The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times

Written by Charles Mathewes Reviewed By Ted Newell

The Republic of Grace is a primer on Augustinian Christian spirituality that takes the current religious politics of the USA in the wake of September 11, 2001 along with globalizing consumer capitalism as the basis of exposition. The subtitle makes clear that Mathewes's hope is that Augustine of Hippo's thought can renew the shared practice of hope, faith, and love in the same way that Augustine's City of God made those practical virtues compelling after the fall of Rome in the fifth century and through the so-called Dark Ages. Practices of hope, faith, and love are needed now for the early twenty-first century's severe social, political, ecological, and economic challenges.

The book starts by commending a teacher who urged the relevance of thinking well about God even on the afternoon of 9/11. Mathewes the professor is much alike. The exposition is in two main parts. Part I, “Seeing as Christians,” analyzes current affairs and global politics in theological perspective. Mathewes deals with hope in relation to the politics of terror, faith in relation to an unchallenged worldwide American empire that emerged after November 1989, and love in light of the proclivity of global capitalism to turn human values into commodities to be bought and sold. Part II shows how Christians can engage these big-scale issues by practices of love, faith, and hope. Part I is more analytic in nature; Part II is more programmatic.

Perhaps the most attractive element throughout the six main chapters is recognizing the ambivalence of the human situation in time. Augustine and Mathewes recognize that the motivation for, say, patriotism, is partly right and partly wrong. Empire itself is not inherently bad, as the Occupy movement might imply and a strain of evangelical Christian analysis affirms. Rather the goodness or badness of “imperium” depends on its use of power (p. 77). After all, order is a good thing, and order cannot exist without some restraint. Taking this line on patriotism enables the reader to see that America is both a force for good and for evil at the same time, as Rome was. Demonizing America is no more correct than uncritically lionizing it. Augustine emerges as a model thinker for times of chaos. It becomes clear that his thought was subtle and profound, convincing and satisfying enough to virtually re-found European civilization after Rome.

Mathewes nails down his analyses with a wealth of this-worldly detail, parallel to the detail with which Augustine examined the post-Roman situation in City of God. To indicate the richness of the exposition, consider chapter two. Analyzing “empire,” Mathewes first reviews Augustine. Roman patriotism was founded on “splendid vices.” Romans got as far as they did because they had a love of the city. Even if this love is a distant analogue to the love of God, it requires self-discipline for its pursuit and so leads toward “a certain probity and rectitude in their behavior” (p. 81). Rome was an ambivalent phenomenon for both good and evil. The Christian should not agitate for replacing the imperfect state but make as much common cause as feasible though faith, hope, and love. America is a similarly ambivalent phenomenon. America's messianic self-understanding means that its need for love by the world is bottomless. As Colonel Pogue says in the film Full Metal Jacket, inside every gook is an American trying to get out (p. 93). Mathewes surveys America on its unique geo-political mission of secular salvation (pp. 83-98), which, were it not so thoroughly theological, would not be out of place in an Economist magazine special issue. In theological light, America's twenty-first-century role is a this-worldly translation of Christianity. The genuine Christian response will be also ambivalent-affirming the good, working against abuse of power. Christians need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the nation-state (p. 107). Seeing the ambiguity of history may lead to a more generous appraisal of international politics, to a willingness to bring hopes and fears to a negotiating table, presumably as alternative to support of militarism (p. 111).

By tracing Augustine's own preoccupations in an updated account, Mathewes teaches on major Augustinian themes in their natural context. The primer teaches on Augustine's eschatology, his non-cyclical progressive history-writing, his view of humanity as stretched out in time between memory and future, and his hermeneutics. For example, Mathewes highlights Augustinian ideas of human ambivalence between dominance and dependence in his exposition of love against millennial capitalism. “Libido dominandi” means we dehumanize ourselves when we refuse to take a transcendent God with ultimate seriousness and to stake all on him. Humans “despair of believing in a god who is as good as we need God to be” with the result that we “seize the role of satiating our desires for ourselves” (p. 118). Notice the way that the discussion speaks of universal human traits that have both individual and civic implications. Augustine's anthropology can connect individual spirituality with ecclesial and even civic spiritual practice.

Theological ethics seems to be in a time of transition between big-tent, whole-society liberals, and more recent Hauerwasian Christian separatists. This may replay the sixteenth century's uneven quarrel between whole-society-minded Reformers and the separatist Anabaptists who became Mennonites, Hutterites, or Amish, and influenced many free churches. In this divided field, Mathewes's Augustine is both concerned for the world and also consistently and distinctively Christian. This primer is at least an unmatched starting point to learn about Christian ethics, historiography, and theology. It might even help readers see faith, love, and hope as ways of being in our world, while yet simultaneously waiting for the ultimate hope.

Ted Newell

Ted Newell
Crandall University
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

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