Politics and the Order of Love

W. Bradford Littlejohn
Eric S. Gregory. Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 417 pp. $28.99/£20.99

This is not a book to be undertaken lightly by the unsuspecting reader, lured in by the enticing buzzwords on the cover: "Politics"--"Love"--"Augustinian." In fact, it probably tells you something about the book to realize that its author, to this point, has but one book to his name--this one--and yet is generally acknowledged as one of the foremost political theologians in North America. This dense, sprawling, ambitious book reflects the influence of many of the leading minds in recent American theology and ethics, whom Gregory encountered as a Ph.D student at Yale and then a faculty member at Princeton: Gene Outka, David Kelsey, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Miroslav Volf, Robert Adams, and Jeff Stout. The Acknowledgments reads like a "Who's Who" of contemporary theological ethicists, and the pages of the book are a dense web of citations, allusions, and interlocutions, engaging and digesting the work of hundreds of historians, Augustine scholars, ethicists, philosophers, theologians, political theorists, feminist writers, and more. To read this book, in short, is to gain a crash-course education in the state of contemporary Anglophone political theology.  

Of course, the book is not designed to provide such a "crash-course," presuming rather a general familiarity with the state of discussion on many of these themes. The unsuspecting reader, accordingly, may experience the disorienting feeling of one who has stumbled into an intense conversation that has been going on for several hours before he entered the room.   

In this review, therefore, rather than try to trace all the various twistings and turnings of Gregory's conversations with various thinkers in the book, I will try to reconstruct the basic shape of the problems with which he is dealing, before offering a brief summary of his attempted solutions.  Two words in the title, in particular, merit our close attention--"Augustinian" and "love"--in close relation to a word that is not in the title, but appears all throughout the book--"liberalism."  

Augustinianisms may of course be found in a great many branches of philosophy, theology, and ethics; there are few discourses upon which the great Bishop of Hippo did not leave his mark. In few, however, has his influence been as profound as in politics, and yet here, as in so many other areas, his legacy is ambiguous and deeply contested. The locus classicus of Augustinian political thought is Book 19 of the City of God, where Augustine reflects on the relationship between the peace and justice of the earthly city and the peace and justice of the City of God.
Different readings of Augustine's complex rhetoric here, however, have given rise to very secularizing readings, in which the politics of the earthly city is the only politics there is, and ecclesiocratic readings, in which the true justice of the City of God, the true form of politics, can be found in the historical church--and everything in between. Likewise, interpretations of Augustine's nuanced and paradoxical assessment of the possibility of justice in the earthly city have run the spectrum from cynical realism to perfectionism. What most political Augustinianisms have in common, however, is that they bear the stamp of Augustine's remarkable sense of duality without dualism: a keen sense of the divide between the holiness made possible by the Spirit of God and the fragile peace and provisional order sustained by temporal power, which is limited in its aims, ambiguous in its fruits, yet necessary for human life and still subject to ethical norms. It is this basic orientation of political Augustinianism that readily lends itself to liberal political order, which is defined in large part by its attempt to bracket out of political discourse ultimate commitments and religious convictions in order to achieve temporal peace.

Political Augustinianism, however, has also tended to bear the stamp of St. Augustine's dark vision of human sinfulness and fallibility, a hallmark of his theology that particularly came into its own in the Reformation. Political Augustinians tend to be characterized by a deep cynicism or "realism" about the limits of social ethics, a suspicion of any grandiose aspirations or noble motives, and, as a result, a vision of politics as the task of restraining and rebuking the most serious evils, rather than of training society in virtue and pursuit of the good. Here, too, Augustinianism has lent itself readily to liberalism, which has tended to see the task of politics as primarily one of preventing harm to others, rather than nurturing virtue either private or public.

What then of "love"? Surely no ethical concept has received so much or so various a consideration as love, but two enduring questions are of particular concern for Gregory's project.  First is the puzzle of the relationship of love and justice. While many ethicists have argued for a profound unity of the two, a stubborn chasm remains in many treatments of the question: we tend to think of justice as what we ought to do in public, in relation to society at large, love as what we ought to do in private, to particular individuals. This is based on several perceived differences: first, love has an emotive, passionate component, which justice does not, rendering justice seemingly more suitable to masses of unknown fellow citizens. Second, love seems to demand not merely "treating someone right" but doing what is truly best for them, which may go beyond their own wishes; this seems a dangerous and potentially coercive proposition when one moves beyond a circle of intimates and into the wider political society. Third, love seems to involve a level of self-sacrifice that justice does not, calling us to a duty beyond the call of duty as it were; this seems too high a standard to demand of citizens in their general social and political relations to one another.  

The second puzzle here concerns the relationship of love of God and love of neighbor, a recurring problem in Augustine's thought in particular, but a challenge for all Christian ethics.  What do we do when the demands of love of God and love of neighbor seem to collide? Are these two separate duties, or do they co-inhere--do we love God by loving the neighbor, or love the neighbor by loving God? If God is the highest end of human existence, mustn't love for God overshadow love for neighbor, and even call us away from the neighbor? Augustine controversially formulated the problem in terms of the uti/frui distinction: God is the only good to be "enjoyed" for his own sake, and all other created goods, including the neighbor, are to be "used" (an imperfect translation, to be sure) for the sake of God. This formulation has led many critics to dismiss Augustine's ethics as other-worldy, at best, or fanatical at worst, justifying religious coercion of all sorts.  

In his approach to both of these puzzles, Augustine's thought seems decidedly inimical to liberalism, and at odds with the elements of "political Augustinianism" we just surveyed. A social ethic based on love, rather than justice, seems ill-suited to the fragility and fallibility of an Augustinian political order, too demanding for liberalism. Likewise, an ethic that privileges love of God above love of neighbor, or as the only proper basis for love of neighbor, seems to militate against the provisional, earthbound, and "secular" character of politics as we see it in City of God Book 19.

Gregory's book then may be understood as an attempt to reintegrate these two sundered halves of Augustine's ethical and political thought, an attempt to simultaneously correct the pessimistic resignation and minimalism that has sometimes characterized Augustinian politics and the optimistic and otherworldly perfectionism that has sometimes characterized Augustinian ethics.  The fruit of this reintegration, Gregory hopes, will be a richer, more ethically robust, political liberalism which takes love seriously as a political virtue. To summarize the lines of Gregory's positive proposal is even more difficult than summarizing the backdrop of problems it is meant to resolve, so I will be very brief and leave the rest for readers to discover for themselves.  

Gregory addresses the suspicion that love's emotional component is unsuited to politics by drawing attention to Augustine's insight that it is never a question of whether we love, but of what we love.  We are "always already loving," whether in our private relationships or public commitments, and the question is only one of how to rightly order our loves. In response to the concern that emphasizing love, rather than justice, will compromise liberty, as we claim to know others' needs better than they themselves do, he seeks to develop a political ethic of "care" as a synthesis of love and justice, an ethic kept humble by an Augustinian awareness of the power of self-deception that uses love as a mask for coercion. In response to the worry that love is too demanding, too self-sacrificial a standard for politics, he draws attention to Augustine's insight that rightly-ordered love includes proper self-love, not as a competitor with love of neighbor, but as a necessary foundation for it. Finally, he dedicates a great deal of attention to the problem of love of God and love of neighbor, re-interpreting Augustine's uti/frui distinction as an insistence that we can only rightly love the neighbor in God; to do otherwise risks making an idol of the neighbor that dooms social ethics to a frustrated perfectionism. In other words, far from being other-worldly, Augustine's emphasis on the supremacy of love of God secures the worldliness of politics, by reminding us of its provisionality, arming it against the temptation to invest the project of neighbor-love with a false ultimacy.  

It is here that, for me at least, some unanswered questions remain. True to the disestablishmentarian trajectory of American political theology, Gregory resists any attempt to give public recognition to the love of God, deeming this an unacceptable transgression of the limitations of liberal order (see particularly his critique of Oliver O'Donovan on pp. 145-46). And yet he recognizes, with O'Donovan and other Augustinians, the advent of liberalism as an achievement of Christianity (and Augustinian Christianity in particular), which by its recognition of the provisional character of politics, and its incessant quest to do justice to every fellow-man, laid the foundations of liberal political order. This recognition, combined with his Augustinian contention that only the love of God can anchor the right order of neighbor-love, would seem to demand the conclusion that no truly loving liberal political order can long endure unless God is given his due (mirroring Augustine's own argument about justice in City of God Book 19).  Gregory rightly resists the idea that liberal order cannot survive at all without explicit recognition of its normative (ultimately Christian) foundations (p. 105), but I worry that he too readily evades those who press this objection. To be sure, one can do the right thing without knowing why it is the right thing, but not forever. I do not doubt that the liberal order of neighbor-love can long survive without conscious public recognition of the love of God that orders it, but how long? A building whose foundations have been undermined can hold up for quite a while if it is well-built, but at some point, it will start to crumble. In treating Augustinianism as a useful conceptual resource for liberalism, but failing to address just how necessary it may be as a foundation for it, Gregory's book remains frustratingly incomplete. 

Nonetheless, for those ready to wrestle with its dense and demanding arguments, this book offers one of the most fruitful explorations of political theology in recent years. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor, Political Theology Today, the General Editor, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at www.swordandploughshare.com.