The drawing of this love …
He begins to leave who begins to love,
Many the leaving who know it not,
For the feet of those leaving are affections of the heart:
And yet, they are leaving Babylon.
– Augustine, On the Psalms
There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two livesâ€”unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberationâ€”not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. …
â€¦ A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
To say something really bold: I believe God controls the hell of human society with an infernal machine, the state. Someone may say, “I am going to operate this machine and make it less hellish; I will moderate the satanic properties of hell; I will serve the state.” Such a resolve commands respect. But for myself, I refuse to mount the machines of hell. I will board the ship that shows all humankind the way to the other shore: to the kingdom of peace, justice, and perfect love. We need people who dare to set the course for this other shore, who dare to live in accordance with the ways of the land on the other side. It is the way we can best serve the world in this terrifying moment of history.
– Eberhart Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof Communities
The Augustine bit above reminds me of nothing so much as the Eliot quoted just below it. Augustine describes the process of liberation whereby man turns from love of self and commits his soul to love of God through the particular love and affections of his heart, even though he may not realize this is what is happening. His very love of this world becomes the avenue of his leaving it. Eliot describes the same thing. A condition neither of attachment nor detachment but â€œindifferenceâ€ which is as â€œdeathâ€ to the world which comes by â€œmemoryâ€ and is the heightening of love beyond desire beginning with particular attachments in time and place which are discovered to be of little importance for themselves but of great importance because they come to represent the â€œin-betweenâ€ of existence; that which is â€œbetween two wavesâ€ as Eliot puts it earlier in the poem. So this holding of the world loosely is a function of immanent affections directing the soul towards participation with its transcendent ground of being.
This is not an exclusively Christian understanding. The Greeks knew it and developed a set of symbols to describe manâ€™s essential alienation or tension of existence between life/death, time/timeless, immanent/transcendent etc. Political derailments can occur anytime one or another of the poles is â€œhypostatizedâ€ as a â€œrealâ€ or â€œobjectiveâ€ category, to use Voegelinâ€™s terminology. Rather, man must live is â€œopennessâ€ to human participation with the logos that will make the experience of tension and alienation luminous for the truth. Or, as Voegelin puts it elsewhere, â€œHistory is Christ writ large.â€ By which he means that Christ is both a point-in-time irruption of the ground of being into time and the timeless ground of being which has existed for all eternity, so that St. Thomas can say unequivocally that Christ is the head of all men.
What does this have to do with the discussion? I have been advocating what I described as an Augustinian political theology wherein we are to cling but loosely to the loved things held in common among all men whose head is Christ, though all may not realize/acknowledge it, paying the necessary debt to nature mediated by the penitent and open experience of grace. This brings me to the Arnold quote above. There is great wisdom, I think, in it. Whoever seeks to hold the reigns of state is, in Tolkeinâ€™s terminology, bearing the Ring, and will be tempted to wear it. And there is a cost to be paid by those who bear it, even if they do not succumb to its temptations. Sticking with Tolkein, others will â€œgo west,â€ as the Bruderhof strive to do.
A Christ Amendment to the Constitution strikes me as a closing of the soul to the tension of existence. So too would Arnoldâ€™s monasticism if it werenâ€™t for his acknowledged respect for those ring bearers. We tried to work out how this political theology might address contemporary politics and Christian engagement with it in an editorial published just before the 2004 election. I remain pretty happy with what we wrote:
History is replete with the tragic lesson that political power is inherently corrupting of principle, yet the truth of principles cannot get any traction in the world without being in and of it. A moral man may choose sectarian withdrawal, itself a kind of politics by other means, or the tragedy of engagement on the edge of risk and ever-compromised necessities. But it is the immaturity of double-mindedness to choose one and pine for the other, and such a divided mind produces only instability where order is required.
The double-mindedness which produces electoral withdrawal as a kind of fortification against compromised engagement in the rest of oneâ€™s life is a symptom of the troubling trend among Christians to cocoon themselves in the â€œmisunderstood minorityâ€ identity and abdicate any responsibility for power while simultaneously refusing to give up what power they have. We have become exemplars of the tendency to develop a mind so principled that it succumbs to either ideologism or an idealistic paralysis that comes from seeing through all the false choices.
Institutional power is what it isâ€”always. If a system passes through revolution to the establishment of a new regime, it will merely play its own variation on the same old problems. Or as Pete Townsend put it, â€œMeet the new boss, same as the old boss.â€ The best of our Christian political tradition teaches us, therefore, to align ourselves radically with the particular and the individual without actually believing that the institutional regime must be overthrown. One can thus work to mitigate and contain institutional power; living in love with the frail limits of existenceâ€”family, friends, community, and placeâ€”in service of truth, goodness, and beauty, yet knowing that even if good can be done, evil will be done too.
â€¦ While we are engaged with the crises and catastrophes, a serious, taxing and often debilitating business, we can always look at ourselves and our situation from an imagined eternity where it is, if not farcical, a tragic agon tempered by the comic finish of the marriage feast. In less elevated language, we think the matter debated here is very important stuff, so we refuse to trivialize it by treating it with an ultimacy of meaning or our associates with an unbreakable earnestness.