Source Link: The Neo-Augustinian Temptation
From First Things, March 1998 Issue
[前言] 本文針對後自由神學究竟想處理什麼教會的問題、想要對這個時代的教會和社會做些什麼，提出了我有史以來看過最淺白的說明（與質疑）。根據聖奧古斯丁的「上帝之城」，他把包含林貝克、侯活士、、海斯、葉果的後自由神學家、激進正統運動的米爾班、後改教運動的賴特等人都一同稱做「新奧古斯丁主義者」。我在段落之間提供我的插注或回應，並在倒數三四段處以較多文字對這篇 13年前的文章（主要是針對 90 年代後自由神學的疑義）闡述 21 世紀以來後自由神學的修正和展望。
The Neo-Augustinian Temptation
By Robert Benne
There is a rising strand of Christian social thought inspired by a fresh reading of Augustine’s City of God. Those involved are prolific, erudite, and, for the most part, quite young. Their intellectual seniors include George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom helped to bring ecclesiology back into Christian ethics. But the young ones have taken off from there. Names like John Milbank and David Yeago in theology, Reinhard Hütter in ethics, and Richard Hays and N. T. Wright, biblical scholars upon whom the others draw heavily, are representative of this increasingly visible trend.
The movement, if it is cohesive enough to be called that, is committed to the construction of an independent and distinct churchly culture based upon the full narrative of Israel and the Church as it has been carried through the ages by the Great Tradition. Theologically, the neo-Augustinians are anti-foundationalistswho believe that a religious tradition like Christianity is a cultural-linguistic system that cannot and should not be compromised by any standards not its own. They learned that from Lindbeck.
Biblically, they argue that the early Christianity depicted in the Pauline letters was a churchly “public” or culture of its own, flourishing alongside of but radically distinct from the Roman, Jewish, and Hellenistic cultures of the time. “Paul already regards the Church as a new public order in the midst of the nations with its own distinctive culture,” argues David Yeago. Christians who entered such a culture were “dying to the world” in the sense that they were entering a new ecclesial world.
Ethically, they contend that the practices of this distinct, living tradition form the Christian virtues that sustain such an ecclesial world. The Church’s worship, preaching, teaching, and communal life shape the virtues that maintain the practices of marriage and family life, charity, hospitality, governance, art, and thought that provide a real alternative to the dying world about us. The Church essentially needs no sources other than its own for the ethical task. Milbank asserts that the Church produces its own “ecclesial society,” with an attendant ontology, social theory, ethics, and economics.
Ecclesiology, that formerly unexciting branch of systematic theology, takes on urgency in the neo-Augustinians’ writings. The Church is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel, manifesting a comprehensive new life. It is the Body of Christ in a direct and literal way, a people in continuity with the people of Israel. It needs to live truly from its own sources and forget about worldly relevance. “The Church is a public in its own right,” says Hütter. “The world,” when pressed hard, is simply another religious vision of life that is a poison when ingested uncritically by the Church.
The neo-Augustinians are sharply polemical. Above all, they are contemptuous of the “modern settlement,” to use Yeago’s term, in which secular, liberal society, with its procedural definition of justice, has succeeded in marginalizing the religious vision. The modern settlement has insisted on a “naked public square” in which religion is relegated to the private sphere of life. Meanwhile, modernity’s own “scientific” way of understanding life is dogmatized as the only public meaning available.
- This is mainly due to the immediate falsifiability available in the discipline of science and largely universal perceptibility of physical/material reality. Certainly we don’t buy into materialism or scientism (that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry), but incommensurability between religion and science (in terms of at least falsifiability) must be acknowledged for meaningful mediating work to proceed.
Rather than being “objective” or “scientific,” secular social theories are, Milbank argues, “concealed theologies or anti-theologies.” In this “settlement,” Christian belief becomes a weekend hobby in no real competition with the really serious ways of understanding life in this world-sociology, psychology, economics, and political science.
A second object of the neo-Augustinians’ disdain is the religious individualism-both sophisticated and kitsch庸俗作品; 粗劣作品 -that has accepted the modern settlement. The sophisticated are the highly educated “new class” that Ernst Troeltsch typified many years ago as “mystics” (Church, Sect and Mysticism) who wouldn’t be caught dead (=would never; that something very bad would make even a dead person uncomfortable) identifying themselves with a specific tradition or belonging to a real church. The kitsch-devotees are the practioners of the popular religion that searches for contact with the “divine spark” in each individual. This is the gnostic element ingrained in so much American religion. It has, these critics say, little moral seriousness and no people-forming capacities.
- Out of contempt of the denominational tradition, the mystics and popular folks are respectively akin to the postmodern [ecclesial] agnostics and new-agers. They disembody our ecclesiology.
Almost as objectionable are the desiccated religious bodies that have accepted the modern settlement, albeit unconsciously. Mainstream church bodies have tacitly bought the argument that politics and therapy are more important than Christian faith, and have allowed their theologies to become handmaidens of ideology or psychology.
- It identifies politicized and moralized/therapeutic churches as the next two targets of postliberals.
They give sacred legitimation to secular knowledge and action and thereby become “relevant.” (Several of the neo-Augustinians have made the surprising charge that the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr is best understood as a religious legitimation of liberal democracy.)
- I cannot wholeheartedly agree with this identification. Indeed, Milbank’s theology has a strong element of sacred legitimation of the autonomy. This takes a quite different shape than Neo-Reform’s pillarization. “Hunsinger/Milbank shows that a true postliberal position allows a genuine autonomy for the various sciences, whilst giving God the primacy, for there is to me no such thing as “pre-theological,” unless we accept a modernist typology of religion.
- Hays does find fault with Reinhold Niebuhr’s divine sanction of liberal democracy. But this is an issue worthy of further investigation—on what a genuine postliberal political theology is. There is no denial that Niebuhr’s lacks a discernable Christian ecclesiology has erred in several other places (Hays’ critique), but this does not lead to a rejection of the possibility of a religious legitimation of the concept of liberal democracy at all. For example, Milbank would say that the true liberal democratic spirit can only be found and undergirded in the Christocentric orthodoxy (whether this “Christianized democracy” should take the form of Dutch reformed pillarization or other form in the post-secular society is of another question).
These mainstream bodies, though they think they are involved in “transformation,” are more likely being acculturated more deeply into the modern settlement. According to Hütter, such attempts ironically “deepen the Church’s irrelevance and undermine its public (political) nature by submitting and reconditioning the Church according to the saeculum’s understanding of itself as the ultimate and normative public.”
Other churches-represented by the church-growth movement-tacitly accept the notion that the religious needs and wants registered in the open market should be the guiding signals for religious practice. They become “relevant” in another way. But, as with the mainstream, they are no longer drinking from their own wells. In the church-growth world, according to Hütter, “religion itself increasingly becomes another commodity regulated by market forces.”
- The next target is followed logically after the religious legitimation of the secular: [neo]-pragmatism that plagues the integrity of our ecclesiology in the form of church-growth movement.
The neo-Augustinian project strikes some critics as a new sectarianism, but it is far from that. Its proponents believe in culture—Christian culture. They are not inimical to the arts, music, politics, economic life, education. But these cultural activities, they insist, will have to be renewed-if not entirely rebuilt-on Christian assumptions. Culture under the modern settlement is depleting its inheritance from the Christian past and is gradually descending into perversion and chaos. A new culture must arise from the Church.
The neo-Augustinians are also catholic-even if they are Lutherans, Methodists, or Presbyterians. They transcend modern Christian divisions by attempting to retrieve a premodern Christian consensus. They have a “high” Christology, sacramentology, and ecclesiology and are committed to maintaining strong continuity with the great catholic tradition. They emphasize Catholic substance over Protestant principle.
There is much that is attractive and compelling in this movement. Its confidence in and clarity about orthodox Christianity is highly persuasive. It is refreshing to encounter serious thinkers who argue unabashedly that the Christian vision is true and trustworthy and that it matters ultimately.
This neo-Augustinian outlook is particularly tempting in moments when one is convinced that the current culture of the West is unraveling (FALL APART, fail, collapse, go wrong). Modernity’s commitment to individual rights and procedural justice seems to have no way of affirming substantive moral notions as to how we should live together in community. Indeed, “rights talk” is used as a trump card to override the inherited moral substance of our common life.
- Volf’s analysis about contract and covenant in Exclusion and Embrace is an extraordinarily relevant piece.
The Protestant culture that provided the social glue for most of American history is in shambles肉店, 混亂, 屠宰場and shows scant prospect of being revived or renewed. What little remains of the Protestant Establishment indicates no commitment to such traditional Judeo-Christian notions as the sanctity of life at its beginning and end, of marriage as a lifelong covenant of fidelity between a man and a woman, of intrinsic, non-utilitarian moral norms, or of the grateful acceptance of given conditions of life.
- Facing the neo-pragmatist trend, the big epistemic/analytic issue to reestablish moral realism and place the Bible in a proper ontological sanctuary where it can have its own say to both insiders and outsiders of the Christian covenant.
As one watches the moral norms that make for decency and restraint slowly erode, it is tempting to declare a pox on our national house and opt out of the struggle for a common culture. It would be pleasant to lose oneself in an ecclesial culture that affirms orthodox Christianity and is eagerly building a parallel culture, one built on the rock of faith instead of the endlessly shifting sands of modernity. In such circumstances, one could quit the perpetual struggle with those in both church and society who seem to have wholeheartedly bought into the modern settlement. Who wants always to appear reactionary or nostalgic?
This new vision offers the prospect of creating a genuine “people,” not merely a collection of political or psychological activists or, worse, religious consumers. It aims at incorporating full persons into a full ecclesial culture that can overcome the terrible fragmentation of modern life into semi-autonomous spheres of existence. One would have a coherent and cohesive “world” to live in alongside the decaying world around it. Wasn’t this in fact what the early Church provided at the beginning of the Common Era?
Ah, but wait. As attractive as this neo-Augustinian vision is, it is finally more a temptation than a real option. The main reason is theological. If God is indeed the creator and sustainer of the larger world of economics, politics, and culture, then we as Christians are called to witness there. Our salvation is not in that witness, but our obedience is. And though we know that much of contemporary culture is debased, we also know that it is not beyond redemption. Indeed, reminding ourselves of the illusions of perfectionism, we might even grant that, relatively speaking, it is not all that bad. In any case, modernity’s own norms of procedural justice and individual rights offer openings for Christian witness.
- This is a valid critique of the “Hauerwasian mafia”, a mutated Christian species primarily to be found in the American South. Some have identified this mutation as resulting from the American South’s lacking of liberal backdrop and soil required to foster a robust postliberal theology. To put another way, Hauerwasian mafia read Hauerwas with their partial lenses, and their postliberal theology is a crippled version akin to a cynic sectarianism.
- On the other hand, the “witness” [to the world] theme is very prominent in Hauerwas’ thoughts if you read them carefully. The problem is how to prevent our understanding of God as the Almighty sovereign over all creation from collapsing into those corresponding political/ethical visions of Christian Reconstruction, postmillennial Triumphalism, and/or the schizophrenic Two-Kingdom theology. Namely, this is the old “Christ and Culture” theme made prominent by Richard Niebuhr: if we all agree that the culture is not beyond redemption and God is still working with and in it, what else shall we believe and do [as an individual believer and corporate Christian church]?
From this theological perspective, it is better to side with those who are willing to struggle for a decent, common culture—even though success is by no means assured. The right-to-life groups, the Christian Coalition, Bread for the World, the American Family Association, and many others make a worthwhile difference in the struggle for America’s soul. And these religious groups have secular allies. The “principled pluralism” suggested by Os Guinness that aims at an overlapping moral consensus is not without prospects of success in the lively world of American politics. There is still much that is good-given and sustained by the Creator—in our common life outside the church.
- The author has not yet really given a convincing critique of postliberal/ neo-Augustinian ecclesiology, but he now starts to applaud for those who practice the Catholic social thought/ethics of the “common good”. This is not good, for the difficult issue between the postliberal anti-foundationalism and the Catholic neo-foundaitonalism has not been outlined.
- The issue of whether secular and pagan allies should be tolerated and even welcomed for a “common good” cause (such as fighting against poverty, AIDS, environmental exploitation, human trafficking, and so on) is debatable enough. You don’t need to be a postliberal to see the complications involved. A self-identified postliberal like me can also believe in a Christology-based secular rationality whereby people of different faiths can still work on morally good causes. The key is to distinguish the first-order (genreal) revelation and second-order (special) revelation 第一序的文本詮釋與第二序的方法論反思, and articulates the supervening relationship between them.
- Theoretically, that would require a theological twist of Jurgen Haberamas’ communication theory, the “theological turn of phenomenology” by neo-foundaitonalist in particular like Jean-Luc Marion, the re-adaptation of the hermeneutical theory of another eminent Catholic neo-foundaitonalist David Tracy, and the concept of Scriptural reasoning project that is currently under the direction of postliberal foundationalist theologian David Ford.
- Therefore I would prefer a discernment of those cases on a casuistic ground to overgeneralization.
We need also to remind ourselves how suffocating and stultifying it can be to inhabit an exclusively ecclesial reality. The ecclesial realities that have historically been constructed have often been as oppressive as their secular counterparts. When the neo-Augustinians write glowingly about ecclesial life, one wonders what church they are talking about. Even the strongest churches I have known could be characterized more aptly as bands of forgiven sinners than as shining knights in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, when one thinks of real, existing ecclesial publics, one thinks most immediately of the mega-churches that do in fact create a parallel culture for their members. Yet whatever the mega-churches’ contributions to Christian life and mission in the late twentieth century, they do not seem to measure up to what the neo-Augustinians have in mind. One wonders what church could measure up.
- This would have been a valid critique. But I have several responses:
- 1) Indeed, the church is not a static entity. You encounter people like “bands of forgiven sinners” as well as those like “shining knights in the Kingdom of God” in most churches. Moreover, to aptly perform the role of gospel witness to the world, we need to take up this dual identity—we are forgiven sinners as well as saints (Rom 6; 1 Cor 1; 2 Cor 5; Eph 6).
- 2) Put in a deeper way, postliberals are not calling for a perfect church consisting of perfect Christian men and women. It strives for a visibly Christocentric corporate ecclesial culture that actively shape, rather than being easily degenerated and compromised (as if it was defenseless) by, the lives of its people.
- 3) Therefore, we are awfully conscious about the fact that the Church is an ever changing and constantly self-renewing reality (instead of being perfect once for all), with her members in and out. Demographically speaking, old saints will leave this world and some will become reprobate or simply un-churched, while we have new born babies and children among us and surely new converts. Qualitatively and constructively speaking, the same group of people grows in the church in faith.
- 4) This leads me to challenge the assumption that the mega-church with its well-established and extensive pastoral sectors is the best Christian counter-culture. I love mega-churches and I love what they are doing. There is a reason for such a statistic growth of them. However, it is insufficiently postliberal, for, firstly, the ecumenical dimension is lacking, and secondly, whatever the size of the mega-church is it cannot have the same reach into people’s public and everyday life (a necessary means for evangelism and witnessing through a God-honoring life) as a well-implemented pillarization (such as Christian high schools, universities, medical centers, insurance companies, business corporations, NGOs, grocery stores, farms, museums, artists, etc). We demand nothing less than a parallel structure for everything that a society has for Christians to be ‘conditioned’ to live a uncompromised Christian life, and hopefully this will create a healthy competition and condition for a morally-uplifting societal culture as well.
There is much to be cherished in the neo-Augustinian vision. We do need to become more of a people shaped by a richer and more comprehensive ecclesiology. We do need to center on the Grand Narrative of the Great Tradition. We do need to march to the beat of a drum other than the world’s. But at the same time we need to witness in and struggle for that world. That is our calling. That is the Church’s calling.
- Thank you Dr. Benne, for your thoughtful analysis of the prospect of neo-Augustinian/postliberal political theology and ecclesiology, done 13 years ago.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and author of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century.