. 2
( 12)


how should it do so? How should we position ourselves ˜˜down-
stream™™ from cultural and political forces so that they may best
shape our character? These chapters ask this question also, and
thereby offer an ascetics of public life. Against both apocalypticism
and consumerism, both of which tempt us towards false conclu-
sions, false ˜˜ends,™™ the virtues can ¬nd themselves puri¬ed through
engagement in public life. The souls of Christians may be shaped by
their public engagements in ways that train their longings here,
while also offering a foretaste of their participation in the eschato-
logical kingdom to come.
With all that said, let™s get to it.
part i

A theology of engagement

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like
trans¬guration. You don™t have to bring a thing to it except a little
willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Introduction to Part I

Part I of the book explicates the general theology of engage-
ment that undergirds the explicitly political theology unpacked in
Part II. It explains how Christians should see the fundamental
theological dynamics of their faith as encouraging an ever deepen-
ing attachment to our created condition, and it suggests that those
dynamics are well articulated in an Augustinian vernacular.1 Find-
ing such a pro-creation agenda in Augustinian Christian thought
will likely surprise many readers. This Introduction explains why it
should not.

An Augustinian theology of engagement
Augustine™s thought may seem an odd resource for a program
of worldly engagement. After all, Augustine often sounds as if he
thinks humans have fallen out of heaven into the world. But the
surface appearance of his rhetoric “ couched in a late antique phi-
losophical vernacular “ is deceptive. The deep conceptual and
theological underpinnings of his account actually endorse a very
different view: a picture of humans as fallen out of creation “ out of
our condition as creatures in a created world “ and into a condition
in which we assume we must have absolute mastery over what we
see as a world fundamentally other than ourselves. Human sin is
˜˜privation™™ in a way that is not merely etymologically related to
privacy: it is solitude, isolation, what Robert Markus calls ˜˜man™s
liability to close in on himself . . . at bottom, sin [is] a retreat into

1. There are several strong af¬nities between this argument and Markham 2003.

32 A Theology of Public Life

privacy™™ (1990a: 51). Conversely, redemption is, in a way, publicity,
presence to others, and most fundamentally to God “ a turning back
to God, the neighbor, and creation. For such an Augustinian
account, our lives are properly seen as inextricably part of a larger
created order, and we must come more fully to inhabit our created
It is hard to isolate a starting point for Augustine™s thinking. But
certainly one of its sources lies in his acute theological analysis of
our escapism “ our condition as caught between our sinful pre-
dilections towards interiorizing and privating superbia or ˜˜prideful-
ness,™™ and the kenotic ecstasy that is the grace of Christ anchored in
the Father and kept inexpungeably, agonizingly, tantalizingly pre-
sent in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. We ¬nd ourselves out of
tune with the world, with our timing thrown off, and so we are
tempted to endorse this estrangement, to name it as our natural
condition. But this distempo is fundamentally accidental to the
human condition; that is why we describe it as a ˜˜fall.™™2
In response to this condition of depraved and privated privacy, we
should resist our persistent attempts to retreat further into our-
selves (and resist the fantasy that such retreat is ever successfully
possible). But this resistance cannot ever expect to make us happy in
this life, because even as we undertake it, we and the world remain
fallen, and so experience all our engagements as suffering. So we
should come to be ever more fully open to the sufferings that mark
our lives during the world, most fundamentally as a mode of being
in time, indeed of receiving the gift of time itself from God.
But this openness to suffering, this practice of ˜˜confessional
openness,™™ itself holds a further potential pitfall. For one more of
our canny strategies is to see such suffering as a technology we can
employ to ¬x ourselves “ a way we can keep in charge of ourselves,
alone and autonomous “ and thus just one more of privacy™s guises.
Yet not so; this suffering is not something you can use but some-
thing that uses you, that trains you to be a new sort of person.
Suffering is not something you do or achieve but something you
accept, something you endure.
This theological picture is more apprehensible to us today than in
much of the twentieth century because of the rehabilitation of the

2. On the accidental nature of sin, see H. R. Niebuhr 1989: 78.
Introduction to Part I

theological insight, over the past several decades, that God™s trans-
cendence and immanence are more intimately interrelated than
most modern thinkers imagine. As Augustine put it, God is simul-
taneously ˜˜most high and most near, always absent and always
present™™ (conf. 6.3).3 On this view, it is not possible for divine and
human causality to compete on the same ˜˜plane™™ of action, and so
there can be no profane saeculum where God is absent. We can couch
this basic insight in terms of Christology and salvation history.
God™s activity in the world did not culminate in providing a sacred
example that entered into reality like a spaceman, hermetically
sealed from contamination by materiality: in Christ, God plunged
fully into materiality to redeem it, and our participation in that new
creation, through the sacramental mediation of the body of Christ,
is our salvation.4
Yet this theology does not ¬nally rest in sheer accomplishment.
Christ™s ˜˜coming™™ is the Son™s unitary mission across all time, and
so Christ™s saving work has both always and not yet been completed.
During the world, we should live adventally, celebrating the inau-
guration of our redemption, in and through our participation in
Christ™s mission. The overall project of time is not yet concluded,
and so we must undergo the historical process of salvation knowing
that the consolations of redemption are not given to us immedi-
ately. Joy is not our imminent future; only the longing for joy is.
The ascetical engagement proposed here is a form of participating
in God™s kenotic engagement with the world. By engaging in public
interactions with others and enduring the risks those engagements
entail, we come better to see and participate in God pro nobis.
Part 1 makes this case in three chapters. Building on the Augus-
tinian insight that God is ˜˜more intimate to us than we are,™™
Chapter 1 sketches this account™s basic theological anthropology,
asking what sort of autonomy and agency are available to humans
given this powerful picture of God™s role. Given our faith that God
will be all in all, what does ˜˜life before God™™ look like today?
Chapter 2 asks how we are supposed to inhabit ˜˜the world,™™

3. See also Gen. ad litt. 8.26: ˜˜Without any distance or measure of space, by His
immanent and transcendent power He is interior to all things because they are
all in Him.™™ For contemporary analogues, see Placher 1996 and Milbank et al.
4. For the deep Pauline roots of this see Hubbard 2002.
34 A Theology of Public Life

understood as creation as a whole, given this picture of life before
God: given our hope that we will eventually see God™s sovereignty as
governing all of history, how can we presently treat creation with
respect for its relative integrity? Chapter 3 unpacks the implications
of this picture for life with others: given the command to love one
another, can we really make sense of the idea that in meeting
strangers we must meet them as themselves, not just as God™s
mask? What does otherness amount to, in a world governed by a
God as sovereign and all-suffusing as this?
In each case, we will see that the languages we use to understand
these dimensions of our lives “ the languages of selfhood, of the
world, and of community “ all turn out to have a theological core:
God becomes the crucial grammatical anchor for understanding all
three facets of existence. Indeed, each of the languages turns out to
lead into the others. To speak about the self requires us to speak
intelligently about the world that, in part, calls the self to commu-
nion; to speak about the world requires us to speak intelligently
about the community of humans in which we ¬nd ourselves when
we live in the world; and to ask about the destiny of the self, the
world, and others is to ask about the destiny of all, which is to ask
about God. Indeed, to ˜˜ask™™ at all is to begin a process of inquiry
that can only ˜˜end™™ itself in inquiry into God. To be alive is to seek
God; and all such seeking longs to become, and will eschatologically
be consummated as, praiseful wonderment at God.5
But today we recognize that this process of seeking ever deeper
communion is persistently vexed by our fallenness, and deferred by
our existence in a history that has not yet run its course, so we best
speak these languages by speaking in an eschatological “ but not
apocalyptic “ ˜˜tense,™™ that keeps us open in the present, and
awaiting the world™s completion in the eschaton.
As such a ¬rst-order theological project, Part I is an unusual
beginning for a work on religion and public life. It will provoke two
different responses in many readers. Some will ¬nd it prob-
lematically escapist. Others will ¬nd it all too this-worldly “ indeed,
apocalyptically so. Many of the people who will feel these tempta-
tions are those to whom this proposal is meant to appeal. The
temptations are second nature to us. They identify real tensions for

5. See Mathewes 2002a.
Introduction to Part I

any Augustinian proposal. But I think they should be resisted. Below
I explain why.

Is the project otherworldly?
One set of challenges revolves around a deep suspicion,
especially common among secularists, that a project like this one,
with its emphasis on not ¬nding the human™s proper good in any
immanent con¬guration of goods, inevitably promotes a certain
kind of ˜˜otherworldliness™™ or ˜˜anti-worldliness.™™ Such a suspicion
can be expressed in two ways, metaphysically and existentially.
Metaphysically, critics ask: How does the language of ˜˜the world,™™
when granted any real weight, not tempt us to offer some total
assessment of ˜˜the world™™ as a whole, which of necessity obscures
the manifold complexities and contradictions within it? How can it
be a language to engage the world, instead of being “ as its grammar
strongly implies it will be “ a language to alienate ourselves from it,
and thereby to excuse our indifference or outright hostility to it?
Existentially, the critics suspect that the account suffers from a deep
wistfulness and ressentiment, a despair at our existence that expres-
ses itself in a longing to be altogether elsewhere. Those who hold
such suspicions want us to feel the force of Hamm™s exclamation in
Beckett™s Endgame, when he says, ˜˜Use your head, can™t you, use
your head, you™re on earth, there™s no cure for that!™™ There™s no
˜˜cure,™™ no technology of escape, they say; we are in this existence
inescapably, and our being is determined totally by its shape.6
These suspicions merit substantial engagement, and this book
returns to them repeatedly; I will only offer a summary of my
response to them here. Speaking metaphysically, the value of this
language lies in its immense critical leverage, its potential for a
quite radical critique of the status quo. Admittedly the concept can
be ruthlessly simplifying, but it allows us to ˜˜denaturalize™™ reality
as we ¬nd it, to render radically contingent ˜˜the way the world is,™™
and thus to open up an imaginative space of incredible opportunity.
After all, the language of ˜˜the world™™ is irremediably a theological

6. Actually, Hamm says this twice; Beckett 1958: 53, 68. See Cavell 1976 and Adorno
2003b. These worries may be prominent among hardcore secularists, but they
can be shared by others; see, e.g., M. O. Boyle 1997.
36 A Theology of Public Life

language: it enables us to imagine the world as a contingent
expression of God™s will. The capacity to imagine this is central to
the Christian kerygma. God is always faithful, but God is also a
living God, always able to do an utterly surprising new thing,
swerving from our expectations, absolutely confounding our sinful
presumptions to know the course of history. Not to name the world
as ˜˜the world™™ would suggest otherwise: it would deny God™s
transcendence of creation. From a Christian perspective this would
be both wrong and self-mutilating, for it would ignore the escha-
tological dynamics which Christianity (for good and ill, we should
admit) contains.7
Speaking existentially, this suspicion™s roots are found in its
apparently supra-worldly ˜˜solution™™ to the tragedies of worldly
existence “ namely, the idea of grace, a force from outside the world
that ˜˜rescues™™ us. But rescues us from what? Is not such a ˜˜super-
natural™™ resolution to our problems simply an escapist pseudo-
resolution of our problems at the cost of genuine confrontation
with the serious challenges we face? To which we may reply that,
admittedly, bad uses of ˜˜world™™ language can encourage an escapist
mentality and work to dissipate or misdirect our energies. But the
problem here is the misuse of the language, indeed a misuse still
captive to a fundamentally immanentist imagination. Such bad
positions allow themselves to be partially de¬ned by a ˜˜worldly™™
horizon, and so indulge in otherworldly ressentiment precisely to the
degree that they accept the credibility of that ˜˜worldly™™ stance.8
Fear of such a ˜˜bad otherworldliness™™ cannot take center stage in
any elaboration of Christian life during the world.
After all, in one sense this proposal is otherworldly; for only if we
accept that our motives to love are not elicited or merited by what
we call the world, and hence need not seek ¬nal validation therein,
can we love the world as much as we want to. This is because our
love is, as are our lives, gratuitous. Our love for the world is
otherworldly in its origins, but it is equally a love for the world, as its

7. For examples of religion as a force for political reimagination, see Walzer 1970,
Hill 1991, and Tanner 1992.
8. I am not opposed to conceiving the church as the ultimate human community.
But the church cannot be understood via a derivative parallel to the world,
presuming a prior polis on which it is reactively modeled. See Mathewes 2000.
Introduction to Part I

object; only by accepting this love as otherworldly can we allow it to
be as thoroughly worldly as we wish it to be. In this way ˜˜other-
worldliness™™ enables its adherents to be more fully at home in the
world than ˜˜immanentists™™ can be, because it allows us not to
expect more from the world than it can provide, and thus not to be
disappointed by it. We can care for the world as much as we do only
if the source of our caring is not simply the world itself. In contrast,
it is immanentism that is truly unworldly, for it tries to bend our
transcendental longings back down into the world. Immanentism
turns out to be a failure of imagination, a kind of repetition-com-
pulsion: a refusal to see beyond (not see the beyond) the literal
givens of the world™s current con¬guration.9
Readers should not feel satis¬ed with these reassurances; the
temptation towards otherworldliness is perennial and radical, and
will not be neatly resolved during the world. But it is resistible.
Exploring this temptation, and suggesting ways perpetually to resist
it, form one of the themes of the rest of this book.

Is the project apocalyptic?
Another, deeper challenge to this account is that the language
of ˜˜the world™™ inevitably takes on an apocalyptic cast, encouraging
a presumptuous complacency wherein we identify our own expec-
tations for the future with God™s plan. Such critics worry that we
inevitably invest the idea of ˜˜the world™™ with too clear and certain a
pro¬le in our thought, and do not allow the unmooring of the world
from our expectations, and so it becomes little more than a pro-
jection device for our own wishes. Here the use of ˜˜world™™ language
is problematic, not so much in itself as in its ability to be bent back
into the service of our own self-interest. Not only is the language not
self-correcting, it also fails to get at the deepest root of the problem,
which is our attempt to control reality “ if not space, then even
more primordially, to control time. But we too are under God™s
judgment, and what we think and say we want must be relativized
as well.
This is the core of the Jewish critique of Christian claims
about Jesus™ being the Messiah. This worry is that Christianity is

9. See Santner 2001.
38 A Theology of Public Life

fundamentally apocalyptic, an ongoing attempt to demand the
Messiah “ that it is, in short, a vast, sacrilegious self-indulgence. (It
may also be one of the sources for post-modern critiques of Chris-
tianity as ˜˜onto-theology.™™) If Judaism is, as Michael Barnes has put
it, the ˜˜primary otherness™™ with which Christianity is inescapably
engaged, then this worry lies at the center of that engagement
(Barnes 2002: 200).10
One must admit the bite of such critiques. Judaism is more purely
advental; but almost from its beginnings, Christianity has been
¬nished. As we said, Christians live in the epilogue; we have, in an
important way, ¬nished our religious history. Even what is yet to
come has quite literally been ˜˜scripted™™ for us in the book of
Revelation. This is why apocalypticism is so fundamental a temp-
tation for Christianity. In fact Christians have exhibited a wild and
dangerous oscillation between emphasizing God™s absolute imman-
ence in history and God™s absolute transcendence of history. Human
history is charged with theophanic meanings, yet such a theophanic
presence in the world is always troubled by the memorial repetition
of our recognition of the absence of the yet to return Christ. Images
both can and cannot reveal God; history is both sacred and profane;
the world has and has not yet fully borne the weight of glory.
But Christians can frame these critiques internally to the lan-
guage of their faith. Apocalypticism is not only a fundamental
human temptation; it is one proper description of the root human
fault itself, the attempt to usurp God™s power as Lord of time, and as
such should always be resisted. Nonetheless, our resistance to
apocalyptic hyperbole cannot renounce the insight that that
hyperbole attempts to express “ that things today are not ultimately
as they will be. The sheer dismissal of apocalyptic proclamations,
and the repression of the emotions motivating those proclamations,
would encourage an unthinking acceptance of the status quo. As
Jurgen Moltmann has argued, ˜˜the loss of eschatology . . . has
always been the condition that makes possible the adaptation of
Christianity to its environment and . . . the self-surrender of faith™™
(1975: 41). We are better served if we recognize the value (and
stubborn persistence) of the religious longings and the eschato-
logical imagination, crystallized in ˜˜world™™ language, expressing

10. See Wyschogrod 1983, Rosenzweig 1985, and Novak 1989.
Introduction to Part I

those longings, and if we acknowledge our inescapable struggle to
resist the escapist temptations they present to us, rather than
imagine we could ever truly clip our religious wings. We need a
program of Christian formation that escapes the oscillation between
the mindsets of ˜˜apocalypse now™™ and ˜˜same as it ever was™™ “ a
program that takes these worries with real seriousness, as a dia-
gnosis of our sinfulness, yet still does not simply dismiss the ener-
gies that encourage bad apocalypticisms and settle back into a
resigned acceptance of the status quo. We must identify and resist
the many ways that the temptation towards ending manifests itself
in our lives, while still keeping us vulnerable to the idea that the
world we inhabit will, ˜˜in the end,™™ end.
In seeking such a program of Christian formation we ¬nd much
help in Augustine™s work. He was the ¬rst major ¬gure to use eschat-
ology to resist a too literal apocalypticism, even as he remained
convinced of the reality of the apocalypse.11 He was deeply sensitive to
the way humans could turn anything to sinful use, and he saw the
dangers of a Christian complacency all too vividly in the church of his
day. So his thought bears much promise for identifying and disarming
these apocalyptic temptations, especially if we further develop the
theological stance behind his own efforts to give determinate shape
and programmatic structure to the recognition of the historical
contingency of the created order.12 We can do that by drawing a dis-
tinction between what we can call the apocalyptic and the eschato-
logical imaginations.
Apocalypticism is fundamentally an epistemological attitude, a
claim already to know. The Greek word apokalypto means ˜˜to
unveil™™ or ˜˜disclose™™; it suggests a mindset that basically looks to
the future as an already determined and knowable reality. On this
de¬nition, ˜˜apocalypticism™™ is a form of eschatological meteorol-
ogy, of forecasting; in a weird way, to be apocalyptic is to be post-
apocalyptic “ to know already what is going to happen, and so to

11. See Pollmann 1999 and P. B. Harvey 1999.
12. The ˜˜apocalyptic™™ / ˜˜eschatological™™ contrast is not my own, though my use of
it is somewhat idiosyncratic. (There is a vast historical literature on
apocalypticism that I will not address.) A helpful and apparently similar
contrast is elaborated in Alison 1996; another is P. Miller 2000, esp. 156. See also
Keller 1996, S. O™Leary 1995, Boyer 1992, Harding 2000, and Bull 1995. For a
powerful and interesting critique of the ˜˜already™™/˜˜not yet™™ structure of much
eschatological thinking, see Jungel 1989.
40 A Theology of Public Life

treat it as the past. This is a deep human temptation, and illumi-
nates how we seek to understand history. Our desire to understand
history is actually a desire to be able to say what it meant ˜˜in the
end,™™ a desire to have it ¬nished, over “ so that this desire entails a
desire actually to escape history.13
In contrast, the eschatological imagination opposes all apoc-
alypticisms, all temptations to anticipate the end of time. The
eschatological imagination is most fundamentally ontological, for
the Greek work eschaton means ˜˜a limit,™™ ˜˜an edge,™™ or ˜˜an end.™™ It
is a way to refuse a false knowingness about the future, and hence
to enable real knowledge by keeping us open to the future and to
the ˜˜new thing™™ that God is always almost about to accomplish.
This imagination identi¬es the apocalyptic temptation as a temp-
tation towards endings, and in response to this temptation most
fundamentally enacts a resistance to our own sinful desire to end
things. Theologically speaking, this desire for endings is an attempt
to avoid God “ a way of escaping our actual responsibility to
understand and act in response to God™s action upon us. The world
will end, for the eschatological imagination; but we will not be the
ones to end it. God™s will is not captive to our expectations. The
lesson of providence is not that history can be ¬nally solved, like a
cryptogram, but that it must be endured, inhabited as a mystery
which we cannot fully understand from the inside, but which we
cannot escape of our own powers. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr,
history offers no progressive triumph of good over evil; if anything,
its tensions accentuate over time. We must not become too com-
fortable in any worldly dispensation, because we remain aware of
its difference from our proper dispensation.
This distinction between the apocalyptic and eschatological im-
aginations is palpable in many Christian beliefs and practices. First
of all, the church™s life is not simply a matter of marking time. We
remember Christ™s death and we proclaim his resurrection, even as we
await his coming in glory. That is, we have obligations to the past
and the present as well as to the future. But, as William Cavanaugh
puts it, ˜˜we live on borrowed time™™ (1998: 228): both past and pres-
ent are genuine sites of blessedness, insofar as they participate in
the eschatological redemption of all, a redemption inaugurated in

13. For examples see Eusebius 1976 and 1999.
Introduction to Part I

Jesus Christ. It is not simply that we don™t know yet what the
signi¬cance of the present, of history, is; from within history, its
signi¬cance is not yet fully determined. All of creation is a sentence
that God has begun to speak, but which is not yet completed, and so
we await its full meaning.
Of course, we should beware the temptation towards anti-
nomianism here as well. We should not jettison the apocalyptic texts
or thinkers from the tradition, or the eschatological energies they
express; to do so would be just another form of apocalyptic closure “
the closure of closure itself.14 The dangers of oversensitivity to the
apocalyptic temptation may be as great as indifference to it: speak-
ing of H. Richard Niebuhr, who powerfully voiced ˜˜Protestant™™
suspicions of any determinate expectation in eschatology, Harry
Stout suggests that ˜˜the lopsided praise of movement to the virtual
exclusion of order can yield the mistaken image of (to paraphrase
him) a church without creeds bringing people without codes into a
kingdom without structure through the ministrations of crises
without end™™ (1989: 98). Our waiting is a waiting for; our longing has
a positive content.
Still, the worry about apocalypticism™s temptations toward clo-
sure must remain; we must not ever let ourselves believe that we
have ˜˜¬nally™™ answered it conclusively. Christianity must perpe-
tually resist its own temptation towards concluding. We cannot ever
expect, in this dispensation, a conclusion of our concludings, a ¬nal
resolution of our desire for resolution. But the desire itself is sig-
ni¬cant; can we treat it not as an opponent to be defeated, but as a
lesson God is trying to teach us?
Augustinians certainly think so. Ever since Eden, sinful human-
ity™s basic mental framework for interpreting history has been
apocalyptic. Indeed, the Fall itself was the attempt by humans to
seize for themselves God™s sovereignty over all things, and one
fundamental form of God™s sovereignty is God™s sovereignty over
history. Sinful humanity imagines that such sovereignty can be
expressed only in mastery, and the only kind of mastery we imagine
is mastery over life; but we cannot give life, we can only take it
away, and so mastery for humanity is the power of destruction, of

14. On resisting both ˜˜closure of the world™™ and ˜˜closure of the text,™™ see
Keller 1996: 19“20.
42 A Theology of Public Life

death: humans, in seeking to be ˜˜like God,™™ are like God only in
mimicking God™s power to kill. Ever since Eden we have not just
been trying to claim the end of history; we have been trying to end
history “ not just to witness that end, but to be the agents of its
Such has been history™s perpetual face. But lately things have, if
anything, gotten worse. Our technology has caught up with that
desire, and now we can ful¬ll the very apocalyptic longings we are
supposed to have outgrown. Michel Foucault put it well: ˜˜For mil-
lennia man remained what he was for Aristotle: A living animal
with the additional capacity for a political existence. Modern man is
an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being
in question™™ (1981: 143). At no point in the past did we need to
confront our temptations towards apocalypticism as much as we do
today, when these temptations saturate our political landscapes.
This is so not only in regard to various millennial fringe groups,
violent or otherwise; nor is it simply so as regards much of
the contemporary populace, at least in the United States and in
much of the developing world (remember that the most popular
novels of the recent past have been the ˜˜Left Behind™™ series); most
importantly, it is so as regards almost all kinds of radical and
revolutionary politics, whether manifest on their face or buried in
the deep structures of their thought.15 To avoid confronting these
temptations to apocalypticism is to be at their mercy. We need to
think about apocalypticism precisely because it has become real
today in a way it has never been before.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And now that we have
identi¬ed and articulated some worries about this proposal, and
sketched how those worries do not immediately defeat the project,
we must (at last!) begin the project itself. We turn to that now.

15. See Boyer 1992 and 2005, M. A. Bernstein 1994, and Cook 2004. A challenging
counter-reading is Frykholm 2004, which I discuss in the Conclusion.

Life before God

What does it mean to have faith? What are the theological
preconditions of a life lived out of faith? Most fundamentally, to
have faith means to be determined, in two senses. First, it means to
be determined as regards one™s convictions “ to be con¬dent and
persevering in them. Second, it means to be determined as regards
one™s identity “ in the sense of moving from an indeterminate and
amorphous sense of self to a more de¬nite, determinate sense. So
understood, our ˜˜faith™™ de¬nes us, gives us a determinate identity,
which is manifest in the con¬dence with which we hold and express
our convictions.
But such ˜˜determination™™ has its dangers. It can ossify into the
apocalyptic determination of presumptuousness “ a conviction that
we know already who we will fully be, and who we will ultimately
become. We feel this temptation, and we feel it as a temptation,
because we know we are incomplete, and we feel that that is bad,
imperfect; absent such faith, the self may seem not a whole but as a
hole, a vacuum that needs ¬lling; much of our manic activity is
driven by our panicked recognition that we need to do something to
be a self (see Berger 1992: 111). Bad faith is a form of false closure, a
pseudo-resolution of our inescapable human openness, during the
Some suggest that because of this all faith should be avoided, that
we should live in determined resistance to such closure, in some
form or another of skeptical suspension. But such determined
resistance to determination is just one more form of bad faith.
Our easy opposition between skepticism and ˜˜¬delity™™ masks the
fact that real belief is dif¬cult to achieve, even among “ perhaps

44 A Theology of Public Life

especially among “ skepticism™s most ardent enemies. This is the
upshot of the last few decades of epistemological inquiry about the
˜˜groundlessness™™ of belief, and the inescapability of this condition:
we are always already in a series of ¬duciary relationships, always
already ˜˜faith-full™™ beings.1 We always need somewhere to stand,
when evaluating our convictions; there is always something taken
for granted.
What then should we do? We must acknowledge that determin-
ation, and faith, constitute our inescapable condition. Our saving
grace is that true faith, genuinely inhabited, is relational “ faith in
something outside ourselves. True relational faith directs, orients,
and opens us, in a way that will be resolved only eschatologically. In
the meantime we must learn to face the terror of an open, yet to be
determined, identity. As children, we go where we will; but when
we have a mature faith, we will be girded and taken where we do
not want to go.
Faith, then, is a way of talking about the relationship between a
living self and its sources of value, its identity, and its ultimate
being. Faith is trust, the trust that God is in charge of our lives, and
that it is God who makes our lives intelligible and narratable. To
talk about faith is to use a language of the self and its ˜˜god.™™ For
Christians, to be a self is to be a self before God, in intimate and
constituting relation with God. In talking about the Christian lan-
guage of faith, that is, we are trying to ¬nd a language through
which we can understand how we exist before God as selves.
This chapter explores Augustine™s grammar of this language
through detailing his theological anthropology “ his picture of the
human and its place in creation and before God, during the world.
Augustine™s importance to philosophical and theological anthro-
pology, and its importance to his thought, cannot be denied.2 Yet
while Augustine™s position is often praised in general terms, its
details are typically kept comfortably at arm™s length, because it
seems too paradoxical to do what it seems to want to do. To be
precise, two apparent paradoxes obstruct the full appreciation and
appropriation of Augustine™s thought by contemporary thinkers.

1. See M. Williams 1977, Cavell 1979, Plantinga 1993, and Foley 1993.
2. For the ambitious nature of Augustine™s anthropology see van Bavel 1987: 27,
and Burnell 2005.
Life before God

The ¬rst concerns the nature of mind or human knowledge, and is
captured in the claim that all knowledge is mediated by self-
knowledge, and that self-knowledge is itself mediated by knowledge
of God; to realize objective truth one must turn inward to the sub-
ject, and thereby outward to God. The second paradox concerns the
nature of human agency, and is captured in the claim that the self is
perfectly free when it is perfectly determined by God; true freedom
is found not only through but even in the divine imposition of pre-
venient grace. Many people ¬nd both claims dif¬cult to understand.
How can subjectivity lead to objectivity? And how can freedom be
realized in and through servitude?
In fact the dif¬culties vexing our understanding of Augustine™s
position re¬‚ect problems vexing our own purportedly superior
anthropologies, for it is precisely our modern philosophical cat-
egories that obstruct our understanding and appreciation of
Augustine. Indeed, both of the puzzles described above are caused
by a common ¬‚awed conception of autonomy. We commonly
understand autonomy to mean the subject™s independence from
outside in¬‚uence or formation; we thus take human knowing to be
a matter of matching subjective mental constructs with the ˜˜out-
side™™ world, and human freedom to be a matter of spontaneous
subjective decisions sparking our bodies to act in that world. I call
this a ˜˜subjectivist™™ conception of human being, because it invests
the human subject with priority in its existence; it assumes that our
knowing and believing, desiring and willing originate sponta-
neously in us, not as responses to what realities outside the subject
do to and through us. It offers us a language for understanding our
lives whose primary verb tense is active: the human knows, does, is.
This account is most fundamentally characterized by the priority it
gives human activity. Furthermore, it tends towards solipsism, for
on subjectivist grounds, as Emerson said, ˜˜use what language we
will, we can never say anything but what we are™™ (Emerson 1957:
271); and while transcendentalists may ¬nd comfort in that solip-
sistic narcissism, others might ¬nd it too cramping.3
While this modern model has permeated our language and our
consciousness, complaints about it are common. It is criticized as
conceptually incoherent, morally and politically problematic, and

3. See e.g. Connolly 1999.
46 A Theology of Public Life

theologically suspect. And it is all those things. But complaints
alone will never dislodge it from our mindset. For that we need a
better picture of human being, one that depicts us as we really are “
one sensitive to the intricate interrelationship between our activ-
ities as thinking, willing, and acting beings, and the enframing
reality which elicits our activities. As Gary Watson puts it, we must
¬nd ˜˜room in the world for ourselves™™ (Watson 1982: 14).
Augustine is often identi¬ed as the crucial ancestor of modern
subjectivist anthropologies. His work is said to underwrite both
Cartesian philosophy of mind and voluntarist theories of agency; he
is accused of inventing the inner and inventing the will. And one
cannot deny that Augustine™s writings did indeed play a role in
these developments. But these positions are actually misreadings of
Augustine™s views. In fact his actual account not only resists Cart-
esian and voluntarist pictures “ pictures which his thought diag-
noses as building out of convictions about the human that are
themselves derivative of our sinful superbia “ but also offers a radical
alternative to them. Proper Augustinian anthropology understands
human agency as always already related both to God and to the
world, thereby chastening modern predilections for absolute
autonomy while still af¬rming the individual™s importance.4
Hence the air of paradox surrounding Augustine™s anthro-
pological claims arises from errors not in his views but in our own.
For his two (to us) troublesome statements af¬rm important truths
about the human, truths we must acknowledge today. And his
account depicts the human condition (which is also the human
dilemma) more comprehensively and accurately than any of the
modern alternatives we presently possess. Most fundamentally, this
account offers us a language for understanding human being whose
fundamental verb tense is passive: the human is created, is known,
is, to paraphrase Luther, more fundamentally acted upon than act-
ing. To appreciate this, we must exorcise the received, putatively
˜˜neutral™™ philosophical categories in which Augustine™s account is
often presented, and replace them with a more theologically rich
and supple vocabulary. The upshot of this exorcism will be a new
understanding of what faithful existence before God looks like on

4. For a richly historical discussion of the nature of selfhood and relationality in
Augustine™s era, see Conybeare 2000: 131“60.
Life before God

Augustinian terms “ how it understands the human activities of
knowing and acting as kenotic responses to God™s eschatologically
oriented primordial knowing and acting. Faith is not so much a state
as it is an ascetical virtue: a form of interpretive orientation that
resolves interpretive dif¬culties only by reorienting one™s attention
towards far more profoundly irresolvable mysteries. To have faith is
to be a self; but to be a self for Augustine is not a self-enclosed
cognition, but rather to be related to God in a certain way, as
remembered by (and remembering) God, known by (and knowing)
God, and willed by (and willing) God (de Trin. 14.12). To have faith is
to ˜˜know™™ oneself as determined by another, radically transcendent
but also absolutely immanent, reality: and that is what all call God.
Or so this chapter argues, ¬rst in terms of Augustine™s episte-
mology, then in terms of his theory of agency. It concludes by
showing how this thoroughly theological and eschatological
account of human life during the world helps us develop a political
theology based on a dynamic engagement with the world, to be
spelled out in the following chapters. While many think Augustine™s
work overemphasizes human interiority, they miss the basic dyna-
mic relationship of ˜˜interiority™™ and ˜˜exteriority™™ that actually
governs his overall view. The crucial insight that his account brings
to this project is the confounding of interiority and exteriority in
God™s creative and consummative action; and we will see it reappear
again and again throughout this work.

Augustinian epistemology: against Platonic idealism
Augustine™s epistemology, and his philosophy of mind more
generally, are simultaneously deeply interesting and deeply per-
plexing. His basic epistemological move is inward; he emphasizes
the interiority of the subject in a way that seems to undermine the
importance of the external world. Yet he also sharply criticizes
solipsism and skepticism, af¬rming our power to know objective
truth. So Augustine can seem to be everywhere at once: equally the
discoverer of the individual™s interiority and the great apologist for
the necessary role of dogmatic communal authority in intellectual
activity.5 Accordingly his texts seem, to modern readers, riddled

5. See Taylor 1989, MacIntyre 1988, and Crouse 1976.
48 A Theology of Public Life

with contradictions that cannot be explained by conscious changes
of mind or patterns of development. But when properly understood,
his account helps transform both the terms and the framework of
our epistemology.
First of all we must understand Augustine™s account as an
extended critical engagement with a view with which it is often,
ironically enough, identi¬ed “ namely, Platonism. ˜˜Platonism™™ in
contemporary philosophy most commonly functions as a straw, a
dif¬culty in taking seriously the reality and signi¬cance of the
material world “ a dif¬culty that signi¬es some sort of other-
worldliness or even anti-worldliness in the thinker who stands so
accused. The issues of historical in¬‚uence and appropriation, let
alone what should count as ˜˜Platonism™™ and what should not (and
how it is related to what Plato wrote or taught), are enormously
complicated, and I make no pretense of resolving them here. Still,
many thinkers have noted the deeply Platonic-sounding formula-
tions pervading Augustine™s writing, and some argue that he in
some way ˜˜Christianized™™ Platonism, either baptizing it or, even
worse, merely slapping a Christian veneer on what was essentially a
(presumably non-Christian) Platonic philosophy. However, we
should note what is rarely noted: Augustine was at least as critical as
he was laudatory of Platonism, and if we attend to his criticisms we
may develop a more nuanced appreciation of his engagement with
Platonic thought more generally.6
In fact his accusations against ˜˜Platonism™™ arguably echo con-
temporary philosophical critique of Platonist philosophical stances.
But Augustine goes deeper than contemporary philosophers do,
offering an ontological critique of Platonism: in his account, Plato-
nists depict our relation to the world as fundamentally contingent and
properly accidental. They come to epistemological grief because of
this depiction, for by assuming it they cannot grant full legitimacy to
knowledge of worldly realities, but instead see all such ˜˜earthly™™
knowledge as essentially pseudo-knowledge, at best opaquely con-
veying the luminous truths that stand behind, but fundamentally
unconnected to, it. And Augustine builds his own epistemology
explicitly in opposition to this view. For him, humans are created as

6. For the best recent account making much (much too much, in my opinion) of
Augustine™s debts to Platonism in his philosophy of mind, see Cary 2000.
Life before God

fully part of a larger creation, and thus our knowledge of it is
genuine and authentic “ albeit muddled, shadowy and broken by our
corruption in sin, as all our knowledge is and shall be until the
eschaton. But our sinful epistemological condition gives us no
grounds for a radical resentment of materiality, as it does (on
Augustine™s understanding) for Platonists; rather, our condition
should make us more fully aware of our sinfulness and long for the
day we truly know all things, including the grains of sand and the
sparrows of our world. Hence the problem with Platonists is not that
they recognize some tension and occasional ill ¬t between ourselves
and ˜˜existence™™ “ any minimally plausible account of humans must
do that “ but rather that they conclude, on the basis of this ill ¬t, that
we properly belong to another world, a world elsewhere. In contrast,
Augustine thinks, we must trust the sincerity of God™s creative
act, and be committed to the world; for we are part of it, and in
some sense unimaginable as detached therefrom. Far from being a
˜˜Platonist,™™ Augustine™s project is fundamentally oriented towards
subverting the Platonic temptations towards imagining another
world as our home.
To grasp this critique, however, we must begin where we are,
with the epistemological categories we have today; as they are the
ones we use to try, unsuccessfully, to understand Augustine, we
must come to see why they must be transcended.

Mind™s relationship to world
Our perplexities with Augustine™s philosophy of mind arise
because we read him as if he alternately advocated one or the other
of two Procrustean positions that contemporary epistemology treats
as mutually exclusive “ epistemological internalism and external-
ism. The modern debate between advocates of these positions
revolves around the question of epistemic justi¬cation or warrant
for our beliefs, although the issues involved are ultimately not
simply epistemological but also metaphysical, concerned with the
relation of mind and world, subjectivity and objectivity.7 Internal-
ists argue that individuals are responsible for their epistemic
apprehension of the world; the mind, that is, must somehow

7. See Foley 1993.
50 A Theology of Public Life

establish its relations to the world, typically by constructing some
inner ˜˜picture™™ of that world. In contrast, externalists argue that an
individual™s epistemic standing is generally determined by external
factors such that, rather than creating the world, the mind is
somehow created by it. Each has legitimate concerns about the
other. Internalists accuse externalists of reductionism, of annihi-
lating subjectivity in favor of a scientistic reduction of agency to
nomological causality. Externalists accuse internalists of idealism,
of so bloating subjectivity that it cannot accommodate any real
concept of a world outside the self at all. Both express an acute
anxiety about the proper place of the mind ˜˜in™™ the world, about
¬nding room in the world for our minds.
Aspects of this debate would sound familiar to Augustine. But the
debate itself would bewilder him. Understanding that bewilderment
can provoke a fruitful and transformative discomfort with the
contemporary options. With the externalists, Augustine argues that
our beliefs are largely beyond our control, because our minds are
deeply responsive to extra-mental realities. But with the internalists
he argues that our mental existence cannot be reduced to material-
nomological causality, and that we remain importantly responsible
for shaping our beliefs. According to him, epistemic justi¬cation
does take place within the roughly autonomous space of sub-
jectivity, but such justi¬cation proceeds only by af¬rming that an
irreducible otherness stands at the heart of that subjectivity “ the
otherness of God. Augustine anchors his external realism, that is, in
the inwardness of the mind™s discernment of God. Objectivity is
realized through subjectivity, but only because subjectivity has at its
heart an objective reality.
A sketch of his epistemological development helps explain these
claims. Augustine ¬rst formulates his position in arguments with
Manichean rationalists and Academic skeptics. He tries to steer a
middle course. Against the Academics™ epistemic despair, exhibited
in proposals for the total suspension of belief, he af¬rms that epis-
temic commitment is necessary and legitimate and that real knowl-
edge is possible. Against the Manichees™ rationalist complacencies,
however, he argues that real knowledge is dif¬cult to achieve and
requires commitment to complex, communally authorized dis-
ciplines of belief formation and evaluation. In Augustine™s view, we
begin with innumerable beliefs, including some that we cannot
Life before God

doubt, some we can doubt, and some we ought to doubt; but our
epistemic abilities are perverted by sin, and so working towards a
more truthful knowledge requires real effort (and indeed communal
effort). We are responsible for reforming our epistemic faculties in
order to be positioned properly to secure true knowledge.8
Augustine™s picture of the human inquirer reveals more general
facets of his anthropology, for he understands epistemology to be
part of the larger soteriological aim of human existence. Knowing
cannot be understood in isolation from the larger human project;
we acquire salvi¬c knowledge by participating in a community
seeking salvation, and this participation reveals to us what we have
˜˜really™™ wanted all along. Thus what begins as a critique of episte-
mological skepticism turns out to be, ultimately, a rich picture of
the self as broadly ˜˜determined™™ as to its loves and, through its
loves, its beliefs.9
Augustine most closely approaches epistemological externalism
in de Trinitate™s critique of the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, or
recollection, which he takes to claim ˜˜that the souls of men had
lived here even before they wore these bodies, and therefore
learning things is more a remembering of things already known
than a getting to know new things.™™ On this picture, the self™s
relation to everything, including itself, relies upon some ontological
form of ˜˜prior consent,™™ so to speak “ some sense that our approval
is primordial. This is a sort of ontological contract theory; in its
˜˜original position,™™ so to speak, reality is presented to us as some-
thing which we can take or leave.10
Augustine argues that this does not make proper sense of the
human capacities to know things, as it seems to imply that everyone
must have been a complete genius in a past life, in order to ensure
that all we know, we ˜˜know already™™ in a sense; yet ˜˜it is unlikely
that everybody was a geometer in a previous life, seeing that they

8. See Augustine™s contra acad. and DUC for these arguments, and Collinge 1988;
for contemporary elaborations and developments, see Wolterstorff 1984 and
Aquino 2004. For a more technical analysis of such distortions, see Elster 1983.
9. See Gen. ad litt. books 7“9. See also Mathewes 2002a. In arguing that we are most
fundamentally beings who love, Augustine™s position resonates with some
major work in recent philosophical anthropology on ˜˜the importance of what
we care about.™™ See Frankfurt 1988, Taylor 1989, Lear 1990, and McDowell 1994.
10. I do not think this was Plato™s own doctrine; see Republic III, 412e“413b, on
voluntariness and involuntariness in belief formation. For a general account of
what Augustine is trying to do here see Ayres 1992 and 1995.
52 A Theology of Public Life

are such a rarity in the human race that it is a job even to ¬nd one™™
(de Trin. 12.24). Knowledge due to precognition by the soul in some
preexistence does not resolve the epistemological problem, it
merely pushes the puzzle one step further back, where the question
arises again: How do we come to know in the ¬rst place? August-
ine™s response is telling:
The conclusion we should rather draw is that the nature of the
mind has been so established by the disposition of its creator that it
is subjoined [subiunctum “ ˜˜joined under™™] to intelligible things in
the order of nature, and so it sees such truths in a kind of non-bodily
light that is sui generis, just as our eyes of ¬‚esh see all things that lie
around us in this bodily light, a light they were created to be
receptive of and to match. It is not because the eyes already knew
the difference between black and white before they were created in
this ¬‚esh, that they can tell the difference now without being
taught it. (De Trin. 12.24)
Our most basic epistemic relation to reality is not achieved through
heroic agential activity, not even via ˜˜recollection™™; rather, our
minds are ˜˜created to be receptive of™™ reality, and God has ˜˜sub-
joined™™ the knower to the known.
The root problem for Platonists, Augustine thinks, is that they
assume that knowing creation is a derivative exercise of the intel-
lect, not what the mind was made for. For Augustine, in contrast “ at
least by the time he wrote de Trinitate “ the activity of knowing
creation is much more fundamental to the mind™s existence. Indeed,
we might say that we are created to know both creation (ourselves
included) and God, and the proper question of epistemology is how
those two are related.
Augustine™s critique is not simply a narrow technical criticism of a
bad philosophical argument; it reveals a fundamentally different
understanding of humanity™s relationship to the world. This becomes
clear when we note the otherworldly trajectories that a Platonist
epistemology may tacitly encourage. It suggests that knowing is an
activity primarily directed at extra-worldly objects, only derivatively
diverted to this-worldly, ˜˜mundane™™ objects, and thereby implies
that the activity of knowing is not primarily an activity at home in
this world. By refusing this epistemology, Augustine closes off a very
powerful temptation towards otherworldliness.
Life before God

One may think this is taking things a bit too far. Is not Augustine
at least Platonic in deploying a psychology “ a picture of the soul “
in which memory plays a considerable part? But here again, surface
similarities between Platonists™ discussions of memory and August-
ine™s memoria mask fundamental differences. Augustine rejects
more than the Platonist picture of how the mind relates to the
external material world; he makes parallel arguments in discussing
the self™s interiority and in particular its self-knowledge. He argues
that the mind is created by God in a way that entails its direct (if
partial) acquaintance not only with its world, but with itself and its
God “ direct in the sense of unmediated by any faculty or power of
memoria. This claim makes its appearance as early as de magistro™s
discussion of Christ as the ˜˜Inner Teacher,™™ and by the time he
wrote the mature de Trinitate he explicitly rejects the belief that
there was a time when memoria was wholly ˜˜potential,™™ simply a
space in which to store future memories. If memoria were initially
mere potential, then it could not be the self™s ineradicable basis; but
it is just this inescapable self-presence that, for Augustine, phe-
nomenological attention to ourselves evidences (and which, incid-
entally, demonstrates the falsity of the skeptic™s claims to the
possibility of total suspension of commitment).11 He holds that, on
the contrary, memoria is not a capacity but an actuality, a presence,
the necessary presence of the self to itself: ˜˜The mind, after all, is
not adventitious to itself,™™ Augustine argues,
as though the mind-which-was-not-yet came from somewhere else
to the same mind-which-already-was;12 or as though it did not come
from somewhere else, but in the mind-which-already-was should be
born the same mind-which-was-not-yet, just as in the mind-which-
already-was arises a faith-which-was-not-before; or as though after
getting to know itself it should by recollection see itself ¬xed in its
own memory, as if it had not been there before it got to know itself.
˜˜The truth,™™ Augustine concludes, ˜˜is that from the moment it
began to be it never stopped remembering itself, never stopped
understanding itself, never stopped loving itself™™ (de Trin. 14.13).
The mind™s self-awareness is not accidental; it is the necessary self-
presence that enables the self to act and to re¬‚ect.

11. See Burnyeat 1987.
12. I have reversed the two terms of this contrast for clarity™s sake.
54 A Theology of Public Life

While the reality of this ineradicable self-presence seems to
establish a special sui generis space for the mind, in fact it entails the
opposite: the mind is not its own self-enclosed reality. According to
Augustine, we must trust in interior realities as much as in exterior
ones, because God is at the core of both. Because Augustine™s epis-
temology is Christoform, even in our knowing we are subject to a
divine other. De magistro™s theological claim that Christ is ˜˜the inner
teacher™™ bears deep epistemological and ontological implications:
the ineliminable presence of the Logos in the world is the condition
for the world™s intelligibility. Christ™s presence within the soul is
more a transcendental presupposition of our constitution than a
positivistic observation; wherever truth is, there is Christ.13 The
mind is not in the Cartesian cogito™s nowhere, with epistemic
relations to the ˜˜outside world™™ that are fundamentally contingent;
rather, the self knows itself as already, and indeed always already, a
self in the world and before God. Even before exerting any effort, it
cannot help but know God “ for, as Augustine says, ˜˜God is closer to
me than myself™™ (interior intimo meo) (conf. 3.6; see also 10.16“27).
Our recognition of God™s primordial presence in the self should
undo our pretensions to solipsism, and help us see how our rela-
tions to the world “ particularly our dependence on various
authorities to inform our minds and our desires “ are also ˜˜inter-
nal™™ to the self, not accidental to its constitution. So while August-
ine™s analysis of memoria may appear similar to Platonism, and may
appear to warrant a straightforwardly internalist picture of the
mind, in fact it entails that the self is externally determined even in
self-knowledge “ that the self, in knowing itself, no more episte-
mically bootstraps its way to cognition than it does in knowing
the outer world. The self™s epistemic reality is fundamentally given
to it, and the self is ˜˜warranted™™ in believing in those realities
because it cannot ¬nd a way to disbelieve them. Talk of the self™s
˜˜interiority™™ misleads if one imagines it (as is usual) as a sort of
inner private chamber; interiority is rather a way of conceiving the
fact that the self is, at its base, always facing the reality of God.
Augustine™s putative internalism is turned inside out, and it turns
out to look quite a lot like epistemological externalism; but this

13. See DVR 30.56“31.58, and 43.81“44.82, Burnyeat 1987, and Cloeren 1985.
Life before God

semi-externalism is warranted by seemingly internalist ontological
arguments about the nature of the mind™s interiority.
Such modern categories simply cannot be workably applied to
Augustine™s thought. The distinction between externalism and
internalism, so popular in modern thought, distorts the complex-
ities of human existence that Augustine so meticulously untangles
and details. We should conclude, that is, that the terms themselves
need to be at least transformed, if not transcended.

A contemporary Augustinian epistemology
An Augustinian epistemology can incorporate what is good
and true in both internalism and externalism while responding to
the concerns about each. Internalists are often accused of sub-
jectivist relativism, but Augustine™s account understands sub-
jectivity as always already involved with an objective reality that it
cannot ignore, but at best (and at worst) can only deny. (Hence the
primordial epistemological problem is not simple error, but self-
deception.) On the other hand, externalists are often accused of
being ¬deists, whose theories of purely external ˜˜warrant™™ win only
a Pyrrhic victory because they apparently eliminate any legit-
imization beyond the simple fact of belief, hence reducing our
cognitive responsibilities in ways that make us epistemically indis-
tinguishable from thermometers, merely gauging changes in our
environment; but Augustine™s account acknowledges the agent™s
responsibility for her or his own epistemological proper functioning “
not through direct voluntary control over belief, but through the
agent™s indirect voluntary in¬‚uence over the conditions that pro-
duce her or his beliefs. And because Augustine acknowledges this,
he commends certain activities “ both solitary introspective and
communal confessional ones “ that help reconstruct certain reli-
giously and morally signi¬cant epistemic modules.14 While we
cannot choose our beliefs, we can, to some degree, choose the
communities that will shape our beliefs.
Nonetheless, while these activities have as an indirect bene¬t the
creation of epistemic warrant “ by shaping our epistemic modules
to modify what we are warranted in believing “ that is not their

14. See Alston 1991, Audi 1986: 165, and McDowell 1995: 882.
56 A Theology of Public Life

main end, nor is it of salvi¬c importance. Augustine argues that
epistemology is not an a priori necessary prelude to positive inquiry;
we need it to get to God only because our minds have been
deformed by sin. Furthermore, Augustine™s acknowledgment of
individual responsibility for, and participation in, the reconstruc-
tion of one™s epistemic framework does not undermine the broader
picture of the self as determined in its beliefs by things beyond its
control. Our lives™ meaning is found, not in the production of true
beliefs (were it so, we might happily pass our days adding numbers
together), but in a loving relationship with God and our neighbor;
and insofar as that relationship eventuates in knowledge, it is not
the representational activity of a mental projector on the window-
less inside wall of our skull, but a knowledge that we suffer by
acknowledging that God and the neighbor present themselves to us,
unmediated by any subjective scrim. Knowledge is not most fun-
damentally an achievement but a suffering of presence, one we
confess more fundamentally than we achieve.15
One might say that we work out our epistemic responsibilities in
fear and trembling. For Augustine, the fact of our responsibility does
not deny the relevance of external determinants. While we need
(and are responsible for) some voluntary introspective practices to
reform our ways of believing, we should avoid ˜˜naturalizing™™ such
practices into a general ˜˜epistemic voluntarism™™ because we need
such practices only because of our sin. Sin introduces us to episte-
mology™s discipline “ or better, sin introduces that discipline into
us: the Fall affects our minds by disordering our wills, and we must
engage in voluntary, ad hoc, and more or less ramshackle practices
to recover (or better, to re-receive) our epistemological openness to
God and the world.16 With St. Paul, Augustine thinks that our pres-
ent vision is only partial and that our voluntary believing will be
transformed into indubitable (hence involuntary) knowledge.
This epistemological lesson, about the self™s epistemic apprehen-
sions as externally warranted, is part of a larger lesson we should

15. On knowledge as suffering, see Ochs 2000: 64; see also Lash 1988: 217: ˜˜It only
seems easy to speak about our experience and knowledge of God and his ways
in the measure that we insulate our religious speech and theological
imagination from the endlessly complex and disturbing world in which that
speech ¬nds reference.™™ I thank Paul Macdonald for conversations regarding
these matters.
16. For ways to develop this project, see Foley 1993 and Zagzebski 1996.
Life before God

learn: the ineradicable tension between the person and God. For
Augustine, epistemological relations are in some sense ¬nally
reducible to theological ones. Our intellectual nature is just as
created as our material nature, and it is not the human™s action ˜˜out
into™™ the world, but God™s action on the soul, that is the funda-
mental fact from which epistemology must begin. This relationship
is seen not only in the givenness of epistemic self-presence “ the
self-presence that vexes the Academic skeptics “ but also, and per-
haps more fully, in the ontological and axiological givenness of the
self™s loves, in the always already present claim on the self of some
value-creating and value-sustaining commitments to the world.
Memoria and mens are thus only part of the story; we must also
acknowledge the self™s amor, love or ˜˜attunement,™™ and through
amor the orientation of the self™s voluntas, or will. Augustine™s
epistemology turns into ontology, and this ontology ¬nally turns
out to be theology.

Augustinian agency
Augustine thus commends our cultivation of epistemological
practices for ultimately soteriological “ that is, practical “ purposes.
Yet this shift from a concern with knowledge to a concern with action
can seem simply to ¬‚ip us from the frying pan into the ¬re, for, like
his epistemology, Augustine™s account of human action seems both
deeply interesting and deeply perplexing, and for the same reasons.17
His fundamental claim is that human freedom is achieved in the
imposition of divine sovereignty, that true liberty is realized in ser-
vitude. How can this be? Most scholars think that Augustine™s
account fails; they think his absolutist account of grace is simply
incompatible with true human freedom. Others, most prominently
James Wetzel, argue that his work is actually a subtle and complex
form of Stoic compatibilism refashioned in Christian terms.18 Both
sides agree that his position is indefensible “ that he cannot correctly
af¬rm genuine human freedom and genuine divine sovereignty.

17. As will become clear in this chapter, there is an indirect relationship between
these debates about action and current epistemological debates. See Mele 1995:
173, where he argues for a ˜˜negative historical constraint™™ on autonomy. For
extended re¬‚ection on this see McDowell 1992.
18. For the former, see Burnaby 1938; for the latter, see Wetzel 1992 and Djuth
58 A Theology of Public Life

This debate has precedents reaching back even to Augustine™s
contemporaries, and this very dichotomy was urged on him by his
Pelagian opponents. But he himself resisted both options as Pro-
crustean temptations, and we can follow him in af¬rming both
human and divine freedom. Augustine™s account does not, despite
received theological lore, utterly reject human freedom in favor of
grace; on the contrary, grace is freedom. But to understand this
requires reconceiving freedom and, through it, grace.

The problem of agency
As in the case of the apparently con¬‚icting elements in
Augustine™s epistemology, our confusion about Augustine™s account
of agency is interestingly related to contemporary debates about the
nature of action and free will, particularly the debate between
˜˜compatibilist™™ and ˜˜incompatibilist™™ accounts of free will.
˜˜Incompatibilists™™ claim that human agents are effectively autono-
mous, in some sense spontaneous springs of action, while ˜˜compa-
tibilists™™ claim that humans are simply parts of a larger causal
framework that begins and ends outside of them.19 This debate is
ultimately about the place of human agency in human nature, the
role of freedom in our personhood. But this debate seems destined to
end in stalemate, for, on our received understanding of agency, it
seems impossible to reconcile freedom with our existence as worldly,
as having a world. In part, this problem is due to misconstruals of
what it is to exist in a world, as philosophers of both the continental
and analytic persuasion have argued.20 But it is also in part due to
misconstruals of what freedom really is.
A satisfactory account of agency will combine broadly voluntarist
intuitions about ˜˜the importance of what we care about™™ in making
our willing genuinely ours, with broadly cognitivist intuitions about
the necessary coherence of our motivational affections and our
evaluational judgments. One of the best such accounts is offered by
Susan Wolf. She acknowledges that the world plays an important

19. See Watson 1982. For good presentations of libertarianism, see van Inwagen
1983 and Clarke 2003.
20. See Dreyfus 1991 and Lear 1990.
Life before God

part in free agency, but she does not explain precisely how that fact
should change our understanding of agency.21 She acknowledges
that the world has a normative structure of right and wrong, and that
that normative structure determines the character of some human
action “ action that is reasonable and intelligible, because it is good.
Thus for Wolf freedom is asymmetrical: explanations of bad actions
can appeal only to the fact of human choice, while explanations of
good actions can appeal also to the way the world is. (The good action
can be explained by some version of the claim that ˜˜the agent saw
the right thing to do, and did that,™™ where ˜˜the right thing to do™™ is
visibly, perhaps we would say obviously, the right thing not only to
the agent, but also to us, assumed to be impartial judges from the
point of view of the universe, so to speak.) Bad action is ¬nally
inexplicable and indeterminate, while good action can have a legit-
imate explanation and hence can be seen as determined.
But while Wolf properly points out the asymmetry in freedom, she
does not develop the obvious implications of her insight, namely,
that human agency is bound up in important ways with an external
˜˜natural™™ structure.22 Augustine does just this. His treatment of
agency is not only more coherent than his modern critics suggest; it
can also show us a way out of the swamp in which some of the best
contemporary treatments of freedom are mired. Crucial here will be
how his theological anthropology accommodates the best of what
modern concepts of autonomy offer without obliging us to accept
their ideologically modern baggage. We will see how next.

Sin, freedom, and grace
Augustine conceives of freedom and autonomy in terms of
integrity “ the full integration of a person™s decisions and desires,

21. The following summary uses Wolf 1986 and 1990. My criticisms of Wolf here
parallel those of Wetzel 1992.
22. Wolf™s sense of ˜˜determinism™™ equivocates between hard determinism, in
which the good™s sway on us is best described as a form of control, and soft
determinism, whereby we ˜˜determine™™ ourselves to be governed by the good
in a way that leaves undisturbed the questions of so-called ˜˜metaphysical™™
freedom. But surely on the latter account, the will may now be psychologically
determined to do the good “ and morally incapable of doing otherwise “ only
on the assumption that at some prior point the will freely chose to act in such a
way that it would become so determined. On this see B. Williams 1995, and van
Inwagen 1989. For a similar proposal to Wolf™s, see R. Stout 1996.
60 A Theology of Public Life

her willing and her wanting “ in a way that indirectly implicates the
external world in the achievement of freedom. In Augustine™s view,
freedom is a matter of having an integrated and hence intelligible
will “ a will that is yours because you can make sense of its com-
mands.23 This condition of intelligibility relates freedom to extra-
subjective reality through the object-directed nature of desire. On
Augustine™s model, one has true freedom if one™s will is the integral
expression of one™s desires, desires that are construed as properly
basic “ that is, not ultimately under one™s voluntary control (as if a
perpetual regress ending only in a voluntaristic ¬at of ˜˜decisive-
ness™™ were a form of control [pace Frankfurt 1988: 168“70]), but are
expressions of the agent™s nature. Without such integration, the
will™s irrationality forbids us from seeing it as in any important way
our own.
Augustine™s account depicts us as free, and hence autonomous,
not simply when our wills take a certain shape, but when we
love (and thus will) a certain end. And his faith that God created
the world good allows him to make two basic claims about our
present state of disintegration, one about its cause and one about
its cure.
First, the introduction of evil into a wholly good creation is fun-
damentally a negative act “ ontologically privational and hence
intellectually incomprehensible. That such an act is strictly speak-
ing inexplicable (and even inconceivable) does not, alas, render it
impossible; rather, it tells us something of the nature of wicked acts
themselves. They are at heart purely negative, a nay-saying to the
world, and hence most fundamentally done not out of bad reasons
but rather out of no reason at all. Having asked, ˜˜How can a nature
which is good, however changeable, before it has an evil will, be the
cause of any evil “ the cause, that is, of that evil will itself?™™
Augustine could only answer that the human capacity for arational
revolt is simply part of what it means to have free will (DCD 12.6).
Sin is the perverse manifestation of our godlike faculty of freedom,

23. For good discussions of this see de Trin. 15.38, ennar. 121.1, and conf. 13.10. John
Burnaby puts it well: love for Augustine is the motus animi, the movement of the
soul, and hence it is not simply an emotion but rather ˜˜the directive energy of
the will in its most general aspect™™ (1938: 94).
Life before God

the ex nihilo that stays nihilum. There is no ef¬cient cause, only a
de¬cient one:
One should not try to ¬nd an ef¬cient cause for a wrong choice. It is
not a matter of ef¬ciency, but of de¬ciency; the evil will is not
effective but defective. For to begin to have an evil will, is to defect
from Him who is the Supreme Existence, to something of less
reality. To try to discover the causes of such defections “ de¬cient,
not ef¬cient causes “ is like trying to see darkness, or hear silence.
Augustine concludes that there is ˜˜no ef¬cient natural or (if we may
so call it) ˜essential™ cause of evil choice, since the evil of mutable
spirits arises from the evil choice itself, [which] diminishes and
corrupts the goodness of nature.™™ This causa de¬ciens, this de¬cient
causality, has its own proper description wholly in what it is not, in
its failure to be a good act: ˜˜And this evil choice consists solely in
falling away from God and deserting him, a defection whose cause is
de¬cient, in the sense of being wanting “ for there is no cause™™ (DCD
12.7). As T. D. J. Chappell argues, an act of original wickedness, which
divides a previously good will and leads to the habituation of sin, is
built on folly, on no good reason at all.24 To seek a ˜˜cause™™ for sin is to
try to render it intelligible, and hence to render it explicable, but that
would bring it back into the explanatory fabric of the cosmos, the
violation of which is what sin quite literally is.
Second, sin is a one-way street. Though we may call it folly, it
alienates us from ourselves and destroys the integrity of will and
desire with which we were created. The will guides the agent
according to what the will loves; good action is the action of an
integrated self while wicked action is not. But an agent, once gone
wrong, cannot reintegrate herself; for the only instrument she
would have for such reintegration is itself sullied by the disin-
tegration. The self™s decision to love the wrong end can never suc-
ceed, for the self is hard-wired to seek right relationship with God;
yet if it attempts to return to loving the right ends, it ¬nds that its
continued attraction (or addiction) to wrong loves prevents such a
conversion. In this state of disintegration, the self still possesses
freedom of choice, but its loves are internally divided and so
the will, enslaved by its own free choice, cannot will anything
fully. Augustine vividly depicts this in Confessions: once fallen, the

24. See T. D. J. Chappell 1995. For more, see Mathewes 2001a, ch.2.
62 A Theology of Public Life

will™s loves con¬‚ict, and the self is perpetually torn apart by its
divergent loves.
The soul (animus) commands the body, and is obeyed at once; the
soul commands itself and meets resistance. The soul commands the
hand to move and there is such readiness that you can hardly
distinguish the command from its execution. Yet the soul is soul,
whereas the hand is body. The soul commands the soul to will; the
soul is itself, but it does not do it. . . . The trouble is that it does not
totally will, nor therefore totally commands. Insofar as it wills, it
commands; and insofar as it does not will, to that degree it
commands not. Will is commanding itself to be will . . . but it does
not fully give the command, so that what it commands is not done.
For if the will were full, it would not command itself to be full will,
for it would be so already. It is therefore . . . a sickness of the soul to
be so weighed down by habit (consuetudine) that it cannot wholly rise
even with the support of truth. Thus there are two wills in us,
because neither of them is total; and what is lacking in the one is
present in the other. (Conf. 8.9)
In this situation, we cannot realize our longed-for integrity because
to do so we would have fully to will that integrity already “ and if
that were possible, we would already be integrated. No boot-
strapping techniques will help you here; the dissenting will is not
an alien force, but as much part of the self as is the properly desiring
will. You cannot fully identify with part of yourself against another
part of yourself; you are helpless before the dis-integrity of your
loves. What needs correction is not something you control; what
needs correction is you yourself. The dissenting will cannot be
eliminated or evaded; it must be converted. What has been so put
asunder, only God can put together.
We should resist, however, one temptation present in language
about the ˜˜divided will.™™ The struggle that takes place in the self is
not simply a struggle ˜˜in™™ the arena of ˜˜the will.™™ As James Wetzel
points out, Augustine does not posit any autonomous faculty of the
will at all; indeed, to do so would be Pelagian.25 To imagine that the
conceptual distinction between reason and will points to funda-
mentally discrete faculties in the self is to confuse vocabulary with
ontology. No part of the self is a neutral spectator in this contest.

25. See Wetzel 1992: 7“8.
Life before God

The scope of the problem cannot be less than the whole human
being, as the human is an organic, dynamic whole. Agency implies
rationality, which in turn has ontological implications: humans
have the capacity to act, but our action is unintelligible without
recourse to our evaluations, and our evaluations are (or, following
Wolf, should be) signi¬cantly determined by the world. The pro-
blem of the divided will implicates the whole agent™s total dynamic
relation with God and the world. Hence the debates about free will
are best framed as fundamentally metaphysical debates, arguments
about the nature of the world and the person™s place within it,
rather than simply anthropological debates about the internal
hydraulics of agents.
For Augustine, the way up is the same as the way down. Agents
recover their freedom through the reintegration of their affective
structure, through their loves™ conversion back to congruity with
their natural desires. But the self is not able to accomplish this
reintegration by its own power; it is always an event of divine grace.
It is not simply a ˜˜worldly™™ or ˜˜moral™™ achievement. After the Fall,
it certainly involves effort and labor on our part; but such effort is
caused more by our entropic attachment to sin working against
God™s grace shed in our hearts. The uni¬ed soul is not an immanent,
realized fact, but an eschatological achievement of Christ in the
Father working through the Holy Spirit.
In light of this we can see how Augustine™s account of freedom,
though in some ways seeming libertarian, nonetheless implicates
extra-agential realities in the recovery of free will. Through the
human™s desires, the objective world is always already within the
subject; the agent has certain desires for reality that the agent
cannot completely deny. ˜˜Objectivity,™™ taken to mean all that is not
the subject, determines the shape of the subjective, orients it
toward certain ends, by being already within the subject; thus, the
conversion of the subject™s affective structure is simply the recog-
nition and af¬rmation of the self™s existence in this world. Basic
human desires are good and to be trusted; our failure lies in our
inability ¬rmly to trust them. Accordingly, the recovery of our
freedom requires our deep reappropriation of those desires. (Con-
trary to common opinion, Augustine™s concern with the body
derives not from an obsessive hatred of it, but rather from his sense
that the dissonances felt in (not only by) our bodies reveals the
64 A Theology of Public Life

central theological problematic, namely, agency™s dis-integrity with
nature.26) The human fault lies in attempting to deny our nature; to
be fully and properly natural beings would be to return to a state of
grace. Like the knowing subject, then, the acting agent ¬nds her
place in the world and before God because she ¬nds the world and
God at its heart.
The reception of grace here described has eschatological, eccle-
siological, and sacramental dimensions. Eschatologically, Augustine
does not take this recognition of objective, or at least extra-sub-
jective, forces at work in the self™s reintegration to support any
sense of solidity in or accomplishment by ourselves. Nothing is yet
˜˜accomplished™™; all we feel now are the ¬rst fruits of an integrity
and wholeness that we will properly possess only in the eschaton,
and which at present we only proleptically ˜˜borrow™™ from that
coming kingdom. Any con¬dence on our part that we (at last!) know
who we are called to be, in a ¬nal determinate sense, is dangerously
apocalyptic; rather, whatever reintegration we experience should
make us feel our past instability and present weakness all the more
palpably. (Hence ˜˜progress™™ in dei¬cation in this life typically takes
the form of increasing recognition of our frailty and sinfulness.)
This inescapably involves one™s community: to be reintegrated is to
relearn how to love aright, and we learn this through discipline, a
discipline both interior and exterior, communal and individual. It
may sound easy to love, but Augustine is no romantic; relearning to
love, while partially intuitive, is also importantly counterintuitive,
and we need others™ tutoring, particularly the others of the ˜˜school
of charity,™™ the church. As John Milbank says, ˜˜love is a highly
complex, learned practice™™ (Milbank 1990b: 236; see also O™Donovan
1980: 130“5). And this reintegration, effected in and by the com-
munity, occurs therein most centrally in and through the liturgical
and sacramental practices of the community.
So understood, the self, existing in time, is fundamentally
unstable. Many ¬nd in Augustine™s anthropology a longing for some
sort of metaphysical stability and security; but in fact his account of
the human in time begins from the premise that our existence in
the present moment is too evanescent, too slippery, to anchor a
stable, pure, and secure self. Here again, Augustine seeks a language

26. See Mathewes 2001b and Fredriksen 1990.
Life before God

or vocabulary for a self who suffers, one more passive than active, a
self whose most basic experience is one of witnessing her life,
whose being is ˜˜given™™ to her as a gift. And yet this self participates
actively in her life, most fundamentally through ecstatically
responsive confession of this givenness “ the retrospective, proleptic,
articulate witnessing of, and af¬rmative participation in, God™s
governance of the course of one™s life. God gives us even our self-
knowledge: we understand ourselves as gifts of God, creatures
whose proper and eschatological mode of being is an ecstatic and
responsive confession of our own giftedness which is simulta-
neously articulate gratitude to God for our giftedness, but creatures
whose current postlapsarian mode of being is a waiting for our
˜˜completion™™ in in¬nite being and love in the consummation on


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