Academic journal article Humanitas

Augustinian Radical Transcendence: Source of Political Excess

Academic journal article Humanitas

Augustinian Radical Transcendence: Source of Political Excess

Article excerpt

The relationship between Christianity and politics is paradoxical. On one hand, many Christians are inclined to shun politics and to wash their hands of the evils of the world, but, on the other hand, they cannot resist the temptation of creating God's state--a state that surrenders to God and that testifies to the need for salvation, the necessity of the redeemer, and the utter depravity of man.

I do not believe that Christians are necessarily doomed to this contradictory view of politics. Nevertheless, the contradictory stance toward politics described above has been a recurrent feature of Christian thought and sensibility. And it is clearly manifested in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and his admirers. It is to be understood that Augustinianism is not the whole of Christianity. Nor are the aspects of Augustine highlighted here the whole of Augustine. But it seems to me that they are the predominant aspect of Augustine's political thought, and, in my view, have inflicted great harm.

Radical transcendence begets political excesses.

In this article, I will argue that the political excesses of Augustinian Christianity have their source in the insistence on radical transcendence. However, I also believe that Augustinian Christianity is unable to sustain its own posture of radical transcendence. The latter position is so harsh, so immoderate, and so inhuman that it leads its advocates to succumb to an extremism of another kind--it leads them to the political temptations of using the power of the state for dogmatic ends. I will borrow some ideas from Hegel to show how the excesses of radical transcendence can be overcome, and I will defend a Hegelian position against the histrionic criticisms of Eric Voegelin, whom I regard as one of the representatives of Augustinianism in our time.

Augustinian Christianity

The excesses of Augustinian Christianity are well illustrated in Augustine's approach to two political issues: the Roman practice of torturing criminal suspects and war. I will discuss each in turn.

As much as he abhorred the Roman practice of torturing criminal suspects as well as totally innocent witnesses, and as much as he was opposed to the practice in court cases where the Church was involved (as in the proceedings against the Donatists), Augustine believed that this abhorrent practice was nevertheless a necessary and inevitable aspect of temporal order with which Christians need not meddle, since they are not part of the earthly city, but merely pilgrims, strangers, and sojourners in this world. It is not the duty of Christians to make right the wrongs of the world.

"No wickedness that innocent ... are tortured."

Augustine maintained that a righteous and godly man, even if he were to find himself in a position of power, need not make any effort to discontinue this terrible Roman practice. On the contrary, Augustine insisted that a good and wise judge need not shrink from the darkness in which human society is necessarily shrouded. As Augustine wrote, the wise and godly ruler

It may be argued that Augustine is someone with high ideals and low expectations, and that this is not an altogether unwise posture. However, it seems to me that, if our ideals are so high that they transcend altogether the domain of mundane existence, then we will lose sight of them and they will be of no relevance to the world in which we live. There is no doubt that Augustine's expectations of politics are low, but the exorbitant depths to which he carries his low expectations allow him to make drastic compromises with the ordinary standards of justice and decency. Such an understanding of Christianity not only undermines virtue, it invites depravity. I contend that it is the sort of picture of Christian piety that inflames the anticlerical imagination--from Lessing's Patriarch of Jerusalem to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. [2]

thinks it no wickedness that innocent witnesses are tortured . …

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