Archive for the ‘Augustine’ Tag

Knowing God Through Love

The knowledge of God is often talked about in purely intellectual terms. Aquinas most definitely thinks that some knowledge of God is possible through rational reflection, as he expounds on in his notorious “Five Ways” whereby he offers several rational methods to argue for the existence of God. However, the Johannine tradition challenges intellectual renderings of our knowledge of the specifically Christian God:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

God is love. Picking up on this, Augustine writes in Book VIII of De Trinitate that it is by love that we arrive at the knowledge of God:

No other thing, then, is chiefly to be regarded in this inquiry, which we make concerning the Trinity and concerning knowing God, except what is true love, nay, rather what is love. . . For as there are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, love of God and love of our neighbor . . . because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it . . . the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But “God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God.” Therefore he must needs above all else love God” (De. Trin, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, n. 10).

In other words, we come to know God when we love because the love by which we love is God’s very self. We need not look for God in nature, nor in argumentation, nor even in Scripture. True knowledge of God is derived rather from true love. When we love, we come to know God because it is the very presence of God in our heart which makes love possible.

This Augustinian formula became central in the 12th century in Peter Lombard’s definition of grace as found in Book I of the Sentences. It is the Holy Spirit, Lombard tells us, that is the love by which we love God and neighbor:

It has been said above and it has been shown by sacred authorities, that the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son by which they love each other and us. It must be added to this that the very same Holy Spirit is the love or charity by which we love God and neighbor. When this charity is in us, so that it makes us love God and neighbor, then the Holy Spirit is said to be sent or given to us; and whoever loves the very love by which he loves his neighbor, in that very thing loves God, because that very love is God, that is, the Holy Spirit (Bk. I, Dist. 17, v. 2).

In other words, for Lombard, Christian love (charity) is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so when we love, it is actually the Holy Spirit working in us that is loving with the same love that exists between God the Father and the Son.

Now, Aquinas will openly disagree with Lombard on this point. For Aquinas, charity is not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but rather a habit created in the will by the Holy Spirit. For Aquinas, it is the human will that loves by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit renders the will capable of loving through the supernatural habit of charity:

it is evident that the act of charity surpasses the nature of the power of the will, so that, therefore, unless some form be superadded to the natural power, inclining it to the act of love, this same act would be less perfect than the natural acts and the acts of the other powers; nor would it be easy and pleasurable to perform. And this is evidently untrue, since no virtue has such a strong inclination to its act as charity has, nor does any virtue perform its act with so great pleasure. Therefore it is most necessary that, for us to perform the act of charity, there should be in us some habitual form superadded to the natural power, inclining that power to the act of charity, and causing it to act with ease and pleasure (II-II, q. 23, a. 2).

Despite this very significant disagreement between Lombard and Aquinas about what charity is, they are in agreement that love (charity) is made possible by an intense intimacy between God and humans. For Lombard, this intimacy is defined in terms of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; for Aquinas, it is expressed in terms of friendship and a communication of God’s happiness to us (II-II, q. 23, a. 1). For both, hearkening back to the Augustinian position, love is a critically important way in which we come to know God.

Ultimately, Augustine’s, Lombard’s, and Aquinas’s positions on love are metaphysical in nature. They are not saying that we consciously choose to know and love God when we love our neighbor. They are all trying to characterize the essence of human love in light of the fact that God has revealed Godself as love. But for all three, metaphysical reflection on the nature of love can lead us into a more conscious understanding of the God who makes love possible. As Augustine writes,

Let no one say, I do not know what I love. Let him love his brother, and he will love the same love. For he knows the love with which he loves, more than the brother whom he loves. So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present; known more, because more within him; known more, because more certain. Embrace the love of God, and by love embrace God (De Trin Bk. VIII, ch. 8, v. 12).

What Are We Doing in Libya?

Twenty two days after Colonel Qaddafi fired on protesters in Libya, we are now in the middle of war. Well, not of war. We don’t use that term anymore. We are now in the middle of “military engagement,” which effectively means that the US-led coalition is launching cruise missiles over Libya. But a war by any other name is still a name.

Peter Nixon over at dotCommonweal is in agreement, in his post “War. Again.” “Make no mistake;” he writes, “This is not a humanitarian intervention. We are taking sides in a civil war.”

President Bush was justly criticized for his rush to war in Iraq and for not having a clear plan for what to do after we defeated Iraq’s armed forces. Bush’s pace, however, looks positively dilatory compared to the speed with which President Obama, with very little consultation with Congress or the American people, has committed the United States to yet another war to establish a government in a foreign country that is more to our liking.

And if the principle that governments cannot slaughter their citizens with impunity is to be the principle underlying our foreign policy, where are we off to next? Yemen, where army snipers killed 46 people yesterday? There is no shortage of tyrannies in the world. How much of our blood and treasure are we willing to expend to remake the world in our own image?

Historically, Christians have debated whether or not the demands of the Sermon on the Mount should lead the church to oppose all war, or whether some wars might be justified. For the majority of Christendom, the latter side has won. The first major theological justification for the morality of war goes back to Augustine who argues in his letter to Boniface that military engagement is an obligation of neighbor love, and in doing so, lays the foundation for just war theory:

Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. . . Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared (Epistle 189).

Following Augustine, Aquinas too treated just war under love or charity:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . .

. . . Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . .

. . . Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (II-II, Q. 40, art. 1).

In addition to the criteria Aquinas lays out for going to war (ius ad bellum), namely, right authority, just cause, and just intent, just war theory also includes attention to the way the war is fought (ius in bello). In other words, the war ought to be proportional. It ought to use only enough force to respond to the threat at hand.

So it this “war” in Libya just? It does seem that the United States is at pains to guarantee that the authority initiating this military engagement is rightful. This is not a case of unilateral action or “coalitions of the willing,” as Ross Douthat points out:

In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.

And our cause does indeed seem just. Qadaffi is a pretty wicked guy, especially in recent weeks as he has unleached his troops on those who have risen in protest against his rule, killing many and threatening the country with further disasters. As the Chicago Tribune points out, Libya imports about 90% of its food and other basic necessities, and Qadaffi is likely to use food as a weapon, threatening starvation to those who do not comply.

But what about our intent? In order to determine the justice of our intent, we need to first know what it is, and that is not so easy. President Obama announced at a news conference in Chile this morning that military action in Libya has only a humanitarian intent, namely, stopping the killing of Libyan civilians by Col. Qaddafi’s soldiers. Nevertheless, “it is U.S. policy that Qadafi needs to go.” A recent NYTimes article addresses this point exactly: “Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not:”

But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through.

An intention is something more than a desire, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. An intention (proaireton in Greek) is something deliberated upon, something chosen with reason. For Aquinas, intention is an act of the will which “tends toward the end,” but which presupposes an act of reason ordering something to the end (I-II, Q. 12, art. 1). Intention further includes the means to achieving this end: “the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means” (I-II, 12.4).

So in the case of Libya, for the intention to be just, both the means and the end in sight must be just. And there is a lot of question if this is the case in our current engagement. Douthat writes,

Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require. . . Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.

It seems to me that our intention in Libya has not been established. Qadaffi is a bad guy, and nobody wants him around, but our intention is not to remove him from power. Libyans who rose against Qadaffi are in a bad place right now, but our intention is not to protect them, at least not really, since protecting them would presumably mean a regime-change, and that isn’t our intention at the time. It is terrible to watch a guy like Qadaffi start a new reign of terror in North Africa, but just war principles are in place because war is such a tragic event that it need be only utilized as a last resort, and only with an eye toward guaranteeing a more just peace in the future. This “engagement” in Libya is neither a last resort, nor is the end in sight any better than what we have now: a dictator in control of a country.

Christian Conscientious Objection to War

“I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.”

Hearing a fellow soldier reason in such a way as he abused an Iraqi prisoner marked a turning point for Josh Stieber in his own reasoning about Christian participation in the war in Iraq: “Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.”

The above-cited Slate interview with Stieber follows closely on the heels of a recent NYTimes article about Michael Izbicki, a midshipman who, like Stieber, filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector.

Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.

The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of two Yale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.

One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.

What is interesting about both of these cases is the way in which both Stieber and Izbicki challenged the “spirit of compromise” in the Christian tradition regarding warfare. This spirit of compromise is often attributed to Augustine, who said that sometime Christian love (caritas) would require disciples to “take the sword,” not for their own defense, but for the defense of the common good. It is Augustine who Aquinas references in his own justification that war is not always sinful:

As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 70): “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority.” On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to “take the sword,” but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword.(II-II, Q. 40.1, ad. 1)

For Augustine, the idea is that you can kill your enemy, and that need not be contrary to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount about non-resistance and turning the other cheek because one’s inward disposition is loving. Moreover, Augustine is wary, nay, terrified, of the potential chaos that threatens the Earthly City, chaos that Christians must be willing to fight against.

Aquinas himself is also an advocate of the compromise position. Observe how he deftly deals with the seeming conflict between the justification of war and the non-resistance of the Sermon on the Mount:

Such like precepts [as it is written (Matthew 5:39): "But I say to you not to resist evil"; and (Romans 12:19): "Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath."], as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.”(II-II, Q. 40.1,ad. 2)

Despite Aquinas’ apparent embrace of a spirit of compromise, it is reasonable to assume that he might fully embrace the decisions of both Stieber and Izbicki. In article 2 of his treatise on war, he asks whether clerics and bishops can engage in wartime fighting and responds in the negative:

Now warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop and a cleric, for two reasons. The first reason is a general one, because, to wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they unsettle the mind too much, so too are warlike pursuits, according to 2 Timothy 2:4: “No man being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business.” The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” Wherefore it is unbecoming for them to slay or shed blood, and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry. For this reason it has been decreed that those who shed blood, even without sin, become irregular. Now no man who has a certain duty to perform, can lawfully do that which renders him unfit for that duty. Wherefore it is altogether unlawful for clerics to fight, because war is directed to the shedding of blood.

Much more than when Aquinas lived, Christians today embrace the idea of the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers. Since Vatican II, this has been a particularly prominent theme in Catholic theology especially. It is no longer the priest alone who is called to the contemplative life, nor is it the priest alone who ministers at the sacrament of the altar. For Protestants and Catholics, the call to priesthood requires a radical transformation of life that is consistent with the call to holiness. In our world today, this call to holiness may very well include a call to pacifism, thus making Stieber and Izbicki contemporary prophets.

Stanley Hauerwas once wrote a beautiful and influential essay entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” In it, he writes

“I am ambivalent about recent discussions concerning gays in the military. I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service; as a pacifist I do not see why anyone should serve. Moreover, I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded as a group. I only with that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

Gays can serve now. Maybe it is time for Christians to opt out.

Does Science Render the Bible Untrue?

Stephen Hawking’s new book A Grand Design allegedly debunking God (I haven’t read it, but I bet the evidence against God is scanty) has re-energized debates among Christians and non-believers about the relationship between faith and science, between scripture and evidence. In the wake of people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other notable evangelical atheists who want to convert Christians to science, Christians are in danger of forcing the choice between two extreme options–rejection of the truth of scripture in favor of science, or rejection of science in favor of a literal reading of scripture. Yet, Christian tradition provides us with a middle ground which allows us to see the Bible as the true word of God without interpreting every word in a strict, literal manner.

We are accustomed to thinking that the debate about the creation account in Genesis being a relatively modern debate between young earth creationists and those who accept evolution. In actuality, the early church was also perplexed as to how they were supposed to interpret the story recounting how God created in six days. The Antiochian school, to which John Chrysostom belonged, argued that the story should be interpreted literally as meaning that God actually created in six days. The Alexandrian school, characterized by figures like Origen and Jerome, argued that this story was an allegory, not a historical account of what happened. The Alexandrian school would eventually become the dominant model for scriptural interpretation in the Christian tradition, and St. Augustine would eventually write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of Genesis.

By the middle ages, it was well accepted that Christians should not stop at a literal account of scripture, but should probe for a deeper spiritual meaning. The study of scripture in the first university’s was guided by the quadriga, the four-fold sense of Scripture (See Aquinas’ Summa Ia, Q.1, art. 10). According to the quadriga (which is simply the Latin expression for a carriage drawn by four horses), scripture can be divided into two general senses: (1) the literal or historical which aims at getting at what is actually being said, and (2) the spiritual sense which aims at getting at how God is speaking in the text. The spiritual sense is divided into three more specific senses:

1. allegorical: the most important spiritual sense which examines how the passage in question points to or symbolizes Christ
2: moral or tropological: the way in which the scripture is providing guidance for Christian living
3. anagogical: the way in which the passage is pointing to the eschaton or the way in which the passage shed light on eternal life.

We can apply the quadriga to Genesis 22, recounting the disturbing story of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac. According to the quradriga-method, we would want to start at the literal meaning of the story, that is, what is plainly being described. The literal meaning of the story is that Abraham hears the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice the son he loves, and he obeys. God, in God’s mercy, sends and angel to stop Abraham the moment before he draws Isaac’s blood. A ram in the thicket provides the flesh for sacrifice instead.

Although the literal meaning of the story is important, according to the quadriga, it would be dangerous to stop at the literal meaning. Rather, the spiritual sense of the passage must be pursued if the full truth of its meaning is to be discovered. Thus, we must ask what the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of the passage might be.

Allegorically, we might say that Isaac represents Christ, and Abraham represents God who sacrificed his only son. We might go even deeper and say that both Isaac and the ram represent Christ, the latter representing the man Jesus who actually was sacrificed and shed his blood on the cross, and Isaac representing the risen Christ who did not die. As Origen notes in his commentary on Genesis and Exodus, the allegorical lesson is that “Abraham offered to God his mortal so, who did not die, and God gave up his immortal Son who died for all of us.”

Morally, we might say that this passage teaches Christians to trust in God’s mercy,and to offer our lives up as a living sacrifice to God, in faith and hope that God will bring us to fullness of life. Anagogically, we might say that the passage points to the beatific vision where we will gaze at the “Lamb who was slain,” at Revelation 13:8 relates.

The important point is that the truth of this passage cannot be reached by stopping at the literal meaning. We might say the same about the creation story. If we stop at the literal meaning that God created in six days, we are doing an injustice to the truth of the text. We must delve deeper to understand the spiritual truth underneath the text. Perhaps we might say that the words God speaks in creating (“Let there be . . . “) allegorically represent the Word which was made flesh (John 1). We might say the six days allegorically represent salvation history in which God worked over time to call a people to Godself, ultimately culminating in the creation of the Man who is the epitome of creation, all of which is subject to Him. We might say that the moral or tropological meaning of the six-day creation account is that God, in Christ, has subjected all things under us, and that we are to thus govern creation accordingly. Anagogically, we might say that this passage points to the rest that we too will share in “on the seventh day” when we join God the Creator in eternal life.

In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” It is odd that Christians have thought they must stop at the literal meaning of the text in order to remain faithful to scripture. God is spirit, so surely God has placed a spiritual meaning in the “flesh” of the words. If we recover the quadriga, we find that the scientific “evidence” of people like Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Hawkings is no more a threat to our belief in the truth of Scripture than their arguments against God are a threat to our faith.

Is Christian Realism a Non Sequitur?

In light of the inauguration of Barack Obama who cites Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential theologians on his way of thinking about politics, and in light of the fact that my students have been studying Reinhold Niebuhr, I have been thinking a lot about Christian realism recently. Lots of people, it turns out, have been pondering the meaning, scope, and contemporary relevance of Christian realism. I was assigned a question on my comprehensive exams examining the theological coherence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political stances, and last week Boston College hosted a conference with Jean Bethke Elshtain, Andrew Bacevich, and Bryan Hehir on the subject of Realism, Ethics, and US Public Policy. So it seems a fitting time for Everydaythomist to explain what Christian realism is, delineate a little bit of its history, and raise a few questions about just how “Christian” it is.

First, we must understand what realism is. Realism is a political theory that views politics as a realm shorn of all moral and ethical constraints. Sometimes called “power politics,” a realist politics is not motivated by concerns for the common good or virtue, but rather by self-interest, necessity, and most of all, maximization of power. According to realism, politics is seen as limited only by power constraints, not by ethical constraints about what may or may not be just. As Michael Walzer puts it, who dedicates the first chapter of his book Just and Unjust Wars to arguing “Against Realism,” realism can be summed up as “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.”

Some big names are attached to a realist ethos: Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli. In some ways, realism is a kind of pre-Christian philosophy. It is the politics of Athens and Sparta and Rome, not of Christendom. In fact, pre-modern and modern advocates of reviving realism have seen Christianity as a threat. Rousseau, for example, said that Christians were wretched citizens, that politically, they were like lambs being led to the slaughter. In the public square, Rousseau wanted Christianity replaced with a hearty civic religion, which espoused virtues more in line with a realist agenda than a Christian one. Christian virtues, of which Nietzsche was so critical, were effeminizing virtues that encouraged citizens to be weak, passive, and unfit for civic life or political leadership.

So how do we get from Christianity being the enemy of realism, to a political theory called “Christian realism?” The first place to look is in the political theory and public theology of Augustine. According to Augustine, the moral vision of Jesus could not provide the basis for a viable political and social ethic. Rather, Augustine argued that the gospel ethic such as found in the Sermon on the Mount (love of enemies, non-resistance, etc.) were rather intended for an interior ethic that would no doubt influence Christian behavior but not wholly dictate Christian participation in the world. In other words, Christian morality sets certain limits on behavior, but the moral vision of Jesus was considered an impossible ideal, not achievable in this world.

The place we see this form of Christian realism playing itself out is in the doctrine of just war. Although it seems as if Jesus’ ethic, and Paul’s as well, would prohibit Christians from participating in war, or any form of violent resistance, Augustine argued against the pacifists of his day that Jesus was actually only talking about one’s inner intention, not one’s behavior when he said to “resist not an enemy.” Augustine thought that Christians could participate in war and kill enemies of Rome, but they had to do so with a inner disposition of love, not of revenge or hatred. Christian realism thus becomes a kind of “ethic of compromise” between the strong realism of the secular order and the non-violent perfectionist ethic of Jesus.

In the contemporary period, the phrase “Christian realism” immediately brings to mind the Protestant Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, conflict and violence are pervasive features of human life. The ethics of Jesus, what Niebuhr called an ethic of agape or Christian love can never provide the basis for a political or social ethic, but an ethic of agape can inform the social and political realm, curbing the inevitable conflict and violence and providing the baseline for a minimal ethic of justice. Like Augustine, Niebuhr thought that Christian ethics could set limits on a stronger realist ethic based solely on power, but Christian ethics could not expect to totally obliterate violent struggles for power. In fact, Niebuhr strongly supported certain struggles for power, such as those between the USSR and the USA as the “lesser of two evils.”

Christian realists are unanimously convinced that Jesus’ standard of morality is an impossible ideal. You simply cannot love your enemy, resist all evil, or go the extra mile in our sinful world. Moreover, Christian realists are unanimously terrified that if Christians did try and live out Jesus’ ethics, the consequences would be horrible. Luther thought, for example, that if Christians tried to live as pacifists, the “ravenous wolves” of the world would take over the Christian church and herald in the reign of Satan. Augustine was terrified of the chaos that accompanied war and other social upheaval and considered such chaos to be antithetical to the Christian life. Thus it was better for Christians to compromise their ethic in order to prevent the greater evil of social chaos than it was for them to live out the moral vision of Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr was a little more fatalistic. He thought that human beings simply could not live as Jesus had commanded them and to try to do so, like the liberal Protestant followers of the Social Gospel in his day were doing, were setting themselves up for disaster.

In an oft-cited David Brooks’ op-ed from the New York Times, then presidential candidate Barack Obama listed his reasons for loving the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. When asked what he takes from Niebuhr, Obama responded,

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

The idea is that you cannot rid the world from evil, but you also cannot be afraid of getting your hands a little dirty (as Michael Walzer) says fighting what evil you can. Moral compromises are necessary if you expect to achieve any sort of moral victory, however small it might be.

This all sounds fine and good, except for the fact that it really does not seem consistent with what Jesus expected of his disciples. Reading the Sermon on the Mount, for example, I do not get the impression that Jesus was laying out an impossible ideal for Christian morality, but really and truly telling his followers how to behave. Moreover, Jesus seems to acknowledge that his ethic, while not impossible to live out, will not be an ethics of power, that is, a realist ethic. We see this especially in the reading from Mark 8:27-9:1 where Jesus asks the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter gives the correct answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, but errs in assuming that Jesus will be a powerful Messiah, indicated by Jesus’ harsh rebuke to “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most famous Christian advocates of non-violence alive today, writes, “Jesus insists it is possible, if God’s rule is acknowledged and trusted, to serve without power.”

The coercive struggles for power that form the status quo for the world’s political activity, which we have defined here as realism, are not the ways of the Christian. Rather, the cross is the only basis for a Christian realism. The cross reveals the reality of the world, namely, that sin is real and that sin has usurped the rule of God. And the cross also reveals what Christians can expect from the world if they are faithful to their call of discipleship. Faithful Christian disciples have to be prepared to sacrifice themselves, to stretch out their arms and say “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

But as Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”

Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.

Part 2 of the Christian Response to Abortion: We are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

There is a human tendency to worship the works of our hands, to see moral and political and social progress as a human achievement. We worship our heritage, we worship human leaders, we worship our ideals. What we forget is how frail we human beings are, how readily we fall into selfish, hurtful, and wicked ways, and how frequently the good we do and the good we intend is mixed with evil motives and evil consequences. There is a song by Rich Mullins called “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” which beautifully captures the tragic beauty of our human condition:

We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens,
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small,
And not as strong as we think we are.

The United States is celebrating the election of the first black president. Truly, this is something we can rejoice in, that in this country, the color of a man’s skin does not keep him from the nation’s highest office. What was wonderful about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was that his triumph was a qualified by the fact that this nation still has so much work to do, and so much collective guilt that we have to atone for, both for what we have done domestically and abroad. As we welcome President Obama, our own rejoicing must be limited at this realization–that we, collectively, still bear the guilt of so much inhumanity, and that this human success, as with all our human success, is one which is interwoven with so much evil. The past racism of this country, and the racism that still exists, reveal something about humanity that is very much relevant to the Christian response to abortion.

13% of American women are black, yet 35% of abortions are procured by black women. The majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are still located in neighborhoods constituted by predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and outspoken opponent of abortion, has argued that racism and abortion are connected.

Abortion and racism are both symptoms of a fundamental human error. The error is thinking that when someone stands in the way of our wants, we can justify getting that person out of our lives. Abortion and racism stem from the same poisonous root, selfishness. We create the deceptions that the other person is less important, less worthy, less human. We are all fully human. When we face this truth, there is no justification for treating those who look different than us as lesser beings. If we simply treat other people the way we’d like to be treated, racism, abortion, and other forms of inhumanity will be things of the past.

The founder of Planned Parenthood herself was an outspoken advocate of eugenics, claiming that the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ would be the salvation of the American citizen. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger argued in her work “The Function of Sterilization,” “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.”

Margaret Sanger thought that human beings could be divided into the fit and the unfit. This is the same mentality that exists behind racist agendas. What she and so many others fail to realize is that we are all unfit, that we are all frail, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of amazing achievements and at the same time, terrifying horrors. We purchase peace with toilsome wars, we secure luxury by enslaving others, we expiate our sins by sending scapegoats out into the desert. Our triumphs and successes and victories never go without causalities.

One often hears the objection to the effort to outlaw abortion, “what about pregnancies that result from incest or rape or spousal abuse?” The assumption it is somehow inhuman to force an innocent woman to carry a child she is not responsible for. We assume it is better to terminate the pregnancy than to bring a child conceived in sin into the world. But we are all conceived in sin indicated by the fact that we bear our morality with us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (4:7-12)

Rich Mullins puts it simpler: our heavens and our hells are always only inches apart.

What must keep in mind when we debate abortion is that we are always feeble and vulnerable and utterly dependent creatures. The child we see in the womb is our own reflection. To say that the child in the womb is liable to death is to condemn us all to death. No amount of inconvenience should lead us to treat any part of God’s creation, especially His frail, feeble image, with murderous contempt. And likewise, no amount of human mercy can change what abortion fundamentally is–a rebellious assertion of our will over God’s will. We, who are “dust and ashes,” cannot rely on our own plans, our own good intentions, and our own solutions. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”

Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Aware of our own infirmity we are moved to compassion to help the indigent, assisting them in the same ways as we would wish to be helped if we were in the same distress-and not only in easy ways, like ‘the grass bearing seed’ but with the protection and aid given with a resolute determination like ‘the tree bearing fruit.’ This means such kindness as rescuing a person suffering injustice from the hand of the powerful and providing the shelter of protection by the mighty force of just judgment” (285). Our acts of mercies, in other words, are always grounded in the realization that we need mercy, and the realization that “we are awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.”

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