“Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God.” — St. Augustine, Sermon #13, de Tempore.1
“Islam is not a religion in the way Americans understand the term. It governs every action and seeps into every thought process. It is a religion, yes, but also a political system, a legal system, a social system—in short, a total way of life.” — Derya Little, From Islam to Christ, 2017.2
Of the basic texts that identify Western civilization, we usually name the first to be that affirmation of Socrates in the Crito where he affirms that it is never right to do wrong. Every endeavor to undermine the civilization has to attack this principle. But a second, more modern, text can be named. The second text initially seems to clash with the Socratic principle. When sorted out, however, it implies the same thing.
In Dostoyevsky’s Brother Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor reviewed what he considered to be Christ’s principal failure in understanding the nature of men. Given a choice between the freedom that Christ brought and bread, the Inquisitor maintained that men would invariably choose bread. They would freely accept whatever goes along with such a choice: namely, the abject submission to those who promise to fulfill their “rights” and needs in exchange for their liberty.
The Christian distinction between the things of Caesar and the things of God argues that politics and religion, though both deal legitimately with an aspect of human reality, are different enterprises. They sometimes became confused and entangled, but the real intellectual and practical task was to give to each its due.
Indeed, the Christian religion was the first (and still the only) revelation that ever acknowledged as a theological datum some basic autonomy to the civil power. The latter power did not arise from revelation or religion. It originated in the very conditions of rational beings living together. Man was “by nature” a political animal, as Aristotle famously put it. To understand politics, we needed to see that it was a work of practical reason dealing with the being and well-being of mortal human beings while they were alive and present in this world.
Plato and Aristotle saw that something in the very constitution of what-it-is-to-be-man was open to a higher or transcendent order of things that could not be otherwise. Man had, as it were, two natural “goods”. One was the work of life that could be expected among men who were finite and imperfect. This civil life in history was manifested in many different national and civilizational contexts. What they all had in common was how each person would be identified by the record of his life in the city or civilization in which he lived his finite life. All men would die. Thus, each existing civil society was composed of a constantly changing population of those being born and those dying.
The theoretic or contemplative order—the order to which in its own way politics pointed as a limit of itself—seemed always present. It promised a higher order of being and truth to which the human being appeared to be open. The significance of Plato’s Republic was precisely that it posed a relation between these two orders. Plato recognized that, in the dynamic of actual regimes, many crimes went unpunished and many noble deeds went unrewarded. The notion of the immortality of the soul, wherein this disorder could be reconciled in a final judgment arose out of this political dilemma. If no way could be found to resolve the justice problem that occurred in every actual regime, then we had to conclude the world was made in injustice—an injustice that had it origin in the very constitution of reality.
We have always had theories, either from philosophy or from revelation, that denied any supernatural or transcendent order. Religion and metaphysics were held to be illusions, projections of desires onto reality. It was said that man only had this life before him. The ancient Epicureans, whom Marx studied, thought it was so bad that the only rational course was to withdraw from politics altogether to live a quiet life unperturbed by the turmoil of politics. Religion, some claimed, was invented to keep the masses content with illusions.
Christianity addressed itself primarily to the final destiny to which man, in his creation, had been ordered. The ultimate purpose of Christian revelation was not to improve the world but to explain the final destiny of each existing person. The purpose of human life is to decide whether a person will or will not accept the invitation to eternal life for which he was created. This choice was to be made in whatever polity or civilization a person lived his life in, whether the best, the worst, or one in-between.
Thus, throughout its history, Christianity reminded man that the purpose of his life is the salvation of his soul. The public ministry of Christ begin with the simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). And in Christian terms, this salvation included the resurrection of the body, which was included in the eternal life to which each person was invited and ordered. The City of God is not composed of ghosts or abstractions.
But Christianity did not neglect the mortal life. Its admonitions to love the neighbor in a practical sense had the effect of remedying many misconceptions about one’s relation to others. The commandments and natural morality were also remedying additions to any civil order.
Beginning with strands in the Enlightenment, the transcendent and salvific goals of Christianity gradually became this-worldly oriented. The supernatural ends were transformed into economic and political goals aimed at making the world better. Men lost faith in their relation to the transcendent order and the salvation of their souls. The dead-end of this endeavor to transform the supernatural end into a perfect order in this world (a parody on Plato) became visible in the twentieth century.
The re-invigoration of Islam in the twenty-first century is but a revision of a religion that sought to control the whole world in every aspect for a religious purpose: submission to Allah. What we do not see is a corresponding return of Christianity to its roots, wherein salvation after death is seen to be the primary purpose in divine revelation.
Rather, what we see is something quite different and perhaps quite logical. The efforts surrounding Vatican II endeavored to give both Caesar and God their respective dues. But the drift of contemporary culture is not in this direction. What we see is something quite new.
We do not see, as in Islam, a religion that quite openly subordinates everything to itself and its theology. Nor do we see a distinction or separation of church and state into legitimate fields of competency. Nor do we see the Benedict or Epicurean option of withdrawing from the public order as itself hopelessly corrupt.
What we appear to be witnessing instead is the use of Christian theology as itself the primary instrument to achieve political goals, an effort that becomes the essential purpose of Christianity. We do not speak much of salvation or eternal life but of the transformation ad preservation of the world itself. Morality is refashioned in this light.
This new mood is not the 18th-century attempt to set up a Kingdom of God in this world as itself the meaning of man’s purpose. Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi that we now look to science to achieve something like a deathless life in this world. Transhumanism, in a parody of the resurrection, even wants to preserve within time the individual, and not just the species.
No, Christianity is often something different now. It is not dependent on preserving for the human good some unchangeable revelation from an initial divine/human event in the time of Caesar Augustus. We need to do for our time what Christ did for His time; namely, look at the things that need to be done for man here and now. The center of concern is not salvation and eternal life. Theology is rather a guide in achieving political goals for men in time.
St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and Saint Thomas put it nicely: God became man so that man could become God (see CCC 460). They meant, of course, that man could live the Trinitarian life for which he was initially created. The old refrain from St. Ignatius of Loyola that man was made to praise, reverence, and serve God and thereby save his soul remains the dividing line between what is and what is not Christian.
The purpose of revelation is not politics. But the purpose of politics is to provide an arena in time wherein each existing person decides what he shall be forever. In this sense, revelation can “heal” politics, but only if we remember that revelation is about eternal life and not directly about politics itself.
1 Breviary, from Saturday before Epiphany.