The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. By Charles Mathewes. Pp. vii, 271, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010, $12.34.
Article first published online: 6 DEC 2012
© 2013 The Authors. The Heythrop Journal © 2013 Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 54, Issue 1, pages 163–165, January 2013
How to Cite
Calcagno, A. (2013), The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. By Charles Mathewes. Pp. vii, 271, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010, $12.34. The Heythrop Journal, 54: 163–165. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2013.00794_33.x
- Issue published online: 6 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 6 DEC 2012
The unfolding of the Arab Spring, with all of its achievements, hope, violence and death, serves as the backdrop against which I read Charles Mathewes' latest book, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. Originally written as a response to the tragedy of 9/11, the work takes on new poignancy as events continue to unfold in the Middle East and have impact all over the world. Divided into two parts, the author weaves together his own philosophical and theological views in order to understand our present situation. Part One assesses where the USA stands today as well as the impact of the West on the rest of the globe. Mathewes maintains that there are three critical developments that mark our present age: (1) 9/11 and the War on Terror, (2) empire and (3) millennial capitalism. The second part of the work, ‘Looking Like Christians,’ fleshes out responses to our current status. Inspired by the thought of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the author believes that Christian theology and philosophy offer invaluable resources for resolving many of the material and spiritual failings that have wakened American integrity and principles over recent decades.
It should be remarked from the very start that this book does not pretend to be a rigorously academic and scholarly book; rather, it contains the assessments of a Christian believer who has studied long and hard both the contemporary political landscape and the Christian philosophical and theological legacies. Chapter One opens with the claim that we have become ‘deeply cynical, even despairing.’ (14) Mathewes claims that people have become resigned, ‘but [people] obscure the truth of their resignation from themselves by the self-congratulation of thinking themselves realistic.’ (14) Why is this the case? The author argues that world events, carried on a scale never witnessed before, have produced this overwhelming defeatist attitude. ‘For the worldly problems we face are profound: the powerful growth of capitalism, which enriches many but also seems to leave others immiserated, or worse; environmental degradation; demographic challenges, as part of the world grows old while another part has a dangerous “youth surplus”; and on top of all that, the wracking spasms of what we call the “Age of Sacred Terror.” ’ (13–14) Mathewes claims that hope is what is lacking and difficult to come by in our dark times.
What is hope and what can it achieve for us? Hope is neither some form of empty optimism nor does it provide some temporary consolation. Hope is understood as a specific temporal structure: it opens an awareness of how things should be and what things are – a looking at the now, what can be in the future and what was in the past. ‘Hope is our capacity for recognizing the difference between what is and what should be – and it is the source of our energizing desire to resist accepting the gap as we find it. By telling this difference, hope makes more palpably vivid both the way things should be and the way the world currently is, and by making both more vivid, leaves those who have hope bereft of the usual evasions and rationalizations. Hope definitely implies that the way things are is not the way they will ultimately be. But it is not just a not yet; it empowers us in the here and now as well. When we feel hope, we feel that things have a chance – a chance, not a guarantee …’ (15) Mathewes admits that we live in an age that it makes it increasingly difficult to inhabit such hope, especially as our world situation grows eminently more perilous. (17) Augustine, according to the author, offers readers the possibility of a true transcendent hope that is not purely theological but also deeply political.
Part One, ‘Seeing as Christians,’ opens with the second chapter and a reflection on the new age of terror and the destabilizing events of 9/11. The terrorist attacks on America and its aftermath produced a feeling of and lived reality characterised by extreme unease, suspicion, violence and world instability. The long battle in Afghanistan and around the world to try and uproot the sources of terror attacks against the USA has resulted in the death of thousand of soldiers and countless civilians. The tensions between the Muslim world and the West have also increased. Given this situation, one has to ask: What can Augustine contribute to this concrete and hostile reality? Mathewes maintains that Augustine is poignant and relevant here because he too found himself within a war of terror in his own lifetime. The Donastist Churches wished to maintain their own customs, especially around the appointment of their ‘dualist’ bishops. Augustine fought long and hard against the Donatist heresy, but what is most important is how Augustine also fought against his own Church member's ‘demonizing’ of the Donatists, which led to great feelings of hatred and animosity. ‘For Augustine, the crucial struggle in that conflict was not the Donatists, but rather with the very temptation that made the Donatists what they are – the temptation, that he and his congregants felt, toward demonizing the Donatists, as the Donatists had demonized them. The temptations toward dualism threatened to close off his congregants from the Donatists as fellow humans, in a common mortal life.’ (68) For Mathewes, Augustine offers us a serious model of how to respond to terror with hope. One should not passively sit by and suffer injustice. Augustine, like those countries attacked, continued to ‘agitate’ for his own views against the Donatists, but he also recognised that they we are all human, and share a common life. Likewise, the West must not demonise Islam, but one must fight for what is right. Mathewes also argues that we can ‘witness’ to the enemy. ‘Furthermore, we can grasp one crucial thread in Augustine's work, his insistence on giving the “enemy” hope. After all, he saw that terror and hope were mixed on both sides, and he tried to speak to that. It was not simply a matter of “understanding” all others; he recognized that some people had been radicalized to such a degree that reasoning with them would be, at least as a first step, counterproductive; they had to be met by force. Yet while God uses fear as well as hope, the ultimate inducement was hope. Augustine recognized that terror and hope were mixed on both sides, and he tried to appeal to both sides' hope, rather than their fear, as a way of helping alleviate the problem.’ (68–69)
Chapter Three discusses the United States as an empire or hegemon. Mathewes claims that America did not purposefully and wilfully aim to become an empire, a claim that is questionable, at least, as I see it. He argues that America is both an inadvertent empire, because of what other countries failed to do, as well as a revolutionary empire, because it did what it was most about. Though the question of how and what kind of empire the US became is a complex and difficult question, and Mathewes' own suggestions on this score are tendentious, to say the least, even so, one could hardly deny that the US does occupy a place of what we traditionally call ‘empire.’ This reality has coloured the way Americans think of themselves, both as a dominant power and in terms of their own patriotism and, sometimes, Mathewes says, their own idolatry. Augustine can assist us, so claims the author, in repositioning ourselves toward our own patriotism and idolatry. ‘Given our contemporary challenges, Augustinians urge on us an attitude of resistance to both poles. We need to refuse the mythology of the state and to remember, when we are tempted to idolize American geopolitical power, that force is not ultimately the divine will, but is always at best a tragic stopgap that can be employed only in the knowledge that one becomes answerable for all the consequences of its exercise. Augustinians will also remind us those tempted to demonize American power (and idolize something like the international community) that some force is necessary …’ (106)
Chapter Four deals with the possibility of love in an age of millennial capitalism. Mathewes defines millennial capitalism as ‘… the possible self-contradictory) slew of forces – economic, cultural, social – reshaping our world in fundamental ways, by reshaping the nature of our desires, our loves.’ (115) Violence and consumerism concomitant with an unhealthy materialism are identified as extensions of this new global capitalism. To combat the powerful drive of capitalism, Mathewes urges, ‘To do better, we need an account of the nature of the human person (and especially human agency, of the nature of human action), and a political psychology undergirding it, that is built not around our capacity to consume but around our capacity to love.’ (116) The author suggests that a community rooted in love along with a Christian public realm would go a long way in helping us combat the ‘crisis of abundance.’
We now move on to Part II, and this is the most constructive part of Mathewes' book, for he suggests concrete alternatives in order to, first, help quell the dark times within which we find ourselves and, second, to articulate possibilities that may help us build a more Christian society that is mindful of plurality and radical otherness. Chapter Five focuses on the themes of love and responsibility. The chapter opens with a reflection on authority and how authority is not simply power. Part of the nature of love, so claims Mathewes, is to respect and cooperate, with legitimate authority. To be suspicious of all authority only helps spread and fortify the cynicism that marks our times. Power, understood in more positive terms as an authoring power, can be creative. (160) But authority and creative power require a good sense of judgement, which is described as the basis of government. Saint Augustine's sermon given at the Basilica of St. Cyprian at Carthage, serves as the ground for Mathewes vision of a robust sense of political judgement. He argues that Augustine's vision of political judgement is closely connected to a salvific paradigm, that is, good judgement has salvific benefits that can help transform our earthly kingdom. (164) ‘… [F]or Augustine, the point of political judgement is found in crucial part in its salvific benefits, in its ability to serve the redemptive purposes of God.’ (164) Part of moral responsibility that comes from holding political authority, always rooted in political judgement, also involves the use of proper force. Mathewes calls for a rethinking of just war theory and he maintains that any responsible political authority must be prepared to fight to defend a just cause. Mathewes argues that just-war reasoning has deep roots within the Christian theological tradition (174), and he calls for a renewed thinking and application of the doctrine, when necessary.
I must confess that this part of the work and some of the subsequent chapters are troublesome. This reviewer has the sense that Christian theology and readings of Augustine are employed to extend and justify some form of traditional Christian-inspired liberalism. Now, this would certainly speak loudly to an American audience, as Mathewes essentially is calling for a renewed thinking of American values and history. But, as a non-American reading this work, someone who comes from the larger global community, I wonder whether the author's discussion can apply or speak meaningfully to other members of the global community who do not share a traditional American liberal viewpoint? This, in short, compromises the universalist claims that he attaches to his view of the Christian message. For example, I wonder what he would make of Hannah Arendt's (a non-Christian)claim that Christ's message was one of promise and forgiveness, rather than just war?
The last two chapters of the book look at faith, hope and political engagement. Extending his treatment of the Christian virtues of love, faith and hope, Mathewes invokes the need for both engagement and commitment to both the political process and to certain values. The author recognizes that we will always have war, terror, violence and destruction with us, but this does not mean that we have to accept this reality as totalizing or as unchangeable. We still can commit and work to change and heal what these negative forces have brought about. ‘Hope is deepened by being repeatedly recalled to the tension between the fact and our continuing confidence that history's ultimate destiny is what we partially and provisionally glimpse today in joy. Engagement in public life can work as a graceful brushfire, clearing away the choking undergrowth of our indulgent delusions so that we can know more fully the ironic lesson of the perverse swervings of public life and the urgency of our engaging it.’ (240)
Mathewes' book certainly speaks to some of the ethical and global challenges that face us: an unbridled global capitalism, terror, and cynicism. His call for a renewed hope, commitment, responsibility and engagement are also worthy of consideration, especially as they are inspired by Mathewes' take on Augustinian thinking. But, I wonder about the efficacy and range of Mathewes' constructive project: given that it is firmly lodged within a traditional American liberal foundationalism and a certain view of Christianity, how truly pluralistic and embracing of otherness can it be? How does his model speak to non-Christians or Christians of other varieties that do not share his convictions about key tenets of Christianity? For example, Mathewes' view of a Christian public: How do we situate this concept within the reality of a plethora of divergent and differentiated publics? Also, though this work does not claim to be a scholarly undertaking of Augustine's thought, it would have been nice if the author had shown alternative or conflicting readings of Augustine's thought. I feel this would have added more complexity and texture to his reading. As it stands, one sometimes has the feeling that Augustine is appropriated to speak Mathewes ideas rather than the other way around. In the end, this book is thoughtful and attempts to get us to think in fruitful ways about the times in which we dwell.