Saturday, March 8, 2014

Modernity's Fault Line

The original Roman stational church for this Saturday after Ash Wednesday was the church of Saint Tryphon. But, when that ancient church was demolished in the 18th century, its stational privileges (along with the martyr Tryphon's relics) were transferred to the nearby Basilica of Saint Augustine, not far from the popular tourist site of the Piazza Navona. Saint Augustine's mother, Saint Monica, who died at the Roman port of Ostia in 387, is buried in one of the church's chapels (photo).

Along with many others, I have been re-reading Saint Augustine's classic, The City of God, this year. (This Facebook reading group now numbers 1378 members!) It can get quite tedious at times. So much of Augustine's argument seems to be a repetitive rebuttal of pagan Roman beliefs - so repetitive it can fairly be described as beating a dead horse. Of course, the horse - paganism - wasn't quite dead yet. And some of those pagan belliefs - belief in astrology, for example - are faring surprisingly well in this supposedly secular, scientific age. (Thus is confirmed G.K. Chesterton's famous saying: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything.")

Sandwiched in Augustine's sometimes tedious treatment of ancient Roman beliefs and his abundance of historical counter-examples are some very interesting arguments addressing issues that seem as timely today as ever. Thus, for example, in Book V, he treats the perennially complex issue of divine foreknowledge and free will.  His argument may or may not be completely convincing to a contemporary audience. But it is a serious argument. 

In the process of attacking Cicero's position on this subject, however, Augustine observes that, seeking to make men free, Cicero makes them irreverent. That is, to preserve the freedom of the human will and hence human moral responsibility, thus avoiding the ethical calamity that would ensue for society were the contrary to be affirmed, Cicero denied divine foreknowledge. Not knowing or seeing any path to affirm both, Cicero judged the religious damage done thereby to be a lesser cost to humanity than the ethical damage done by denying human freedom. To which, Augustine responds that the religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and maintains both by the faith of piety.

I think in this instance Augustine has inadvertently highlighted one of the great fault lines of modernity - the idea that God gets in the way of human freedom and fulfillment. The dominant debates tearing our society apart today mostly have to do with particular conceptions of personal freedom and fulfillment. The political Right is dominated by an increasingly shrill libertarianism that is shattering traditional moral social conventions in favor of individual freedom in relation to the economic marketplace and political community. The political Left is likewise dominated by a correspondingly shrill social libertarianism that is shattering traditional moral and cultural conventions in relation to personal behavior and non-political social institutions.

In contrast, this Sunday's scripture readings about the creation and fall of humanity and Satan's temptations of Jesus in the desert all point to a radically different understanding of human fulfillment - a vision human life lived within its own inherent limits and finding fulfillment in loving relationship with its Creator.

In the words of Saint Irenaeus (c.130-202): In proportion to God's need of nothing is humanity's need for communion with God.

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