is the question, what makes for or contributes to “social transformation?” But, how would the goal of social transformation be justified or explained by religious faith, particularly the brand that is most operative at ICS--“Reformational philosophy?” Further, and more specific to our task, is the question that relates to the article, “Good Cities or Cities of the Good? Radical Augustinians, Societal Structures and Normative Critique.” What is it that makes for a “good city,” and how might this “good city” be achieved, not just theoretically, but concretely in practice?

A few comments about my background and discipline are in order, so that the reader might know what to expect and what my perspective is on these matters. I am an Emeritus Director of Chicago Semester, an off campus urban internship program sponsored by six colleges in the Reformed tradition, of which at least three of them are intimately familiar with the “Reformational” tradition (Dordt, Calvin, and Trinity Christian Colleges). I completed, many years ago, a doctorate in theology, and my dissertation topic was the “Ecclesiology of Emil Brunner.” So, the wedding of theology, church and society is something for which I have had a long interest. Second, upon joining the staff at Chicago Semester, I became interested in the Neo-Calvinist thought of Abraham Kuyper, and was able to have an essay entitled: “Abraham Kuyper and Welfare Reform: A Reformed Political Perspective,” published by Dordt College’s journal, Pro Rege (September 1998). More recently in 2013, I presented a paper at Princeton University for the Kuyper Center for Public Theology on the theme of creation and the environment, entitled: “Abraham Kuyper and the Diversity of God’s Creation.” Finally, I have a second doctoral degree that explored urban social movements, particularly, Protestants social justice organizations in the early history of Chicago. It was called, “A Better Class of People? Protestants in the Shaping of Early Chicago, 1831- 1873.” I also completed a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. So, when you put all this together, my academic interests have been the attempt to utilize aspects of a Reformed theology to assess what makes for a “good city,” especially cities that are faced with the usual range of perplexing urban problems.

What is it that makes for a “good city,” and how might this “good city” be achieved, not just theoretically, but concretely in practice?

I have been excitedly provoked by Zuidervaart’s article on cities, and his commitment to find a philosophical perspective that is both rooted in the Reformed faith, yet connected to the pursuit of social justice in the real world. I share these values! In reading this piece more closely, I am aware that my orientation to the question of what makes for a “good city” is more likely shaped out of theology and the social sciences, and less from the standpoint of academic philosophy, so this too may be a limitation and will dictate my focus in this post.

A few remarks about Zuidervaart’s paper, and how the subject may be approached. The focus on “radical Augustinianism” or what some call “political Augustinianism” is both captivating and provocative. I believe that there are at least three ways that this subject could be broached. Firstly, one could conduct research and present a paper that focuses on Augustine’s City of God, and assesses his particular perspective and theology, and how that relates to the subject at hand. Secondly, one might seek to develop more broadly a theology of the city as an end. And as a means to that end, one might seek to incorporate perspectives from Augustine and the Augustinian tradition that help to advance or clarify one’s theology. Thirdly, and this will be my approach, one might pursue the question of what makes for a good city, and then try to develop a theology or philosophical point of view that illuminates that theme. If so, then one may pursue any number of philosophical, sociological or theological perspectives, but the goal is to examine what makes for a “good city,” and to consider ways by which that good city may be developed.

While the third perspective is closer to my own, I must also say that I do come to this question as one who is devoted to a biblical, theological perspective that is informed by the Reformed Christian worldview. However, I do so recognizing my “minority” status among Christians, and among my neighbors in the real world, in the real city where I reside. As an example, my closest neighbors do not share my worldview, but I do believe that for the most part they share my ethics and my love for the city where I live. My neighbors are Jewish, orthodox Catholic, and across the street, a post Christian guitar player and singer who shares my love for folk music. This is just a small concrete example of the problem that I, and most of us, face. We live in a radically changing pluralistic world that is becoming even more urban, global and culturally diverse daily. So, how can I approach the question of what makes for a “good city” as a Reformed Christian in the context of radical pluralism?

So, how can I approach the question of what makes for a “good city” as a Reformed Christian in the context of radical pluralism?

This problem has been elucidated by many writers in the past, among them, John Rawls as a secular political theorist, and also by missiologist Lesslie Newbigin.[1] These works have guided my thinking for many years. In the words of John Rawls, “how is it possible for reasonable people to live in a democracy dominated by competing all comprehensive doctrines?” According to Newbigin, we cannot escape pluralism, and perhaps the best way to engage a pluralistic world is not through triumphalism or passive relativism, but by means of a “committed pluralism.” One way that I have been able to answer that question is from the works of Abraham Kuyper and his work on common grace. In Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, he acknowledges that Jewish, secular, and Muslim people may be leaders with great gifts and talent, all bestowed upon them by the Creator.[2] We must have a doctrine something like that of common grace if we are to operate in a pluralistic world with fairness and integrity.

Moving forward, there are a number of documents that I will bring into this discussion, even as the bulk of it will be a focus on the fine article by Zuidervaart. I have in mind John Milbank’s “The Other City: Theology as Social Science” (from his Theology and Social Theory (2006: 382-442); with some reference to St Augustine, The City of God (Abridged Version, 1958); and from the new biography on Augustine by Robin Lane Fox (Basic Books, 2015).

From John Milbank, I ran into the following discussion which I believe to be the problem that Milbank is working on. Milbank argues that the church should be the place where “just exchanges” occur. As he presents it:
By extending the space of just exchange, it can be hoped that the space of arbitrary exchange, motivated by the search for maximum profit, and dominated by manipulation, pretense and absence of any standards of quality, can be made to recede, even if it cannot ever, within fallen human time, altogether disappear.[3]
I believe this problem was also addressed in the New Testament, and specifically in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy chapter 15. There the question is posed as how can poor people live in the land, and not be impoverished? This for us is a fundamental question of justice and the just distribution of the earth’s goods. Milbank postulates that the church can and should do this, because it is “a space . . . where truly just economic exchanges occur. Such can only occur among a “society of friends, sharing remote common goals, where each new product and social role as it emerges is nonetheless given its ‘position’ and relative weight in the community.”[4] It seems that Milbank, a “radical Augustinian,” appropriates a particular Augustinian perspective in making the case of how this problem may be addressed. The problem of course, is that the church is also a power, and it has not always acted with concern for the vulnerable, nor has it the resources to do so comprehensively.[5] Even so, we can accept the notion that the dualism of the city of God and city of man runs through each person. Yet, for Millbank, the “City of God” in Augustine is the church, despite its many imperial actions and the limits of its organizational capacity. One may remember that, for much of church history, the Roman Catholic Church and its Protestant children have oppressed sectarian groups, conducted wars, and set up courts of inquisition to stifle and eliminate differences in dogma and in practice. Even so, for good or ill, for Millbank in antiquity “all political theory… is relocated by Christianity as thought about the church.”[6] Millbank understands Augustine’s City of God as being both a corporate entity and the virtual equivalent of the church in society. He incorporates this “political Augustinianism” in his own theology as also an operative social theory for how economic and political difficulties might be resolved.

I have some differences with Millbank in terms of how one interprets Augustine. It seems to me that, in Augustine, the dualism between the “City of God” and “City of man” (civitas terrena) is rather stark. It also seems to me that Augustine’s experience of the city was very negative, that he could or would have little hope that the “City of God” would be realizable in the world. Recently I came across the new biography by Robin Lane Fox, called Augustine: Conversions and Confessions.[7] In this work, Fox seeks to understand Augustine, and how it was that he became “Saint Augustine.” For one thing, Fox noted that Augustine was initially very much attached to “the world.” He sought to become a teacher of rhetoric, and ultimately a philosopher and a scholar. He was funded by one of the leading nobles in his native town of Thagaste. Although attracted to Manichaeism, and from the beginning was hostile to the Donatists, it seems to the author that Augustine had a problem, and his problem was with sexuality and the temptations of sensual pleasure. Not having the money to afford a marriage, Augustine entered into at least two relationships with concubines, the first one producing a son, Adeodatus. Though Manichaean priests and Christian monks were (theoretically) celibate, that did not appeal to Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine famously said, “Lord. Deliver me from evil, but not just yet.” Indeed, it seems that conversion for Augustine lay in the renunciation of sexuality and all sensual pleasure. Upon conversion, writes Fox: “it was now chastity, a conversion from sex for the rest of his life.”[8] The point, of course, is that Augustine in his conversion renounced the pleasure he was receiving in the world for the virtue of being a monk and a scholar. The City of God would be uncontaminated with the world in Augustine’s view.

It also seems to me that Augustine’s experience of the city was very negative, that he could or would have little hope that the “City of God” would be realizable in the world.

But, Augustine's renunciation of the city of man, best typified in the city of Rome at the end of the Empire, best portrays his point of view. Fox details Augustine’s first encounter with the city of Rome. It was of course the largest city in the ancient world, but more than this, it was a particular kind of city. Rome was a city that was characterized by dancing girls, horse races, dice players, jockeys and professional backgammon players. The “vagabonds” of the city were many, and they were dependent upon charity, “bread and circuses,” for survival. Fox writes: “a preoccupation with ‘bread and circuses’ was understandable in a city where most people’s livelihood was very vulnerable.”[9] Rome was not a city that produced much of anything, everything of value was imported. The grain used for bread was imported from Augustine’s North Africa. The stones and building materials were imported from vast reaches of the empire. The city of Rome, was not built by in a day, and would not have been built at all were it not for slave labor. But more than this, Augustine was offended by bloody gladiatorial contests, the slaughter of animals; and according to one chronicler, the spectacle of 1,580 horse races per year. This in a city where half of the year was devoted to one festival or one religious celebration after another, all paid for by Emperors who were trying to outdo one another in the provision of spectacles and celebrations for the residents of Rome, free and slaves alike. Rome was not only base and corrupt, it was far from a Christian society, despite the presence of the church. This is as true in today’s society as it was in the Fourth Century in Rome. The majority of the people in the city worshiped pagan gods and religious cults. Rome was anything but the “City of God” that Augustine wrote about so clearly. It was clearly the city of man.

For Augustine, the end of the City of God was peace. Earthly cities may produce a modicum of peace, though Augustine denounced the Pax Romana, the fabrication of peace held together by imperial military domination. The earthly city could not produce a lasting peace, or even a peace worth having. He wrote:
The word ‘peace’ is too often described as conditions here on earth, where life is not eternal, that it is better, I think, to speak of ‘eternal life’ rather than ‘peace’ as the end or the supreme good of the city.[10]
Yet, Augustine did not believe that the City of God was limited or reserved for heaven, beyond space and time. Pilgrims had to live in the ‘city of man’ the best they could. Augustine describes such persons as “captive” and “alien” in the City of Man, as “pilgrims” who, by necessity and survival, “take no issue with that diversity of customs, laws and traditions whereby human peace is sought and maintained.”[11] The “heavenly city” is a “wayfaring on earth,” and is to be identified with a “pilgrim band” of devout followers of the City of God.[12] For Millbank this “pilgrim band” is to be identified with the Christian church.

For Zuidervaart, this radical interpretation of Augustine represents an “anti-enlightenment,” “anti- modernist” fervor that he finds troubling. Zuidervaart recognizes that much of what has passed of late in “Reformational philosophy” has been an attack on modernism, and the enlightenment, especially the dogma of human alienation from the Creator. He notes Kuyper’s dismissal of the enlightenment and the French Revolution as one example. Yet, Zuidervaart rightly notes that there is much in the enlightenment tradition, for example the use of reason,that has influenced Christian thought, and may not be contradictory to it. Is it possible that a rejection of the enlightenment project leads one to some form of dualism? He cites Herman Dooyeweerd, who, like Augustine, argues that the “antithesis” is present and runs through each human person, Christians included. That is, there are aspects of the city of man and the city of God in each of us. He notes in Abraham Kuyper an emphasis on structural differentiation (sphere sovereignty) that seeks freedom for the church, and for a church-sponsored education, and seeks autonomy among the social spheres. This is arguably an extension of Augustinian dualism.

Rather than antithesis, Zuidervaart argues, rightly in my view, that there is an “inner connection”, an “inseparable coherence” among the spheres. In his biography of Dooyeweerd, scholar Jonathan Chaplain argues that sphere sovereignty is or should be balanced by “sphere universality,” and that there are also “interlacements” (permeable interconnections) between the spheres.[13] I agree with this strongly. In today’s world, we must recognize our interconnections, and our interdependence on a shrinking planet. What we need is greater integration and cooperation. This Winter Quarter, I just completed a class at the National Louis University called, “Cross Cultural Collaboration in Public Policy.”[14] This is a foundational course in the Public Policy curriculum, and argues that in an era of austerity and shrinking resources, the state, and by implication all societal spheres, cannot solve problems alone. Rather, the public, private and not for profit sectors must find ways to collaborate, cooperate, network and pursue a social capital characterized by trust.[15] Roman Catholic scholar David C. Korten argues that we must turn away from a competition for empire and create a more sustainable “earth community” because our survival and the survival of the planet and all living species is at risk.[16] This turning is an important way to approach the problem of creating the “good city” for all.

Rather than antithesis, Zuidervaart argues, rightly in my view, that there is an “inner connection”, an “inseparable coherence” among the spheres.

This does not mean of course that there is not “evil” or “spiritual conflict.” Walter Wink’s studies of the powers in society, using biblical exegesis and symbols, provides one way to look at it.[17] The “powers” are indeed demonic, but they are not just otherworldly, they abide and are manifested in the social structures, systems and institutions that humans have created. Rather than serving the good of the city, or of society as a whole, the “principalities and powers” have created violence, exploitation and oppression that has created the most extreme inequality. Yet, for Walter Wink, the “powers” are not just created good but fallen; they are also “redeemable” provided we find a way to engage them.

Citing Graham Ward and others, Zuidervaart notes that there is not just “spiritual conflict” in our society, but “spiritual nihilism” as well. We read about this everyday with mass shootings in the US, and horrific suicide bombings in Iraq, Pakistan, and Brussels. We wonder with Graham Ward, what practices do we need, what “responses to God’s grace” are called for? How can the city of God, metaphorical or literal, be more present in the world today? Wink and Zuidervaart note the patterns of domination that prevail in both developed and less developed worlds. Where is the love, the community and the quest for a just peace in the midst of the prevailing evils that we face? Augustine has been critiqued with the concern that his theology or philosophy have little concept of the common good. There seems to be more of a preoccupation with living “spiritually” in a very separate place removed from the “real world” literally or virtually. For many, living in the world means only to survive it, with an ethic that purposes to escape from the world rather than to transform it. Yet, following Ward, and I think also Zuidervaart, we are a part of a “creation order.” We are called to be responsible stewards for the “good creation” entrusted to us. The wisdom narratives in Scripture link wisdom to the creation, and also to a this-worldly exercise of practical wisdom. For some authors, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are not merely holy, set apart as divinely sanctioned, but are also secular documents, with guidance for how to live and prosper in the real world.

But, back to Ward’s question, how can our sacred spaces become places where goods are distributed justly, and not just for the arbitrary exchange for profits? What I believe we don’t need is “passive analysis.” Too often, religious faith is either “other worldly,” or is more concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy than faithful practice. As Zuidervaart notes, Ideals and ideas can be static, they can be a substitute for what is really needed: orthopraxis and the active presence of the faith community in the "world as it is."[18] Only then do we have a chance to remake the world “as it should be.” I think this can only be done in mass social movements fueled by a diverse community that is concerned about the shalom of the planet. Urban social theorist Manuel Castells calls for “networks of outrage and hope”[19] to organize in actual urban spaces to speak truth to power. In the age of the internet, it is possible to have global conversations and to reach some consensus regarding our problems and possible collective solutions.

As Zuidervaart notes, Ideals and ideas can be static, they can be a substitute for what is really needed: orthopraxis and the active presence of the faith community in the world as it is.

There may be but one point in Zuidervaart’s narrative that I believe I must take exception, the extent that differentiation needs to be protected and vestiges of modernism maintained. A shalom vision for the world is an interconnected and holistic vision. In one of the essays assigned in the ICS course “Wisdom and Schooling,” Peter Walsh believes that education, and in a sense all of life, must start with the goal of loving the world.[20] The pursuit of justice, biblical shalom and the “healing of humpty dumpty and us” is best created by the means of what Matthew Fox has called “a spirituality called compassion.”[21] Compassion is not just a gut feeling, but is a motivator for responsible action. It is the feeling with and solidarity with the pain of others in the world, whom in biblical thought we know to be our neighbors near and far. Yes, the challenges are daunting, and too often Christian hope is understood in a passive way, as we await a coming Parousia or a hoped-for judgment. But, as for theologian Jurgen Moltmann, an otherworldy passive hope is a misunderstanding of biblical hope. Drawing on the work of Ernst Bloch, hope and future expectation is endemic to who or what a human being is.[22] Hope I believe is a key aspect of the Imago Dei in the human species. Moltmann critiques the lack of hope in us and the limitations of the disconnected activities of what he calls the “study man.” He writes:
If I were merely a “study man” (or woman), then I could sit at my desk and think up beautiful educational schemes for the poor people and pronounce my hope for the people, but I would never speak from the people or with the people, and couldn’t say one word about the hope of the people. . . . Hope in the struggle of the people is to be found in the people’s becoming subjects of their own history. To take part in the community of Jesus means to take part in the history of the people and to rejoice with the people.[23]

The task of being a Christian in a post Christian world is connected to the question of discipleship and our faithfulness as Christian scholars. From the New Testament, the question of the identity of the neighbor challenges us to consider the connections between our academic study and how we live out the faith in the real world. This is not just a theoretical question, but is a question of integrity and the extent of our “withing spirit.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus connects discipleship with our relationship to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31 ff.). However, it is not enough if we only seek to relieve the temporary needs of those poor and vulnerable, but do not also look at the systems, structures, policies and practices in our society, and among ourselves, that contribute to these inequalities. In this respect, we are called not just to imagine “spaces of hope,”[24] but to create them, not to merely critique the institutions of our society, but to engage those institutions so as to call them back to their creational functions. As Millbank suggests, we must imagine and develop “spaces of just exchange” in our communities and economic lives.

A closing story. A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend the “Kirchentag” conference in Dresden, Germany, sponsored by the Protestant Churches of Europe, but open to all those concerned about justice. One presentation at the conference was on the subject of food justice (that food is not just a commodity to be controlled by the few, but a gift of the Creator for all to enjoy via just distribution). The speaker argued that key to our religious faith is the sharing of bread: “Uns Religion ist Brod.” Perhaps a renewed rededication to the One who is for us the Bread of Life would call us all to think about our welcoming tables of fellowship in both our churches and communities. A rereading of the parable of the feeding of the 5000 suggests that there is more abundance than scarcity, and if justice is our guide, there is enough! Too often, we believe that we do not have enough power, authority or resources to make much of a difference. Rabbi Michael Lerner challenges this assumption, and calls it “surplus powerlessness,” when we imagine that we are more powerless than we are in fact.[25] Our communities are more hopeful when we act together in collaboration with like-minded persons and groups. This I believe was St. Paul’s challenge to the urban congregations he was writing to. Just prior to his reference to the Collection for Jerusalem (I Cor. 16: 1ff.)[26], St. Paul reminds us and his Corinthian readers: “Therefore . . . be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58).


[1] See John Rawls, Political Liberalism. Second Edition (Columbia University Press, 2006); and Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989); and also, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Eerdmans 1991).

[2] See Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (William B. Eerdmans, 1987), and his often translated volume, Christianity and the Class Struggle (Zondervan, 1971); and see my work, “Abraham Kuyper and Welfare Reform: A Reformed Political Perspective,” Pro Rege, 1998.

[3] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Second Edition. (London: Blackwell Publishing Company, 2006), 428.

[4] Ibid.

[5] On this question, see the works of William Stringfellow, and in particular the edited collection by Bill Wylie Kellerman, A Keeper of the Word: The Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1996).

[6] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 410.

[7] Robin Lane Fox, Augustine: Conversions and Confessions (Basic Books, 2015).

[8] Ibid., 271.

[9] Ibid., 165.

[10] St.Augustine, The City of God (Doubleday-Image, 1958), 451.

[11] Ibid., 465.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Jonathan Chaplin, Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Society. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016).

[14] See John J. Forrer; James Edwin Kee, and Eric Boyer, Governing Cross-Sector Collaboration (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2014.

[15] See David Halpern, Social Capital (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

[16] David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (Kumarian Press, 2007).

[17] See Walter Wink, Naming The Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Fortress, 1984); Unmasking the Powers (Fortress, 1986); Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Fortress, 1992); and, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Doubleday, 1999).

[18] See Dennis A Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001): 1-8.

[19] Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press, 2015).

[20] Peter Walsh, “Basing Values on love of the world.“ From: Education and Meaning: Philosophy in Practice (London, Cassell Educational, 1993), 102-117.

[21] Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us (Doubleday, 1979).

[22] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope. Three Volumes. Edited by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight (Studies in Contemporary German Thought) (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995 Reprint Editions).

[23] Jurgen Moltmann, “Hope in the Struggle of the People,” in The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 95, 112.

[24] See David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (University of California Press, 2000).

[25] Michael Lerner, Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life and the Psychology of Individual and Social Transformation (Humanity Books, 1998).

[26] See Dieter Giorgi, Remembering the Poor: The History of Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem (Abingdon Press, 1992).

Clinton Stockwell is Emeritus Executive Director of the Chicago Semester, an off campus urban internship for undergraduate students sponsored by six colleges in the Reformed Tradition. He has earned the MWS degree from ICS in 2013, and previously a PhD in Systematic Theology from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; a Masters of Liberal Arts (MLA) degree from the University of Chicago; and the MA (history); MUPP (Urban Planning and Policy) and PhD (American History) degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto in the MWS program; and an Adjunct Faculty in Social Sciences and Public Policy for the National Louis University in Chicago.

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