Who’s Afraid of Pre-Post-Modernism?
St. Augustine’s work in The City of God is nearly too much to take in, even if captured through a panoramic lens. He seems to nearly take on the entire Roman empire and, by extension, the entire Western struggle to integrate the secular and profane, the church and state. I’m struck by his ability to think of options and philosophical pathways yet to be discovered. Augustine’s work sets out to distinguish and create noticeable separation between the two cities, the earthly city and the heavenly city. Yet, his work truly aims toward synopsis, especially compared to the philosophical dichotomization of his time. The theological scaffolding of post-enlightenment Christianity found its footing and legitimacy in Augustine’s work; from the doctrine of original sin, to the questions of suffering and eternal destination, Augustine sets Christianity, its God and holy scriptures, apart as the sole author, interpreter and fulfiller of the human experience.
I’m curious what St. Augustine would say today in a western world where Christianity has dominated the social, political and educational spheres. It could be argued that Christians are once again seen as the purpose of societal downfall with large swaths of the public sympathizing with anti-democratic principles and defiant acts toward the collective good. America’s founding under a pretense of Christianity parallels the 420 A.D. period of Christian-supremacy in which Augustine is writing – Christianity is the preferred, if not official, religion in both cases. Augustine’s fervor seems to align, at least in temperament, with the “religious right” and evangelical steam, and yet his words are much more prophetic than the dominate doctrines of contemporary Christian America. Whereas St. Augustine offered a word of criticism meant to imagine a new way forward, contemporary evangelicalism, which holds very similar verbiage to St. Augustine, seems to sustain the status quo and conceal the prophetic voice. I inquire with St. Augustine, what is the way forward? What is the voice needed today when Christianity is evidently married to conspiracy, self-preservation and unconscious identification with the pursuit of power and civil exemption?
The waters surrounding my NPO are troubled. The problem seems sociological much more vast. I feel St. Augustine gifted me with a clearer reflection of the calcified religious atmosphere of twenty-fist century America by reflecting the more volatile contexts of 3rd and 4th Roman Empire. Augustine, offering a new voice in his time, seems to confirm the contemporary evangelical bias, which is a preference for a disintegrated reality rather than one of integration and universality. There is heaven and hell, earth and heaven, sin and redemption, flesh and soul, One God rather than many gods. I’m curious about Augustine’s proposition of original sin and the assertion he makes that it is due to human free-will capacity to choose evil rather than good. My NPO deals with what Robert Moore calls the “Archetype of Initiation” which sees sin, not as that which separates us, but that which offers a wound through which we may experience true healing. St. Augustine’s doctrine, specifically of original sin, offers a look into Western Evangelical’s fixation on spiritual shame and guilt – no doubt this is correlated to white guilt. The archetype of initiation offers a middle way, which views sin as a path toward healing rather than detour around healing. I am curious about the role original sin has played in the shame orientation of Western Christianity, Christian discipleship, Western politics and social policy. Augustine thought has highly influenced Western Christian thought, and though it has given us scaffolding for building beliefs and doctrines, I’m unsure what value his words have for a postmodern world.
5 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Pre-Post-Modernism?”
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Michael: Good thoughts about what Augustine would think today about our society. He would no doubt have plenty insights to share with us. A great many Christians today seem to act more out of fear than faith, just like in Augustine’s day. So what is the way forward for people involved in ministry? I think it is to demonstrate faith, courage, insight, love, hope. We know the ending of this story: God wins, love wins, faith wins
I agree. His insights are likely vast for our cultural moment.
Michael, your NPO sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing more about it over the next few years. I really found your statement of “It could be argued that Christians are once again seen as the purpose of societal downfall…” really fascinating and something I hadn’t thought about before. To your point, it is interesting to consider the role of original sin on our current shame orientation and how the body of Christ would look differently if we chose the path of genuine healing. Thanks for the thoughtful post.
Thank you for your kind comment Kayli. Yes, so much to consider in terms of the parallels between 3rd/4th century and today. I’ll be coming back to St. Augustine as I continue my design work. See you in DC!
Michael, I appreciate your ponderings on original sin as it relates to the patterns of applying shame to others. I have experienced people starting their application of original sin in different places along the theological chain, i.e. what is original sin actually vs what does the fallen nature of humanity lead to vs some sins are worse than others. It seems at least many US citizens are more Manichaeanistic in approach to sin. Manichaeanism for the average adherent allowed people to live in this world in moderation partaking of the “expected” sins without going overboard. How different would our society look if we consider sin not in terms of moderation but in terms of Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55). Her song ought to impact today’s Christians, especially those who have an “unconscious identification with the pursuit of power and civil exemption”.