Archive for August, 2010

There are few men in the two thousand year history of the Christian Church who have cast such a far reaching shadow as St. Augustine of Hippo.  Perhaps no one other than the Apostle Paul himself have so defined the theological trajectory of God’s holy church.  A testament to this undeniable reality is the extent of his written works which were preserved in the Middle Ages and survive to this day; indeed  among ancient writers his corpus is without near equal the largest still extent in modern libraries.  He has quite justifiably been celebrated in church and academy alike as the giant theologian that he in fact was, having commented thoughtfully on such wide-ranging theological topics as the Trinity, baptism, the unity of the Church, and the relationship between sin and grace.  The man even wrote his own monastic rule, which a Roman Catholic order, the aptly named Augustinians, still follow to this day.  It is right to honor his theological fingerprints on the Church, for they indeed cover just about everything theologians have discussed from all the centuries from his to ours, a span of sixteen hundred years.  One aspect of Augustine’s legacy which has not garnered as much attention in recent days, however, was the sheer quality of his life.  Setting aside with great reverence and humility the content of his theology for just one moment, what can we Christians learn today from the quality of his character?  I suggest there are three things his life can teach us now.

Augustine was without question humbly submitted to the authority of the Church in which he served.  As a bishop, he had incredible authority and clout among his flock and indeed throughout the church.  But even from his lofty episcopal throne, he was ever mindful of his duty to a tradition which was far larger than himself, and to whose stewardship he was committed.  In his day, the catholic tradition of the global church was far from established in his diocese of Hippo.  He had to contend against the heresies and schisms of the Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians, the former two of whom dominated the ecclesiastical life of the city when he first became bishop.  His duty to the larger tradition compelled him to face in its defense mobs, imperial rulings, and even attempts on his own life.  He even laid before the altar of the catholic faith his own ideas and reflections, composing at the end of his life The Retractions, a point by point correction of his earlier works wherever he later found them to deviate from the teachings of the global church and the Scriptures upon which they were based.  For all the ways he influenced that global church’s teaching after his death, he was ever in his life a man stalwartly committed to the careful maintenance, without addition of subtraction, of the tradition which he was given.  In our age of rampant individualism, which celebrates innovation and “relevance” for their own sakes, we can learn a lot from the man who stated at the beginning of his work on the Trinity, “This is my faith because it is the Catholic faith.”  Augustine ever submitted himself without question and with holy fear to the Faith which had taken him captive because it had set him free.

In all his submission to the great tradition, Augustine was ever aware of God’s work in his life.  He was a deeply sensitive man who had trained himself to open his eyes so that he could see the movements of God in his midst.  Nothing better captures this spirit of Augustine’s than his own autobiography, The Confessions, written shortly after he became bishop in Hippo.  That work has become a classic of Christian spirituality, I submit, not for his lofty theological reflections found therein (of which there are many), but because of his deep vulnerability and heart-wrenching honesty before God, who is addressed in the second person throughout the work.   In it, Augustine confesses to his Savior both the deep brokenness of his own soul after a life spent running from God, as well as his own faith in a God whom he then knew to have been guiding him toward Himself all the while.  “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” his heart cried out to God.  “But we are made for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” he continued in sincere reverence.  What follows is a brutally honest assessment of his own life as he worked his way up the social latter as a popular public speaker, all the while committing himself to a self-conscious rejection of the faith and fervent prayers of his blessed mother.  In the meantime, God was advancing on Augustine ever closer, teaching him profound truths even as he committed himself first to Gnostic heresy and then to pagan philosophy.  Even in his own sexual addiction, to which Augustine (the newly elected bishop!) confesses boldly and transparently, he came to see God teaching him his own utter inability to justify himself before a holy God.  Later, as he records the profound and climatically dramatic moment when he made his first confession to the Christian faith, it was his own gut-wrenching brokenness that led him tearfully to the God of mercy and restoration.   As the Christian church of today increasingly relies on therapeutic preaching and gentle self-improvement schemes to bring in new members, Augustine casts a long shadow of rebuke.  He teaches us that only when we face with brutal honesty and sincere reverence for Almighty God our own utter depravity and weakness, can we truly find that Truth which alone completely sets us free.

In that brokenness, Augustine came face to face with that truth which became the fundamental bedrock of his entire theological system, the merciful Providence of Almighty God.  It is indeed fitting that the greatest thing we can learn from Augustine’s life is the one thing for which he could not, by his own masterful Confession, take any credit whatsoever.  Through his long conversion experience, Augustine came to rely with utter humility on the profound guidance of God in all things.  An episode later in his life, after he had already written The Confessions, bears out this truth with dramatic intensity.  On his way to a council of the church to settle the question of a break-away sect, he got terribly lost on the back roads between Hippo and Carthage.  After thusly arriving late to the council, he learned there that on the main route which he was supposed to have taken, several members of the break-away sect in question were waiting in ambush to assassinate him, for they feared the power of his oratory.  This story illustrates how in all things—things in which God does not seem to be working at all—Augustine developed eyes to see God carefully and tenderly working to love and save his soul.   In a nation where self-reliance and self-striving are the greatest public virtues, Augustine shows us that it is ultimately God alone who is at work in his people, to will and to act according to his good pleasure.  We should therefore cast ourselves on God, as Augustine did, waiting patiently no matter the trial for the God who alone sets his Church free.

We have much to learn from Augustine, the Doctor of theology.  I suggest that we have as much to learn from Augustine, the Christian man.  From him, we can learn to submit ourselves in holy fear to the Faith which was once given to the Saints.  By his example, we can learn that only by embracing what we truly are in humble reverence  can we find the saving power of Almighty God.  By the manner of his life, we can learn to cast ourselves on Jesus in steadfast hope for the powerful working of his unsearchable and undefeatable Providence.   We can, in short, learn how to live that Faith which Augustine so boldly taught and confessed.  Let us, on this the 1,580th anniversary of his going home to be with his Lord, gladly walk in the path St. Augustine of Hippo powerfully and humbly cleared for us by his life as well as his doctrine.

~ On the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, August 28, 2010.


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Having thoroughly debated the issue of procreation, I have been thinking for a little while that it was time to find another subject, but I could not get around to writing about it. Thankfully, Newsweek offended me enough to fuel my writing spirit.

In an article titled “America the Ignorant,” David A. Graham pointed out what he saw as the imbecilic things Americans believe. For instance, 20 percent of us think the sun revolves around the earth (apparently we need more astronomy in schools), three quarters of Americans could not name two members of the Supreme Court (it is not like they are important) and 21 percent of us believe in witchcraft. Wait, don’t Christians believe that can happen?

Read enough books, watch enough television, and the article’s author makes sense. Witchcraft, magic, and miracles sound ridiculous because science does not recognize them. Science has as credentials the improvements in our lives; doubt science and you question the benevolent source of computers, the Internet, and your automatic coffee maker.

Yes, our beliefs contradict the popular skeptic-scientists, but for Christians, this is essentially an image problem. We need to demonstrate that belief in the supernatural (both good and bad) is not intellectual suicide so that people, like the author of the Newsweek article, do not think we are superstitious primitives. And the answer is relatively simple: Christians simply believe that the observable physical laws do not represent the limit of what is possible.

It sounds like a phrase from a science textbook, and that is exactly why it works. I once said this to someone who was a kind of agnostic, and he was impressed by the answer because it sounds reasonable. The answer acknowledges that science has some validity–and science certainly does–but it also places a limit on science–the observable laws do not constitute the sum total of what is possible. This is the kind of public relations the church has done for 2,000 years: take a Christian answer and put it in terms that non-Christians use.

This is how not to sound crazy. Saying you believe that a man could be in league with the demons and thus able to affect some kind of magic sounds crazy to most people when they are typing on a computer, but if you first explain that there is more to the universe than physical laws, and that a belief in God makes belief in the supernatural reasonable (thank you C.S. Lewis), then they might be willing to listen when you because they now think you are a rational person, even if you believe that the dead can live again.

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This post is part of an ongoing discussion on the Writers’ Block about the necessity, or lack thereof, of procreation for Christians. To see other articles about this issue, click here to return to our home page.

Sometimes, a good debate can bring the participants together. In this case, John and I may at last be finding common ground on this issue.

John is right about government. The last thing I would want to see happen is a world where the procreation was regulated by any politician. Brave New World does not begin to describe that scenario. Moreover, the church should not take up the job of regulation either. Harranguing members about having two kids instead of one would certainly be a grim situation.

But, to tie all of this back to the Anglican Church in Australia, who started this debate, we don’t necessarily need control by the government or church. The Anglicans in Australia simply petitioned the government to stop offering benefits for having children. John said couples should decide to have children after taking counsel with the church, and I agree. But the church does not have to advocate procreation, but simply inform people that marriage does not require children.

Admittedly, this could be the start of a slippery slope toward a psychohistorical society, but slippery slope logic fails to recognize the middle ground. Our societies can slow the growth of humanity not through oppressive measures, but by simply rescinding some of the incentives and recognizing our finite resources.

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As Adam pointed out in his last post, what began as a theological discussion on the merits of procreation has now turned into a sociological debate on the shaping of civilization.  Adam believes that humanity has long since fulfilled the Genesis mandate to “subdue the earth” and should, due to over-population concerns, scale back their procreative ways in order to responsibly manage the resources left to us.

This sort of civilizational planning reminds me very much of the main plot in the Foundation series by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.  In a series of books written in the 1940s and 1950s, Asimov portrays a series of enlightened (and elitist) social scientists, led by the super-brainy mathematician Hari Seldon, working to save civilization from barbarianism. The series inspired a host of future social scientists, such as the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to “save civilization” through their technocratic abilities.

I must admit, I myself was attracted to the idea of emulating the brainiac Hari Seldon, a guy who created a mathematical sociology called “psychohistory” that could predict the future and shape policy in response to events anticipated by his complicated algorithms. There’s nothing more satisfying to become the king of the universe, shaping (read: determining) other people’s paths according to your super-cool brain power.

The only problem with this impulse is that Hari Seldon was a fictional character–the stuff of fantasy, not reality.  No one can predict the future, and no one can determine civilizational progress through harmless measures.

Herein lies the problem with plans or programs that aim to “manage” civilization: on paper, we may be able to put together a reasonable-sounding plan that addresses real problems. But in reality, our best-laid plans are often nothing more than an Asimovian fantasy.  Unforeseen circumstances, unintential consequences, or outright incompetence sabotage our plans for the management of civilization.

This observation isn’t a conservative call for limited government, but simply to point out the essential problem latent in the civilizational management of over-population.  For the simple fact is that no comprehensive civilizational program intended to manage population levels has ever managed to avoid invidious results.  China’s one-child policy immediately resulted in infanticide and state-sponsored abortion; America slowly went from slightly benign birth control measures such as the condom and the pill to the evil of abortion on demand; and the eugenics movement, which attempted to purify the human race through selective breeding and the forced sterilization of “imbeciles,” led partly to the evil policies of Nazi Germany.  Policies attempting to manage over-population only manage to result in de-population.

Even if these examples illustrate only the extreme logical conclusion of an otherwise moderate idea, there are other reasons for the church to avoid broad, comprehensive civilizational planning in the mold of Hari Seldon.

First, Seldon and his merry band of scientists were often forced to make Sophie’s Choice-like decisions that determined who would live and who die, often on a massive level.  Does the Bible or the traditional teachings of the church really offer any resources for navigating this kind of decision making? I don’t think so, which leads me to believe the church shouldn’t support policies that attempt to manage things outside our abilities.

Second, even if the church could produce a policy that managed over-population without evil results, it would have to become a handmaiden of the state in order to see the plan’s proper implementation.  As a freedom loving American, that scares the bejesus out of me.

Third, civilizational planning requires the non-elite to submit themselves to the power, authority, and decision making of the technocratic elite.  The powerful would rule over the powerless. The church, which is an institution in which the strong are servants to the weak, could never thrive in a situation in which it partnered with an institution that required the subjection of the powerless.  It would simply be a conflict of interest.

In sum, it’s just not possible, pious, or pleasant to be like Hari Seldon, which is the prerequisite of all population control programs.

Alternatively, the church should focus on what it’s good at: marrying theological principles to pastoral care.  In the case of procreation, the church should focus on the myriad of ways to counsel a family on the proper management of their procreation that does not focus on trends beyond its capacity to understand or control, such as over-population. Adam has a point in that there may be certain circumstances that allow couples to avoid child-rearing; but those circumstances should be determined by the couple in consultation with the church.

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The Catholic theologian and cultural critic Mary Eberstadt has recently published an article that addresses many of the themes The Writers’ Block has been addressing the past week or so. Please click here to read more.

Eberstadt points out that much of our reticence towards procreation stems primarily from self-centeredness. While we can think up many and sundry clever arguments against child-bearing, ultimately our resistance to procreation stems from narcissistic selfishness. A hard criticism, but also very often true.

We highly recommend the church to read this article and offer their own thoughts.

This post is part of an ongoing discussion on the Writers’ Block about the necessity, or lack thereof, of procreation for Christians. To see other articles about this issue, click here to return to our home page.

Read Full Post »

This post is part of an ongoing discussion on the Writers’ Block about the necessity, or lack thereof, of procreation for Christians. To see other articles about this issue, click here to return to our home page.

Debate any subject long enough, and eventually you will end talking about something else.

A case in point is our discussion on procreation. When I pointed out that the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” came with a condition–until the earth is subdued–John contended that this was outside of humanity’s job description. God alone, he argued, can judge this:

“I don’t think it’s possible to take stock of the earth’s population limits. It’s been done before, and never has anyone successfully managed an accurate picture because, as you said, technology changes the situation so quickly. Trying to measure the earth’s tipping point requires an omniscient ability to view the world from ‘God’s eyes’. And that’s not in our job description.”

Addressing this point takes us slightly outside the realm of procreation. Boil it down and now we are talking about responsibility. How much are humans responsible for?

Responsibility and knowledge are often tied together. For instance, the people who smoked cigarettes when they first came on the market. They might make you cough a little, but no real harm done. We can feel sorry for the people who contracted cancer back then because they were ignorant. After a few decades of research, however, we understand the toxic effects of smoking and culpability now can be assigned, making it harder to feel sympathetic toward the man who smokes three packs a day and contracts an illness. This man acted knowingly.

This is the same vein in which we must address procreation. Are we to fill the planet until it can bear no more? Should we fill it to the point that future generations will lack the resources to have a healthy civilization? Humans already understand the devastation that can occur when an animal species overpopulates. Disease levels rise, starvation occurs, and hunters are called in to reduce the population to spare some of the animals the fate of a protracted death. Since we have this understanding of population levels, should we ignore it when it comes to humans?

To be clear, I am not saying an epidemic like this is near. I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that our population must be reduced. My argument is simply this: marriage does not require procreation. It does not because creation has long since been subdued; in fact, there are signs that we are reaching a population saturation point (see my previous post for more information on this). The mandate to subdue creation seems to have been met. Now, I think managing should be our priority.

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