The Christian and the World

“Basil (9) considers that all was not tainted from the moral point of view in even this profane literature so much decried at the time; that the poets, orators and historians knew how to give praise to what is good and that they provide an abundance of precepts and examples capable of bringing an ennobling influence into the soul of a young man. Only he insists on a proper selection in order that the suspect portions may be eliminated. Under reserve of this preliminary expurgation Basil is of opinion that there is great advantage in young people having dealings with profane letters; they will supply them with the beginnings of a formation of character which they will later on complete by the study of the Holy Books; they will accustom their eyes, when still young, the better to support the dazzling splendor of the teachings of Scripture. They are, in short, for the young Christian of the fourth century, what had been in former days the learning of the Egyptians to Moses, and to Daniel, that of the Chaldeans. Their value consists in being a preparation and setting out on a still higher task, which is, in its special bearing, the understanding of the Old and New Testament.”

A little later Jerome sums up his view in a comparison (I quote de Labriolle): “…just as in the Book of Deuteronomy (XXl.12) God ordains that before marriage with a captive her head and eyebrows must be shaved and her nails cut in order to render her worthy of the bed of her husband, so likewise the Christian who has been seduced by the beauty of the sapientia saecttlaris must make a beginning by cleansing it of all that it holds of death, idolatry, voluptuousness, error, and passion, and, when thus purified and suitably prepared, it will become worthy for the service of God.”

Augustine speaks in a similar vein in his De Doctrina Christiana. According to him—again I shall rely upon de Labriolle’s summary(10) “in profane learning there are elements so evidently sullied by superstition that no upright man should think of making experiments in it; astrology, for example. There are others, such as history, natural history, astronomy. dialectics, rhetoric, etc., which, provided that they (be) guarded against the depravities and abuses to which they gave rise, are worthy of study and should render the greatest service in connection with exegesis and oral commentary on the Scriptures.”

With these men we have reached what we may call the classical patristic solution to our problem. The commonness of their viewpoint is indicated by their use of the same allegorical simile. Like the Jews in their Hight from Egypt, these Fathers argued, Christianity must carry away the gold and silver vessels of her enemies and employ them for her own uses.

Note that the standpoint here adopted is still no theoretical accounting of the Christian’s relation to the world of culture. Nor is it the result of such theory. It is, rather, immediate reaction, pressed from these Christians by the exigencies of their life in the Roman Empire. You will recall that I spoke of it as a working arrangement. To these men it must have seemed a correct standpoint because it was felt as a necessary one. But that is not yet to render an account of its “necessity.” The lack is recognized in effect, by de Labriolle, who says of Basil’s discourse:(11) “Truth to tell, we do not see the subject developed with the fulness and precIsion which we might have hoped from it. Basil brings to his discussion less of method than of agreeable bonhomie and abounding humanism.” To which we may add, that a theoretical account would have to explain how there could be any precious jewels in Egypt at all, and just what in Egypt was jewels and what something less valuable, how great the relative purity of the jewels was, and again—a problem obscured behind the figure employed—how it was possible to gather up the jewels without getting Egypt itself to boot. Such critical reflection was conspicuously absent from the patristic “solution.”

Yet it is this essentially uncritical modus vivendi of the patres which forms the nucleus of scholastic thought on Our problem. Two of the chief distinguishing features of scholasticism are found already here. First to be noted is the ancillary position assigned by these men to cultural pursuits. These are to be, it would seem, but the handmaid of theological studies—the ancilla theologiae of scholastic conception, though the term seems first to have been used by Peter Damiani in a different sense. Does this conception not carry with it the implication that the possibility of an independent service of God in the cultural fields of study is denied? And may it not be that such a conclusion is but the direct consequence of a lack of reflection upon the cultural problem itself?



In the second place,—and this feature is most intimately tied up with the first—, as in scholasticism, so here the body of the cultural product is accepted as it stands, and only certain obvious conflicts with Christian doctrine and a Christian sense of piety are to be exscinded. Again, no radical reformation of the cultural product itself, as Prof. Vollenhoven pleads for in his book with the suggestive title, Ret Calvinisme en de Reformatie van de Wijsbegeerte. Is this not the basic fault in the method by which Thomas of Aquino later adapted Aristotle’s thought to the faith of the Church? For to accept the great part of the cultural product is equivalent to affirming that that culture is fundamentally good, that it displays general integrity or soundness, and therefore can be transported mechanically, as it were, into the larger Christian framework. Although a more critical position is taken by Augustine in his De Civitate Dei—in just a moment I shall have something to say about it—in general, subsequent developments in the history of the Church worked to bolster this position of the Fathers, and only the revival of the Augustinian view of man at the time of the Reformation would make possible a more critical consideration of the cultural problem. Before that time the line of development lies over the Synod of Orange (529), which, though it condemned both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, yet, by abandoning the doctrine of a double predestination and exchanging the doctrine of the irresistible grace of divine predestination for that of the sacramental grace of baptism, abetted the Church’s drift, in practice, to the very semi-Pelagiamsm it condemned. In time, this tendency led to the (anthropological) teaching that, while ‘natural’ grace was preserved ‘supernatural’ grace was lost by the Fall, but was, in redemption, again added to ‘natural’ grace as a donum superaddition. We begin to recognize here the form of the Roman view of the doctrine of the image of God, where the Scriptural notion of grace has been supplanted, more or less, by that of the Greek Xaris. To this view of things the distinction of theologia naturalis and theologia supranaturalis could attach itself without much trouble. In this way, the scholastic scheme of nature and grace came to provide a congenial theological framework for the uncritical appropriation of the great part of antique culture. Which is far from saying, of course, that such treatment of cultural goods had been accounted for by an immanent criticism of the problem posed by the world of culture.

The conclusion to which we now appear to have arrived is this, that neither in the patristic age nor in the age of scholasticism did there arise anything like a theoretical accounting for the Christian’s relation (felt in some sense or other, and more or less, (felt) to be necessary) to the cultural world about him: where a positive relation was recognized it was naively assumed, and the negative position was equally direct.

This same Jack of critical reflection has always characterized the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward this problem. Witness, for example, the form of statement in a letter which Pope Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Parocchi in 1885.(12)

“Perceiving, then, the usefulness of the literatures of Greece and Rome, the Catholic Church, which always has fostered whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report. has always given to the study of the humanities the favor that it deserves, and in promoting it, has expended no slight portion of its best endeavor.” We may reasonably ask ourselves whether it would ever be possible, within the Roman Church. apart from a radical reconstruction of her whole position, to come to a properly critical theory of the Christian’s relation to the world.

Earlier I intimated that it would require a return to the Augustinian view of man, of sin and grace, before the Christian’s relation to the world could become a problem demanding theoretical explication. But what then of Augustine himself? Did not the very man who, at the end of his life, had learned so much about how the Scriptures would have themselves under· stood and who attempted to interpret their view of grace and of direction in human life in his delineation of the two civates, did not this Augustine come himself to some deeper appreciation of the problem that is posed for the Christian by the existence of a world of culture?

To answer that question we must turn to his monumental work, the De Civitate Dei. In this work Augustine undertook, as you all know, to describe the nature and the history of two cities, the two cities that. to quote Augustine himself, “have been formed by two loves; the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God even to the contempt of self.” (BK XIV ch. 28). As one might expect, the antithetical relation is very much in the foreground throughout. Nevertheless, there are a number of passages that deal with the commonness, to the citizens of both cities, of this earthly life. (BK I, ch. 8; V 18; XIX 17). In such passages mention is made of the goodness, long·suffering, patience and condescension of God. And yet no conscious effort is made to come to close grips with the subject. We might say that much of the Biblical material that later was to be put to such good use is here cited. but has not been claimed for theory. Further, with the eye directed mainly to the antithetical relation, it proves difficult to come to any adequate appraisal of the fact of cultural development. I am thinking of the treatment Augustine gives to the question, how God could prosper the Romans to the point of giving them such conspicuous enlargement of their empire. The most relevant passages axe V 11–21 and XIX 24–26. What Augustine says amounts to the following. The Romans loved honor, and praise, and glory. For love of praise they consulted well (consules) for their country, suppressing the desire of wealth and many other vices. Now they who restrain baser lusts, not by the power of the Holy Spirit obtained by the faith of piety, or by the love of intelligible beauty (note the Platonism) but by desire of human praise…are not indeed yet holy, but only less base. But so far as regards human and temporal glory, the lives of these ancient Romans were reckoned sufficiently worthy (emphasis mine). Augustine admonishes his reader: “But let us avail ourselves even in these things of the kindness of God (emphasis mine). Let us consider how great things they despised, how great things they endured, what lusts they subdued for the sake of human glory, who merited that glory, as it were, in reward for such virtues.” It is clear how far short Augustine falls here in his appreciation of the forces at work in the creation of the Roman Empire.

What I am trying to get at is summed up neatly by Whitney Oates in his introduction to the Random House edition of Augustine (p. XXXIV f. ). He is dealing there with the discussion in the famous nineteenth book, and cites from it a fairly long passage which ends thus: “For, in general (i.e. not only in the case of Rome), the city of the ungodly, which did not obey the command of God that it should offer no sacrifice save to Him alone, and which, therefore, could not give to the Soul its proper command over the body, nor to reason its just authority over the vices, is void of true justice” (mine). Then Oates himself continues.

“With this definition before him, Saint Augustine goes on to argue that without true religion there can be no true virtues, along with the implication that no society or state can be truly just without a proper orientation towards God. Yet the Roman state, particularly in the earlier stages of its development, remains most impressive to Saint Augustine. He sees that its success arose from its devotion to a certain kind of justice (mine), and that the peace which it produced from time to time was indeed a peace of a certain sort (mine), Because a degree of justice and virtue did exist, he can explain why the Roman state endured for so long a time, but also he can understand why with all its strength it began to disintegrate. The entire attitude is summed up in the weIl-known Augustinian observation that the Roman virtues were but splendid vices: So long as Roman justice, for example, was motivated by national pride, or a desire for imperial power or glory, it could only be a spurious virtue, majestic, powerful, ‘splendid’ indeed, but it inevitably falls short of being a true virtue, and becomes ‘vicious because it has not been inspired by the love of God.’”

You probably see what I am driving at. Beginning from the antithetical position of the heavenly kingdom, Augustine can only approach the “virtues” of the heathen from the point of view of their falling short of spiritual good. This is one, except that it leaves him in an embarrassing position to explain how God can honor such less-than-good. Oates said, you will recall, that “because a degree of justice and virtue existed, (Augustine) can explain why the Roman state endured for so long a time,” but how critical has Augustine been of these concepts “justice” and “virtue.” These are to him, considered from the spiritual point of view of the heavenly kingdom. no more than vices, are they not? Has Augustine any other vantage-point from which to consider the Roman virtues? How can there be even a degree of justice? In other words, how is it possible that the ungodly can have a city at all?

Truly the Augustinian view of man, of sin and grace, far surpasses the semi-humanism of many a Church Father, but just that conception of total depravity must yet lead to the discovery in Scripture of an explanation for the cultural accomplishments of unregenerate man, or the very conception is in danger of being swallowed up by the humanistic dragon. With respect to the problem of culture Augustine is still on the naive level of the other patres, yet he represents the moment in the history of ideas corresponding to that moment in the thought of an individual which just precedes the breaking forth of a new insight.