March 30, 2011

Why read Augustine

Why should I or anyone else read Augustine- it’s the question implicit in Georg's comment below. After all I am not a fourth century Christian, I do not find Augustine's theology attractive as a method to live my life or understand the world, nor do I see the problems he addressed as key to my own life. So why therefore would or should I read the great African Bishop?

I think there are reasons to read people we disagree with fundementally. The first is a simple one and is the reason why everyone who thinks seriously about politics and history should try and read someone like Augustine. He was a genius. The City of God is a monumental achievement and though we may disagree with its argument, the logic is beautiful, the construction impressive and the execution is interesting. His thinking intrigues me. Like so many other thinkers whose ideas I disagree with, I see Augustine's thought as a roccoco structure which interests me for the intricacy of its design. By following him through these logical paths and understanding the way that his argument works, I improve my own methods of thinking and arguing. In the medieval world you would describe such a study as rhetoric: it is as useful today as it was then.

Secondly Augustine was a phenomenally important thinker. There are few that instantly I can put on the same plane as him. His influences cascade down the centuries. 10 centuries after he died the Reformation in Europe proceeded largely out of his interpretation of justification: one eminent historian has argued that the reformation was a family crisis, on the one hand those people who believed in Augustine's theory of salvation (Protestants), on the other those who believed his theory of ecclesiology (Catholics). Just like reading the Bible or Plato, reading Augustine is essential to understanding Western history and current Western politics. He shaped our language of politics: even those who disagreed with him fundementally used his language of politics and even if we may live in the slipstream of their responses, we cannot abstract ourselves from a context in which Augustine is a major player.

Thirdly the Fifth century AD is one of the most interesting moments in the history of the West. I am fascinated by Rome. Partly that is because we are its inheritors. Partly though its because whatever happened in Rome, it went through successive changes which must be important to the way that we understand our world today. Tacitus sketched the collapse of democracy into tyranny. Gibbon the collapse of empire into anarchy. We may refine those perspectives and understand those words differently today but the fourth century is still a key pivot in world history. In 410 the event which prompted Augustine to write was the sack of ROme by Alaric- the first sack of Rome since the 2nd Century BC. These are momentous events and we read in Augustine the reaction of a contemporary who was incredibly close to events and the people (a pupil of Ambrose of Milan for example) who shaped those events.

Those three reasons may not satisfy Georg (or you) and I could think of others I am sure were I to write formally about this but they are my reasons tonight for thinking about Augustine. Ultimately I may not want to take Augustine's arguments (though I may be convinced and one should never stop being open to being convinced) but I do want to understand him, for by doing so I will learn both about my own capabilities and my culture and about his time.

March 27, 2011

Rome resurgent

Over the last two centuries, both Christians and Atheists have tended to argue that the latter have acquired more and more power. The Enlightenment, French and Russian Revolutions, the growth of printing, the scientific revolution and the growth of toleration have all strengthened in different ways the atheist perspective on religion. In 1714 confessional states existed right across Europe, from Britain in the West to the Russian Empire in the East and in every state prosecutions for blasphemy continued. In 1697 Thomas Aikenhead was executed in Edinburgh for distributing the ideas of Spinoza, a crime described as blasphemy. The consequences of the next two centuries have meant that what Aikenhead was punished for, Dawkins and Hitchens now would regard as the softest of soft anti-theisms. But this revolution has not had unmixed consequences in the Christian world: it has changed the power relationships between churches, eroded the authority of some and enhanced that of others. One of the most curious cases of this- and something that we can see very early on after the French Revolution is the renewed strength of the Papacy.

The Pope has always been a key player within Western Christendom (I distinguish it here from Orthodox or non-Chalcedonian Christianity). His power, built upon forgeries like the donation of Constantine and theology about St Peter, extended in the medieval era through a vast panoply of churches and privileges to encircle almost every throne. In far away England the Pope's authority helped legitimate the Norman invasion in 1066: his reach extended even further in the 16th Century when he subdivided the world into Spanish and Portugeese portions- creating a Portugeese Brazil and making the rest of South America Spanish. But his power always coexisted with other powers. The Popes of the early Middle Ages could look east to see the Emperor in Constantinople and a rival who could claim the very mantle of the first Christian Emperor himself- not to mention the allegiances of the oldest Churches in the world: Jerusalem and Antioch. From 800, he might look north to the Western Roman Emperor in Germany: Charlemagne, Otto and Frederick Barbarossa all could either patronise or humiliate the Pope. Imperial power placed real limits on the Pope's authority. Furthermore the powerful Western Churches, which developed over the Middle Ages, particularly in France and Germany could always resist Papal authority. Whilst the great French bishops argued for Gallicianism, German prince bishops sheltered in their rich territories and both ignored missives from Rome.

The effect of the French Revolution was to sweep all the Pope's rivals away. The Eastern Empire had long ago fallen and the centre of orthodoxy moved north to Moscow- far far away from Italy. In the wake of the Revolution, all the Pope's other challengers were destroyed though. In the 1790s a campaign by the French state deprived the French church of its uncontested position at the centre of national life. The Napoleonic invasions of Germany swept away the Prince-Bishoprics and led to the confiscation of clerical estates. Napoleon also swept away the Holy Roman Empire. In 1816 at the Congress of Vienna these acheivements were recognised: the Bishops did not reacquire their territories and the throne of Charlemagne was declared forever vacant. The German and French Church and all other European Churches clustered around the Papacy for protection: the Pope was the only bishop to retain his land after Vienna and he became the leader of a more centralised church.

In a sense this is not so surprising. Christianity in the era when Europe was Christendom contained within itself enough space for dispute and rebellion. It is always easier to disagree from a position of dominance about how to use that dominance. As it went onto the defensive, Christianity became more unified and centralised: more dependant in the Catholic world on its centre in Rome. This phenomenon- partly explaining the rise of Ultramontanism- is one of the more paradoxical of the consequences of the Enlightenment: the rise of atheism strengthened the Pope!