Politics and hope: Thoughts from Charles Mathewes

What now? Denial? Despair? Attack? Retreat? Exhaustion?

How about some teaching and learning for the long haul?

Christians cannot afford to be tired of politics, or worse yet, to be apolitical—as if that were even possible. We have to be more deeply and wisely and Christianly political. Although Christianity (unlike Judaism and Islam) does not offer a legal blueprint for a civil society, it does entail at least elements of a politeia, a way of being, together, in the world. Some churches get into politics in a partisan way, identifying too closely and comfortably with one political party or another. Others try (pretend?) to stay out of politics, adopting a publicly apolitical posture and trying, sometimes uncomfortably and unsuccessfully, to ignore the fact that their members are deeply invested in one party or another and its ideology. Concerned that discussing “politics” would produce ruptures, they fail to draw on the extensive political wisdom offered in Christian scriptures and tradition. They—we—thereby risk leaving our people utterly uncatechized with regard to important aspects of Christian life in the world.

But there are good things that Christians as Christians should be doing in the world. And there are bad things that Christians as Christians should not be doing in the world. And these good things and bad things do not align cleanly and easily with one party or another. Certainly in the current American scene no political party can claim to be God’s party. The kind of political theology that we need to teach in our churches will inevitably have implications that will imply judgments for and against particular politicians and parties on particular issues. So be it. But we must and can find ways to do the necessary teaching without triggering the knee-jerk reactions of the faithful who have not yet realized that the Lordship of Christ over all of life makes no exemption for our thoughts and choices in the area of the mode of our existence in secular civil society—or who don’t think that, but also don’t want the pastors and other Christian teachers whom they count on to challenge and deepen them in other regards to try in any way to challenge or deepen them in this area.

As Charles Mathewes has written: “We will not be, we cannot be, the agents of this world’s salvation. But we can be servants of its conservation and betterment, caretakers of its sustenance, partakers of its blessings. And this is for Christians equally basically a political and a religious undertaking.”

I mentioned faith, love, and hope in my new year’s posting this morning. Later in the day I discovered that in the Eerdmans backlist we have a book that draws upon Augustinian theology (The City of God, of course!) to teach Christians how to approach politics in our era. The major categories that he employs: faith, hope, love. The book was published in 2010, so of course none of this is responding to events of the just-ended year, but as the first paragraph excerpted points out, nothing that has happened between 2010 and today, or between the year 100 and today, puts us in an absolutely new situation.

Here, then, with the kind permission of the publisher (why, thank you, self!) are some excerpts from Charles Mathewes, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times (Eerdmans, 2010):

From the introduction, Teaching in a Time of War

“Despite our despair, there is much to be hopeful for today. The fact that we do not see this hope is not due simply to the particular exigencies of our historical moment. The challenges are far deeper than that—deeper even than the ‘modern condition’ itself. They are, in this dispensation, intrinsic to the human condition. Hope is challenged in our world, and through hope all the virtues, yet our received languages of moral concern cannot bring this issue properly into focus. This is a perennial problem for human life, though a too-shallow attention to the contingencies of the present can make us miss this. As C. S. Lewis put it, speaking in regard to another such crisis, World War II: ‘The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men [and women] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.’ Part of our job, then, is coming to terms with the ways in which our ordinary condition of ‘never being normal’ are incarnated in our particular time and place. But we must never forget that the challenges are far more perennial than they are merely of our moment.

“So the challenges facing us are deep and abiding. . . .

“I want the book to reignite a fierce commitment to the common good of our society— to care for the least and most vulnerable, and to use your gifts and power and wealth as a force for good and justice in the world. I want it, in short, to help us to remember what it is to work together for a good larger than each of us (and each of our groups)—a genuinely common good. This is inevitably, inescapably a political task, involving compromise, negotiation, and bargaining. These need not inevitably sully the product of our labors, but they do inescapably accompany it. So part of what I’m offering here is a primer on politics for Christians—to help us find hope in public life. . . .“

I want to introduce Christians to a way of living their faith more thoughtfully than they may currently be living it. I want to wake people up to the challenges they face to their faith, their prayer life, their ability to love, their ability to be grateful, their ability to be joyful, their ability to care. Christians need to believe again—to have real belief in God, but also belief in our capacity to challenge ourselves and change the way we have chosen to live. We need to turn from cynicism and scorn, from selfishness and avarice, from lassitude and despair, and to affirm that this is our world, and that its suffering and peril are not cause for retreat but urgent reason to recommit to serving God’s purposes in it, that its vulnerability is not inducement to shield ourselves behind brittle walls but reason to care all the more. Behold, today we have set before us, as perhaps never before in human history, life and death, and as never before, we must choose to live.

“We will not be, we cannot be, the agents of this world’s salvation. But we can be servants of its conservation and betterment, caretakers of its sustenance, partakers of its blessings. And this is for Christians equally basically a political and a religious undertaking.”

From chapter 1, Prophecy after the End of History

“We live in a time when many kinds of pressure are put upon hope, and it faces many challenges to its flourishing.

“But it is not just that conditions are hostile to hope; it is also that we do not know what true hope is. Our pallid cynicism represents hope to us as that cynicism’s mirror image, wild utopianism. But that reduces hope to what cynicism can imagine—which is very little, and mostly false. But hope is not simple utopianism. That is a mistake often made by cynics. Cynics grasp part of the present as determinate evidence for the future, and presumptuously project a clear picture of what they expect into the future, and they imagine that the hopeful do the same. But such approaches miss the mystery, even the terror, at the heart of hope, how it ruptures all our presumptions. Hope is not a solipsistic chipperiness that leaves you insensitive to innumerable drubbings from reality; rather, hope is a means of accessing reality, of getting at it, seeing the hopefulness at its center without occluding or deflecting or other wise avoiding the depth of pain, injustice, and wrongness in the world. Hope sees all that is there, the bad as well as the good, but realizes that a hasty acquiescence to what is immediately apparent is not realism, but one more form of the false consolation of complacency. Hope is surprising—indeed, it is the capacity to be joyfully surprised. In this way hope is readily called transcendent, and even, in a way, ‘otherworldly.’ But as we will see, this ‘otherworldly’ hope is at the center of even this world.”

OK, end of freebie. You can probably find longer excerpts than this online at the usual sites. If you want the whole book:

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