Archives For St. Augustine

JBEAlthough Jean Elshtain didn’t consider herself a theologian, there’s a good chance that anyone willing to exhaust any enquiry into her eligibility for the title would conclude that she, in fact, was.

Theology permeates her work. Forming the backbone of the majority of it.

Elshtain’s broad and consistent conversation partners include St. Augustine, Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). This also includes some small contact with theologians Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Elshtain considered herself a layperson when it came to theological matters.  Having added theologian to her list of accomplishments may have meant weighing in on an area where her insight and much-needed centrist voice may not have been as keenly heard.

For example: other than walking through some legitimate claims against Christians being hypocrites there is, also, the very real issue of being recklessly labelled as ‘unchristian”, “unloving”, “bigoted” or “unChristlike”, when debating sociopolitical issues or the strengths and limitations of something like just-war theory and practice.

It’s likely, then,  that Elshtain benefited from not having been assigned the title of a theologian. Resulting in her successfully navigating institutional prejudice, reductionist reversals, aversions and distractions. Such as underhanded rhetorical tactics like name calling, selective outrage, cross-examination, inferring ignorance by association, negative preempting and agenda driven ridicule. {to name a few}

Elshtain follows the example of Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus and Karl Barth who are credited, among others, as being careful and critical, when it came to allowing themselves to profiled in political terms; and/or  placed into rigid theological, philosophical or sociological cult-like categories. They weren’t looking for disciples.

It’s long, but one example is her assessment of the government and God distinction, which followed her critique of some Western theologians and philosophers, such as Mark Taylor [i] and Noam Chomsky [ii] post-September 11, 2001:

Misunderstandings of Christian teachings are rife. Christianity is not an exalted or mystical form of utilitarianism. Jesus preached no doctrine of universal benevolence. He showed anger and issued condemnations. These dimensions of Christ’s life and words tend to be overlooked nowadays as Christians concentrate on God’s love rather than God’s justice. That love is sometimes reduced to a diffuse benignity that is then enjoined on believers.
This kind of faith descends into sentimentalism fast. But how do believers translate the message of the Christian Savior into an ethic of worldly engagement if an ethic of universal niceness misses the point? Because Christianity is far and away the dominant faith of Americans, these are exigent matters of concern to all citizens, believer or no.
For a minority of believers, worldly engagement already marks a capitulation. But the vast majority of Christians, both now and in the past, have sorted things out in more nuanced and complicated ways.
Richard Niebuhr delineates five “Christs,” by which he means five characteristic models of how Christians have engaged the world: the Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; the Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ as transformer of culture. Believers have occupied each of these positions historically, sometimes more than one at a time.
An example would be the great Thomas Aquinas, who was faithful as a monk to his vows “against” the culture—poverty, celibacy, and obedience—even as he belonged to a church that had “achieved or accepted full social responsibility for all great institutions” and that had “become the guardian of culture, the fosterer of learning, the judge of nations, the protector of the family, the governor of social religion.”
For Aquinas, Christianity is, among other things, a structure of practical wisdom “planted among the streets and marketplaces, the houses, palaces, and universities that represent human culture.” This kind of believer neither despises the world nor retreats from it.
Rather, this believer engages the world, sustains it, and seeks to transform it—all at the same time. Ordinary vocations are the responsibility of believers. They should not shirk their vocations, including political vocations like soldiering or judging. Such vocations are necessary to sustain a common life. This Christian believer undertakes the tasks of vocation as an act of service and performs them in humility and with a strong commitment to their often tragic, sometimes joyful nature.
Tension, even paradox, emerges in situations when “what is required of man in his service of others is the use of instruments of wrath for the sake of protecting them against the wrathful.” This point is made most vividly by Luther, with his insistence that there is a “time of the sword,” but it has been widely, if not universally, shared in the historic Church.
For Christians living in historic time and before the end of time, the pervasiveness of conflict must be faced.
One may aspire to perfection, but living perfectly is not possible. To believe one is without sin is to commit the sin of pride and to become ever more boastful in the conviction that a human being can sustain a perfectionist ethic. For St. Augustine, for Martin Luther, and for the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the harsh demands of necessity as well as the command of love require that one may have to commit oneself to the use of force under certain limited conditions, and with certain intentions.[ii]

This analysis is Elshtain at her absolute best. It’s passionate, clear and thorough. It might not win her admission into the theologians hall of fame, but written in 2002, her words stand today as a pertinent warning. Calling us to question what it is that we are being sold and why.

Here Elshtain is pushing beyond the ”Just-War Against Terror” topic, assessing the real reasons for it in the first place; at the same time not willing to join the call to arms by right-wing fanatical patriots, or accepting at face value the manipulation of facts, oversight and simplifying of arguments by the Left, which tends to blame the West for Islamic terrorism and animosity towards the West in the Middle East.

If we don’t listen carefully, look past the careless labels, false appearances, hypocritical accusations of prejudice and fear mongering about fear mongering; double standards and confusion (sadly, the list can go on). It is possible, that once this fog clears we will only discover the brutal cost of inaction caused by self-doubt; the paralysing fear of prejudice and an anachronistic contempt that uses an exhausted mistrust of “The West” from unhappy cynics who live freely and prosperously in it.

History speaks.

Labelled a warmonger, ridiculed and considered too old to be relevant, Churchill critically questioned the Nazi movement long before it became a bloody necessity to reject it. Blind acquiescence and something that C.S Lewis called ‘the tyranny of good intentions’, resulted in the catastrophic ambivalence and indifference of the West in the 1930’s.

Positive optimism (or any ethic of universal niceness that is falsely attributed to Jesus Christ) doesn’t resolve conflict, it ignores conflict and allows tyrants to thrive. In the 1930’s such optimism ended in Prime Minister Chamberlain’s, now haunting words “Peace For Our Time’….which was shattered by the sound of falling shells, screeching stukas and the blitzkrieg that hit the World not long after it.

Reagan rightly said:  ‘the greater lessons of history tell us that the greater risk lies in appeasement.’

An even greater risk, is a ‘house divided against itself.’ (Jesus Christ, Matthew, 12:25)

It stands to reason. If even some of our Muslim neighbours, are as outspoken as Elshtain, like Tarek Fatah (43min – 46min) who is making similar observations of the response so far, Elshtain’s words are not to be ignored.



[i] Mark Taylor, “The Way of the Cross as Theatric of Counter-Terror,” paper presented at a conference on justice and mercy, University of Chicago (Spring 2002), cited by Elshtain in Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed (p.82)

[ii] Chomsky, N. 9-11 cited by Elshtain, (ibid, p. 226)

[iii] Elshtain, J. 2008, Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World Basic Books Kindle Ed. (p. 100-101).




Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s reach for Augustinian theology is interesting. It is not quite a theological treatise encased in a poem but it does present itself as more than just a rhyme.

A lot of this is figurative language and given more time for research I could/would like to unpack it further. There is a sense of tension. As if Longfellow is stretching to bring Augustine into mid 1800’s America. Longfellow either likes or dislikes Him. Sometimes appearing to be caught between both awe at Augustine’s insights on grace, and distaste for Augustine’s ‘bleak anthropology’ {B.J Gundlach, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.123}.

Longfellow’s popularity as a poet waned after the turn of the century in the late 1800’s. By all accounts he was more than just a man who inherited his faith from a stagnating Christian culture. This is evidenced by his interest in Unitarianism, a post-enlightenment theory which rested on empiricism and held that because the Trinity is not directly mentioned in the Bible, Father, Son and Spirit is not Triune.

As an accompaniment, not many songs could beat ‘Devonshire Carol’ from War Horse, by John Tams and Barry Coope .

The Ladder of St. Augustine.

‘Saint Augustine!

Well have you said, that of our vices we can frame a ladder, if we will but tread

Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day’s events, that with the hour begin and end.
Our pleasures and our discontents, are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design that makes another’s virtues less.
The revel of the treacherous wine, and all occasions of excess.

The longing for ignoble things; the strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill, all evil deeds, that have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes. The action of the nobler will.

All these must first be trampled down, beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown the right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar; but we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more, the cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone that wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear, their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear, as we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept, were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept, toiled upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore, with shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern – unseen before- a path to higher destinies.

Nor deem the irrevocable past, as wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last, to something nobler we attain.’

‘The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’, 1868, p.185


Related posts: Longfellow’s Christmas