Welcome to the Saeculum, a new blog that offers a refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics. I intend this post as a kind of orientation to the blog and an explanation of why I have decided to start it.
What is this blog about?
In very broad terms, I write about Christianity and politics. I look at how the Christian faith interacts with our common life in the twenty-first century (and more particularly, twenty-first Britain, where I live). I use the term common life since that is what politics (πολιτικά) at its root means—the affairs of a particular place (the πολις or city). I hope to show you that the Christian tradition, when engaged with critically, offers a rich resource for thinking through some of the knotty problems of our day. I also strive to probe the complex relationship between Christian identity and political commitments.
Why another blog about Christianity and politics?
Time is a valuable, finite resource! So why should you spend it reading my thoughts, especially when there are a number of other resources out there on the topic (more on these another time)?
There are four reasons why you should read my blog. Now, on their own, these four reasons might not amount to much. However, when taken cumulatively, I think they amount to a convincing case. So, without further ado, here are four reasons why you should read my blog:
- You’ll get an historical perspective on Christianity and politics. My aim is to engage critically with the history of Christian thought and action. Why does this matter? For starters, perspectives from the past (whether from the first century or the last) can break through the argumentative deadlocks we get ourselves into. These deadlocks often result from our preoccupation with the present. An historical perspective can realise that we do not hold all the answers. That the past can offer some way forward. We also find ourselves at an impasse because of the nature of our conversations, frequently held online and on social media. These discussions can often feel like the battle of assertions or preferences (“I believe this…” “well, I believe the opposite”). The undergirding assumptions for those preferences often receive little, if any, discussion. An historical perspective can expose us to some of the different ways that people have approached issues. As a result, we can firm up our own way of thinking about a particular matter without recourse to mere preference.
- You’ll get an informed perspective. I completed a doctorate in the history of early Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. I have worked as a researcher in politics and Christianity, both in higher education and at Theos, a Christian think tank. So I hope to let that use that training and thinking in the blog posts I produce. In addition to this background, I am naturally inquisitive. When I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll do my research to arrive at conclusions.
- You’ll get an honest perspective. I am not funded by anyone and so have editorial independence both in terms of the questions I ask and the conclusions I reach.
- You’ll get an engaged perspective. I will engage with your comments and thoughts with the goal of stirring up debate and mutual learning.
What do you mean by a “refreshingly realistic” take on Christianity and politics?
Thanks for reading the tagline! Let me explain. In this blog, I will try (and the emphasis is on the word try) to look at our political life realistically. When I use the term “realistic”, I mean looking at our common life with appropriate perspective.
Because, you see, we easily lose perspective. And we do so in one of two ways. First, we ride the wave of overweening and utopian optimism, investing all our hopes and expectations in a political leader, placing all our eggs in the basket of a particular manifesto. Til’, that is, the wave crashes down around us as the leader we followed with great expectation fails to bring about the revolution we had hoped for and the manifesto we poured our lives into fails to make the impact it had promised to.
Alternatively, we might look askance at our political world with a mixture of wry cynicism and hopeless despair. On this view, the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. What’s the use in getting involved?
Pessimism and optimism look, at face value, like stark opposites. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they first appear. We all find it quite easy to flit between optimism and pessimism. Consider the familiar scenario. A certain figure comes along. All appears lost. If only the leader of our choice would ascend to power, all would be well. Said leader comes along, fails to make an impact and we’re back at Pessimism Central.
So…if we’ve lost perspective on our political life, how might we go about re-gaining it?
There are, of course, many ways of answering this question. The way I want to approach it, however, involves asking two more. In asking, and hopefully answering these questions, we can begin to chart a yet more excellent way between the extremes of political pessimism and optimism.
These two questions are:
- Who are we?
- What time is it?
When I say “appropriate perspective”, I am referring to our perspective on these two questions—first, who are we as humans (the anthropological question)? And second, what time is it (the eschatological question)? I think the Christian tradition holds out rich and compelling answers to both of these questions which can offer absolutely vital anchoring points as we approach political life. A bold claim I realise, but hear me out! For more, check out John Dickson’s wonderful explanation of the Creed (between 17:53-25:13 in the link attached).
Who are we?
I am convinced that a robust answer to that first question (who are we?), must include awareness of (1) our createdness by God and (2) our brokenness as human beings.
Createdness. Central to the Christian story is the creation of the universe by a good God. Creation is the great gift of a good Father to his children. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures inherited by Christians, the writers observe that God creates the human person “in his image”. The implications of this statement are massive and too immense for exploration here. But to be created in the image of God means to be endowed with dignity. Each person is of equally immeasurable value because they reflect To be created in the image of God also means that women and men are ambassadors of God in the world, bearing some of the creative power of the Creator. It also means that we are free to offend that Creator…
Brokenness. As the Genesis story continues, we come to the heart wrenching moment where human beings continue to enjoy the gifts of the Creator, while turning away from the giver of those gifts. In the Christian tradition, the word for this brokenness is “sin”. I realise that’s not a terribly fashionable word nowadays. But what the root of this word in the Greek (ἁμαρτία; hamartia) should conjure up in our imaginations is the vivid image of the archer missing the intended mark ahead of him. That there is a mark or target reminds us that we have a purpose as human beings—to be God’s image bearers. What this look at the etymology of the word sin also says is that sin isn’t just the sense that we have committed infractions…although it does include that, of course. More fundamentally, it gets at the uncomfortable fact that the moral arc of our lives is bent out of shape. Or, as the Prayer Book puts it, “there is no health in us”.
Lest you think I am being a misery guts, let me explain why this is important. A robust understanding of the createdness of each individual entails that we treat others with the dignity and respect God has endowed them with…particularly those we disagree with. A robust understanding of our fallenness entails an appropriate humility towards our own political action and thought.
What time is it?
The Christian tradition also has something to say to the question, What moment are we living in? The Christian story that is enacted throughout the Sundays of the year and told through the Scriptures reminds us that we live between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and his second coming (I write this, appropriately, during the Season of Advent, when Christians recall the first coming of Christ and await his second coming as ruler of the cosmos). The Kingdom of God has emerged in the ministry of Jesus, but it has not reached its fulfilment; it has been inaugurated but not fully consummated. We are, in short, living in an in-between period. What kind of posture should this instil in us as we think and act politically?
The Canadian philosopher James KA Smith puts this beautifully in his lecture to Christians in Parliament, when he claims that Christian hope, rightly conceived, means “not living ahead of time”. Not living ahead of time. To refuse to live ahead of time means to reject all forms of utopianism and dystopianism. To not live ahead of time is to reject the despair that we can do nothing and the overweening optimism that our efforts will save the world. This doesn’t mean that we fritter away our time in passive quietism. And neither does it mean that we launch ourselves into a frenzy of activity that assumes we are moving towards an ever brighter horizon. Rather, realism—or more accurately, Christian realism—as Smith describes it, is “bold but circumspect, tempered but hopeful”.
So, in sum, to be realistic about what we can achieve in our common life is to be aware of who we are (fallen image-bearers) and what time we are living in (the in-between period).
Why the Saeculum?
This brings us to the title of this blog. The Saeculum. Another word for this “in-between period” which we have just been talking about is…you guessed it, the saeculum. The saeculum is the time we are living in right now. The great Christian theologian St Augustine (354-430 AD/CE) used the term saeculum to refer to the period between the fall and the Second Coming.
In reflecting on Augustine’s notion of the saeculum, the great scholar of Augustine Robert A. Markus puts it this way:
The saeculum for Augustine was the sphere of temporal realities in which the two ‘cities’ share an interest. In Augustine’s language, the saeculum is the whole stretch of time in which the two cities are ‘inextricably intertwined’; it is the sphere of human living, history, society and its institutions…
A quick word on the two cities here. In his magisterial work The City of God, explains that there are two cities—the city of God and the city of Man. The difference between the two isn’t merely drawn along the lines of a spiritual-material division with the city of man referring to an earthly and the city of God to a heavenly plane. Rather, the two cities denote two loves, two libidos: the city of man is driven by the love of self, of power and domination (Libido Dominandi), the city of God, by love for God and love of neighbour (City of God 14.28)
Augustine talks about the saeculum being the temporal reality in which these two cities share an interest. What does he mean? To tease out the implications, here is Markus again:
The citizen of the heavenly city was no more a stranger to the saeculum than was the citizen of the earthly city, for here and now the two cities between them are, quite simply, what the saeculum is. It is neither a third thing somewhere between, nor is it, except eschatologically, resolvable into its two constituents. For the citizen of the heavenly city, concern for the saeculum is the temporal dimension of his concern for the eternal city.
In other words, we all inhabit this time, this age, this saeculum. The saeculum is no “third thing”, separate from the City of God or the City of Man. In the saeculum, we all rub shoulders with one another
The saeculum is also the word from which we get the term “secular”. To be secular in the contemporary Western world is to have no connection to religion or spirituality. But in an interesting twist on things, Markus goes on to argue that Augustine is responsible for secularising the church. By this, Markus emphatically does not mean that Augustine made the church more atheistic. Rather, Augustine “secularises” the church by seeking to engage those aspects of creation that fall appropriately within the remit of both the Heavenly and Earthly cities. Augustine has in mind a church that refuses to retreat into an ecclesial enclave while at the same always remembering its ultimate allegiance to God.
On this reading, Augustine’s concept of the saeculum offers a realistic model for thinking about Christianity and politics.
I’m interested. Can you tell me more?
Sure. You can read more about the purpose of the blog, and more about me, here.
What can I expect?
I hope to publish postings roughly once a week.
Here’s a very brief sneak preview of what’s around the corner:
- A World of Nation States or A World of Empires? In this series of blogs, I will explore the return of the nation state in recent political philosophy and pose some questions about the role of empires in contemporary British and international politics. I even hope to sneak in a bit of reflection on the political context of Jesus and the first century church!
- Western Political Philosophy 101: Under the book reviews tab, I will review the great Western political philosophies (conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, post-liberalism) with my own take on each. This is a longer term project which I am excited about developing. I’d like through time to move this series from the written to the spoken word. My hope here is to host at some point a series of conversations with Christians who subscribe to each of these schools of thought. I would love to drill down into why Christians adhere to certain political positions and how they relate this to their Christian faith.
- Oikaphilia and Exile (Exploring Identity on Earth and Citizenship in Heaven): I have some ideas brewing on the themes of local identity. In this post, I will investigate the theme of rootedness and love of a particular place and how these relate to (1) a global church and globalised world and (2) the Christian notion of citizenship in heaven.
These are just three ideas in the pipeline, to let you know what’s coming up. No doubt other unplanned reflections will appear.
So, thank you for reading.
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