History & Freedom A Brief (Augustinian) Reflection by Kristof Oltvai

History & Freedom

A Brief (Augustinian) Reflection by Kristóf Oltvai


Among the worst forms of monism is the one of the future. The logic goes like this: we have sufficient systematic knowledge of some kind – be it philosophical, theological, ethical, or whatever – in order to posit some ideal political and social framework, and once we’ve theorized this ideal world, the point becomes, to quote Marx, “to change it.” His- tory becomes a monorail: there are only two directions, forward or backward – we either advance toward the ideal, or pull away – we are on the “right side of history,” or we aren’t. Sometimes, as in Marxism, the ideal’s inevitability is built into material history itself: by its very nature capitalism will collapse on its own, we don’t really need to get involved. At other times, as in Francis Fukuyama’s eponymous essay, the “end of history” is only conceptually necessary; though the ideal’s victory is thus not materially guaranteed, it does remain the ideal and we cannot dissent from that. “There is no alternative” (Thatcher).

Now, for most of the 20th century, Christian intellectuals in the West were very wary of such monistic schemes. They “immanentize the eschaton,” to quote Eric Vögelin’s much- abused phrase – they attempt to create, within material history, an image of the kind of utopia the Christian scriptures reserve for God’s action alone at the end of material history. In other words, they try to appropriate a work God has explicitly reserved for him- self. Such schemes are thus not only doomed to fail, but are idolatrous because they equate humanity’s own conceptual and soteriological powers with God’s. In the early- and midcen- tury, Christian realism and Christian democra- cy emerged in the United States and Europe, respectively, to combat these ideological idolatries. We cannot create an ideal society, but what we can do, as Christians, is to build a better one with the spiritual self-discipline to realize that our projects are not absolutely good and will achieve only relative gains. This means stepping away from the demagogue’s pulpit and its revolutionary halo and instead devoting ourselves to the tough work of organizing, of advocacy, of public debate, of compromise, and of changing institutional cultures from within. It also means supporting democracy, because although “freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect” (Kennedy), it is to this day the political form that most embodies the provisionality of all human knowledge and the need for ideological pluralism

Sadly, today many Christians want to abandon these insights in favor of new forms of monism. Since liberal democracy has been uncharitable toward Christianity, we are told, it’s obvious it doesn’t work; what we need instead is to return to the virtuous polis, or to Catholic monarchy – best yet, both! Now although such maneuvers are highly dubious for all sorts of reasons – not least their stupendous political unviability, which manifests at once as a sort of Christian quietism or secessionism – their chief error is theological. Their underlying assumption is that our Christian commitments grant us an ability to make a privileged moral judgment on history and society, to identify some bygone but ideal political frame- work which we must resurrect. I insist on such claims’ absolute character, for again, their proponents do not usually present them as one option among many. For them, it is not a question of adapting certain forgotten political goods to our current context, but of constructing a hypothetical social edifice to which the faithful must assent. I agree with these thinkers’ claim that some features of liberal democracy, like uncritical ‘progress’ narratives, have sometimes unhealthily hardened into orthodoxies, stifling democracy’s deliberative aspect. But the solution is not to replace these with progress narratives that merely peak earlier – in Athens, say, or in medieval Europe. Instead we should reassert once more that all human knowledge, including theological knowledge, is deliberative and provisional. I would argue, in fact, that it is the grafting of this provisionality onto society, in the form of political pluralism itself, that is Christianity’s central contribution to human flourishing.

Put another way, there is no “theology of God.” There is only man’s theology. In the case of history, including intellectual history, we thus cannot have a God’s-eye-view. We are closed off from providence’s secret workings and must be content with the Word: a Word that promises creation’s Easter at the same moment it asks us to bear the Cross of history. This should not mean we abandon the struggle for justice or turn a blind eye to evil. No, it is more rad- ical: it means that, even in the very midst of this struggle, we submit all our efforts to God’s judgment and grace. “Thy will be done.” All the great moral leaders of the past century, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., speak of a moment when, their own strength depleted, they received a charismatic empowerment from God. Grace intervenes in history through these prophets, but it cannot be planned for. No conceptual schema, least of all a political one, can calculate grace’s arrival; “if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). This, then, would be the task of a Christian politics: to seek the Kingdom without ever expecting to find it. It is in the gap between the seeking and finding that freedom takes place – indeed, this gap is freedom itself.

It took a theological wisdom as great as Augustine’s to first fully articulate this condition of freedom, in contrast to Eusebius and the other patristic triumphalists. For the way the Ecclesiastical History tells it, the church’s victory is temporal and straightforwardly linear: the “light now coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9) is bound only to grow brighter and more widespread. The imperial state’s alliance with the church thus can only represent, in this Eusebian vision, the ultimate validation of the Gospel message, the supposed capitulation of earthly power to the heavenly one. All this rests, of course, on an unambiguous identification of Christianity – and its alternatives – with the historical actors who most apparently (or loudly) claim these titles for themselves. The whole of Augustine’s City of God is a critique of precisely this kind of ‘externalism’ of identity. The true heavenly city, Augustine tells us, is hidden within the souls of its members, and will be revealed only eschatologically, never within history. For him, not only is the earthly city permixta (‘mixed’), an amalgam of the elect and the reprobate, but we are also denied any means by which to know our fellow citizens’ fates. Christians should thus neither equivocate the institutional church with the heavenly city (the church could not, in via, be a ‘perfect society’ – that title could only describe the eschatological church) nor, even worse, deify history itself through absolutizing political metanarratives. In the City of God, the latter is the classically pagan move of Varro and his acolytes, their attempt to domesticate the divine as another intra-historical force. ‘If we sacrifice, the gods will help us.’ An Augustinian view rejects this ‘civic theology’ and its modern-day analogues, ideology and integralism. 

City of God follows this logic through to its most radical conclusions, which only become clear in the text’s final books. Here, Augustine describes heaven and hell, sparring with various implied interlocutors, mostly advocates of different versions of Christian universalism. Well- aware of the enormity of human sin – and likely laziness in the face of “cheap grace” (Bonhoeffer) – Augustine finds these theories lack- ing and insists on the possibility of damnation. But then, in a brilliant moment, he realizes that even the struggle to guarantee salvation could become a pseudo-political ideology; after all, if we were certain which moral acts had to be practiced, and which avoided, in order to be saved, we could project this total moral schema onto history as its full intelligibility. History would become a ‘salvation factory,’ so to speak, with Christians mechanistically producing certain acts, and not others, to assure their eternal bliss. (Any theocracy, by the way, just ‘collectivizes’ this kind of thinking, forcing virtue onto its citizens for their own supernatural good.) Likely seeing here a trace of the machine-world of his erstwhile Manichaeism, Augustine doubles down on the hiddenness of God. The way God draws history toward the eschaton, as well as the criteria by which He will judge our personal involvement in that history, must remain unknown to us until our judgment. In a crucial but oft-overlooked passage worth quoting in full, the bishop of Hippo writes,

It would be most perilous to define what those sins are which in themselves prevent attainment to the kingdom of God while admitting pardon through the merit of holy friends. I myself, at least, have given much thought to the latter question without having been able to reach a conclusion. And it may well be that the answer is kept a secret for fear that the knowledge might blunt men’s zeal to make progress towards the avoidance of all kinds

of sin… Their sole quest would be to gain freedom from punishment they had won by generous acts of of charity, made possible by the ‘worldly wealth of unrighteousness.’ As it is, however, so long as men do not know the limits within which wrongdoing is venial, even if persevered in, then, beyond dispute, more active zeal is shown for improvement of life by

means of prayer and effort. (De civ. Dei 20.27) 

The incomplete historical knowledge to which God abandons us is thus moral as well as political. Yet this abandonment, to paraphrase Žižek, is just another name for freedom. 

We do not necessarily need to buy into Augustine’s wholesale rejection of universalism to understand his point, as even theologians with significantly differing ideas of how salvation is won, like Luther or Jacques Ellul, uphold Augustine’s proto-“two kingdoms” doctrine. The essential point is this: only God understands the ultimate meaning of history, which means that within history, we humans, whether Christian or not, must content ourselves with contingent meanings. Again, this does not mean we collapse into relativism or that suddenly everything is equally plausible. Today, there is a lot of talk of freedom, and the dichotomy we are usually presented with is “freedom from sin” (‘the’ Christian model) and a completely arbitrary “freedom to choose” (the modern model). This setup’s not-so-hidden assumption is that for knowledge to be knowledge, it must be certain. Only certainty can motivate as- sent. We’ve thus, I think (perhaps from Descartes on), confused motivation with compulsion, and reasons with needs. I should only believe (or do) something if I absolutely need to; otherwise, my belief or action is unfounded. Yet this is not at all how we experience freedom. To use Descartes’s example from the Meditations, it is true that from a distance I cannot perceive whether a tower is round or square. But I do perceive that it is a tower, and not, say, a bird! My choices are always already circumscribed within certain possibilities, each with its own unique benefits and costs that I must weigh. The same holds true for our moral knowledge. We are not free to throw away the history of ethics and invent new norms out of whole cloth. Yet when we are faced with a particular, complex, and changing situation – indeed, is there a better description of history? – we do have the freedom to interpret this situation, to see it one way or another and then to de- cide. In fact this is nothing other than Aristo- tle’s practical judgment, his phronēsis, which in our day has tragically enough become a reactionary catchphrase.

Freedom, then, is a hermeneutic freedom, a freedom that always passes through and ex- press itself in reasons, in discourse, in logos – for us Christians, the Logos, the Word. Here, at least, we can admire the ancient polis, for which logos meant the public deliberation that mediates and makes possible human plurality, and not the authoritarian meta- physical principle this term comes to signify in later antiquity. A Christian politics has no room for this latter logos, this ‘talking at’ (as opposed to ‘talking with’) that proclaims saving capital-t Truth from on high and demands only acquiescence. Orthodoxy’s triumph over ‘gnosticism’ spelled defeat for precisely this sort of false logos, which in its private and thus uncontestable character naturally leant itself to exclusivism and elitism. It is a small wonder that all the great totalitarian systems of the past century likewise built themselves on a secret mission or knowledge, whether of the proletariat or of the ‘master race,’ spelling doom for all those not gifted with such special illumination. This is why a pluralist polity must always be wary of a ‘mysticism’ whereby certain citizens are exempted from providing reasons for their recommendations and are simply assumed to prophesy by virtue of a given identity or esoteric expertise. (One is at liberty, of course, to believe in one’s own unique election as much as one wants, one just cannot make that be- lief a prerequisite for political discourse.) In our own time, probably the most notorious example of this is the supposed infallibility of economists or of economic thinking in general, to the extent that if GDP is growing in this or that country we automatically exonerate its leadership of previous misdeeds and fly into nigh-Platonic ecstasies over how such they could have made so much money. In his Confessions, Augustine rightly condemns astrologists, whose “true forecasts are based not on art but on chance” (7.6.10), words that describe economics’ role today. 

In this regard the positive connotation the term ‘technocrat’ often now earns is particularly worrying for democracy, since it displays a contempt for deliberation and accountability and mystifies society. (Indeed, is not the technocrat the ideal agent of ‘re-enchantment’ for a secular age?) Yet attempts to grant these privileged, quasi-‘gnos- tic’ discourses preeminence in the public sphere usually end up being self-defeating, as people realize they are being duped and rebel – often, of course, in equally unhealthy ways. This is why the medieval church always had a good dose of sus- picion toward its own mystics, even as it failed to prevent the self-mystification of papal power that led to the Reformation. I would say, in fact, that Rome’s fundamental misinterpretation of Luther as a mystic, reinterpreting Scripture according to some private revelation, rather than as a locus of popular piety mobilizing itself against what had become a totally opaque and hierocratic theology, counts among the papacy’s biggest errors of judgment. 

Like the Reformation era, today is also a time of crisis, not only for the churches but also for democracy and therefore for pluralism, which is why a Christian politics that destabilizes metanarratives and reserves the meaning of history for God’s just and merciful judgment alone is urgently needed. Of course, it is a reaction against metanarratives that fueled much of the so-called ‘crisis of democracy’ in the first place, especially with regard to a neoliberal vision that not only seemed to want to remove the political community’s oversight over its material ‘base’ (the economy), but also saw this removal as unquestionable and necessary. What is so disturbing is that while, on a very superficial level, many democratic polities have shattered this vision by electing all manner of populists – and not only right-wing ones, we should remember – historical processes with inevitable and gigantic social ramifications continue to elude political control. The wanton destruction of our planet’s ecosystem steams ahead unchecked, though it has already quite obviously caused, and will continue to cause, global catastrophe if not eventually global war. Governments exercise virtually no oversight over the development of technologies with the potential to dramatically upend human life, such as artificial intelligence or genetic manipulation. The widespread electronic surveillance of society has been implemented in this century with negligible public debate, with the exception of the Snowden debacle, during which he was almost universally denounced as a traitor and then quickly forgotten.

 As cathartic as it may be, however, we should not confront this laundry list of admittedly nerve-wracking challenges by throwing up our hands and conjuring up dystopian fates. This is actually just another ideology, that of cynicism, claiming to know ahead of time how history will unfold. It quite intentionally encourages inaction and a feeling of helplessness in the face of evil. The dystopias, incidentally, rarely pan out anyway; history always turns out to be more complex and less spectacular than we imagine it. (According to Clarke, by 2001 we should already have transcended space and time, etc.) Rather, in response to today’s crises we must aggressively reinvest our own personal energies into the democratic political process – which means, by the way, doing more than voting. It means hopping off of social media and organizing, protesting, writing to our elected officials, canvassing, joining a party, being active in our own community (which, if we are students or professors, is more than just campus), talking to people who disagree with us (the only way we ever convince them), going on strike, demanding (and not just requesting) the better instead of the worse or even instead of the status quo. The biggest enemy to all of this is not some planetary disaster, as real and as pressing as preventing that disaster may be, but a citizenry’s complacen- cy – the allure of a purely private life, of ‘getting on.’ This is precisely the kind of acedia Augus- tine inveighs against in the City of God. History must be a drama – the drama of the struggle for betterment, not perfection. As Christians we believe, not that God has somehow given us the whole plot of our story ahead of time, but that by joining us in the Son has justified and sanctifies our human reality of making that story happen. Perhaps, indeed, our story – history – is nothing other than the Son’s journey, with us, in us, and through us, back to the Father. Let us then get to work and trust that he “with us always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Amen.