. 7
( 12)


¬‚irts with a temptation towards a fantasized purity of the ˜˜we,™™ an
exclusive particularism where the other is written off as not part of
the group. But no empirical identity is as seamless as identity poli-
tics claims, and we are all always already implicated in each other in
ways that identity politics cannot handle.49 Hence the central prob-
lem with identity politics is not with its ˜˜thickness™™ but with the

48. See Boyarin 1994: 242: ˜˜that which would be racism in the hands of a
dominating group is resistance in the hands of a subaltern collective.™™ And see
Shelby 2005.
49. See Orlie 1999 and Boyarin 1994: 228“60.
206 A Theology of Public Life

impermeability and in¬‚exibility of the boundaries it promotes; it
cannot recognize the real complexity at the base of people, their
occasional implication in several different ˜˜identity groups.™™50
The costs of the false con¬dence thus purchased are great,
including a decline in self-knowledge, a narrowing of our proper
inheritance, and a further weakening of the associative ties we feel
with our fellow citizens and neighbors. You are never more than a
representative of your identity; in public, I speak as a Christian, or
as a gay white male, or as a gay black woman, or as a Jew, but I never
quite speak as me, as the particular person I am, in public, let alone
as one who is yet to be determined. Ironically, ˜˜identity politics™™ is
anything but, for it severely narrows its adherents™ identities and
effectively suffocates their capacity to participate in broad-based
political action.51
Theologically speaking, Christians ought to see such identity
politics as re¬‚ecting our fallen desire for a fully accomplished,
apocalyptically realized identity, one that ˜˜at last™™ knows what it is
and inhabits that identity exclusively. And Christians should resist
it. Identity is not a suit of armor we wear; part of our identity as
humans is our desire for encounter with and exposure to others.
Christian faith may offer a helpful model of presenting oneself in
public. This faith is inherently deeply transgressive, breaking across
clearly marked identity groups, and so seems a good candidate for
resisting too solid identities. It is theologically transgressive in its
content, for it embodies the hope that a new shoot can be grafted on
to the root of Jesse, that Christians can be adopted into a Jewish
covenant; and it is metaphysically transgressive in its mode of
expression, for it exploits “ one might almost say ˜˜deranges™™ “
Greek philosophical categories to convey its deeply un-Hellenic
message. Furthermore, elements of Christian faith can work expli-
citly to resist our cultures™ tendency to place that faith in the cate-
gory of ascriptive identity. In particular, its properly eschatological
character dramatically challenges what we can call the ˜˜apocalyptic
ascriptivism™™ inherent in identity politics. When we confess our
faith, we do not yet fully know what we are af¬rming, and hence we

50. For an interesting feminist argument that approaches this claim, see Okin
51. See the discussion of the ˜˜exclusion system™™ in Volf 1996: 57“98. See also
Anderson 1995.
Faithful citizenship

do not yet know who we are, or who we will be when we are ¬nally
called before the judgment seat. And in the interim, we should
˜˜wear™™ this identity in a non-defensive, ˜˜confessional™™ manner “
welcoming conversation and dialogue, queries about what one
believes, challenges to the coherence of those beliefs, and outright
direct attacks on the particular objects of faith as well. People who
believe differently than ourselves often have much to say that we
need to hear, even as regards our central religious convictions; we
should meet them with an openness that warmly welcomes them to
assess our convictions. After all, they are already part of the ˜˜we™™ in
which we condescendingly seek to include them.
Properly inhabited, such a faithful citizenship embodies genuine
civic engagement, engagement skeptical of the dichotomy of
seamless unity or utter disagreement assumed throughout so much
of our public life. Through it we witness to our complexity, as
Melissa Orlie puts it, ˜˜not appeasing the desire for pure difference
but challenging its delusion . . . the problem [we face] is not so much
difference itself but the desire for unmixed difference, the desire for
a purity that, because it does not exist, can only be forcefully pur-
sued and insecurely achieved™™ (Orlie 1999: 146“7). In being such a
witness, and thus challenging the delusion of the desire for pure
difference, one undertakes the theologically evangelical service of
witnessing to one™s faith, as well as the civically virtuous service of
modeling good citizenship.
˜˜Faithful citizenship™™ of this sort will certainly ¬nd resonances
and alliances with others who use other, non-Christian strategies to
achieve a similar end, and through this strategy Christians can work
with them. Many non-Christians are committed either to the com-
mon tactical goals of public engagement, and/or to the larger
strategy of increasing public engagement itself, and especially
members of other religious traditions have much of power to con-
tribute.52 Christians should always seek those allegiances out, for
both theological and civic reasons. Nevertheless, the eschatological
hope Christians have for the kingdom of God will probably not be
the explicit basis upon which to organize alliances, even though it is
precisely the faith produced by that hope that leads Christians to

52. See, e.g., Boyarin 1994, R. M. Smith 1997, Markell 2003, and Villa 2003.
208 A Theology of Public Life

seek out such alliances. Such a ˜˜convergence™™ of our ˜˜associational
plurality™™ cannot be reasonably anticipated (Isaac 1997: 142“3).
Again, that is not to say that no alliances can be had. Indeed, even
the received liberal democratic concept of citizenship is useful, for
it is intentionally not a totalizing concept. Liberal democratic
societies af¬rm that a person™s identity is not exhausted by the
political ascription ˜˜citizen™™; the recognition of individuals™
inviolable core, captured in the notion of ˜˜privacy,™™ always allows
the individual to be more than their civic role. (Here is where liberal
notions of citizenship can usefully complicate more muscular
republican ones.) And because this notion of privacy is detached
from any form of communal identity “ political, social, ethnic,
religious, what have you “ it also secures individuals against the
latent totalizing claims of any association or identity they possess.
Indeed, the liberal dialectic between ˜˜public citizen™™ and ˜˜private
individual™™ is practically useful against identity politics, for we can
always attempt to appeal to people as citizens “ members of
something more than their identity enclave “ in order to begin to
prise their self-consciousness apart from an apocalyptically narrow
self-ascription. Faithful Christian citizens will accept as part of their
practical tasks the encouragement of all citizens to such practices of
existential ascesis “ of recognizing that they are more than their
place in social life.
But only as part. An ineliminable tension remains between
Christians™ faithful citizenship and more mundane forms of civic
engagement, and Christians should not delude either themselves or
their fellow citizens into hoping for a too simple unity. Christians
should stand in deep and complicated relationship to the liberal
notion of privacy, acknowledging its latent theological af¬rmation
of the dignity of individuals while decrying its bleaching effects on
communal identity and its anomie-inducing effect on individuals™
sense of self.
Christians™ faithful citizenship is perhaps most distinctive in its
acknowledgment that our identity is not fundamentally an indivi-
dualist identity but is most primordially communal. The church
must be recognized as a community, but not identi¬ed with the
political community. The model of citizenship proposed here cer-
tainly focuses on individuals™ attitudes, and works on their dis-
positions, to mold them in a Christoform manner; but it does so
Faithful citizenship

only in order to encourage people to participate in a particular sort
of community, the kingdom of God, and to understand themselves
as always already formed by and in complex relation to some par-
ticular ecclesial community. The thought that Christians can
undertake these practices largely alone as virtuosi of the faith is
simply symptomatic of the atomistic individualism so pervasive
today. Christians cannot be the sorts of individuals they should be
outside of some church. To put it more strongly and perhaps more
accurately, even on a sociological level, churches remain among the
few cultural institutions that can still help us become the sort of
people we should be.
This is not simply a nice, pious cliche. In our societies it is dif¬cult
to be the sort of people we ought to be, for we are often permitted to
live in deep indifference to one another. And churches are just the
sort of places where real differences can interact. This point is made
nicely by Robin Lovin, who once described his church as ˜˜a group of
people that includes a couple of welfare mothers, a commodities
broker, two or three Filipino nurses, and a Filipino schizophrenic
who carries a three-foot-high doll™™ (in Neuhaus 1989: 127; see
Hauerwas™s reply on 129). This vision of communion, running
against the grain of our social divisions, suggests something of the
power of the churches for social life. In such communities, people
gather in groups that attempt expressly and harmoniously to con-
nect multiple, complex, and diverse personal histories, rather than
treat them as monolithic fetishes or in¬‚exible distinguishing marks;
and such are just the sorts of communities that can enable a rebirth
of a real politics.53 And the churches, whatever their failures and
frailties today, remain one of the very few institutional spaces in
modern societies where we may occasionally run into people who
are not clones of ourselves. (Certainly academia, for all its talk about
diversity, remains a remarkably homogeneous place in every way.)
One civic task for Christians is, quite simply, to keep showing up in
those spaces, and from them to go out of them, manifesting the
kind of identity they ¬nd best suits them, the identity of people for
whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, master nor slave, male nor

53. This entails a certain populism, a subdued resistance to the typical intellectual
bemoaning of the loss of ˜˜public intellectuals™™ as a speci¬c class of people; see
Bertram 1997.
210 A Theology of Public Life

female, but only children of God and citizens of the kingdom of
But that civic task does not exhaust the meaning of civic
engagement. It has ascetical and pedagogical implications as well.
The lessons learned in civic engagement can help Christians culti-
vate the kind of virtues whereby they will better become citizens of
the kingdom of heaven. The next (and last) section of this chapter
sketches just what that means.

The ascesis of faithful engagement
How can faith be cultivated through public life? The crucial
clue lies in an important irony regarding faith. For the deep com-
plaint of many is that faith expressed publicly is estranging. The
unprovability of faith, its ¬‚agrant indifference to apologetic
defense, is part of its scandal when presented in public: it seeks
community, but when it is expressed publicly to those who do not
share it (and to some who do) it can well be estranging, reminding
us of what is, in this dispensation, our fundamental separateness
from one another. To those who claim to be ˜˜without™™ it, or those
who profess another faith “ or even those who share the same faith
but believe it in a different way “ a ˜˜faithful™™ person inevitably
appears, at least in part, as cruelly tantalizing, from a minuscule but
unbridgeable distance, as if faith were hermetically sealed.54 The
same loving faith which turns us towards one another also high-
lights and accentuates the apparently ineliminable differences and
distances estranging us from one another. How should we go for-
ward from this tension?
The trick, in fact, is not to ˜˜go forward™™ from it, but instead to
inhabit it as profoundly as we can, and to accept the disappoint-
ment it inevitably produces. This is no counsel of despair, however;
a loving faith seeks to work from its given reality, and that reality is
marked by manifold forms of estrangement. Only by authentically
living in this estrangement can faith be cultivated. All a loving and
hopeful faithfulness can do is seek to begin to share itself with

54. This estrangement is experienced not only by believers but by those who do
not share their faith; for a nice example of what this feels like from the
perspective of one being confronted with evangelization, see Frykholm
2004: 10.
Faithful citizenship

others, to bring us closer “ even if the ¬rst step in that process is
backwards, in the form of recognizing differences and disagree-
ments long denied, not least to ourselves. All it can do is begin in the
present; and our present is dis¬gured by brokenness.
H. Richard Niebuhr™s account of a non-defensive confessional
approach to belief can help us here. Niebuhr worried that faith, if
employed as a device for control, would inevitably subvert one™s
engagement with others, the world, and ultimately God, rather than
enable or deepen it. And he saw this not simply, or even primarily,
as problematic for human conversation; he saw it as more dis-
astrously a matter of violating the divine“human relationship,
denying human sinfulness and divine sovereignty:
Such possessed revelation must be a static thing and under the
human control of the Christian community . . . . It cannot be
revelation in act whereby the church itself is convicted of its
poverty, its sin and misery before God. Furthermore, it cannot be
the revelation of a living God; for the God of a revelation that can
be possessed must be a God of the past. (1941: 30)
Instead, Niebuhr proposed that faith begin confessionally, with a
non-defensive explication of itself, confessing ˜˜how one sees
things,™™ and then waiting faithfully on the other to reply, hoping
that that reply would enrich one™s faith, and with the respectful love
that sees the other as deserving such non-defensive engagement.
Here faith is not fundamentally a shield of arrogance, but a doorway
of humility into one™s living existence. Manifesting faith in this way
demonstrates both that we do not know our convictions fully and
that we wish to learn more about it, both marks of true faith. To be
faithful in public, then, is nothing more than to be properly faithful.
Attempting authentically to inhabit such a confessional faith
reminds us repeatedly of how deeply we are alienated even from
ourselves, during the world. We neither fully inhabit our present
understanding of our faith, nor fully possess our ¬nal faith. We do
not fully inhabit our present faith because we can sympathize, and
likely resonate with, some suspicions about it; and we do not yet
possess our ¬nal, fully realized faith because an honest self-assess-
ment shows us how ¬‚awed and ¬‚imsy our grasp on faith now is.
Again, the self is an eschatological achievement. Proper faith,
authentically undertaken, vexes our sinful pretensions towards
perfectly and completely inhabiting any single identity, during the
212 A Theology of Public Life

world. Engagement in public life reinforces this ascesis; public life
repeatedly reminds us of the peculiarities of our own convictions,
and of our understanding of the obligations they impose upon us, in
ways that make our convictions seem increasingly, not implausible,
but dubiously defended, at least by us. In this life we are always
more than our expressions of what we are; that is a vexation for us
now, but it is also a promise of our coming integral glory.
Furthermore, speaking communally, such a confessional faith
reminds us that we are not self-subsistent, but that we need others
to understand even ourselves. Public life reveals how much we rely
both on the trust, commitment, and general ˜˜good faith™™ of others,
and on the larger belief system in which we are embedded (as faith
in ˜˜tradition™™ is a trust in the witnesses of tradition). But our pre-
tensions toward apocalyptic identity cannot be replaced by the
apocalyptic identity of our community, for the community as a
whole is unclear about what it believes “ whether that ˜˜commu-
nity™™ be our church or our nation. Here our longing for community
is also revealed as an eschatological longing, inevitably only par-
tially realized during the world.
Some might worry that this account domesticates faith, draining
away its determinate content and radicality, and replacing it with a
vague af¬rmation that ˜˜things are OK.™™ This is a fair worry. There is
an irreducible dogmatic con¬dence to faith; the faithful™s world
looks different from the non-believer™s, and any account of faith
must accommodate its determinateness, its ˜˜now™™ as well as its
˜˜not yet.™™ But despite its legitimacy, this worry does not see that
faith, precisely in its determinate content, generates an intrinsic
indeterminacy. It does so simply by being honest: we do have
determinate knowledge of God, but ours is in no way a compre-
hensive knowledge. It is no disgrace to faith to allow that God is
intrinsically in¬nite and doing a new thing, and that the determin-
ate knowledge God gives us, God just keeps on giving. We cannot
˜˜round off™™ our knowledge in a nice neat summative judgment.55
Besides, claims that one™s knowledge of God is fundamentally con-
clusive or absolutely determinate are not only theologically
unseemly, but also dangerously apocalyptic and ascetically mal-
forming. They encourage an identity politics of faith, reducing faith

55. See Milbank 1997: 7“35, Lash 1990, and Turner 1995a.
Faithful citizenship

to a form of knowingness, a presumptuous clarity about what one
believes, a clarity that is both an expression of impatience and a
form of sloth, an unwillingness to imagine that one™s views could
yet develop or change over time. To presume that our faith gives us
some grip on the general contours of God, and that this general
shape will be ¬lled in only by the details revealed in the eschaton,
mistakes the nature of our hopeful faith, and the character of the
God by whom and with whom we are called, like Jacob, to wrestle.
In these ways, faith is revealed to be a matter of enduring; and
faith engaged in public is a particularly pronounced site for such

Two questions present themselves to us next. First of all, how
is this resistance to an improper secular sovereignty actually man-
ifest in political action? This is what Chapter 5, about hope, will
discuss. Secondly, how can such a ˜˜faithful witness™™ still express a
form of genuine caring about the political community and those
particular people who comprise it? Is this a real form of concern
abut politics, or just an instrumentalization of it? Answering this
worry will be the concern of Chapter 6, about love.

Hopeful citizenship

Consciously or unconsciously, the eschatological thinking of the
present day is determined by the messianic visions of the
nineteenth century and the apocalyptic terrors experienced in the
history of the twentieth century. What hope can be justi¬ed, once
we wake up out of the messianic dreams and resist the apocalyptic
anxieties? Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God

How should hope shape Christian citizens™ public engagement?
Today hope has become just one more empty word in public life.
Keep hope alive! Hope is on the way! Believe in a little town called
Hope. These are not even cliches any more; they are simulacra of
cliches, too aware of their own cheesiness to pretend to anyone that
they could be believed. Today, hope has succumbed to cynicism. But
not long ago, hope motivated public action in real and powerful
ways. In America it was essential in the civil rights movement; in
Central and Eastern Europe it motivated, in part, the campaigns
against the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. What happened? Can we be
hopeful today?
This is not in fact a merely pragmatic question; it is properly
theological. For hope is always needed and always something we do
not properly possess. It is a divine dynamic in which we may,
through grace, participate, but which we try perpetually, in sin, to
control. Our need, and our lack, are especially visible in public life,
where our need of hope is accentuated because of the many frus-
trations that lurk therein. After all, public life is fraught with an
inescapable and inevitably resentment-generating tension “ a tension
between the indelibly moral cast of politics and the pragmatic

Hopeful citizenship

compromises that political life frequently forces upon us. We
enter into public life con¬dent that there is not only an effective
way but a right way forward, and that the point of politics is to
advance that right way. Yet it often comes about that reality vexes
that con¬dence, and they ¬nd themselves compelled to compro-
mise their convictions in order to achieve some moiety of the right
as they see it, while trying not to betray their most treasured
convictions; or they ¬nd themselves rede¬ning what a previous
version of themselves would have seen as a betrayal or as a com-
promise; or they ¬nd that their ideals do not succeed in carrying
the day among other political actors and deliberators, or they ¬nd
that those ideals, at least as they understood them, fail to pass the
tribune of reality (as even they acknowledge it to be) when they
are put into practice; or they discover themselves to be far less
righteously motivated than they thought they were (which will
cause them, if they are even minimally re¬‚ective, to rethink the
particular importance of their moral convictions in the psychic
economy of their motives); or they may become thoroughly dis-
illusioned and come to believe that morality “ their own and
everyone else™s “ was, is, and always will be nothing more or other
than a smokescreen for other, less pretty motives. In this way,
public engagement inevitably places our professed ideals in palp-
able contradiction to our real actions, a pressure that inevitably
produces ever-deepening resentment for those engaged in public
To counteract this resentment, we need hope, which helps us
survive the brutalizing banalities of public life™s relentless imman-
ence, its bruising way with our plans and expectations. To think
about hope in public, we can turn to the prophets™ calls for
the transformation of the present order. Hence, where Chapter 4
sketched the contours of a faithful citizenship, and thus how to be
properly committed to the civic order, this chapter asks something
like the opposite: how to be properly estranged from public life “
how to be present in and for public life yet without accepting the
given protocols of that life. How can Christians be prophetic critics

1. The thoughts expressed here draw from the work of Bernard Williams and Isaiah
216 A Theology of Public Life

of the contemporary, routinized civic order? And how should they
understand such critique as a richly religious endeavor?
Contemporary laments for prophetic critics and public intellec-
tuals are platitudinous, but they have a point.2 Public discourse
needs vibrant critical voices. It is hard to see those voices today, and
our public life suffers for it. But Christians have particular cause to
be worried, for they are religiously obliged to be witnesses, proph-
ets, to offer imaginative alternatives to the fallen social structures in
which they ¬nd themselves, thereby reminding society of the ideals
to which it ought to aspire. Absent some such language, the chur-
ches cannot make their members into the Christian witnesses they
are called to be.3 The churches, and civil society, need some lan-
guage in which to voice criticism, and yet we seem increasingly to
lack anything that has much traction on precisely those patterns of
behavior that we should resist.
But the challenge is deeper than this because, in another way,
American public life today offers too much explicit critique. We live
in a ˜˜culture of critique™™ “ a public culture where critique, suspi-
cion, and paranoia largely exhaust the sphere of public discourse.4 It
is not that ˜˜the argument culture™™ is especially personally nasty or
toxic, but that ˜˜critical™™ public discourse powerfully exhibits many
of the problems facing contemporary civic life in general.5 It suffers
from a failure of critical af¬rmation, because it rejects the ˜˜moral
analysis of culture,™™ inquiry interested in helping us intelligently
and self-consciously inhabit our culture (Gunn 1985: 109).6 While
contemporary cultural criticism offers many invaluable concepts for
illuminating and understanding the relations of social norms to
(potentially unjust) structures of power, it remains trapped in bare
reiterations of simple critique. It thus ignores the question of how
we should respond in reality to our implication in the present™s
injustices. We lack ways simultaneously to criticize and af¬rm;

2. See West 1982 and 1988, W. Brown 1995, Wolfe 1996, McCarraher 2000, Posner
2001, and Lilla 2001. More generally, see Darsey 1997.
3. See Tanner 1997.
4. See Shannon 1996.
5. I agree with Alan Wolfe™s critique of the sort of global complaints expressed in
Deborah Tannen™s work about the ˜˜argument culture.™™ See Wolfe 1996: 203,
208“10, and Rescher 1993.
6. See S. K. White 2000: 151, Dickstein 1992, Krupnick 1986, Unger 1977: 266“8. For a
precedent situation, see Stern 1961.
Hopeful citizenship

instead, we simply bewail without offering constructive alter-
natives, or merely defend without acknowledging and addressing
the fundamental ¬‚aws in the position defended. The problem does
not lie in individual critics™ failure of moral nerve, but in the habitus,
worldview, and vocabulary generally assumed by all of us when we
attempt to engage in civic and cultural critique. This ˜˜culture of
criticism™™ leaves untheorized its own mode of cultural engagement “
that is, critique “ as a practice of contemporary life. Contemporary
cultural criticism is not too critical, but rather not critical enough. It
has no critical theory of itself.
Theological analysis is more illuminating still, for the dominant
forms of cultural criticism today are structurally apocalyptic,
interested more in passive spectatorial prediction than in com-
mitted proposals, driven by revulsion at and recoil from the world,
and hubristically con¬dent in having “ at last! “ found the true code
for interpreting the world. We need a more eschatological form of
criticism “ one acknowledging that the world is corrupted but not
utterly lost, and hence still tragically signi¬cant for our existence, in
a condition whose extension is indeterminate yet which is radically
Such a rich Christian ˜˜hopefulness™™ best emerges from a context
of vibrant religious community. Speaking theologically, while we
emphasize the churches™ prophetic obligations, we cannot ignore
the priestly vocation, of teaching the people of God how to witness,
in praise and thanksgiving, to Christ. After all, the most powerful
example of prophetic critique in twentieth-century America “
namely, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ™60s “ manifests
quite clearly the importance of ecclesial preparation. It was only be-
cause the African-American churches had been developing power-
ful ˜˜counter-publics™™ to the Jim Crow ˜˜public™™ of the post-
Reconstruction South, and had been organizing and training their
congregants for half a century, that the early victories of the civil
rights struggles were won. Hopeful citizenship, that is, requires a
certain kind of community to sustain it.7
While there are non-Christian analogues of this hopeful citizen-
ship, this chapter explicates an Augustinian political theology of

7. See Marsh 2005. I thank Douglas E. Thompson and Charles Marsh for
conversations on these matters.
218 A Theology of Public Life

hopeful citizenship, anchored in a hopeful ˜˜hermeneutics of char-
ity™™ that resists the cynicism of despair. This theology of hopeful
citizenship begins with a prophecy “ a diagnostic critique of con-
temporary critical cynicism “ that shows how an Augustinian
account of evil as the perversion of naturally good desires accom-
modates contemporary critics™ insights, by seeing the failures and
malformations they identify as themselves rooted in (and compre-
hensible in terms of) natural desires. Critique thus becomes a con-
structive and therapeutic project. So understood, the kind of
diagnostic criticism exposited here can intellectually sustain a
broader practice of hopeful citizenship.8
The chapter proceeds in three steps. First, it details this crisis of
critical af¬rmation in terms of intellectuals™ general failure to offer
a credible ˜˜post-utopian™™ hopefulness, and identi¬es the root prob-
lem as their failure to present a picture of evil and our implication
therein (on both the societal and the individual level) that can
comprehend the profundity and complexity of the challenges that
subvert all utopias, without overwhelming our capacity to af¬rm
goodness; their failure here reveals the critics™ captivity to a crisis of
cynical despair about the goodness of the world. The chapter next
sketches the theoretical basis for such a realistically hopeful critical
stance, building on the hermeneutics of charity found in August-
ine™s City of God. Finally, it offers a programmatic picture of how this
recovered hopeful critical stance helps sustain a larger practice of
hopeful citizenship, a practice that contributes both to Christian
citizens™ participation in their polity™s public life and to the chur-
ches™ formation of their members as eschatologically minded pil-
grims during the world.

The contemporary crisis of cultural criticism
We begin by anatomizing and diagnosing the problems hin-
dering contemporary cultural critique. ˜˜Prophetic critique™™ today is
tempted towards fundamentally reactionary spectatorial sneering.
Such cultural criticism embodies an escapist apocalyptic recoil from
the world, brought on by a crisis of hope about the world™s good-
ness. To support these claims this section dissects several examples

8. For a similar view, see Darsey 1997, esp. 117.
Hopeful citizenship

of such cultural criticism. Then it seeks an explanation for the
current lamentable state of cultural criticism in the current condi-
tions of its practice. But while such a ˜˜material analysis™™ is sug-
gestive, it is incomplete; for deep cultural, axiological, metaphysical
and even theological problems vex contemporary cultural criticism,
problems that must be addressed on a deeper level.

Secularized apocalyptic pseudo-Augustinianism
I begin by sketching an Augustinian analysis of and response
to a major recent position in critical theory, that offered by Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri in their much discussed book, Empire.9
Empire™s conceit is that our condition is analogous to Christianity™s
encounter with the Roman Empire, in ways that can inform a
strategy for action today. And yet, for all its analytic sophistication,
the book is ¬nally a Manichean apocalyptic prophecy masquerading
as a work of socio-cultural analysis.
˜˜Empire™™ signi¬es the heterogeneous and con¬‚ictual forces of
contemporary capitalist society “ the whole constellation of struc-
tural forces too complex and widespread to be captured by the
concept of ˜˜the state™™ as it has been imagined in this Westphalian
era, structural forces that are completely suffused by market con-
cerns. Their account of ˜˜Empire™™ has two facets. On the one hand,
they offer a nuanced Foucauldian account of power as capillarial:
Empire™s rule is pervasive and inescapable, yet invisible, suffusing
all our relations, even those we have with ourselves, and they trace
the varieties of commodifying pressure those forces bring to bear on
all aspects of life. It creates our subjectivity through the highly
complex and incessant exchanges of capital, which constitute our
very reality. There is no outside to Empire in this sense, nothing
remaining beyond its commodifying grasp “ least of all us (58, 186“
90, 196). Yet on the other hand, Empire is a paper tiger; it is empty at
the core, its ˜˜corruption is simply the sign of the absence of any
ontology™™ (202; cf. 62, 389), and so Empire is always parasitic, indeed
vampiric, on humans™ real productivity and creativity; as nihil, it

9. Hardt and Negri 2000. Page references to this book are embedded
parenthetically in the body of the text. Their more recent work, Multitude (2004),
makes no advance on these problems.
220 A Theology of Public Life

cannot create the power it needs to survive. Hence something
ontological inevitably ˜˜pushes back™™ against Empire™s vampiric
depredations; it contains within itself its own demise: ˜˜the function
of imperial power is ineluctably linked to its decline™™ (361).
What should we do in this situation? Hardt and Negri offer a
variety of apparent practices in which we should engage: circula-
tion, ˜˜miscegenation,™™ the fundamental practice of ˜˜saying no.™™
But more importantly, they prophesy a ˜˜new social body™™ (204),
which will emerge as Empire™s self-constituted ˜˜other,™™ a social
form they label as the ˜˜multitude,™™ and which will evolve from
itself a further social structure called the ˜˜posse™™ (408). This posse
will enact an entirely immanent, this-worldly theurgical practice
which will empower its members and help them realize the goods
they seek. They admit that their proposals are, after all, ˜˜rather
abstract™™ (399); their analysis of the ˜˜posse™™ is nothing but a frus-
tratingly vague prediction.
But the sheer abstractness of the proposal is not the fundamental
problem; what is, is the fact that the abstractions are for them more
ultimately real than the empirical realities they inhabit. They
remain devotees of the old Marxist saw of ˜˜historical inevitability,™™
simply one more version of modernity™s immanent apocalypticism,
the belief that we have ¬nally cracked the code of history. This is
what allows them to append to wildly optimistic prophecy utterly
despairing critique:
Imperial corruption is already undermined by the productivity of
bodies, by cooperation, and by the multitude™s designs of
productivity. The only event we are still awaiting is the
construction, or rather the insurgence, of a powerful
organization . . . We do not have any models for this event. Only the
multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the
models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.
The ultimate optimism of this picture “ the precise character of
which we will examine in a moment “ is not what is most note-
worthy about this passage. What is, is the way that this account
simply punts on practical prescriptions: ˜˜Only the multitude . . . ™™
One is reminded of Waiting for Godot; the model is not coming today,
but it will surely arrive tomorrow. It must arrive. This is socio-poli-
tical analysis in the mode of plate tectonics, so remote from concern
Hopeful citizenship

for human agency that there is no need for intentional action; all we
need do is wait around for the inevitable demise of the status quo.
Salvation is coming “ and we can know it “ but we ourselves are
merely spectators, witnesses of its advent.
At ¬rst glance this fundamental emphasis on witness and waiting
is not necessarily, at least on religious grounds, problematic. An
˜˜advental™™ element characterizes many religions, particularly
Christianity; and our recommended Augustinian account is guided
by theoretical insights, and emphasizes our fundamental passivity
before these events, in ways apparently similar to Hardt and Negri.
But in fact there is a large difference between the two. First of all,
their view is far more purely passive than Christian eschatology
because it is intelligible only through events that have not yet
occurred. Their history and the narrative gain their meaning wholly
through an understanding of history as determined totally from a
projected future. There are no events of eschatological anticipation;
no Christ-event provides a foretaste, epistemologically and ontolo-
gically. The whole narrative is a loan taken out on an at present
completely hypothesized, utterly unrealized future. Furthermore,
this apocalypticism is thoroughly post-Foucauldian, built around
the paranoia that all are implicated in the corruptions and subver-
sions of an all-encompassing web of power (well, all except them-
selves in their role as analytic prophets). It is a conspiracy so
immense that we all may be a part of it. In fact we are the problem:
they have naturalized evil, and so cannot ¬nd a way to talk about
our responsibility for it. We are helpless before Empire. Of course,
helplessness in eschatological terms is not bad; but the problem
here is that this helplessness is existentially premised on a deep and
paralytic despair of ourselves improving or struggling against this
web of ˜˜power,™™ an abdication of responsibility for it “ which makes
theirs fundamentally spectatorial and escapist. As Mitchell Cohen
suggests, ˜˜one senses that Hardt/Negri™s concern is ontological
tantrum rather than alternative politics™™ (2002: 23).10
This does not discount the fundamental utopic optimism of their
prophecy of Empire™s demise. But the optimism that motivates their
revolutionary pronouncements is truly utopian, grounded in
nowhere; it is fundamentally hydroponic, unrooted in anything but

10. More generally, see Wolfe 1996: 109“10.
222 A Theology of Public Life

the arti¬cial nutrient brew of their own theory. It is a desperately
deliberate, willful utopianism. It exempli¬es an ethics of inarticu-
lacy. It suffers from an aphasia about the possible grounds for
hope. Their very utopianism, that is, reveals that they have no real
Yet they are not to be pitied for their hopelessness, but condemned.
They have refused hope and take refuge in an escapism underpinned
and camou¬‚aged by their structural pessimism. We are victims; all
we have to do is survive “ we do not have to be transformed. Their
picture is deeply complacent. Instead of talking about the complicity
of all in the structures of power and domination, they straightaway
turn to a language of opposition, and more speci¬cally of enemies.
The focus is on blame: knowing who the enemy is, is the ˜˜¬rst
question of political philosophy today™™ (210“11). But even this lan-
guage plays no functional role for them, even as a tactical device to
mobilize opposition to those one labels as enemies; instead it func-
tions to demobilize, by locating those in need of fundamental change
as others and not oneself. By resisting any recognition of complicity,
not only are they wrong; they refuse one of the psychologically most
powerful ways of undertaking social change.
Here is where the charge of Manicheanism goes deepest. Their
account is fundamentally Manichean, not most deeply in implying
any dualism (they rarely get to the point of talking about the posi-
tive pole of any such dualism), but rather in the complacent,
otherworldly, and escapist mentality they speak out of and encour-
age in others. They offer what Gillian Rose once called ˜˜a counsel of
hopelessness which extols Messianic Hope™™ (1996: 70).11 Hence, for
all their interesting allusions to Christian religious ¬gures in
their work, and especially Augustine (who is their model as a theo-
rist of Empire [205“7]), their account is quite different. We must
look elsewhere than in Hardt and Negri to see how that can be
It would be a mistake to think that we can simply translate Hardt
and Negri™s arguments into a Christian vernacular for all to be well;
indeed, many recent theological accounts of politics rely on a

11. See also Wolfe 1996: leftist critics suffer from an ˜˜increasingly tired
conservativism™™ and an enthrallment to ideology (34), their anti-realism is
really the desire to ˜˜express romantic longings™™ (38), and their ˜˜utopian
speculations serve as a substitute for their missing social science™™ (87).
Hopeful citizenship

similar pessimism to legitimate a fundamentally renunciatory and
escapist attitude towards public life. An example of this is William
Cavanaugh™s very powerful program (one to which this book is
much indebted). For him, the church ought to embody a counter-
polity to unmask the simulacra of politics offered by the secular
state, which is inescapably a demonic structure. Yet Cavanaugh™s
depiction of this counter-polity is reactionary against, reductive of,
and parasitic upon the very state structure he takes the church to
His most complete argument for this is visible in his book Torture
and Eucharist (1998). There he uses the story of the Roman Catholic
Church™s travail under the Pinochet regime in Chile as a prism
through which to understand the Christian churches™ struggles to
have a political voice in the contemporary world. But by taking the
Pinochet era as his object of study, Cavanaugh has too clear-cut an
enemy; he uses the Pinochet regime to normalize a grotesque
manifestation of the state, insisting that this is the telos of modern
political life in general. (The same can be said with some of the
recent resurgence of work on Bonhoeffer; too often people seem to
want to draw easy analogies between living in Nazi Germany and
living in any modern state.12) His assertion that torture is the epit-
ome of the ˜˜imagination of the state,™™ is extremely reductionist.
The modern state has been of great use to religious groups “ pro-
tecting them not only from the state itself, but also occasionally
from other citizens. Framing a political vision fundamentally as an
ethic of opposition to the modern state sets oneself too narrow a
project for a true politics.
Furthermore, in many non-totalitarian societies “ as Hardt and
Negri (among others) note “ the state is no longer the central pro-
blem. I am not being merely more sanguine about our situation; I
mean that the complex of threats challenging Christian life in
advanced industrial societies may be importantly different than
those facing Chileans under Pinochet. How could this account apply
to non-totalitarian, post-industrial democracies such as our own?
To reply that such societies are ˜˜only apparently™™ not totalitarian
is ¬‚agrantly to ignore fundamental differences in the conditions

12. For an insightful discussion and analysis of hyperbolic claims of this sort, see
McClay 1994.
224 A Theology of Public Life

distinguishing, say, California from East Germany. Cavanaugh™s
expressed politics are of the Catholic Worker sort; but his most
obvious political allies in the ¬ght against Big Government are far
from supporting these political commitments. What about con-
sumerism? What about global capitalism? What about our culture of
entertainment? A picture of modern politics as basically torturous
not only obscures the realities at hand; it also offers defenders of the
status quo the easiest possible way to dismiss whatever concrete
concerns the critics might present.
Cavanaugh seems to recognize this, but his suggestive language of
˜˜eucharistic counter-politics™™ remains disappointingly undeve-
loped.13 In a situation in which political structures are generally seen
to be fundamentally illegitimate or absent, the churches may offer
an ˜˜alternative polis.™™ But in this dispensation churches do not
normally take the role of the state, and only in extreme circum-
stances of political catastrophe (totalitarian dictatorships, the Dark
Ages, contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) should it take up the
state™s central tasks. Most of the time the churches will not expend
their energies in being a counter-state, but rather in attempting to
shape its members for citizenship in a kingdom that is yet to come “
in part (as this book is arguing) by instructing them on how to be
involved in public life in this life, an involvement which will inevi-
tably engage state structures in complicated ways. To be blunt, the
church must not get caught in a narcissistic mimetic rivalry with the
secular state, for it has bigger ¬sh to fry; its horizon transcends that
of any earthly kingdom, and its agenda must be set on fundamen-
tally different terms. Cavanaugh™s failure to see this is symptomatic
of the more general failure of religious intellectuals today.

The (academic) culture of (cynical) critique
Of course, there are many very good reasons for a fundamen-
tally hostile stance towards our contemporary commodi¬ed world. A

13. He himself suggests ways beyond this negative political theology, when he
argues that the church is ˜˜founded on a disappearance™™ ( 1998: 281), and offers
a discipline of dying (271) and an alternative economy of pain (280). But he does
not develop these ideas. I think Cavanaugh™s problems here simply manifest
the dif¬culties attending to what Graham Hughes (mis-)labels ˜˜church
theology™™; see G. Hughes 2003: 222, 225“33.
Hopeful citizenship

radical perversity lies at the roots of contemporary culture, and there
are good reasons to fear that the culture does not realize its funda-
mental insanity. As Marshall Sahlins suggests,
The whole cultural organization of our economy remains invisible,
mysti¬ed as the pecuniary rationality by which its arbitrary values
are realized. All the idiocies of modern life from Walkmans and
Reeboks to mink coats and seven-million-dollar-a-year baseball
players, and on to McDonald™s and Madonnas and other weapons of
mass destruction “ this whole curious cultural scheme nonetheless
appears to economists as the transparent effects of a universal
practical wisdom. (1993: 12)
How did we get this way? The answer lies in the curiously partial
way in which the forces of modernity have ˜˜denaturalized™™ our
condition. Let me explain.
The decisive characteristic of our age is the growing knowledge of
contingency, our deepening belief in the arti¬ciality of all arrange-
ments, our increasingly preconscious recognition that the world
does not have to be organized or constituted the way it is. This
recognition of increasing contingency “ this recognition of our
condition™s radical non-naturalness “ becomes re¬‚exive (in Anthony
Giddens™s sense) when we realize that even modernity is not a
necessary, inevitable, or monolithic process. There are as many ways
to be ˜˜modern,™™ to cope with the knowledge of contingency, as there
are people; modernization need not be associated with seculariza-
tion, rationalization, global homogenization, denationalization,
renationalization, postmodern giddiness, or antimodern anomie “
though it can be associated with any of these. What it essentially is,
however, is the growing knowledge that things do not have to be this
way, and the effects of that knowledge on ourselves and our socie-
ties. (This, for example, is the idea that the oft-heard claim at which
˜˜everything is political™™ gestures “ even though those who utter it
never stop to think about the claim™s re¬‚exivity.14) ˜˜Nature,™™ as a
concept, is growing increasingly vestigial; as Frederic Jameson puts
it, ˜˜Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization pro-
cess is complete and nature is gone for good™™ (1990: ix). All that is

14. For a very helpful discussion of the dangers and seductions of such
apocalypticism, see Yack 1997.
226 A Theology of Public Life

solid melts into air; everything we once assumed was natural has
become contingent.15
Well, almost everything. For inevitably not everything can be up
for grabs; humans need some stable ground from which to see all
else as contingent. The central remaining source of stability, which
provides the language in which we increasingly understand our
actions, is the language of economics. Modernity™s denaturalization
has taken over everything except the market; there the tides of
contingency arose and broke against the sea walls. We grant market
metaphors the privilege of literality, letting them shape our social
relations, pressing us to transform all our interactions into eco-
nomic transactions, to translate all value into cash value. We face an
increasingly commodi¬ed world, even religiously. The increasing
economization of our lives suggests that institutions not immedi-
ately subservient to this economic system will change to serve that
system, or become increasingly vestigial.16
Confronted by this ˜˜mysti¬ed™™ insanity, the ¬rst task is to resist;
we must unmask, and by unmasking critique, what ˜˜goes without
saying.™™ This is why cultural theory is dedicated to the task of crit-
ique, to rendering uncomfortably obvious the non-inevitability, the
non-naturalness, of these taken-for-granted economizations of
everyday contemporary life. Such critiques have their place. They
always have; the practice of unmasking has roots more ancient than
modernity. It is present in Amos™s critique of the ˜˜cows of Bashan,™™
or Plato™s critique of the poets in the Republic.
But it is peculiarly central to modern thought. As Kant said, ˜˜our
age is the age of kritik™™ (1965: 9); a similar critical estrangement was,
after all, the foundational move of Descartes, and as Montaigne
made clear, it is basic to anthropology and ethnography as well.17

15. See Harvey 1990, Beck et al. 1994, and Cronon 1995. I do not want to discard the
idea of nature entirely; while I am suspicious of ˜˜natural law™™ accounts, I ¬nd
the moral realism to which they aspire ¬nally inescapable for any adequate
ethic. See Lieberman 1998 and Fukuyama 2002.
16. For the history of the triumph of economic discourse, see Hirschman 1977. For a
general account of the origins of this ˜˜economic ideology,™™ see Dumont 1977.
On the limitations of economic frameworks, see Kuttner 1997. On academics™
surrender to these views, see Hauptmann 1996 and Green and Shapiro 1994. On
religion and the economy, see M. F. Brown 1997 and Roof 1999.
17. See Geuss 1981, Hulliung 1994, Koselleck 1988, and Yack 1986. For a discussion
of the decisive impact of the ˜˜resistance experience™™ upon postwar European
(and by extension American) intellectual life, see Wilkinson 1981: 261“79. For a
study of more recent roots of this, see Stephen 1998.
Hopeful citizenship

The concern with criticism, so commonly assumed to be a ˜˜new™™
concern, thus seems to be as old as modernity “ which is to say, as
old as the valorization of ˜˜newness™™ itself.18
But while ˜˜critique™™ is intrinsic to modern consciousness, con-
temporary cultural theory offers an almost exclusively, caustically
cynical voice in its engagements with culture. Contemporary criti-
cism proceeds without attention to any possible positive picture. It
has chosen most primordially to oppose; it refuses to express any
responsible critical act of af¬rmation and af¬liation, choosing
instead to make the best the enemy of the good. Intellectual
engagement becomes essentially a practice of resistance, a way to
refuse hegemonic ideologies™ mythologized consolations, exploding
the pieties of contemporary life with critical demolition charges,
then slipping away into the night of postmodernist rhetoric.19 Crit-
ique needs some distance from what it is critiquing, for leverage™s
sake; but resistance without a positive vision of resistance™s purpose
becomes mere reactionary posturing.20 Intellectual discourse has
become not only narcissistic, but fundamentally cynical and self-
hating, aiming for a theoretical auto-da-fe of self-consumption. Alan
Wolfe puts this well: ˜˜The romantic rebel . . . is not really a rebel
against society, however much he may disdain society™s conven-
tions, for his hostility, which can easily turn into self-hatred, serves
no particular end and certainly not the end of social reform, but
becomes an excuse for its own self-perpetuation™™ (1996: 43). Con-
temporary critical theory, that is, all too often simply is its dis-
contents, its ˜˜critique™™ merely an exquisitely sophisticated form of
cynical griping.21
It is too easy to wag our ¬ngers at this cynicism; in many ways our
cultural condition breeds it today. Intellectuals are marginal to the

18. On Montaigne™s work as supporting a profound quietism, see Toulmin 1990.
Alan Wolfe suggests that the theoretical romanticism of contemporary cultural
criticism is rooted in its origins in the discipline of anthropology, with its
essentially anti-modernist, pro-pastoral, Rousseauean perspective (1996: 29“30,
19. See Gunn 1985: 60, Asad 1993: 265, Surin 1989, Santner 2001: 56ff.
20. One might say that the problem is the same one that Nietzsche diagnosed as
the ˜˜will-to-truth.™™ Indeed, as Bernard Yack argues, even Nietzsche is still in
thrall to the will-to-knowledge, despite his realization that it is a trap. See Yack
1997: 112.
21. For good discussions of this cynicism in practice, see Cushman 1997 and Bartov
228 A Theology of Public Life

workings of contemporary society. They inhabit a perpetual intel-
lectual stand-off, one endemic to the hypercomplexity of modern
civilization, in which we need to manage the self-contradictions
inherent within our beliefs by having different regions of them in
constant intellectual opposition to one another.22 Furthermore, the
hothouse environment of academia encourages a skewed valuation
of dif¬culty as a good in itself, and hence unhelpfully distorts the
thinking of those caught up in it.23 Intellectuals af¬rm their stance
of ˜˜alienation™™ as a methodological technique, ˜˜an aura of inno-
cence and moral disinterestedness™™ meant to ˜˜distanciate™™ their
objects of study “ to make it seem strange, no longer taken for
granted, hence visible in its distinctness.24 As Gerald Graff suggests,
this approach legitimates intellectuals™ alienation by presenting
critique as a replacement for more direct political action “ but this
only ends up reinforcing the aroma of ressentiment their work
exudes, the justi¬cation for their importance becoming a sort of
˜˜consolation prize for letting others run the world™™ (1989: 246).
Over time, such static critique curdles into preening cynicism, and
the ˜˜critique™™ becomes little more than a hodgepodge of sneers and
metaphysical whining, the opium of the intellectuals.
But contemporary cultural criticism™s cynical cul-de-sac is not
simply due to structural compulsion, etiological survivals, or eso-
teric epistemological technique. It is also rooted in a profoundly
negative assessment of human society in general. As James Darsey
puts it, ˜˜Our distrust of prophets is really a re¬‚ection of a profound
distrust of ourselves and our ability to tell true from false™™ (1997:
209). Contemporary cultural criticism suffers from melancholic
despair, a despair expressed in and reinforced by simplistic pictures
of the human condition and the human predicament.
Contemporary critical theory™s problem lies in a ˜˜moral ontol-
ogy™™ that depicts the world as fundamentally and inescapably
morally compromised, wherein the only kind of viable moral stance
is the stance of total critique, fundamental negativity.25 One cannot
know what the good would be, for any such claims to ˜˜knowledge™™

22. See Sloterdijk 1987, Perl 1989, Bewes 1997, Chaloupka 1999, and Brint 1994.
23. See Isaac 2003: 88“9 and M. Warner 2003.
24. See Siebers 1988 and Pels 2000. On marginality, see Walzer 1987 and Moore
1986: 48“71.
25. On ˜˜moral ontologies,™™ see Taylor 1989.
Hopeful citizenship

would invariably be revealed as the clever positioning of oneself (or
the interests that one represents) for a power-grab over against
others. Contemporary radicals have ˜˜no faith in their own right-
eousness™™ (Darsey 1997: 206); all they can do is gesture indirectly at
goodness and justice, while focusing direct critical attention on
rooting out the particular injustices that exist in every direction.
Critics give lip service to the good, but their main duty lies in
exposing the oppression of power.
But this con¬dence about identifying evil is actually a mask for a
profound despair. Indeed, the issues are of a properly metaphysical
character, relating to deep concerns about the ultimate status of
evil, concerns shared by contemporary culture as a whole. As
Andrew Delbanco has put it, ˜˜a gap has opened up between our
awareness of evil and the intellectual resources we have for
handling it™™ (1995: 3). Most contemporary thinkers want to resist
this language and rephrase the problem in more banal vocabulary.
But such revisions only obscure the profound and intractable
character of our problems, which are not fundamentally a matter
of simply contingent (and hence ¬xable) social conditions or psy-
chological malfunctions, but are of a properly ontological pro-
fundity. Our sense of the basic felt wrongness of the world is
inescapable in this life; we must acknowledge it without deceiving
ourselves that it can ever be conclusively overcome. Whether
described in the language of psychosis, sinful idolatry, or commo-
di¬cation, the root problem is the experience of a wrongness in the
world so fundamental that it cannot be ¬xed “ and yet a wrongness
that, simply in being so palpably wrong, is not natural to reality. The
root dif¬culty provoking critical theory, that is, is the classic prob-
lem of evil.26
Some theorists partly recognize this, but they fail properly to
address it because they refuse to grasp the problem in its full
depth.27 They try to replace the term ˜˜evil™™ with the term ˜˜power.™™
But such cynicism is ultimately super¬cial, for it refuses to think
down to the roots of their resistance to injustice and oppression. In
doing so, they not only inevitably fail even in the partial tasks they

26. See Mathewes 2001a.
27. For example, see Edmundson 1997: 62, Siebers 1993: 68“70, and Isaac 1997:
230 A Theology of Public Life

set themselves; they also are condemned, like characters in Dante™s
Inferno, to endless repetition, endless critique, because they have no
grounds to af¬rm. Ironically, their very insistence on the ˜˜con-
tingency™™ of human existence, which underpins their resistance to
˜˜metaphysical™™ thinking about evil and associated categories, for-
bids their confronting the possibility that reality, in this dimension,
could be radically otherwise than it is. They refuse to countenance
the idea that evil might not be a necessary and inescapable fact
about the world; they refuse to imagine that evil and suffering
might be contingent. They despair that what we call evil in fact does
reveal the truth of history and the world, that the world is ¬nally not
scarred by sin, but is in all relevant ways ˜˜naturally™™ riddled by evil.
Contemporary critical theory™s cynical disbelief in evil, then, is born
out of a certain kind of despair: for them, any af¬rmation of the
world™s fundamental goodness threatens to generate a dangerous
complacency that will subvert the necessity of critical attention.
And this is what it means, in part, to lack hope.
This refusal to re¬‚ect on evil is not only a tragedy for con-
temporary cultural criticism; it is part of a larger despair into which
much of contemporary culture has fallen. Paradoxically, perhaps,
the idea of evil captures something fundamental about reality by
being fundamentally hopeful “ that is, by af¬rming that realities
such as malice, suffering, and injustice do not tell the whole truth
about reality, but are in some way partial, perhaps even accidental,
to the ultimate nature of reality itself. At its heart, then, the pro-
blem is a religious one, and it admits only of a religious response.
We turn to that next.

Augustinian cultural criticism: the hermeneutics
of hopeful charity
Augustine™s thought offers substantial resources for a superior
proposal. In his most extended act of cultural criticism “ the City of
God “ we can discern a general strategy for today. When we do so,
what we ¬nd is a hopeful charity: a mode of interpreting the world
that sees love as the fundamental interpretive fact, because it is the
fundamental ontological fact, but whose vision is quali¬ed by the
soberly hopeful recognition that such a truth can be fully proven and
Hopeful citizenship

˜˜redeemed™™ only eschatologically.28 This will be easier to apprehend
once we have a perspicuous grasp on Augustine™s strategy.

Augustine™s ideology critique in de civitate Dei
Though Hardt and Negri identify with Augustine™s critique of
the Roman Empire, that earlier critical engagement proceeds in a
way quite different, because more generous and forgiving, than that
of Empire. Augustine™s ˜˜ideology critique™™ of the Roman Empire™s
ideology of gloria is built around his conception of sin, which depicts
sin as a perverted ordering of originally good loves. Here critique is
more than a nihilistic iconoclasm, more than a ritualized and
fetishized ˜˜unmasking™™ of evil; it attempts to identify the injustices
and absurdities riddling imperial Roman culture, and to resist their
deforming powers, through a hermeneutics of charity “ that is, by
attempting charitably to understand how one could inhabit this
We cannot comprehensively display the scope of Augustine™s
program of cultural criticism in City of God. From its title forward, it
is truly the most Cecil B. DeMille-esque of theological texts: the
widest of wide-lens Panavision cameras would need a tracking shot
of several hours™ duration simply to encompass the entire cast of
characters whose antics comprise the work™s raw matter. Its hyper-
magni¬cence also makes it, ironically, a paradigmatically Roman
text, for greatness and glory were two of the linchpins of Roman
value. Men and women did amazing things on no basis more
material than the shame they might suffer were they not to do
them, and the glory they might attain if they did them. There is
something truly awesome “ something worth honoring “ about
what J. E. Lendon calls the Roman ˜˜Empire of Honor™™ (Lendon 1997).
Augustine agrees. His response to this ideological web is not
simply condemnatory. He sees its real value in keeping the Empire
together, in keeping order, even as he bemoans its absolute com-
mitment to merely super¬cial goods. He is extremely sensitive to

28. For two examples that approach such a view without ever fully showing what it
would look like, see Shannon 1996 and McCarraher 2000. For examples of this
project in Augustinian garb, see Dodaro 1991 and 1994; but his more recent
2004a study is far more comprehensive and adequate. Another fruitful, if
partial, attempt is Schuld 2000.
232 A Theology of Public Life

the ambiguities present in a system ruled by honor and glory, to
how those ideals can motivate and secure, and how they satisfy the
basic human need to evaluate ourselves and our world “ and how
that project of valuation easily warps into a disastrously powerful
motivation for acts of horri¬c evil.
Given this, Augustine™s rhetorical strategy for confronting the
ideology of gloria is simple. He does not renounce that language;
that would suggest that it was purely a fabrication of evil, which is
ontologically and theologically impossible. Instead, he suggests that
it is itself a fallen and fragmentary perversion of the true and proper
language of human evaluation. For Augustine, it is not that honor or
glory are bad things to pursue, but that they have been pursued
improperly, crucially because we do not know the ultimate refer-
ence of honor or glory, the one to whom honor and glory are due.
The Romans are mistaken, not in the fact that they have organized
their lives around honoring, admiring, and loving, but in what they
have organized their lives around loving. They have loved Rome, or
themselves, and sought the glory of the city or the person, when
they should have loved God and sought God™s glory.
He makes that purpose clear in the work™s ¬rst word “ namely,
gloriossissimam, ˜˜most glorious™™ (DCD 1. praef.).29 He immediately
turns that word to a surprising new use, referring not to Rome but
instead to ˜˜the city of God,™™ the blessed company of the elect. Here
we see his rhetorical strategy™s core: not to renounce the language
of Roman glory, but to wrest it from its previous uses and turn it to
new contexts; or, better yet, to show how Christ™s life, death, and
resurrection have already ˜˜wrested™™ that language back; or, best of
all, to show how Christ™s story demonstrates that fallen humans
have failed to wrest that language away from its proper use in the
¬rst place, to the extent that their own misuses of it remain
˜˜warped,™™ always tending to spring back towards the arc of their

29. I use the Bettenson translation most of the time, and I note all departures from
it. Later references to the work are embedded parenthetically in the main body
of the text. For a very nice discussion of the ¬rst sentence of DCD, and in
particular the distensio it means to evoke in its readers, see Fitzgerald et al. 1999:
13“15. See also Conybeare 1999: 72“3 on how Augustine ˜˜interrogates the
concept™™ of gloria in DCD 5.12 forward; compare this with Dodaro 1994: 91“3.
More generally, see Schindler 1990, O™Donnell 1980, and Dodaro 2004a. It is
worth noting that in the ¬rst two books of de of¬ciis, Cicero criticizes gloria
severely, but not radically; so Augustine had some antecedents in the classical
world for his strategy, though he took it in surprising directions.
Hopeful citizenship

proper use, always retaining, despite our best efforts to obliterate it,
some memory of their true meaning.30 It is a strategy of conversion,
not of opposition.
The work™s ¬rst ten books unpack this strategy, captured in his
famous claim that Roman virtues are really ˜˜splendid vices.™™ He
appreciates the effectiveness of Roman ideology in shaping its citi-
zens. The Romans™ ˜˜unbounded passion for glory, above all else,
checked their other appetites . . . It was this greed for praise, this
passion for glory, that gave rise to those marvelous achievements™™
(5.12 [Bettenson 197]). While it is not true virtue, glory-seeking
effectively (albeit partially) mimics it; those who employ virtue ˜˜in
the service of human glory . . . are of more service to the earthly city
when they possess even that sort of virtue than if they are without
it™™ (5.19 [213]).
This strategy both acknowledges the pragmatic effectiveness of
Roman ideology and offers an immanent critique of it, comparing it
with its own antique practice and noting how it falls short. Drawing
on the civic republican tradition in Roman historiography, he
argues that contemporary Roman mores are far from the frugal and
virtuous ideals of their ancestors, despite their self-proclaimed
continuity: ˜˜In early times it was the love of liberty that led to great
achievements, later it was the love of domination, the greed for
praise and glory™™ (5.12 [198]).31 Yet neither does Augustine accept the
Roman republican historians™ nostalgia for a long-ago age of real
purity; for Augustine, history has always been like this.
The fact that these values were fundamentally super¬cial and
unstable meant that the system tended over generations to mis-
shape its inhabitants. Roman critics (particularly the Stoics) noted
this; but Augustine goes further than they in diagnosing deep
anthropological reasons for this tendency to decay, identifying a
˜˜slippery slope™™ between desire for glory and desire for domination “
the libido dominandi, the ˜˜lust for domination™™ that is simulta-
neously the ˜˜dominating lust™™ of which he speaks at the very

30. Augustine was quite self-conscious about doing this; as he argues in DDC, it is
entirely appropriate for Christians to take whatever of value they ¬nd in other
peoples™ beliefs and ˜˜baptize™™ that language for their own purposes. (DDC
31. See also 2.18“19, and Inglebert 1996: 399“592. For a general discussion of the
shape of Augustine™s language of immanent critique, see Lawless 1998.
234 A Theology of Public Life

beginning of the work (1.pref.; 5.19). So for example Augustine saw
Cato™s suicide not really as a mark of greatness, but as revealing a
petty petulance at Caesar™s possible glory were he to pardon Cato
(1.23). And what was true individually is equally true on the level of
groups: even class warfare was conducted more out of a desire for
victory than out of any interest in equity and morality (2.17). Roman
ideology, then, provided a problematic form of power. The bene¬ts
of the system are impermanent, ˜˜worldly.™™ God gives temporal
goods to those seeking temporal ends; but once those immanent
aims are achieved “ if they are achieved (for there is no protection
against moral luck) “ they have received their reward in full. Tem-
poral victories are impermanent, hence the Romans™ rewards were
as well (5.17, 15).32
This is a powerful immanent critique, but it is more than that. For
Augustine offers the single proper ˜˜principle™™ by which to interpret
history: Christ. But this is not fundamentally an abstract, ahistor-
ical, denaturalized critique. For Augustine, every event of history is
in itself homogeneously ambiguous, with one exception “ the life,
death, and resurrection of Christ, from which the rest of history
gains meaning. Our ideals must be found ultimately beyond his-
tory™s record of slaughters and depradations (2.21); we can ¬nd them
only eschatologically, in God, and in the proleptic manifestation of
Jesus Christ. Christ offers a route beyond immanent criticism but
yet still fundamentally not otherworldly.
In Christ we can see that while the Romans™ virtues are imper-
manent, they should not be simply dismissed; just as the Roman
language of honor betrays its proper meaning in every misuse, the
splendid vices ˜˜shadow,™™ signi¬cantly mimic, the real virtues
attainable by Christians. The Romans™ pseudo-virtue is even useful
for Christians, because it gives a perverse exemplum for the citizens of
the city of God, both promoting humility in Christians and provok-
ing them to outdo the Romans™ stories (5.16). Hence Augustine
compares Brutus™ killing of his sons with the story of Isaac and Jacob
and ultimately the ¬gure of Christ: Christians do ˜˜not . . . kill our
sons, but reckon among our sons the poor people of Christ,™™ and
thereby exemplify the virtues of the City of God in comparison to the

32. As R. A. Markus has argued, Augustine is the great demythologizer of late
Roman imperium (1970: 55, 173). See also Lambert 1999.
Hopeful citizenship

Romans (5.18 [Bettenson 211]). Indeed, even on Rome™s terms, the City
of God does better, for its virtues contain the pagan virtues: ˜˜Rome is
outshone by the Heavenly City . . . where victory is truth, high rank
is holiness, peace is happiness, life is eternity™™ (2.29).33 The point is
not to renounce the Romans™ virtues, but to show them to be merely
˜˜perversions™™ of true virtue, imitations of the real thing; this lets us
see what we really are after, and undeceive ourselves about posses-
sing them at present (or really, ˜˜possessing™™ them at all “ for it is
better to say that we are ˜˜possessed™™ by them, as we are possessed by
love). In this way, Augustine offers an ˜˜ideology critique™™ of the
Romans™ valorization of ˜˜honor™™ and ˜˜glory™™ that af¬rms the
energies attempting to come to expression in these concepts, while
also fully recognizing “ and indeed sharpening “ the critique laun-
ched against them by civic moralists and pagan philosophers.
What makes possible Augustine™s incisive diagnostic critique of
Rome™s empire of honor? It is his hermeneutics of charity, which
bears psychological, metaphysical, and theological signi¬cance.
Caritas has a psychologically integrating power that reveals its
metaphysically world-af¬rming implications by understanding itself
as theologically a participation in God™s love for the world, con-
verting the world back to God. Civically this hermeneutics engages
others by seeking communion with them. And one seeks such
communion through confessional openness. This is at heart af¬r-
mative, inhabiting (and creative of) the ˜˜public sphere,™™ insisting
that things of this world should matter to us and manifesting in
one™s own life just such care for those things. Furthermore, it must
be participatory, involving our whole lives in the activity of culti-
vating a ˜˜world™™ that is ¬t for human habitation. Finally, it must be
responsible, accountable to others for its claims and willing to be
corrected when it errs.34

33. Bettenson (87) mangles this passage, inexplicably translating ubi as ˜˜instead,™™
instead of as ˜˜where.™™
34. For a partial antecedent to this argument, see Bathory 1981. Bathory suggests
that ˜˜Augustine argues that man™s most fundamental nature “ when
recognized “ leads him to politics™™ (164). But Bathory argues that Augustine™s
work led him to offer a practical proposal towards politics, which is concerned
with ˜˜the common good™™ and securing of individual ˜˜freedom,™™ though
Bathory says disappointingly little about what he takes those terms to mean. In
contrast, I think that more basic than any practical proposal was the ascetical-
affective revolution Augustine sought to realize in our orientation towards the
236 A Theology of Public Life

There is no promise of happiness in this. Not only will our
engagement with the world never be wholly joyful, not only are
there good parts and bad parts, but the good and the bad overlay
each other, so that cultural existence will be forever mixed. We can
anticipate only an eschatological satisfaction; in the interim we
must be patient, and be presently tutored by our dissatisfactions,
˜˜trained by longing™™ for the end (in Io. ep. 4.6). During the world, we
can enjoy our happiness only in hope: we are happy in the future,
but in this life there is properly speaking no happiness; we only
endure. This condition of suspension, of waiting, is hard to take, but
it is our condition, and any attempt to end it by telling a story that
claims fully to possess our ultimate end is dangerously premature.

Augustinian cultural criticism: irony beyond cynicism
What practical program of cultural engagement does this
hermeneutics of caritas entail? Essentially it offers a vision not
¬nally of resistance or renunciation but of trans¬guration. This
entails signi¬cant changes in the social structures that sustain the
˜˜culture of critique™s™™ own most particular cultures, which are
largely within university, and not ecclesial, settings. In many ways
the modern university™s isolating division of labor, and the whole
university™s isolation from the larger world, supports a deeply
bureaucratized and even consumerist culture that undermines the
cohesion and integration needed to cultivate the rich intellect. But
this is a spur to alertness, not a warrant for despair; there is no one
monolithic academic culture, but a complex network of tensions
and outright contradictions that can be played off one another. Most
directly, Augustinian cultural critics can help resist the isolating
compartmentalization of contemporary academic-intellectual life
by emphasizing the integrative character of intellectual activity.
Intellectual life pressures its inhabitants towards over-specialization
and obscures the vision of inquiry as a whole; Augustinians help
resist this by emphasizing inquiry™s ultimate focus on the whole
human project, and its practical aim of joining individual scholars
together in common cause. Furthermore, participation in the her-
meneutics of charity urges us to transform academic culture
towards a more fully engaged “ that is, argumentative and dis-
putatious “ community than it presently is. Con¬‚ict is a crucial
Hopeful citizenship

element in authentic engagement during the world, one whose
reality is not avoided by being denied.35
We are con¬‚icted, both within ourselves and with one another,
and it is better to acknowledge and try to confront those con¬‚icts,
ultimately with the aim of reconciliation, than to avoid them. As
Chapter 3 argued, one central motif of much Christian theology is
the reconciliation of othernesses, and it is precisely by coming to
embody this task of reconciling othernesses that Christians come
more fully to inhabit their faith. Of course we should not reject
critical vigilance; but it seems unlikely that an Augustinian stance is
especially susceptible to Pollyannaish mysti¬cations. ˜˜Suspicion™™ is
a useful and wise thing to have, and we ought always to be more
than a little skeptical to claims of moral integrity or earnestness,
particularly when they emerge from the principalities and powers.
Yet this critical vigilance is not sheer pessimism, nor is it cynicism,
nor is it a straightforwardly ˜˜realistic™™ or potentially paralytic
˜˜tragic™™ vision; what is most central to it is an ironic apprehension
of the complexity of our condition. It af¬rms that things are never
as good, or as bad, as we think.36 Irony is an inherently complex
form of thought, recognizing multiple levels of meaning that con-
tradict one another, and whose contradiction opens up a further,
not fully articulable insight into the mysterious, awesome, and
perhaps properly terrifying truth that we must act without knowing
what our actions will ultimately ˜˜mean.™™ In this way irony partici-
pates in an eschatological mindset as opposed to an apocalyptic one.
Such irony has a positive energy, for it is grounded on a dynamic
and destabilizing hope; as R. A. Markus says, this hope ˜˜is a per-
manently unsettling force, seeking to prevent social institutions
from becoming rigid and ¬xed, always inclined to treat the status quo
with suspicion™™ (1970: 169). Augustinians embed this critical skep-
ticism within a larger enframing af¬rmation of the good of the
created order, an af¬rmation which many contemporary cultural
critics would likely ¬nd inexpressible, even if they resonated with it.
We are not authors of our stories but characters within them, and
while we must try to discern what is going on, in order most
appropriately to respond to it, the fact that we exist within our

35. See Mathewes 1999, MacIntyre 1990, Jones and Paulsell 2002, and Webster 1998.
36. See Wolfe 1996: 50.
238 A Theology of Public Life

stories means that the ironies of our involvement and our attempts
at understanding that involvement will only mount, and never fully
be resolved.
Our entrapment in this condition is what makes cynicism so
tempting today. How can we resist it? We can say either too little
here, or too much. So to say too little: the contemporary intellectual
crisis of hope is in fact a choice people make, a decision they make
to accept that cynicism. It is not the natural, inevitable fate of the
intellect in the modern age. Yet the counter to this choice is not
another choice “ that would be equally an attempt to impose one™s
will on the world, just one more version of the will to power. We
cannot counter the critics™ despair with sheer exercise of will or the
power of positive thinking. Instead, we must do something alto-
gether different: to look and see. We can inhabit this vision of the
world not by activity at all but by passivity “ by a change in vision,
by looking up from our ceaseless labors and seeing that the world is
good, and that it merits hope. This hope is not Hardt and Negri™s
hope in an ultimate, but at present wholly promissory, utopia; it is
grounded not simply in an indeterminately distant future, but in the
af¬rmation of the fact that suffering is not the ultimate truth of the
world even at present; that lies will ¬nally, albeit eschatologically,
be overcome by the truth; and that, even if these things do not today
occur with anything like regularity “ even if they occur infrequently
enough to seem the exception that proves the rule “ they are in fact
the rule, the regulus of the world.
What would it mean, what would it change, were we to inhabit
that hope?

Critically hopeful citizenship
We now turn to how this vision can become incarnate in a
larger practice of hopeful citizenship. How should such critical hope
fund engagement in public life? And how can it be cultivated by
public engagement?
˜˜Hope™™ is an ambivalent political virtue. It can suggest a kind of
political anesthetic, a societal pressure-release valve, the force
whereby poor and oppressed peoples are paralyzingly consoled
when a realistic assessment of their situation would generate the
sort of anger necessary for real change now. But hope also seems
Hopeful citizenship

politically mobilizing. Hope gives us the power to imagine a world
quite different than the one we inhabit “ and that act of imagining
can be the ¬rst step towards creating that world. As Slavoj Ziek
puts it, in his inimitable (and who would want to imitate it?) style,
˜˜in order effectively to liberate oneself from the grip of existing
social reality, one should ¬rst renounce the transgressive fantas-
matic supplement that attaches us to it™™ (2000: 149). Vaclav Havel
recognized this regarding the resistance movements in Eastern
Europe, which culminated in the revolutions of 1989; all the ˜˜small
hopes™™ of local change are anchored in the ˜˜deep, inner hope that is
not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of
departure in this unequal struggle™™ against Soviet totalitarianism
(1991: 186). Hope, then, seems both dangerous and necessary.
Yet today it is a responsibility that seems dif¬cult to ful¬ll, as we
saw above, for our culture is in important ways hopeless, with
cynicism as its consolation. And Christian accounts do no better.
Our age in general has failed to keep in tense balance hope™s
immanent and transcendent dimensions. Reinhold Niebuhr, for
example, treated hope almost as an anesthetic, like a scotch at the
end of a hard day at work. Niebuhr™s work is often criticized for
exploiting the Christian faith to underpin a kind of ˜˜muscular™™
involvement in society, for ends that are never explicitly articulated
but that seem to be fundamentally conservative and stabilizing, or
˜˜realistic.™™ His account of hope seems to support that interpreta-
tion; for in some way Niebuhr™s account is really about providing a
kind of high-ampere yet moderating motivation for men in power “
as he put it, ˜˜The ¬nal wisdom of life requires, not the annulment
of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it™™
(R. Niebuhr 1952: 63). This desire for ˜˜serenity™™ can sound danger-
ously Stoic, confusing hope with a willfulness that is not really hope
at all. Niebuhr™s work focused, in potentially problematic ways, on
how to understand and inhabit the humble, chastened, and yet
energized con¬dence in and hope for action in the saeculum. There
are of course other elements of his thought more thoroughly
resistant to a problematic desire for control; and even the language
of ˜˜serenity™™ above is troubled, however inadequately, by being
contrasted with ˜˜the annulment of incongruity.™™ And there is a
˜˜pessimistic hope,™™ that one does some good and yet also recog-
nizes that partiality will always have its way with us, that in this
240 A Theology of Public Life

world we are not released from the contradictions of history until
the end of history. Yet we must recognize that ˜˜Christian realism™™
has sometimes confused reality with the status quo, and has hence
been too resigned to the way the world presently is; witness
Niebuhr™s doubts about the wisdom of the civil rights campaigns of
the 1950s, which were effectively that perfectionist energies were
being applied too directly to a sordid world.37
Other Christian accounts of hope have other lacunae. Libera-
tionist accounts seem all too con¬dent in their knowledge of the
course of history and in how we should respond to it. If Niebuhr™s
account of hope ties it to an Ecclesiasties-ish resignation about
vanities, liberationist accounts move too far towards an easy mes-
sianism.38 (Their historical af¬liation with Marxism is not essential
to their theology, but it does highlight their messianic proclivities.)
Since the historical contradiction of their political expectations in


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