Historical Augustinianism

A third way of thinking about cultural engagement

Ways of classifying Christian cultural engagement abound, but one is usually able to classify a given Christian community into one of two categories: those who separate themselves from their host culture, and those who seek to be “in the world but not of it.” This post concerns the latter group.

In his book How To Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith discusses two different approaches for Christian cultural engagement. (To be clear, Smith frame is not actually cultural engagement at all, but what you might call historical engagement: how Christians relate to past and future, and how that informs their attitudes in the present.) I quote him at length from page 44 below:

There is an important difference between imagining history as a blank slate for our accomplishments and imagining it as a symphony we’re asked to play a role in. … There’s a difference between believing we are the ones we’ve been waiting for and realizing we are called to join the Spirit of God coursing through history.

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say these two postures are the difference between hubris and grace. The former … is a kind of historical Pelagianism that sees us as the primary actors concocting history by our actions …. The latter is more like a historical Augustinianism, a graced temporality in which the Spirit is afoot … and we … are invited to join ….

In other words, there are two flavors of in-the-world-but-not-of-it. Christians can view themselves in one of two ways: either as agents acting in history through sheer will, or as vessels of the Holy Spirit taking part in God’s work in history. It is important to note that both views admit the possibility of obedience to God’s will. One does not necessarily will something for their own, selfish ends.

Nonetheless, readers familiar with church history will know that Smith is proposing the latter approach as the superior one. Pelagius was wrong in the fourth century, and the Pelagian approach is wrong here too. In fact, historical Pelagianism is wrong for similar reasons to its purely theological counterpart. Its adherants fail to reckon with the depth of post-Fall human foolishness. In relation to history, this leads to a kind of hubris that Smith, following Reinhold Niebuhr, labels as dramatic irony. Absent the Spirit, all believers can do is make foolish plans that God is all too happy to thwart.

I’ve only finished the first chapter of Smith’s book, but I feel some confidence recommending it on that basis alone. I look forward to what else he has to say on the subject of how believers should inhabit time.