. 9
( 12)


therefore reject the game before it even begins.
These challenges are profound, and reward serious re¬‚ection. But
they are not new; for while agonism may sound very avant-garde, in
fact it has deep roots in the very pagan mythos that Augustine set
himself against throughout his career. Hence it is no surprise that
Christians possess considerable resources with which to respond to
this challenge. Precisely because they are worrisome “ because they
¬nd a place within Augustinian Christian political thought “ they
help to rethink the distinctively Augustinian understanding of
public engagement.
In fact, the critics do not fully realize the depth of their dis-
agreement with Christianity, because they do not understand what
Christians ought to be all about. The worries misconstrue what
˜˜winning™™ is for Augustinian Christians, as well as the sort of
˜˜struggle™™ they understand themselves to undertake. For believers,
276 A Theology of Public Life

con¬‚ict is not the most basic fact about human society; con¬‚ict is
merely the symbol (and the symptom) of the reality of our dis-
ordered loves. The struggle of politics can be a struggle for conver-
sion, conversion of one™s loves and the loves of one™s interlocutor.
This interpretation of political con¬‚ict reimagines it as a con¬‚ict
about our loves. Augustinians argue that agonists typically oppose
˜˜love™™ and ˜˜con¬‚ict™™ too comprehensively. Charity and agony have
something interesting in common: love itself is the ultimate form of
struggle, and struggle is unintelligible apart from love. Ironically
enough, then, Augustinian Christians are more ˜˜agonistic,™™ more
playful and more valuing of politics, than more ˜˜secular™™ thinkers
can be.
To show this, Augustinians must show that they can accom-
modate the reality of con¬‚ict during the world and in the self even
more comprehensively than do the agonists. They do so because
they have a pessimistic anthropology, not a pessimistic ontology,
and because their account of sin as disordered loves precludes its
adherents from demonizing their opponents. To see this we must
¬rst explain how the reality of con¬‚ict can be adequately captured
in an Augustinian schema, and then, second, talk about how such a
schema more appropriately depicts human political psychology.

An alternative Augustinian cosmology
Agonism and Augustinian Christianity propose fundamentally
different cosmologies. Agonists, assuming ontological con¬‚ict, tend
both to naturalize and to domesticate con¬‚ict, and thus to render
perplexing agonism™s simultaneous insistence on the primordiality
of con¬‚ict and on the obligation to recognize the otherness of the
other. Augustinians think reality is not most fundamentally the
blind, billiard-like collision of Leibnizian windowless monads;
con¬‚ict is fundamentally secondary to the real harmonies of being
which underlie it. Hence, teleologically, this account af¬rms that we
can genuinely encounter others, not just butt up against them. This
emphasis on love, perhaps paradoxically, more readily compre-
hends the profundity of con¬‚ict while also refusing to ˜˜naturalize™™

17. My thoughts here are shaped by Santurri 1987.
Charitable citizenship

It is worth explicitly noting the radical character of this alter-
native. This Augustinian cosmology is rooted in the cosmological
revolution undertaken by Judaism and Christianity on their inher-
ited Ancient Near Eastern roots, a revolution that rejected the
received view of the cosmos as formed in an agonic struggle
between two (or more) divine entities, replacing it with a cosmology
of a single monarchic Deity from whom creation has tragically and
inexplicably swerved. Con¬‚ict is real, but the crucial ˜˜violence™™ has
already occurred, once and for all, in sin and in God™s ˜˜overcoming™™
of our sin “ which is actually not a second act of God, but simply
God™s refusal to allow us to complete our attempted violence of
original sin. Yet the profundity of this picture has been obscured by
its super¬cial familiarity. Many of the root myths of the universe,
the worldviews from which Christianity borrows many of its con-
cepts “ such as the concept of virtue “ are agonistic, fundamentally
con¬‚ictual; Christianity™s claim to transform them is quite radical,
and we should appreciate that fact more thoroughly than we typi-
cally do.18
So Christians will oppose the agonists™ naturalization of con¬‚ict,
for reasons discussed earlier. But the interpretation of con¬‚ict,
which induces them to resist this naturalization, does not deny
con¬‚ict™s reality, but offers a picture of harmonious community, the
idea that reality is ˜˜at bottom™™ marked by order, against which
con¬‚ict stands out as disharmonious dissent. This picture helps us
recognize the desirability of genuine communal harmony, which is
a political motivation quite different from the motivation of fear for
what we might lose.
Recognition of this prompts another agonist challenge to Chris-
tianity, namely that it idealizes harmony to a degree that effaces the
real and palpable fact of con¬‚ict in the universe. But such charges
ignore the role of the concept of sin for Augustinians (which we
discuss below). More profoundly still, such charges misconstrue
Christians™ basic expectations of political engagement, by char-
acterizing it in immanent terms as hope for the this-worldly reali-
zation of the kingdom of God. This fails to appreciate the
eschatological character of the Augustinian Christian position.
Admittedly, all too often in history, Christians have pursued

18. See Forsyth 1987, Mathewes 2001a, and H. R. Niebuhr 1963: 106“7.
278 A Theology of Public Life

presumptuously apocalyptic socio-political programs; but properly
speaking, Christian hope™s eschatological orientation condemns
such desires for any ¬nal ending in time. Christians should not want
to ˜˜win,™™ because Christ has ˜˜already™™ won. Because of Christ™s
victory, Christians should not conceive of either history in general
or politics in particular as essentially agonistic, essentially a struggle
or a war; it is rather a pilgrimage. Thus, against those who see
con¬‚ict as necessarily and essentially violent, governed by a zero-
sum logic, Christians can imagine and approach moments of con-
¬‚ict in the eschatological conviction that ˜˜losing™™ and ˜˜winning™™
need not be objects of ultimate concern.
Precisely because Augustinians see reality as more primordially
about communion than con¬‚ict, they can also articulate why ˜˜care
for the other as other™™ is politically important. The need to respect
the otherness of others is palpable. One excruciating, maddening
fact about public life is that others, with other views, are tantalizingly
rational “ that is, they seem amenable to reasoned conversation and
dialogue, but effectively seem dedicated to vexing consensus. When
confronted with these experiences, agonism can see such experi-
ences only as opportunities either to rework the self, or simply to
turn away from the other as not worth the effort; and it is hard to
tell when to do the one or the other. In contrast, Augustinian poli-
tical love manifests something quite like a certain kind of political
respect, of seeing another as another you, another self. As Robin
Lovin suggests, while improper love can smother the object of its
attention, incorporating him or her into one™s own narcissism,
proper love can be politically restraining: ˜˜the best evidence that I
have achieved some understanding of what love requires is that I
can talk about the good of others in terms they can recognize™™
(1995: 200).19 In Augustinian terms, this is connected to the idea that
love is akin to vision, to seeing the truth about someone. Love is
fundamentally an af¬rmative recognition of an other; to love is
fundamentally to will that the other be “ for it is the being of the
other that gives you delight. Love, properly inhabited, fundamen-
tally respects the other™s alterity “ and when someone does not

19. I thank Eric Gregory for this reference. For good discussions of the complexities
of love in warping our vision of others “ and yet the inescapability of love as
motivating us “ see A. L. Hall 2002 and Ferreira 2001.
Charitable citizenship

respect that otherness, this failure of respect is most fully compre-
hensible as a failure of love.
Love™s close connections with play illuminate this attention to the
other, and through it we can also understand, better than we can
through agonism, the various dimensions of the encounter with the
other. ˜˜Play™™ may sound frivolous, but in fact there is a deep
theological tradition that speaks of God as playing with the world.
In fact, the idea that God delights in, plays with, and enjoys the
world suffuses the Bible; in Proverbs, Wisdom says that ˜˜I was by his
side, a master craftsman, delighting him day by day, ever at play in
his presence, at play everywhere in the world, delighting to be with
the sons of men™™ (Proverbs 8:30“1).20 Play is the activity and mode of
receptivity prompted in the playing self by its delight in the activity
at hand and in its partner in play. Play requires an other to play, an
otherness-in-relation-to-oneself, an otherness appropriately related
to oneself, in the ways necessary for both of you to understand the
rules of the game you are playing. And play requires the self to be
˜˜other™™ too, in the sense that the self is expected to go outside of
itself and ˜˜into™™ the game, in something like ecstasy. So under-
stood, love is the primordial form of play “ an activity of ecstatic
delight with and towards others.
Play and ecstasy make agonists nervous; they are a bit too much
for them “ too dangerous, too vulnerable. But of course the other-
ness that such ecstasy describes is precisely what the agonists posit
at the heart of the self, the idea that selfhood is not a unitary phe-
nomenon; and so their discomfort here has no theoretically
respectable basis in their thought. Some might worry that ˜˜play™™
suggests too super¬cial, too frivolous an approach. But it need not:
play is actually a form of risky engagement, one that reveals the
vulnerability of love, implicit in play™s necessarily genuine openness
to the other. Here critics will naturally doubt that the language of
risk is doing much real work. Certainly charitable engagement will
not jettison its faith; so how risky, the agonists ask, can it truly be?
No less risky than the agonists™ more typical Nietzschean approach
aims to be “ and indeed, much more risky than their approach
actually manages to be.

20. See Pieper 1999, H. Rahner 1972, and Huiziga 1955. I am grateful to Patrick D.
Miller for calling my attention to this passage.
280 A Theology of Public Life

How is this so? In what does this ˜˜putting one™s beliefs at risk™™
consist? It certainly does not mean ˜˜jettisoning one™s faith,™™ if that
means trying to be an unbeliever, or attempting to hold all one™s
skeptical convictions at a skeptical distance, or being willing to
jettison them at the ¬rst sign of an interlocutor™s discomfort. That is
not real engagement, it is play-acting. It is impossible totally to
doubt one™s own framework, because that framework undergirds
the very vocabulary for the activity of doubting that would call it
into question. Every intellectual framework that the human mind
can inhabit has some ˜˜outside™™ that it cannot, and sometimes
actively will not, theorize; the only question is whether the frame-
work™s adherents recognize that fact. So-called ˜˜open-minded™™
people have a very hard time imagining what it would be like for
them to become blinkered fundamentalists; sometimes you can
actually see the revulsive recoil from such an imagined future in
their faces as they try to contemplate it. We simply cannot saw off
the branch we are sitting on; and if we think we are doing that, it is
only because we were never sitting on that branch at all.21
Rather, what this ˜˜riskiness™™ means is being willing to put one™s
beliefs ˜˜into play™™ “ that is, to offer them to the other as a means of
shared understanding “ a way for the two (or more) of you to
understand the conversation. (For example: in a discussion of cap-
ital punishment, you say, ˜˜Well, in my tradition we talk about the
need for justice always being framed by mercy.™™) If you do this, and
do it in a non-defensive manner, and if your interlocutor allows this
interpretation to ˜˜play itself out,™™ and you do too, you will ¬nd that
your beliefs are no longer simply yours, but have become something
like ˜˜common property.™™ (Your interlocutor replies, ˜˜Yes, mercy “
but mercy to whom? To the murderer? To the victim? To the

21. Stephen White™s powerful and illuminating Sustaining Af¬rmation (2000) is a
good example of such an approach. His account of what a ˜˜weak ontology™™ is
(14“15), and of its contrast with a ˜˜strong ontology™™ (6“8), merely delays the
ontological question, pressed in different ways by thinkers such as Alasdair
MacIntyre and Richard Rorty, as to the ¬nal ontological status of such ˜˜weak
ontological™™ claims: are they fundamentally imagined, or do they speak to
something real? For more see Fish 1999: 235: ˜˜[the agonist] thinks that some
forms of organization are more open to revision than others. What she does
not see is that openness to revision as a principle is itself a form of closure, not
at all open to ways of thinking or acting that would bring revision to an end.
˜Openness to revision™ is an internal, not an absolute, measure; it is relative to
whatever understood exclusions “ and there will always be some “ give the
politically organized space its shape.™™
Charitable citizenship

victim™s family?™™) And when you receive them back they may be
slightly changed, modi¬ed here and there by the other™s handling of
them, out of her or his (or their) own irreducible perspective and
previous experience. Allowing one™s beliefs to go on such public
pilgrimages will invariably make them more complex. But such
˜˜complication™™ of one™s beliefs pre-dates anyone™s possession of
them; both theologically and historically, Christian faith is not
parochially local or fundamentally narcissistic, but is always already
cracked open to, and involved with, alternative modes of being.
What is more disturbing is that this kenotic publication of one™s
beliefs may mean that after they have become public, they change
so profoundly that you cannot recognize them any more. When our
convictions meet reality, reality challenges us in ways we cannot
How can one relativize one™s own beliefs? Rather than attempting
to do it in language that looks to have pretensions to philosophical
neutrality, Christians should employ the unapologetically local and
particular dialect of Christian faith, particularly the importance of
humility due to our own sinfulness and God™s inherent transcend-
ence. Openness to change is not a matter of placing a fundamentally
external theoretical control on our beliefs, but rather it emerges
organically from within the account, from the inside out. Further-
more, pace the agonists, this risk can be only indirectly accepted. As
we saw, the attempt to ˜˜prepare to risk everything™™ is always an
impossible task. There is no possible way to do it, and the attempt to
do so invariably comes down to one more attempt to control what is
put at risk. Any attempt directly to theorize one™s own dissolution,
or one™s self-understanding™s dissolution, is impossible; such dis-
solutions can be narrated retrospectively, but cannot be pre-
emptively anticipated. The most we can do is leave open the
possibility of a radical departure from Christian belief. But because
this is an intra-Christian account, it cannot and need not theorize its
own dissolution, especially because it cannot formulate an account
of how it could be rejected.
Such risk is analogous to our experience of being in love. We
cannot from within love imagine love™s dissolution; but we can
acknowledge that it is possible, and that attempts to secure our
˜˜loving selves™™ against its possibility will end up destroying the very
thing we are attempting to secure “ namely, those loving selves.
282 A Theology of Public Life

Love, to be love, simply must be vulnerable to change of the sort
that can destroy it.
To respond to this Augustinian challenge, agonism™s defenders
must do two things. First, they must show how their proposal for a
change from talk of ˜˜enemies™™ to talk of ˜˜rivals™™ can be done, and is
not really different from Christian love. Secondly, they must also show
how one can actually make that transformation in one™s affections.
There is something alchemical about the change, something more
assumed than actually analyzed. Augustinians acknowledge the mys-
teriousness of the change, which they ascribe to grace; agonists may
need something akin to that to be realistic, even by their own lights.
Agonists might respond by going on the offensive. For love is quite
a dangerous ingredient in public life. And appeals to it can sound glib
and simplistic. But what about the inevitable delusions, the in-
escapable projections of self-interest “ what, that is, about the in-
eliminable presence of self-love in human affairs? How do Christians
practice and secure the permanent presence of self-critique? How do
they avoid falling into the trap of self-righteous purity, and the
demonization of their opponents, that their convictions would seem
to encourage? It is precisely because love is so powerfully charged,
agonists conclude, that it should be kept out of the political realm.
But, Augustinian Christians reply, the fact that something is
complicated and partly contradictory does not speak to whether or
not it is part of reality. And love, with all its attendant dangers, just
is part of reality; indeed, it is the deepest part. To imagine that one
can simply ˜˜expel™™ it is to fall into the most outrageous of illusions,
and to imagine that one can, over time, learn to restrict one™s pas-
sions so that ultimately love is removed is only to defer the out-
rageousness one or two steps. Augustinians attempt to capture the
complexity inherent in love by using a further concept, derivative
from love: the concept of sin. Thus while the basic Augustinian
Christian metaphysics is fundamentally optimistic, its anthropology
is practically pessimistic. We turn to this next.

An alternative Augustinian psychology
Like agonism, Augustinian Christianity does not assume that
the self is stable, whole, or complete. Far from it; in this life any
coherence is a mark of grace, and a proleptic participation in the
Charitable citizenship

¬nal integrity when we will be made whole by standing before God.
But where agonists see the constitution of the self in terms ulti-
mately of con¬‚ict and tension, Augustinian Christians understand
the self as formed by its loves. Love better captures the self-unset-
tling character of politics, in a way that agonism™s emphasis on
˜˜provisionality™™ and ˜˜openness to revision™™ misses; it better
accommodates the present mutability, contingency, fragmentari-
ness, and incompleteness of the self by interpreting the self as only
eschatologically integral.
The prioritization of love entails a deeper and more hopeful
interpretation of con¬‚ict as well, as captured in the symbolics of sin.
Like agonists, because they see con¬‚ict as rooted in human psy-
chology, they acknowledge that con¬‚ict is more than merely inci-
dental, hence ineliminable during the world. Yet unlike agonists,
they characterize con¬‚ict in psychological and anthropological, not
ontological, terms, so that con¬‚ict does not re¬‚ect humans™ ulti-
mate estrangement from one another. This hope in our ultimate
community has profound political signi¬cance. Violence is not
fundamental to politics. During the world, we live east of Eden; but
that should not obscure the essentially non-violent character of the
cosmological vision Christianity expresses. Sin, and thus con¬‚ict, is
a fundamentally secondary concept, derivative of love.22

22. The complexities of this approach to violence are often overlooked, but can be
glimpsed by looking at Augustine™s understanding and justi¬cation of coercion.
He is often accused of supporting theocracy because of his endorsement of the
use of violence. But it is worth remembering that Augustine was unique in
offering a justi¬cation of violence and coercion in his time; other Christian
thinkers did not think the use of force was theologically troubling (see Bowlin
1997). Furthermore, the character of his justi¬cation of force was not at all
theological or, more speci¬cally, evangelical; he never thought souls could be
won for Christ by the edge of the sword. Violence is part of the worldly
economy; it is not used for religious aims, such as gaining converts. On his
understanding, coercion was, rather, an essentially political act, one expressly
concerned with the stability of the civic order. It took the form of religious
coercion (and forced conversion) only because it responded to the danger
presented by people who understood their religious identities to be necessarily
and violently opposed to that order. In Augustine™s world, it was the Donatists
who offered an explicitly religious warrant for violence (or engaged in
religiously motivated violence without condemnation by their leaders).
Augustine™s justi¬cation of the necessity of force was made wholly on non-
ecclesial civic grounds; he wanted them ˜˜converted™™ “ which meant forced to
publicly repent their views, as they disparaged the ˜˜Catholics™™ for having done
in the past “ in the hope that such experiences would undercut the righteous
zeal fuelling their violence (see N. Wood 1986: 46“8).
284 A Theology of Public Life

Understanding con¬‚ict in terms of love has several distinct
advantages in shaping public engagement. When one engages oppo-
nents, the concept of sin compels us to seek an explanation for their
behavior, not in sheer perversity or nefariousness, but in terms of
goods to which they are committed “ and with which we can feel at
least some ¬‚icker of af¬liation. Demonization of one™s opponents is
made very dif¬cult on this scheme, because we assume some ultimate
continuity between their psychological-motivational structure and
our own. (Indeed, Augustine doesn™t even ˜˜demonize™™ the demons
themselves; instead he employs this psychology to understand, as best
he can, their revolt against God, and describes them more in a pitiful
language than in a language of righteous justice.)
Furthermore, this psychology forbids us from imputing too pure
motives to ourselves. All our actions have the taint of an illegitimate
(because self-aggrandizing) self-interest; so even when we ¬ght
against people whose programs repulse us, those struggles or cru-
sades do not recursively permit us to whitewash our motives or our
souls. The language of sin and love strongly encourages us always to
see ourselves as ¬‚awed, imperfect, perpetually open to correction
and inevitably in need of improvement.
Collectively, this acknowledgment of our complicity in sin and
the concomitant acknowledgment of the attractions of our oppo-
nents™ programs, whether or not they are explicitly ˜˜political,™™
means that we must remain perpetually vulnerable to the real
attractions and plausibility of others™ views. This will deepen our
patience and humility, permitting us more honestly to acknowledge
the chaos of genuine but pluriform goods we ¬nd in our world,
without either simply impatiently stipulating (as ˜˜liberal pluralists™™
do) that this welter of goods just is the way the world ¬nally is, or
allowing this plurality to dismiss our longing for unity or coherence,
as agonists expect. We will not be the ones to resolve, and thus end,
the world™s complexity.23 Throughout history the same basic prob-
lems will remain, because we will remain. Eden is lost to us for ever.
And good riddance, felix culpa: what lies ahead of us in the heavenly
city is greater than that over-plotted garden ever was.

23. This eschatological imagination can identify the essential continuity of
apocalyptic longings and utopian fantasies as equally impatient desires to
bring the kingdom of heaven to earth on our own terms. This impatience is
visible in much liberation theology; see Gilkey 1975 and McCann 1981.
Charitable citizenship

In these ways, among others, public engagement can change, even
purify not only our views but our presentation of our views. But
Augustinian Christians do not just have a richer and more complex
concept of con¬‚ict; they have a richer notion of what politics can be
about. A true politics will be a sacramental politics “ a politics that
understands that political action has a meaning and signi¬cance
˜˜beyond™™ its literal meaning. What such a politics would look like “
what gifts it would bring to our public life, and how it offers a
fruitful ascetic practice for Christians “ is the ¬nal topic of this

A charitable citizenship
An Augustinian Christian account does not simply meet the
well-de¬ned needs of secular thinkers; it also challenges the con-
ceptual terms whereby those thinkers understand the contours and
content of public life. It does that most clearly in talking about a
politics based on love. Many worry that an account of politics built
around love will ineluctably pressure us towards a kind of com-
munion that often seems impossible and even dangerous in public
life. Augustinian Christians both agree and disagree with this
statement. Certainly such a political account will urge us to
acknowledge the reality and inescapability of our longings for such
communion; but these longings reveal that politics is motivated by a
desire that it cannot itself comprehend, the desire for communion.
(Here is where those who recognize the ˜˜cosmopolitan™™ trajectory
of politics are right.) Politics is teleological, but its goal is not
achievable by us; its achievement will come like a thief in the night.
Just as the self will be only eschatologically realized, so political
community aches for a communion that will be realized only in the
koinonia of the kingdom of God.
Such a politics not only better comprehends the reality of con¬‚ict
than does agonism; its faith in the possibility, and its hope for the
reality, of communion are both civically and ascetically fruitful.
Civic engagement motivated and informed by love is thus open
to the full range of civic possibilities in ways that more self-
proclaimedly ˜˜worldly™™ accounts are not. Augustinians can af¬rm a
playful politics, one that cares about public life in a certain way
less than we otherwise would, for we realize that our political
286 A Theology of Public Life

ambitions, during the world, will only ever be realized proleptically
(and then very occasionally). This recognition also, albeit para-
doxically, allows Christians also to care about it more: love better
understands public life™s ambition, because it recognizes the
dimension of longing for real communion that suffuses it, and
respects that longing for what it is. It asks less of politics imma-
nently, but expects more of it eschatologically.
Furthermore, in its vulnerability to the turbulence of public life,
this account disciplines Christians more fully into the love they
proclaim. And Christians need as much help as they can ¬nd to be
disciplined into the love they profess. For our contemporary indi-
vidualist and consumer culture offers us ways of behaving and
desiring that are profoundly inimical to true Christian love. Our
individualism has largely instrumentalized and privatized talk of
love and so cannot see its public face. Coupled with our own sinful
tendencies towards radical self-interest, this produces a powerful
tendency towards a privatized consumerist eroticism “ an affective
orientation towards the world that sees the world as a collection of
consumable objects meant to satiate our individual appetites. We
imagine love as a particular kind of self-focused satisfaction, based
on what Wendell Berry (1990: 38) calls our ˜˜fundamentally unge-
nerous way of life,™™ our captivity to a theology of endless (in several
senses) acquisition. We imagine ˜˜joy™™ in terms of more: more of
what we want, an in¬nite supply of equally disposable, perhaps
interchangeable goods and pleasures. This ¬xation on more offers
no space to challenge our desires themselves “ to ask whether those
desires will ever be satis¬ed on the terms they propose; it simply
assumes that more is better.24
But true love is what we receive before it is what we give, and
because it is not properly and privately ours, it is both deeply public
and radically non-consumeristic. Love orients us toward others by
teaching us how we are properly affected by those others “ how we
properly apprehend their value and how that apprehension helps
us come to a better, less self-aggrandizing, assessment of our relat-
ive signi¬cance. Love is a passion, an attentive orientation towards
reality. As a passion, we experience it as a kind of suffering. And as

24. For more on our distorted notions of joy, see Scitovsky 1992, Wuthnow 1994,
and N. Boyle 1998.
Charitable citizenship

a passion, it is not most fundamentally a punctual emotion; it never
goes away. We endure love, just as it endures. It is in love™s
endurance, even in public life, that we undergo our ascetical
We will discuss this by expositing what Augustinians take love to
be, paying special attention to how it is usefully related to concepts
of play and joy. Then we will suggest how such love can be dee-
pened and enriched through public engagement. I conclude with
some thoughts about how this love in public may be, not just a
rehearsal, but a distant, partial, and proleptic participation in God™s
love for creation.

The practice of enduring love
Statements such as the above sound absurd today to most
political thinkers, and probably to most contemporary people more
generally. Certainly they sound a bit romantic and idealistic; and
where they do not meet rejection on cynical charges of ˜˜romanti-
cism,™™ they meet blunt incomprehension on charges of fantasy.
This incomprehension is related to a larger incomprehension of
what we might call the passive affections “ joy and happiness. We
believe we must work in order to earn leisure, work in order to
merit delight, work to deserve to enjoy; enjoyment is an end-point
to be attained, a vacation from the ˜˜real world,™™ not a basis from
which to work. Love is not a gift, because we think no such gift is
possible. There is no such thing as a free lunch; instead, we imagine
we must earn everything. In our self-understanding, we accept a
framework governed wholly by purposiveness, means-ends reas-
oning which is focused on meeting our anxious, grasping needs.
Our vocabulary is so infected with an instrumentalizing economic
ideology that it affords us little leverage from within itself to im-
agine a world organized not around work, but instead around joy.
We have a hard time imagining that a life lived in delight is any-
thing but shallow; we can admit we need relaxation (or ˜˜down
time™™) under the misnomer of ˜˜frivolity,™™ but this renders joy a
parody of what it really is. Our age makes it hard to sustain the
belief that a desire to be happy is an appropriate desire by which to
guide one™s life. As Adorno famously put it, ˜˜it is impossible to
288 A Theology of Public Life

write poetry after Auschwitz™™ (2003a: 162). Pleasure seems a scandal
to us.25
Here we touch on our most fundamental suspicion of joy: the
worry that such a focus on joy is escapist, luring us away from
confronting the hard facts of our lives and of real existence. But the
character of proper Augustinian love involves deep engagement
with the world, profound participation with God and the church,
and a fundamental insistence that the love and joy here described
are not a conclusive event, but rather an inaugural one, oriented
towards always once more resetting the self towards being born
again. But to understand all this we should get clear on what we
mean by ˜˜joy™™ and ˜˜play™™ ¬rst.
We can begin by distinguishing joy from both frivolity and
amusement. Frivolity is the attitude of the modern aesthete, whose
genealogy stretches from Walter Pater and Bloomsbury to Richard
Rorty and Jacques Derrida. It aims to help its adherents endure the
boredom that they see as the fundamental condition of life “ to
defeat super¬ciality by an even more shallow super¬ciality. While
this aestheticism means to resist the dominant insistence on the
purposefulness of life, it only reinforces it by retaining the end-
lessness of life, both as of in¬nite duration (in the literal sense of
lacking any boundaries or structure) and as of lacking any overall
goal. Frivolity is never quite able to forget its own inadequacy, and
so ends up offering itself its own ironic knowingness as a consola-
tion prize; but this consolation turns out to be cold comfort.26
The mode of being of the aesthete, then, is that of diversion and
distraction, what Pascal called divertissement.27 But this diversion is

25. See John Milbank™s intriguing attempt to distinguish between a ˜˜negative™™ and
˜˜positive sublime™™ in Milbank 1997: 7“35. See also W. Steiner 1995 and Scarry
1999. I disagree with those who claim that our problem is rooted in our careless
assumption that we have an ˜˜in¬nite™™ theological desire, which creates an
in¬nite dissatisfaction with the world; this is a form of ˜˜worldliness™™ that this
chapter is meant to oppose. For similar secular accounts, see Goodheart 1991
and Lear 1998: 80“122.
26. See Sontag 1966. Sontag™s essay inaugurated a new style of thinking which
eschewed the ˜˜hermeneutics of depth™™ and the tone of high moral seriousness
of thinkers such as Lionel Trilling, in favor of playfulness and a ˜˜light™™ touch;
it began a transvaluation of critical values in a Nietzschean direction that yet
remains trapped in the logic of capitalism and shopping (see Ross 1989: 147,
151, 169“70).
27. On divertissement, see Pascal 1966, esp. § 136. See also Rosen 1987: 71“3, which
criticizes Derrida for frivolity, as opposed to Plato™s ˜˜serious play.™™ And see
Charitable citizenship

merely a form of boredom driven to desperation, attempting to
escape its mode of life. While the need to escape is right, this
diversion moves the aesthete in the wrong direction, as it were “
further into the ephemeral and transient, a realm that they can
never fully inhabit. Frivolity, thus, is anxious despair masquerading
as action and indifference.
If frivolity is an essentially super¬cial form of activity, amuse-
ment is the fundamental passivity cultivated in a society of media
(and especially television) consumers. This passivity, however, is
anything but inert. Amusement is equally ephemeral, equally
transient, and equally re¬‚ects an essentially nihilistic attitude
towards the world: constantly switching channels, the ˜˜amusee™™
seeks little but a momentary distraction, one provided wholly by the
¬‚ickering pictures, ever changing yet never satisfactory, on the
screen. Such amusement seems obligatory in our culture “ what
Jean Baudrillard calls a ˜˜fun morality,™™ an oddly Kantian-deonto-
logical maxim to be happy (1988: 49).28 Similarly, Robert Wuthnow,
a social theorist no one will confuse with Baudrillard, argues that
the contemporary belief in the ˜˜gospel of happiness™™ creates a
religious situation that is deeply inimical to the proper apprehen-
sion of the Christian message (1997: 90“8). The experience of
receiving the cultural command or obligation to ˜˜be happy,™™ far
from obligating us to do anything, merely licenses us to avoid doing
anything real. The inert lassitude of amusement, camou¬‚aged
by the appearance of activity in watching, reveals not so much a
desperate sense of endlessness to life as a stubborn refusal to begin
it, a passive-aggressive rejection of connection to the world. If
frivolity is our form of angst and despair, amusement, that is, is the
contemporary manifestation of sloth.29
Joy differs from both amusement and frivolity just as love differs
from despair and sloth. Both manifest bad relationships to time. To
seek amusement is ultimately to avoid time, in favor of a form of
ontological titillation; but joy and love plunge us into time and the

MacIntyre 1984: 24ff. for a discussion of the ˜˜aesthete™™ as a modern type. On
boredom see Raposa 1999 and Svendsen 2005.
28. Note that this need not deny that actual needs exist, but just that
˜˜consumption, as a concept speci¬c to contemporary society, is not organized
along these lines™™ (1988: 47).
29. See Postman 1985 and Harris 2001.
290 A Theology of Public Life

world, recklessly. The aesthete™s frivolity is ¬nally self-referential,
but the joyous soul roots its happiness outside of itself, in the
eternal love that is God. This is why Augustine thinks joy is possible
in this life only through hope (DCD 19.4). It promises a participation
in the kingdom, when we will participate in God™s absolute view of
each of us as lovable, without letting us think that during the world
we ever have more than an inkling of what that will be.
That last thought is important: joy does not rest content with the
world. Joy does not seek satisfaction, equity, or indeed any form of
adequation to the world. It does not seek suf¬ciency; that is not its
point. Joy is always already excessive, always already super-
abundant, and so is traduced by looking ¬nally for a payoff or bal-
ance. Joy is a form of quite literally ecstatic play, which moves the
self ever more deeply into the rhythms or, as Augustine would say,
the ordo of creation. To enjoy the world is to not expect it to meet
our needs; it is to play with, by playing in, the world. In going
outside oneself in this playful ecstasy, one does not leave oneself
behind, but rather one enters more fully into participation with the
world. And we play with the world because God plays with it; in
using the world we are enjoying it and loving it quite literally in the
way that God loves it “ we are participating in God™s being-for the
world. In using the world we are loving it; and in loving the world
we are becoming dei¬ed. To realize this is to realize that the
˜˜enjoyment™™ of God need not entail that the ˜˜use™™ of the world
denigrates created things; rather, it consummates them.30
Play is, phenomenologically speaking, most fundamentally
receptive, even passive. In play, the subject is taken out of itself and
plays a game ˜˜larger™™ than itself. The language of play may too
easily be heard as self-starting, as if we must take the ¬rst step, must
make the ¬rst move, begin the play. But no: part of the vertigi-
nousness we experience in play is that we cannot know if we pri-
mordially play or rather ˜˜are played™™ by the game “ we cannot
know which is prior (ontologically, not chronologically) to which,
and there are moments when we really do seem fundamentally
secondary to the playing in which ˜˜we ¬nd ourselves.™™ Play, and the
joy that accompanies it, reveals the ontological truth that we are not
our own, that our being is more primordially tied up with the rest of

30. See Hauerwas 1983: 146“51.
Charitable citizenship

creation than we typically imagine. We are fundamentally recipients
of reality, more given than giving, in a way dif¬cult for our typical
subjectivist self-understandings to admit. When we play fully “
when we are truly ˜˜captivated™™ by a game “ it is impossible for us,
in later re¬‚ection, to describe our experiences in subjectivist terms;
for we are enraptured, caught up in it, and in a way we gain our
determinate being in and through the game. This quieting of my
own desire, this quieting of my subjectivity, teaches me that I am
not the author of this story, that my perspective on the world is not
the only one, and that there is a far truer perspective that is not
mine to inhabit. So understood, play is as much a form of witness as
it is participation, and it provides us with a deeper way of under-
standing ourselves as ˜˜acted upon™™ more than acting; it deepens our
ability to re¬‚ect upon ourselves, and hence makes us more humble,
and more able to love.
In inhabiting this love, we come to acknowledge that our habitual
solipsism is simply self-deception. Our love of others, and especially
our recognition and acceptance that they have plans and agendas
beyond our own immediate interest in them, oppose our desire for
control, as we simply recognize their own agendas, and perhaps
even come to imagine ourselves in their place. This love, that is, is
both kenotic and agapic “ attending to the other as another,
someone genuinely other than oneself, not just a screen upon
which to project one™s own agenda, nor simply a bit player in a story
fundamentally about oneself. This loving engagement shows us that
we are deceiving ourselves about the extent to which we care about
others; in fact, we care about others far more than we let ourselves
believe. For in play we come to see this love as part of who we really
are, perhaps the deepest part of who we really are. It is the other-
directedness of our being, our strong desire for communion with
another as the consummation of our own selfhood. We can call this
mode of being ecstatic, for in it we are brought ˜˜outside of our-
selves,™™ into something “ a ˜˜court™™ “ where we play with another.
Play™s ecstasy leads one to come to see the other as my destiny; but
this other is a living other, and so I cannot determine the love too
totally “ I must remain open, ˜˜agape™™ for the other, fundamentally
receptive. Nonetheless, this receptivity cannot be understood as
permission for sloth or laziness. Yes, the other is free, and so I must
wait on her or his self-giving to me; but I should cultivate the
292 A Theology of Public Life

longing for them. Furthermore this longing does not just ¬‚ap
loosely like the end of a rope out over an abyss, hoping for its far
end to be caught by another; it is a longing for, elicited from the ¬rst
by a determinate object.
So understood, play is a foundational attunement towards crea-
tion as a whole, a dialogical mode of being whereby we most fun-
damentally ˜˜meet™™ the world as the day that the Lord has made. So
understood, the concept of ˜˜play™™ is intimately tied up with the
plausibility of a unitary idea of ˜˜the world,™™ and with seeing the
world as signi¬cant beyond its literal presence, as sacramental. Play
is always in important respects de¬ned, delimited, and enframed by
boundaries; the precise phenomenological confusion we feel of self
and play could not exist if we could not imagine a mode of existence
outside of play. Play is simultaneously serious and joyful, and it can
be both only by allowing the players to be both immersed in the
play and able, sacramentally, to ˜˜see beyond™™ it.31
Here again we meet the deep connections between love and play,
married in the activity of God™s loving playfulness with (or playful
love for) the world. To see the world as a world, and to see its
sacramentality, means we see it as God sees it, in a sense with God™s
eyes. So understood, play is actually a proleptic form of participa-
tion in God. We play because God plays, and we ˜˜play™™ by being
proleptically taken up in God™s play, which we will only properly
possess in the eschaton. We can love because we are loved: this is
God™s orientation; God plays with the world in this way, using it to
mean more than what it is in itself, while still treating it with real
seriousness. Seriousness, even somberness, is embedded within
playful joy; God accepts the cruci¬xion, yet does not allow death to
have the last word, but takes up death into God™s self and transcends
it without erasing it or otherwise undoing its reality.32 The person
whom Hugo Rahner called ˜˜the grave-merry man of play™™ can exist,

31. Taylor 1989: 211“302, Lash 1988, and Lear 1990. For a sympathetic critique see
Soskice 1992.
32. This is not to deny the complexity of God™s vision, nor is it to ignore the
question of the relation between joy and power which God™s will manifests in
Scripture and which exemplary theologians of the Christian tradition (up to
and including twentieth-century theologians such as H. Richard Niebuhr) have
always discerned. See H. R. Niebuhr 1989. Compare this theological vision with
Bernard Williams™s discussion of the ancient gods™ ˜˜profound lack of style™™ in
1993: 165.
Charitable citizenship

and the attitude of joyful play as a general comportment towards
the world is in fact a viable orientation, because it is not most
basically our orientation, but God™s, and God allows us to participate
in it through the liturgical discipline of the form of the community
of God, the church. It is a mode of life meant to allow us to appre-
hend God™s act of ˜˜Eastering in us,™™ as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it
(1986: 118): to recognize and inhabit our lives as gifts from a loving
God whose central expectation of us in response to the gift of our
life is that we join in the ˜˜work™™ of delightfully loving and joying in
creation as Creation, as a gift of sheer gratuity.33 Such a mode of life
sees others as partners in joy and seeks them out as such, and so
expects to be surprised by joy, by moments of true communion,
rather than seeing all as a grim grey task to be undertaken. And the
communion so experienced, albeit proleptically, is not simply a this-
worldly community, something tidily con¬ned in the saeculum; it is
none other than the divine perichoretic community of the Triune
God, in Godself and in God™s gratuitous creation, sustenance, and
salvation of our ˜˜worldly™™ reality. The ˜˜play™™ we speak of here is
love in¬‚ected by faith and hope, a dynamism within and between
God and between God and God™s creation. It is not only that we are
able to do this by God™s urging; in fact, in doing it we are simply
participating in what God has been doing all along, in what God has
been all along. This is the ¬nal ascesis of love: that it recognizes that
we are not primordially playing but instead are being played, are
actors in the divine drama that is the essence of God™s being God.34
When we understand this, we understand that our lives them-
selves are sacraments, that we ourselves are ¬nally God™s speech,
not our own, and that public engagement is inescapably an attempt
to participate in the divine work of exultation and glori¬cation “
and for us, dei¬cation. It is in short to see the entire universe,
Creation as a whole, as a liturgy; as Peter Berger says, it is
a vast liturgy in praise of its creator. It was created for this purpose
and it is this purpose. This liturgy includes all human beings who have

33. See H. Rahner 1972, Lash 1988, R. Williams 2000, and Pieper 1999.
34. It is clear that this vision of play and glory and drama is related to the work of
von Balthasar; but it is also available in the work of Reformed theologians like
Calvin, Edwards, and Barth. The convergence on this issue of the most
˜˜ornate™™ and the most ˜˜spare™™ strands of Western Christian thought is no
294 A Theology of Public Life

been brought to this understanding and . . . it also includes those who
praise God under strange names. The cosmic liturgy includes the
living and the dead, and it includes the angels and all beings in this or
any other world. If Christianity is true, then the one who af¬rms this
truth must necessarily join the community of praise. (1992: 186)
In this we see the ultimate destiny of the world, a destiny of praise
and glory. The essential shape of such a way of life is eucharistic.
The Eucharist provides, as David Ford says, ˜˜a condensation of the
Christian habitus™™ (1999: 140), in three ways. First, the power of the
elements to bear their transubstantiation in the ritual “ however
that transubstantiation is understood to occur “ reveals to us the
sacramentality of creation, its latent capacity to bear the eschato-
logical weight of glory for which it is destined. Second, we can
˜˜accomplish™™ the ritual itself only proleptically; this is not a
˜˜satisfactory™™ dinner, but instead each meal should make us more
hungry for the heavenly banquet that awaits us at the eschaton. And
¬nally, the end of the Eucharist reveals the ˜˜reversal™™ of agency that
has been effected in the meal; for in it we are not the primordial
eaters, we are the eaten, consumed in the meal and incorporated
into the body of Christ. As such, it is a training in being responsive,
in being more acted upon than acting, in receiving before we give.
Yet even in the Eucharist, during the world, we must keep alive the
eschatological tension necessary lest a proper ˜˜sacramental piety™™
become, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, ˜˜a source of a particularly
grievous religious complacency™™ (1949: 242). The Eucharist offers
genuine participation in God, but it is participation both as an
immanent nourishment and as an instrumental orientation towards
life during the world. It both confronts us by challenging us asceti-
cally to review and assess our desires, and welcomes us by af¬rming
the ultimate goal of these desires.35 In all this the Eucharist teaches
us how to inhabit time, in three dimensions. First, as regards the
present, experiences of complete, apocalyptic, desire-ending satia-
tion are impossible. To seek such satiation in the world is apoc-
alyptic; it is to expect the resolution of all tensions in a world where
such tensions mark all our existence until the eschaton. (In fact,
since eschatological desire is not one built upon a palpable ˜˜lack,™™ in
the eschaton it will be ˜˜satiation™™ itself “ as the cessation into stasis

35. See Ford 1999: 145, 164“5.
Charitable citizenship

of the dynamism of desire “ that will ˜˜cease,™™ having been revealed
as a bad (worldly) interpretation of who we are called to be.) Instead,
we should anticipate, experience, and recall our moments of joy not
so much as immanently apprehensible, carrying their signi¬cance
like a density inside themselves, but rather as foretastes of some-
thing to come, a fugitive fragment from another age. Such an
experience helps us both by gifting us with itself, and also by
reminding us that this present age is not where we are made fully
happy. Insofar as joy in this sense is love, we can love now only
because we will love fully in the eschaton. Second, as regards the
past, what we are ˜˜re-membering™™ is not just ourselves, indeed not
primarily ourselves, but rather the communal history of the body of
Christ. In this activity of re-membering in ˜˜recollecting™™ the church,
we enter into the communal dance of perichoresis. We ˜˜remember™™
ourselves in Christ and the church. The Eucharist is a communal
celebration, not a collection of atomic individuals. Third, as regards
the future, this act of remembering is not an attempt at concluding,
not summing up our lives, but rather ¬nding a new way to begin in
and from them. The key is the way one keeps in mind the full length
of one™s life, remembering always that one is larger than the parti-
cular moment and yet equally limited, ˜˜rounded off ™™ in both death
and birth. This is not a strategy so much for memento mori as for
memento natali. Life is not ¬nally about learning how to end, how to
commit suicide; rather and more fundamentally, it is about learning
how to accept being begun.
This picture provokes in us two questions. First, how does
Christians™ loving action in public affect the public in ways that
enrich it, even as it makes nervous those who do not share this
commitment to loving action? Second, how does such loving action
help cultivate Christians™ deeper apprehension of love itself ?

Love in politics: longing for communion
What the critics identify as reasons for worry about love in
public life are actually, when properly identi¬ed, love™s advantages.

36. This is always a proleptic ˜˜remembrance,™™ as well as one carried out in the
shadow of the cross. For more on what this means for understanding ourselves
as existing in time, see Mathewes 2003.
296 A Theology of Public Life

Through them, Christian citizens have a notion of what politics
could be which is richer than immanentists allow. Augustinian
Christians™ eschatological faith lets them treat politics as not ulti-
mate, and con¬‚ict as not absolute. They therefore harbor hopes for
politics that extend beyond the grim zero-sum vision of agonists.
They can imagine it as a site for conversion, for the further trans-
formation of all participants during the long waiting for the reali-
zation of our longings. Public engagement motivated by love
encourages an attitude, not of anxious grasping after control, but of
a kind of responsive and non-anxious playfulness. The civic witness
so provided is considerable.
For agonists this is terribly dangerous. They worry that such a
˜˜playful™™ vision of politics occludes politics™ central reality, namely,
the nature of serious give and take for real stakes “ what Max Weber
called the murky and painful ˜˜slow, powerful drilling through hard
boards™™ (2004: 93). This is a reasonable worry. Can Christians really
care enough about politics to be truly political, or are they always
going to be interested in politics for merely instrumental reasons?
Will Christians give up on politics if it gets too dif¬cult or morally
compromising, no matter the import of the stakes? Does this vision
of politics invest it with the wrong sort of importance so that it
actually ends up rendering real politics disappointing and unful-
¬lling, and hence undermines Christians™ desire to engage in it?
The proper response is to challenge the stark either/or choices
that these critics impose. The language of ˜˜seriousness™™ captures
important truths about politics, but also imports a certain portent-
ousness that we should resist. Politics can have its full and real
signi¬cance without our granting it more importance than it merits.
One of the perpetual dangers of engagement in public life is that its
demands can be magni¬ed in our imagination to the occlusion of
other considerations. We should leaven our genuine though prox-
imate commitment to political ends with a con¬dence that ˜˜all will
be well.™™ But politics can never change the ultimate truth about the
world “ that what we say and do would become the sum of what
there is. Politics is not God, and the contingent con¬guration of
history does not bear the ultimate meaning of history immanently
in itself.
This is a deeply liberating vision, releasing us from the terrible
presumption of acting as if we were the ultimate guardians of what
Charitable citizenship

goodness the world has. Indeed, it is precisely Christianity™s capacity
to see beyond the this-worldly horizon of the agonists™ self--
proclaimed ˜˜political™™ vision that allows Christians to value rightly
the political con¬‚icts as political, and not of ultimate signi¬cance.
As Rowan Williams says,
The only reliable political leader, the only ruler who can be
guaranteed to safeguard authentically political values (order,
equity, and the nurture of souls in these things) is the man [sic]
who is, at the end of the day, indifferent to their survival in the
relative shape of the existing order, because he knows them to be
safeguarded at the level of God™s eternal and immutable providence,
vindicated in the eternal civitas Dei. (1987: 67)37
With this charitable con¬dence, Christians can use politics in ways
not recognizable as legitimate from within a purely this-worldly
˜˜political™™ perspective.
Christians will ˜˜use™™ politics for more than simply negotiating
public perplexities and cultivating the common good. Beyond those
aims, they will use political engagement in a manner analogous to
the agonists: as a way to unsettle and disrupt routinized patterns of
behavior, though they characterize those patterns, and justify their
disruption, in terms different than the agonists™. Properly under-
taken, public engagement can be a struggle for conversion, con-
version of one™s loves and the loves of one™s interlocutor, without
ceasing to be genuinely political “ without, that is, luring our
interest and attention away from the immediate immanent con-
cerns of the matter directly at hand.38
What do play and risk do to and for public life? How can play
enrich, enliven or at least render less grim and gloomy public
engagement? A playful politics will manifest itself in public life
through a greater sensitivity to the dialogical character of public
life “ the inescapable facts of compromise, bargaining, negotiation,
etc., in public affairs. But this playfulness is not simply useful in
getting us to accept the facts of politics. It also seeks out others to
play with; it welcomes others. And love sees others not as enemies
only but as fellow humans, neighbors. The general attitude derived

37. See also O™Donovan 1987.
38. The agonists™ primary response to this proposal “ namely that it annihilates the
real ˜˜political™™ character of politics “ is, by their own lights, a contestable
political argument.
298 A Theology of Public Life

from this will be one that reaf¬rms the joy of the other and the good
of play even when public life can seem suffocatingly immanent.
This picture of love as play captures something close to liberal-
ism™s deepest insight, better than many professedly liberal accounts
do. That insight is the reality that stands behind our experience of
respect “ the fact that we recognize that the heart of each individual
is ¬nally inviolable by others. Liberalism misframes this insight by
developing it into the philosophical view that the value of politics is
wholly negative, securing a space of ˜˜privacy™™ where the self is left
fundamentally alone by the larger community to pursue its own
good. ˜˜Privacy™™ may seem an odd description for this most public of
facts, this longing for communion, but it is all that liberalism can
offer in the way of capturing its meaning. While such a view is,
during the world, a useful pidgin or modus vivendi language for
negotiating some of our public affairs, it is eschatologically inade-
quate and impoverished, and cannot be allowed to stand apart from
the eschatologically deferred divine judgment against it. In contrast,
our love-centered account, culminating in play, escapes that frame,
and instead offers a rich ground on which we can make sense of the
phenomenological respect we should have for one another.
This will not be much comfort to those agonist critics who worry
about Christians treating politics too lightly. They will see such
˜˜play,™™ and the proposal to see politics as a site for working on
ourselves, as both deeply narcissistic and done in bad faith, funda-
mentally disparaging and dismissive of politics™ genuine sig-
ni¬cance. For them such an attitude inevitably weakens our ability
to work for the sort of radical political changes we need. August-
inians respond that this is not bad faith but right love: the critics™
worry bespeaks not their greater disillusioned ˜˜realism™™ or post-
Marxist savvy about the consolatory comforts of theoretical or
metaphysical dogmas. (Such savvy was not invented by Marx or
other moderns; they invented only the conceit that they invented
it.) Instead, its oddity is due precisely to the critics™ unrealism, to
their stubborn enthrallment to a bit of ideological dogma: namely,
the dogma that any such attitude of ultimate ˜˜indifference™™ or
˜˜relaxation™™ inevitably dissipates our political energies. And it is
well past that dogma™s expiration date.
What do I mean when I call this view ideological dogma? I mean it
retains its plausibility for us not by its repeated veri¬cation by
Charitable citizenship

reality, but due to its function in sustaining an overall worldview.
For when one compares it to reality, it clearly falters. When one
thinks of the great political struggles of the twentieth century, what
springs to mind are episodes such as the US civil rights campaigns of
the 1950s and ™60s, or struggles against oppressive regimes in the
British Raj in India, apartheid South Africa, Pinochet™s Chile, and
the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. In all of these, the pres-
ence of religious bodies expressly committed to presumably
˜˜otherworldly™™ values was essential to the movements™ con-
temporary success and relative peacefulness. Despite the slanders
often launched at ˜˜otherworldly™™ motives, critics can point to no
comparative set of successful movements informed and/or led by
those with thoroughgoing ˜˜immanent™™ orientations; and even if
they could point to some examples, they would still be faced with
the problem of explaining how otherworldly values did not, in the
cases enumerated above, eventuate in the failings their ideology
would lead them to predict.39
So Christian love, as an expressed liberation from public life™s
immanent demands, may help public life by caring about it less. But
equally, if paradoxically, Christian love knows that it must care
more about public life than that life allows itself to do; public life
has a particularly signi¬cant role to play in the economy of salva-
tion, as a site of proleptic participation in our eschatological des-
tiny. How can this be so? After all, this account acknowledges the
mournfulness of public life as it is presently constituted, in our
fallen world. But its ability to acknowledge this mournfulness is
crucial. This mournfulness has cause, for public life does not want
to be simply itself; it wants to be more: it wants to reach commu-
nion. Or rather, we who engage in public life want it to be more: the
longings that motivate us to seek community, that lead us into
public life, extend beyond the horizon of that life. We have desires
that we cannot properly immanently name. But Christian faith can
name them. And this is the last major contribution to public life
that this Augustinian proposal provides.

39. For an early attempt by a traditional intellectual to work out the implications
of this, see Michnik 1993. It remains a relevant book in part because, sadly
enough, there are few other works similar to it. See also Casanova 1994 and
Marsh 2005.
300 A Theology of Public Life

In so naming it, Christianity gains access to several insights that
would otherwise go imperfectly recognized. First, it allows us to give
voice to a fact about politics that is otherwise hard to acknowledge:
public life is frustrating. Many who acknowledge that it is dif¬cult
do not see the profundity of this fundamental phenomenological
fact. There is, as I said above, something suffocating in the relentless
immanence of the petty minutiae that constitute public life. But
more than these local accidents there is a deeper frustration, the
frustration of our hope for something more, something that public
life cannot itself even name, so we must name the tension and
anger latent in public life without naturalizing it, but allow it to be
what it is “ a negative reminder of what public life wants to be.
Such an interpretation allows us to recognize public life™s ˜˜sky-
light,™™ as it were “ its desire for more than it can achieve, its longing
for real communion. Through it, we can challenge contemporary
public life™s own vocabulary of immanence and transcendence, for
the communion that it seeks is both immanent and transcendent “ a
communion of one with another, but a communion that is more
than simply our ¬nal, exhausted agreement to allow the world to be
run in a particular way. The communion sought is captured in Paul™s
description of our ultimate situation before God and our neighbor,
when we will stand ˜˜face to face™™ with them. Indeed, even in this
life it will sometimes be realized. Real community can happen;
miracles can occur; politics can eventuate in something more akin
to a wedding or a festival than an election. We can never forget that
the ˜˜proleptic™™ character of real communion means that, some-
times, actual communion can happen.
This merits further consideration. One of the great failures of
much secular political thought is its ultimate embarrassment at the
reality of such longings, and its stuttering inarticulateness at those
moments when those longings may actually be partially realized.
We need to accept it, name the longing, and be joyful in it. Doing so
is not only more honest; it may also help us come to change our
basic vision of the shape and nature of ˜˜politics™™ in our world.
This vision of politics as potentially a site of communion meets its
ultimate challenge, in our time anyway, in the fact that our political
imagination is at its root still captive, by and large, to a deep terror
of what politics might create. There are three basic imaginary cen-
ters available, I think, to political thought today, represented by
Charitable citizenship

certain dates. One can imagine the shape and prospects of politics
out of the experience of revolution, out of the experience of the
mob, swamping civilization; this is the experience of 1789 and
1917.40 On this view the basic task of politics is resisting the mob,
the crowd “ of stopping it before it begins to riot. The basic political
emotional stance for this account is fear “ fear of the mob; this
drives the account to develop in the way that it does. This is, I
suspect, the majority view of politics.
Alternatively one might begin from the basic emotion of cyni-
cism. Here the fundamental political object to be confronted is not
the crowd but ˜˜the system,™™ the network of bureaucratic govern-
ment and corporate control that invests our society at all levels with
its capillarial powers. This approach begins not from revolution but
from the failure of revolution to be revolution, its co-optation by the
forces it thought it was opposing. In a way, if the previous vision of
politics sees the mob from above, out a window, this one sees, from
within the crowd, the people in the window, obscured by the haze
of teargas. Here the experience is of 1968. Typically, again, it is not
the experience itself “ at least not the Czech experience of 1968 “
but rather the way that experience was remembered and gained
determinate shape over time, often by events decades later. Here
the experience was not just of revolution defeated, but of revolution
frustrated from within, of revolution co-opted. The basic task of
politics here is unclear, but in some way the basic political task,
developed to its extremity by Foucault, is to show people the truth
of The Who™s song ˜˜Won™t Get Fooled Again™™ “ ˜˜say hello to the
new boss, same as the old boss.™™ This view is probably the main
minority view of what politics really is.41
But there is a third possible vision, a deeply minority vision, one
rooted in the experience of 1989. In this case there was a real
revolution (and it was even televised!), and while it never of course
achieved the millenarian goals some set for it, it incontestably
managed, in most of Central Europe at least, actually to be a good
thing. This vision of the world begins not from the crowd, neither
seeing it from above nor being in it from below, but from what must

40. Needless to say, it is not the actual experience of those events, but the way
those events have been communicated to us through the Wirkungsgeschichte of
their interpreters, from Burke forward. See Mayer 2000 and Buford 1992.
41. See Bewes 1997.
302 A Theology of Public Life

come before the crowd gathers, if the crowd is not to devolve into a
mob: the long, slow work of creating the kind of culture of civic
commitment “ a culture that knows what it wants, and how it can
get it (and what it must not do if its goals are to be possible at all).
Given that civic culture, the crowd becomes something more than
the crowd: it becomes a unity, a people, a united will. For this view,
the basic task of politics is to ¬nd out how such civic commitment
can be fostered, and then to foster it.
These are three basic ˜˜mythologies™™ of politics and public life
today. Our mentalite is still so captive to the ¬rst two that it will remain
almost impossible, for some time, for us to imagine that the third
might be possible. But in fact I believe it is true, or at least bears
truthful lessons that we need to hear. By and large the world of
political thought is still governed by cynicism and fear; and these
need at least to be complemented, and perhaps ultimately to be
subordinated, to the basic idea that politics has enormous promise
for us. And politics™ promise is found not only in the republican ideal
of self-rule, but also in the properly theological vision of communion.
For this Augustinian proposal it is axiomatic that we all “ to some
degree, at some resonant level, however faint “ feel this desire for
communion. It is the unity behind the civic republicans™ expression,
˜˜we the people™™; it is the integrity of Rousseau™s idea of the general
will; it is the unity that haunts the ˜˜multitude™™ of Hardt and Negri;
it is even the unity behind (quite far to the back of) the notion of a
fully legitimate liberal state for liberal political theorists. But
Augustinians see this political vision as such a political vision only
at the same time as seeing that it is more than political. For it is the
idea, ultimately, of ˜˜Thy kingdom come™™ “ the ¬nal and most holy
vision of humanity, the Beloved Community. That is to say, all of
these are imperfect and incomplete and inadequate, because the
real political community, the prototype that taunts our reality, is
the perichoresis of the Triune God. Christians should never simply say
˜˜kingdom come™™ but ˜˜Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done™™; it is
not our kingdom, but God™s, in which Christians are members
through Christ.42

42. All of this is nicely put in Ricoeur 1965: ˜˜The theme of the neighbor . . . effects
the permanent critique of the social bond™™ (108), because ˜˜the meaning of the
encounter [with the neighbor] does not come from any criterion immanent to
history™™ (109). Therefore, ˜˜it is [theologically transcendent] charity which
Charitable citizenship

This vision can never be fully realized in this life, never fully or
¬nally articulated. But it can never be less than that longing either.
And we will be enraptured by it, so long as we are political beings.
One of Augustine™s greatest contributions on this score is just to say
not only that it will never be realized, but that we cannot deny its
presence in our lives or its power over history. We need to look up
from our labors in public life and see “ be still and know “ a force
that governs history and has a destiny in store for the world.
Not very many non-Christians, perhaps especially secularists, will
fully resonate with this view. But many will ¬nd aspects of it not
uncongenial. Many of the faithful of other religions will be fellow
travelers in this. And many non-religious citizens will recognize the
usefulness of having this vision of the prospects of public life
available in the public realm. There will be times when a politics of
love can ¬nd secular allies for concrete, ¬nite causes; but the truth
is that the alliances, for such explicitly eschatological goals, will be
quite few and far between. From the secularists™ perspective, the
contribution this vision makes is simply having the counterweight
of its idealism available, to oppose the soul-crushing frustrations
and cynicism that are so often a part of public life. This vision can
enrich public life, but, unfortunately, most secularists, at least
today, will not be able to see its intrinsic attractions.
But whether or not non-Christians will appreciate it, Christians
themselves must ultimately be convinced that such a loving
engagement will be ascetically productive for their religious lives.
The next and last section sketches an argument to that effect.

The ascesis of loving engagement
If we have faith in God as sovereign, and if we have hope that
this sovereign God is in charge of the course of history, so that we
need not be anxious about the future, then we may engage in public
life in a new way. Simply put, loving engagement in public life,
undefensively and genuinely undertaken, ascetically shapes us by
forcing us consciously to inhabit the tension between love of God,
love of neighbor, and love of self. Its inner logic participates in the

governs the relationship to the socius and the relationship to the neighbor,
giving them a common intention™™ (109). See Marsh 2005.
304 A Theology of Public Life

eucharistic patterns of transformation that structure our life as a
whole. And so such engagement teaches us to see all as playing parts
in a divine drama, in the heavenly chorus, full participation in
which is our ultimate destiny.
Public engagement aids our ascesis in several ways. It brings us up
repeatedly against the stubborn, bare there-ness of the people we
meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson
that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that
we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and
remain ourselves. Much of the time what we call ˜˜corruption™™ is not
our victimization by political realities, but our impatient decision,
when we are confronted by the exposure of our ideals as self-
interested, to af¬rm that self-interest as the most we can say “ not to
ask the deeper question of why our ideals are vexed. In this life we
see one another, and not only God, always in a mirror darkly; our
vision is always obscured by ego, haste, distractions, and the bare
fact of the velocity of change over time. And this is so on both sides;
we always present skewed and partial views of ourselves to one
another and to ourselves, and those self-presentations are likely to
change from one day to the next. (This is why clarity and stability of
expressed interest in public life are so appreciated.) In this way,
genuine, loving public engagement is a check and vexation against
our sel¬sh proclivities towards instrumentalizing those others, or
part of ourselves.
Furthermore, this engagement teaches us the difference between
being idealistic and being loving. Far from being related, love and
idealism are in one way deeply opposed. Ideals are ours, and so are
inevitably indexed to our self-righteousness; love is about seeing the
other. When we discern the distinction between ideals and loves, we
can see how loving engagement may be ascetically useful. Public life
is not about the imposition of our ideals on others, or theirs on us,
but about living with other people. And as the basic experience of
charity™s working in our lives is found in the ongoing work of our
being purged of our temptations toward instrumentalization, we
¬nd that a genuinely loving engagement deepens and accelerates
that practice of purgation. Our fate during the world is to live in the
tensions of love of self, love of God, and love of neighbor, not to
deny or repress them; for it is in these tensions, and in our training
in longing for a day when they are not in tension, that we ¬nd our
Charitable citizenship

deepest ascesis. When public engagement is ascetically effective, it
aids this purgation.
But public life™s check on our egocentric instrumentalization is
not the only work it does. It also offers the torturously tantalizing
prospect of a ˜˜yes™™ alongside its many ˜˜no™s™™; it offers the prospect,
which can emerge at the most surprising times, of genuine contact
and communion across the most profound chasms, the most
intractable disagreements. Other people™s presence is not simply a
check on our own pretensions; it is also the gift of themselves to us.
Apprehending this gift requires a change in perception that the gift
itself may provoke; and such a perceptual change may have larger
implications still. For when we begin to see others as not part of our
story, we then begin to see them as part of a larger (and for Chris-
tians, divine) story, and then ¬nally we come to see ourselves as part
of that story as well, as authored by another; we come to see others
and ourselves in iconic terms, as signi¬cant of God™s glori¬cation, of
the holy liturgy of creation itself. Indeed, this change in perception
is inevitable for properly loving engagement.
The combination of af¬rmation and contradiction that is the
heart of loving public engagement should come as no surprise; it
merely re¬‚ects the Eucharist™s dialectic of confrontation and wel-
come, which is the central dynamic of love™s work on our hearts tout
court. In it, we come to see how public life is simply one more facet
of existence in which love expresses itself as play; play is already
close to being played, so by seeing love in terms of play, we come to
see ourselves as being played by God. Metaphors of drama, follow-
ing von Balthasar, may be useful here, but perhaps ones drawn from
music are more evocative; just as singing teaches us alertness and
responsiveness, skills that are essential to our training in Chris-
tianity, so we may say that similarly, proper engagement in public
life requires of us similar virtues, and so may be analogously asce-
Public life is not just a pallid rehearsal for heaven, then, or a
hollow simulacra of real life, but is itself a proleptic participation in
the loving liturgical song of praise sung by the saints in paradise.
And in and through our loving public engagement, we ¬nd our-
selves called to serve in the choir of God™s glorifying chorus, even if

43. See Ford 1999: 125.
306 A Theology of Public Life

we at best only dimly and in a mirror know what the whole is doing;
and we come to undertake the proper ascesis of loving engagement,
by coming to participate playfully, in tune and in time, in God™s
action in, and on, the world.

This vision of loving engagement not only offers the rudi-
ments of an adequate answer to the agonists™ challenges; it also
shows how a Christian vision of civic life offers a real alternative to
the more pessimistic ˜˜liberalism of indifference™™ by which so many
thinkers “ Christian and non-Christian alike “ today remain be-
witched. For it imagines that the basic challenge of political life is
not simply adjudicating con¬‚icts between people into permanently
endurable stalemates, but the proper ordering of our loves
into harmonious polyphony “ albeit a polyphonic harmony only
eschatologically attained, let alone resolved.44 In a sense, as we have
seen, contemporary liberal political theory and agonism share a
common despair, a despair of politics being more than the nego-
tiation of solitudes. The vision presented here offers a quite radical
alternative to it.
The theology of citizenship it re¬‚ects is clearly controversial. It
may seem wildly optimistic on sociological grounds, both to those
Christians more dubious about political life, and to those (Christian
and non-Christian) more suspicious about Christian involvement in
it. It may seem perilously optimistic on more philosophical grounds,
in its assumption that we are most deeply constituted by our loves,
and that those loves are fundamentally excessive, amenable only to
eschatological organization and realization. There are serious wor-
ries about this position that cannot “ in this dispensation, at least “
be answered or resolved; they can only be endured. And they
contain much wisdom that all pilgrims, during the world, should
heed. Politics will never, in this dispensation at least, be simply a
means of joy (and not only will politics never be wholly joyful, not
only are there good parts and bad parts, but the whole of any part
will never be simple joy). Good and bad overlay each other, so that
the results of public life, and the practice of it, will be forever mixed.

44. See Cowen 2000.
Charitable citizenship

We must insist on this complexity, not its complete corruption,
and on the possibility that good can come out of our being political
in this way, however dif¬cult the path may be. Dif¬culty is our lot in
this life, during the world.
Ultimately, however, Christians™ acceptance of the complexities,
ambiguities, and simple dif¬culties of life during the world is pre-
dicated on the af¬rmation that something exists beyond the world,
that makes us recognize the world as not the ultimate frame of our
lives. It is in this beyond that we have faith; it is for it that we hope;
and it is because of it that we are given the strength to love. How
should our longing for this ˜˜beyond™™ shape our lives here and now?
The conclusion to this book offers some ¬nal remarks directly on
that topic.
Conclusion: The republic of grace; or, the
public rami¬cations of heaven

There we shall be still and see, see and love, love and praise. Behold
what will be, in the end to which there will be no end!
Augustine, de civitate Dei

What if heaven really were our destiny? What would that mean for
how we should live now, during the world? This is the question that
this book has tried to answer. It is an intelligible question to us “ to
all humans “ in part because of our intuition that the world as we
have it, the world in its simple immanence, is not a fully satisfactory
reality, an adequate habitation for our hopes. This intuition begins
as a vague discontent, an apprehension that our ordinary experi-
ence of the world today is wrong, incomplete. It gains determinate
positive content in Christianity™s claim that our destiny is gratui-
tous, that there is life beyond death for us “ indeed, that all creation
is similarly gratuitous. Heaven, it seems, is not only our destiny, but
the world™s as well.
How should that conviction shape life during the world? It may
seem in tension with this book™s argument that Christianity has as
its fundamental dynamic a movement towards deeper engagement
with the neighbor and creation, as well as with God. But the con¬‚ict
is more apparent than real. For this dynamic gains its particular
determination by Christianity™s radically eschatological orientation.
The meaning of history itself is determined in Christ, and Christ
has come, but his ¬rst coming only inaugurated the end times, only
began the de¬nitive determination of history; so we await the
second coming, the parousia, as the ultimate revelation and thus

Conclusion: The republic of grace

determination of the meaning and signi¬cance of history, of our
lives, and of God™s purposes. Grace, and perhaps especially grace
understood as the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among believers,
is the true res publica, the true ˜˜public thing.™™
Nonetheless, while the con¬‚ict is more apparent than actual, a
real tension exists here. For in talking about grace, we are tempted
to describe it as what lies outside of the structures of cause and
effect that constitute creation. It is only a short step from that
exteriority to talk that warrants concerns about ˜˜otherworldliness.™™
So in talking about the political rami¬cations of grace, we are
brought again back to the tension latent in otherworldliness. Hence
the deep roots of this proposal do, in fact, put powerful pressure on
the usual understanding of public engagement, pressure of a sort
that profoundly shapes Christian public engagement. In truth, this
tension lurks at the heart of Christian thought more generally, and
not only as a problem, but as a promise of what is to come. Here at
the end of this book, I want to see what insights derive from this
most fundamental tension. Here we explore how heaven is publicly
signi¬cant not only in the eschaton but even today; how, that is, a
vision of life that is so fundamentally eschatological can also be so
profoundly pro-creation as to shape a distinctive and powerful form
of public engagement “ yet a form of caring about the world that
might not make ˜˜the world™™ fully comfortable.

Kairos and ordinary time: the dialectic of public life
Christianity does not simply project its hopes for public life
upon the world by force of will. It sees intimations of its vision in
the tensions between transcendence and mundaneity, revolution
and inertia, continuity and discontinuity, that riddle public life.
Such tensions are visible to any moderately self-re¬‚ective particip-
ant in public life. They give public life its dialectical quality.
An example is not hard to ¬nd. Much of politics, as it exists today
in this impatient, petulant, risibly sin-riddled world, is waiting. We
wait at rope lines for candidates to pass; we wait for election returns
to arrive late at night, faces pale in the sterile glow of TV screens; we
wait while a canvasser reads us his talking points on the phone, or
urges us to support her candidate on our doorstep. Less obviously
we wait for our friends and family and neighbors and co-workers
310 A Theology of Public Life

and new acquaintances to enumerate, in what often seems to us
inexplicably, narcissistically meticulous detail, why their chosen
candidate or cause is obviously the only right one, wondering all the
while where to begin in disputing their whole way of seeing the
world. Sometimes we must even wait for our own minds to make up
their opinions on issues we feel we need to have a view on now, if
not yesterday. And always we wait to see “ with fear and trembling
if we are pious and wise “ whether the political causes we supported
ultimately turn out the way we hoped they would turn out. (Usually
this means waiting to ¬nd out how, precisely, we shall be dis-
appointed.) Much of public life is spent enduring interminable time,
when time itself drones on.1
And then, sometimes suddenly, everything changes. Everything
seems to happen all at once: deliberation ends, the ballots are cast,
the votes counted, decisions made, the new thing emerges. The old
order “ which seemed so solid, so ¬rm, so unchanging “ is swept
away. Public life is a disconcerting concatenation of kairos and
ordinary time, with jarring shifts from one to the other, a kind of
wild oscillation between ˜˜now™™ and ˜˜not yet.™™
Much recent political theory can be seen as a series of attempts to
obscure or deny this tension, the dialectical character of public life.
The violence of these temporal disjunctions is taken by some to
prove that democratic rule is strictly speaking a myth; that elections
are too limited, too punctual a device for properly af¬rming public
rule; that the control so exercised by the populace over their
government is too ¬‚imsy to be described as self-rule. And yet, again
and again the people shock their overlords; they vote down refer-


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