Excerpt #12 — Charles T. Mathewes on Departed Christendom and Present Modernity

Charles T. Mathewes (CV here), professor at the University of Virginia, has a course on Augustine of Hippo’s (A.D. 354-430) magisterial City of God. So far it is excellent, and Mathewes is also an excellent lecturer (there is an excellent preview of one of the lecture units of his course on Youtube here). I’ll be offering up at least one more excerpt from this Audible course regarding Gibbon vs. Nietzsche on the classical heritage. For now, however, here is a profitable extract from him on Christendom, and our inheritance from it. (I say profitable because one can use this profitably, even if one were to disagree.)

Here is Mathewes:

[R]eading Augustine now might well help us live into our future. For thinking about him helps us understand how and why we organize our secular world today. Consider that we stand at the end of Christendom, and this is so in two senses: one well known, the other not so well known. The well-known sense is clear: Christendom is over. If we understand that term to designate an effort to shape and sustain civilization on explicitly Christian terms, by and large the world we live in has largely left that ambition behind. The status of religious beliefs –their legitimacy in public; the sincerity with which we try to organize our lives through them– is much more contested, and far more fragile and recognizably contingent, than they have ever been before, and there are no signs that that trend is being reversed.

The less well-known sense is different and more surprising, since it might seem the opposite of the above. For if, in one way, Christendom is over, finished, in another way we have reached its end since so much of Christendom has been accomplished. Don’t look now, but we are living in the midst of a huge moral revolution lasting the past several centuries. Slavery is now illegal. Equality is a watchword. We feel obliged to people far away who we have no immediate contact with. And this moral revolution is one deeply oriented and driven by Christian history. So many contemporary so-called secular practices, categories, and judgments are in fact Christian practices, categories, and judgments with the Christian language removed but the deep Christian structure retained.

Consider the universalism of our moral ideals, the concept of the individual, the tension between our public and our private lives. What does it mean to find ultimate value present in the immanent? What does it mean that the contingencies of our flesh could host the infinite value of the spirit? These are questions intelligible to us only since, for almost 2,000 years, Western intellectual thought was tempered under the pressure of Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation, God’s universal sovereignty and care, and the idea that the human was made in the image of God.

In so very many ways we live in a world deeply Christian in shape and detail, even as it has lost the surface appearance of being Christian. Even the most secular among us would be unintelligible to a pagan of Augustine’s day, while a member of his church would find much common ground with a modern atheist.

Even in our very worldliness, then, we are worldly in a Christian way today. I don’t say this out of any kind of smug Christian triumphalism by the way. In fact, the greatest explorers of this truth have been non-Christian thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber. So, for Christians in the audience, Augustine’s work has clues about how to be authentically Christian in an age where Christian categories have become second nature and can be absorbed secondhand. And his vision of what is asked by faith still retains some of North Africa’s hardness; some of its vehemence as well, as we will see. While for those who are not Christian, Augustine’s was the last generation before the 20th century to genuinely grapple with a truly religiously pluralistic society; and in living in that condition, he has lessons for us all.

There’s a third reason to read Augustine: to help us inhabit our present. Recall what I said earlier: when we read historical figures, we must not forget that they were real humans. Don’t imagine that they thought the same way that you do, of course. But then again, they are intellectually in some kind of relation with our thought-world, and you do them a disservice if you don’t let yourself feel the grip of their way of imagining and inhabiting the world. You should see them as offering rival potential ways of living, and you should feel attracted to them, threatened by them.

So don’t be surprised to find Augustine sometimes disquietingly contemporary to you, aware of a question you had in the back of your mind before you had fully formulated it yourself. He knew what it was to be an unbeliever, after all, as well as a believer; and before he was a Christian, he had been an ironically-minded academic skeptic, the kind you’d meet at a dinner party today. Maybe the real lesson we have to learn from him, after answering the question as to his differences from us, is to realize a final, disquieting thought: he was less different from you than you think.

That’s Mathewes. He’s right about Augustine: he is contemporary to us in ways that his own contemporaries simply are not. We underestimate how Augustinian we all already are.

 

One thought on “Excerpt #12 — Charles T. Mathewes on Departed Christendom and Present Modernity

  1. Pingback: Excerpt #15 — Charles T. Mathewes on The Alienness of the Classical World | Into the Clarities

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