The Music of Providence
In the tenth book of The City of God, Augustine reminds his readers that he is not arguing either with those who imagine there is no God or with those who suppose that whatever God there may be is improvident and does not care about this world or the people in it. It is the nature of providence, the glory of providence, the goal of providence, that he is trying to explain in the aftermath of the sack of Rome by Alaric.
The heart of providence is love, the Love that is happy and makes happy. Though rational creatures often behave irrationally and indeed wickedly, God makes them with a view to their eternal felicity by way of a share in his divine felicity. He sets before them the path of life. When they turn from that path and wander into dark places, he sends messengers to tell them that they may return to the path; he creates a covenant that beats a path back to the path; he comes in person to be the path, to be “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Because God is providential—because his providence extends beyond the provision of a garden in the East and pursues us into the desert of sin and death—there is progress, there is history. Disasters notwithstanding, we are going somewhere, not nowhere. History is the theater of providence, and history is not just one damn thing after another, though in it we witness many damnable things being done. History does not go around in circles, time itself does not go around in circles, though people may go around in circles. History, thanks be to God, has meaning and purpose. Just as it had a beginning in Eden, the garden designed by God for his cultivation of our race in the life of love, it shall come to the end that providence has devised, an end far more glorious than the beginning, and far more secure than the beginning—an end in which man, with God and like God, will love in such a way as to be non posse peccare and non posse mori. With all the holy angels, he shall continue forever in the joy of his Lord.
With that end in view, God has been educating the human race. “The right education of humanity in general,” says Augustine, “so far as the people of God is concerned, like the right education of a single individual, advances through certain eras of time, as if by the stages of an individual’s growth and development, mounting up from temporal things to a comprehension of eternal things and from visible things to invisible things.” St. Irenaeus had already spoken of divine providence in these terms, with a musical turn of phrase: “By this arrangement, therefore, and these harmonies, and a sequence of this nature, man, a created and organized being, is rendered after the image and likeness of the uncreated God.”
But is the sombre note of the Fall somehow essential to the music? Is the Fall a kind of first step in the education of man? We might be tempted to suppose so. In a letter to Milton Waldman, J. R. R. Tolkien writes that “there cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall—all stories are ultimately about the fall.” Tolkien immediately qualifies, however, by adding: “at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” That qualification is crucial. Of course, we can only interpret the reality we know and inhabit. This world is a fallen world, or at all events a world in which we are fallen, with terrible wasting effects on the world that obscure providence from us, darkening our minds and discouraging our hearts like the blackening mists of Mordor. Our stories inevitably reflect this, though if they are tinged with the light of divine revelation they take up the struggle against the night, against the darkness, against death, holding out some hope of redemption, as Tolkien knew. But note well: In the story that Genesis tells, providence does not begin with the Fall. God is provident from the outset. On the biblical account, neither the providence of God nor the story of man requires the Fall. It is the serpent who says that.
Augustine is at pains to insist that God, being pure goodness and love, makes nothing whatever that is not good. He makes angels upright in will and in mind. From the outset they enjoy recta ratio and the vita recta, though they do not yet enjoy it so fully as to be incapable of losing it. Likewise with the first humans. They are made in the image of God as those who are in the hand of their own counsel, in the power of their own inclination (Sir. 15:14), but they are not yet fully like God in the ways God has in mind and in store for them. So there is already a story to be told, a story of willingly walking and talking with God, a story of advancing in communion with God, a story of being made like unto God.
But the Fall intervenes. Not all angels remain on the path to happiness. Some, beginning with Lucifer, despise perfecting grace and seek self-elevation. They do not continue, gratefully and receptively, to lift up their hearts to God. Instead, they lift up their hearts to themselves and seek their own glory apart from God. They fall irrevocably and the story, for them, begins to come to an end. And what of man, who likewise enjoys freedom of decision, who like the angels is not merely caused but able to be a cause unto himself? He, too, at first communes gladly with God in the garden. But then, as Augustine notes, enters “that proud and therefore envious angel who, through his pride, had turned away from God and turned to himself,” who rejoices at having subjects rather than being a subject. The one who has already founded among angels the city of the damned suggests to man that his own story cannot unfold as it ought unless he takes charge of it for himself, setting human autonomy against divine heteronomy.
Thus unfolds the sack of creation. Augustine sees, however, that the music of providence is capable of responding to the Fall, which God permits only because he is able to bring from it a new and greater good. He remarks in book 14, “Sinners, whether angels or humans, do nothing that impedes the great works of the Lord.” Divine providence “distributes to each what is due to each and knows how to make good use not only of the good but also of the evil.”
This does not mean that God is responsible for evil, for rational creatures (not in their thinking and willing but in what they think and will) are a cause unto themselves. God foresaw the Fall, as he foresees all things; yet he “preferred to leave the issue in their power and thus demonstrate how greatly their pride avails for evil and how greatly his grace avails for good.” Again: “God did not, by his foreknowledge, compel anyone to sin. By their subsequent experience, however, he did demonstrate to rational creatures, both angels and human beings, what a difference there is between the creature’s personal presumption and his own divine protection.” Thus are we educated.
Tolkien, taking his cue from this very passage perhaps, develops the whole scenario with wonderful skill in the Ainulindalë, the opening of his Silmarillion. In the great music of creation itself, the angels are invited to join in, improvising along with God like some primeval jazz band in the unfolding of the cosmos. But when Melkor (Lucifer) introduces his discordant theme, the private music of sin and pride, the true Jazz Master overcomes it with a new theme of his own, which the Ainur have not yet heard. This new theme, the music of redemption, dumbfounds them. For they cannot yet penetrate the music of the Provident One—the one who in due course will provide his very self and, with himself, that which no ear has yet heard, nor any creaturely mind imagined. The Fall is accounted for in that music, but the music is certainly not in the Fall.
It is a grave mistake, as Augustine and Tolkien knew, to get the beginning of the story wrong, which we do if we concede that either sin or death are natural. That is to tell a very different story, with a very different ending, than the story the Bible is telling. It is to tell a story that goes around in circles—from which there is no escape, no happy ending for man, body and soul. But it is the evil one who wishes us to go around in circles until we lose all hope of happiness and drop dead in the desert. God sometimes permits that as a consequence of sin, yes. He may even consign us to that. But he does not leave it at that, for neither sin nor death are of his own devising.
What is of his devising is how he will save, and having saved, glorify, and in glorifying, glorify with a still greater glory than would have been had we not sinned. Which is why we can sing in the Easter vigil, O felix culpa, “O happy fault!”—without in the slightest detracting from the faultiness of our fault, the guilt of our fault, the fact that the fault is entirely ours, or in any way underestimating the great burden of sin that gives rise to death. And why we can learn, as Irenaeus puts it, “always to live in a state of gratitude to the Lord,” loving him the more since “he is immortal and powerful to such a degree as to confer immortality upon what is mortal, and eternity on what is temporal,” and to confer salvation on sinners.
Sinners can do nothing to impede the great works of the Lord. For the secret of history is providence and providence is never baffled by history. God makes nothing evil but knows how to make good use, not only of the good, but also of the evil. On that we must rely. That indeed is the very thing Augustine invites us, from the opening pages of the City of God, to learn to do ourselves. Because we trust in providence and share the goals of providence, we ourselves seek to be provident and to do good. We ought never to do evil that good may come; but rather to make the evils that come upon us serve the good by allowing them to perfect us in virtue and keep us on the path to glory. Thus will we ourselves have a hand in redeeming history under the Fall, improvising with God on the music of God.
The Myth of Progress
But there is another—today much more popular—way of telling the story of history. It is a way still dependent on the Bible, though in that story the Bible is much maligned. It is the account of providence offered by Lessing and Kant and the Enlightenment, the way also of Hegel and his heirs. This way is rightly called the myth of progress. And it begins by siding with the serpent.
Our first parents, having been told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, hear from the serpent that the fruit of that tree will make them wise and godlike. Now, there can be no doubt that the tree itself is good and desirable, for it is made by God. But it is forbidden because it is not ready for them and they are not ready for it—not until they are able properly to rejoice in God the giver, presenting a true “offering of praise to the Lord” (Lev. 19:23–25). It is forbidden as a reminder that the path to happiness must be walked in justice. For “we must lead a right life to reach a happy life,” observes Augustine. The greatness for which God has made us requires virtue, and “the mother and guardian of all virtues in the rational creature” is obedience, “while the fulfillment of its own will in preference to the Creator’s” only brings destruction. The goodness of the knowledge of good and evil is for those who have already learned to cleave to God; acquired beforehand, it entails the suffering of evil.
But the serpent tells our first parents that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if eaten from, opens the path to happiness. It becomes itself the tree of life. Life is for the taking, and only those who seize it will find it. The divine forbidding is a dare, a challenge—unless perchance God has had second thoughts and is secretly afraid of man, wanting now to stunt his growth. In any event, suggests the serpent, it is only by means of the forbidden fruit that man can become fully himself, the creature who is something other and more than a brute governed by laws not of its own making. To be like God, who is not made, must man not in some sense become his own maker? And how can he do that, except by dispensing with heteronomy, putting autonomy in its place, making the rules for himself?
There is a moment of truth here, for God (as Anselm would later explain) does want us to be the coauthor of our own happiness. That is how devoted to our happiness the happy God is! We learn to coauthor when we will as God wills, and will what God wills. Conversely, as the serpent tells the story, we must first learn to will what we ourselves will. You can’t learn to walk without falling, he says. So fall away! You’ll soon be running, nay, flying. You shall be as gods! When you get good at this, you’ll realize that you are God, that the divine is incarnating itself within you. “Mankind,” exults D. F. Strauss, “is the unity of the two natures, . . . the miracle-worker; for in the course of human history the Spirit ever more fully takes control of nature.”
These days, though we talk less of mankind and more of the individual, we are still pursuing this course. We are engaged in a search for personal “authenticity,” a search that can itself be judged authentic or inauthentic, as Charles Taylor argues in The Malaise of Modernity. We are making new demands for “autonomy,” which can be authentic or inauthentic, but—so I have argued in Theological Negotiations—these demands are largely the latter, making them quite fatal both to the individual and to society, to the law, our body politic, and our culture.
It hardly needs saying that we ourselves are beginning to have some second thoughts. We are already flying so close to the sun that the tar holding our feathers on looks like it’s melting. Our very bodies are melting, coming unglued from our psyches. We are anxious about many things: about the economy and the environment; about national identity and global politics; about race and war and disease. We are anxious especially about our naked selves. We are beginning to perceive our bodies as something alien. They limit us, they contest our claim to autonomy, so we must contest them. Or, as for so many suffering from Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, we are deeply insecure in our bodies—uncertain that anyone loves us as we are. We are worried that we have no future worth having. Hence we flock, first this way then that, to new gospels of affirmation. All of this fills us with dread. It also requires us to make the most preposterous and self-contradictory claims, as St. John Paul II pointed out, and to submit to the preposterous claims of others. Even to speak simple truths about man as male and female is very difficult these days. Oh yes, we are flying now!
The myth of progress, as Kant knew, was never anything more than a carrot to keep the horse and buggy of our civilization moving. The “starry host above,” which struck him with awe, could not prevent the collapse of our solar system. As for the equally impressive “moral law within,” that must pass away with our race. Arguably, it is already passing away. Who even acknowledges such a law these days? Autonomy no longer means self-rule, by reason and for the sake of reason, as it did for Kant. It does not mean, as it did for Augustine, self-rule for the sake of God. Justice is no longer “love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else.” Autonomy means that the self posits its own reality, and justice means demanding that others recognize what has been thus posited. Which (surprise, surprise!) means that the self has become serpentlike, not godlike. For God, being God, posits all reality and tends it by his providence. When the creature, being a creature, tries to posit outside the will of God, it posits in vain.
That is the problem with the myth of progress; or, rather, those are three problems with the myth of progress. The first problem is working with borrowed capital: a doctrine of providence it learned from the Church fathers that now excludes the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ as the very embodiment of divine providence. The second problem is working with the serpent’s lie that man, in order to be godlike, must assert himself against God. The third problem is that the optimism of the myth-makers notwithstanding, the myth of progress cannot make good on its promises. For it is not the kind of myth that captures and articulates the truth of things, disclosing reality through and for the imagination so as to inspire a deeper allegiance to it. It is the kind that denies the truth at its most fundamental level and substitutes the lie. Reality is made to conform to the myth, rather than the myth to reality.
Steven Pinker tries to allay our growing doubts about the myth of progress by reassuring us that things are in fact getting better and better. “We will never have a perfect world,” he admits, “and it would be dangerous to seek one.” But he insists (sounding very much like J. S. Mill) that “there’s no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” Our heroic story, he says, is not just another myth. “Myths are fictions, but this one is true, true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have.”
When Professor Pinker says that we will never have a perfect world, he does mean never, for he acknowledges no “life of the world to come” such as Christians acknowledge. And what would Augustine say to that? Is it not an admission that we will never be truly happy, the very thing the ancients all agreed we were made for? Augustine would also say (indeed, in book 13 of De Trinitate did say) that if what we were made for is never to be, then the world lacks all coherence. Reason itself (the pride of Professor Pinker and of his “data-driven epiphany” that progress is real and permanent) is something of which we must despair. Virtue, too, is useless, for virtue keeps us on the path to a destination at which we will never arrive. This is the sort of bind in which we find ourselves when we think with the serpent.
It is all the more astonishing, then, to observe eminent churchmen jogging alongside the buggy with the horse and carrot, the chariot of the Enlightenment, as if belonging to some modern Order of St. Philip. Having been invited to climb aboard, they are jostling one another to see who can find the most comfortable seat. That is because they have heard the boast of Strauss, who is reading the prophet Lessing: “It is that carrying forward of the Religion of Christ to the Religion of Humanity to which all the noblest efforts of the present time are directed.” Like Strauss, these churchmen are happy enough to talk about the religion of Christ, but the Christ to whom they refer is not the imminent Christ, the Lord of history who is coming to judge the living and the dead. He is rather the immanent Christ: the Christ who (as I put it in Ascension Theology) has “ascended into the dynamic of history, into the future of the race, into the evolving cosmos . . . the black Christ, the feminist, queer, communist, capitalist or eco-Christ”; in short, the Universal Christ, the Amazonian Christ, even the Pachamama Christ, the Christ that is whatever we desire the Christ to be. He is the Christ fitted to the myth of progress rather than the Christ who sits at the right hand of God.
We must leave these sweaty gentlemen behind and proceed to the prevailing form of the myth of progress today: the myth of secularity. This myth is bound up with what Professor Taylor calls life in the immanent frame. By that he means that we have “come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order.” We no longer depend on a divinely instituted or revealed order but only on such order as we ourselves freely create. We live in a “secular” saeculum because its character is determined from below, not from above; from within, not from without. The peculiar semantic reduplication in the title of his book, A Secular Age, reminds us that our thinking and acting is now self-referential; appeals to transcendence are entirely optional and have no direct bearing on our life together. If we like, we can try to govern our personal lives in the light of some higher order, insisting that its principles are not fully susceptible of explanation strictly on their own terms, but we must allow that ours is an age, nevertheless, in which “belief in God is no longer axiomatic.”
In Genesis, the serpent raises the questions, “Did God say?” and “Was God being truthful?” It knows better than to ask, “Does God exist?” But is that not the very question at the heart of Taylor’s account of our situation? Taylor himself, on the personal level, answers affirmatively, and politically he has fought extreme versions of the naked public square such as we experience in Quebec. But, on his analysis, the question itself seems definitive, while the answer does not. Collectively, we are now those whom God, if he exists, has not addressed.
When we consider how we should live, our own questions, as Karl Barth charged, “replace the command of God as the proper theme, the framework of all thinking on the subject.” We have forgotten or denied that “God deals with man through His Word”; that “His Word is the sum and plenitude of all good, because God Himself is good”; that man, therefore, does good only “in so far as he hears the Word of God and acts as a hearer of this Word.” Indeed, we have forgotten or denied what St. Paul announced on Mars Hill: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30–31). This man is his Word, a man whose authority God has assured to all by raising him from the dead.
The Secret of the Saeculum
This announcement, which Peter made in Jerusalem and Paul in Athens, is a decisive repudiation of the myth of progress avant la lettre. It is a declaration that there can be no valid immanent or self-referential frame and that we are not going wherever it is we think we are going. We do not live in a “secular” saeculum, an age in which there is no providence but our own, as even the post-secularists inspired by Taylor seem to think. Nor is our age merely a succession of eras, in which we are doomed to be ever seeking but never finding. Its secret is an open secret.
Our age is a very definite age, a very well-defined age, precisely because it is bracketed by the first and second comings of the Christ. It derives its limits, its lineaments, its character from those brackets. It cannot be understood apart from them. It begins with the ascension: not (as Hegel supposed) of the dead Jesus, as bearer of an ideal, but (as Paul believed) of the resurrected Jesus, the living Jesus, who ascends to the right hand of God that he may receive power and glory and dominion before the hosts of heaven. It begins, in other words, with his heavenly Parousia, and it ends with his earthly Parousia, with the manifestation here of what is already manifest there: his authority over all things, over angels and over every human being, living or dead. The goal of God’s own providence has come to light. It is the defining feature of our age that it has come to light and has been announced.
What, then, is the point of this age? Why this time of ours, suspended between the times? Why the present disparity between what appears in heaven and what appears on earth? If we answer with Augustine we will say: in order that the ranks of the hosts of humans who are to join with the angels in the garden-city of the heavenly king may be filled up, filled by those who choose freely to join up; and that those who volunteer should be trained by tests of faith, becoming fit to enter the city before they do enter it. The secret of the saeculum is that it is an age of announcement, and thus an age of choice. Christians, in this sense, must be decidedly pro-choice!
The choice is not between belief in God and lack of belief in God, however, for the announcement is not that there is a God. The announcement is that God, yhwh, He Who Is, has made Jesus of Nazareth lord and savior and judge of all men. So, the choice is much more definite and concrete than whether to believe that God exists. Rather it is a choice, as it was in Eden—today under very different circumstances—between acknowledging or refusing the gifts of God, between obeying or refusing the command of God. It is a choice between rendering thanks to God through Jesus Christ or declining to render thanks to God at all.
In Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has already answered fully the question of who God is and what man is meant to be. He has answered the question as to whether and how men shall be as gods. The question now is: Do we really want that? Do I myself choose that? Homo gratus or homo ingratus—which is it to be? For, as Irenaeus says, “The receptacle of His goodness, and the instrument of His glorification, is the man who is grateful to Him that made him; and again, the receptacle of His just judgment is the ungrateful man, who both despises his Maker and is not subject to His Word.”
When men’s minds are made up, when sufficient numbers (God alone knows the number) have decided on the one and the rest have settled on the other, the age will have served its purpose and the end will come. The Parousia that has already taken place in heaven will take place also on earth. But the whole point of the age is that, meanwhile, the question should be posed and answered. For now, we know exactly what Scripture means, when it says: “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose” (Sir. 15:16).
The present age is both like and unlike any other age that has ever been. It is an age in which an announcement is being made that has never before been made, nor will be again, and a question being posed that has never before been posed, nor will be again. The secret of the saeculum is that it is an age of choice? Yes, and once we have that straight we may allow, after all, that we live in something like Taylor’s immanent frame, for the choice is indeed ours.
This age draws its utter uniqueness from the fact that the resurrected one sits at the Father’s right hand, presiding over the battle for human hearts that now rages, visibly and invisibly, on earth. To put it the other way around: The entire age corresponds to a brief recess in heaven, where the judgment of the divine court on Jesus Christ has already been confirmed—that is why he is on the throne!—but its judgment on men in general has been reserved. It is the will of the court that men are now to prepare their final pleas, to clarify their standing vis-à-vis the Christ. They have been invited to become part of his mystical body, to make a thank offering to the Father through him, with him, and in him. Will they do so? The Spirit and the Bride both say, “Come!”
Rublev’s great icon of the Holy Trinity—of the providence of the Holy Trinity that answers to the providence of Abraham at Mamre—witnesses to the invitation and to the choice that must be made. It tells us exactly what the secret of the saeculum is. We are invited to the royal feast. Will we accept, or will we decline? If we decline, what other plea will we make?
Make no mistake! The eucharistic question, the question of thankfulness, is the question in the saeculum. And not for the individual merely, as if it were strictly a private matter. Kierkegaard was right that it must and will be answered by the “single individual” as an individual and without cover from any other individual. He had to say that, because in late Christendom the conflation of the city of God and the city of man, and the confusion between them, was all but complete. That is hardly the case now. So now we must say once more that it is a question, not merely for people, but for peoples. The nations as such are also being asked whether they will lift up their hearts in gratitude to God, as is only right and just. There is no other foundation for justice! That was the insight of Christendom, and it is no less true an insight now that Christendom is gone.
Bonum est enim sursum habere cor, writes Augustine in book 14 of The City of God, alluding to the liturgy; non tamen ad se ipsum, quod est superbiae, sed ad Dominum, quod est oboedientiae. “For it is good to lift up the heart—not to self, however, which belongs to pride, but to the Lord, which belongs to obedience.” This applies to each individually and to all together, for man is a race, a race, as Augustine insists, made from one man that it may show forth the unity of God in a way the angels cannot. What is more, it belongs to each to help the other, to warn his fellow man against putting superbia where obedientia should be. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Lev. 19:17).
That is something Augustine already dared to do in the first few pages of The City of God. “For all too often,” he says, “we wrongly shy away from our obligation to teach and admonish [our neighbors]. . . . We shy away either because we are unwilling to make the effort or because we hesitate to offend their dignity or because we want to avoid enmities that might impede and harm us with respect to some temporal things which our desire still longs to acquire or which our weakness still fears to lose.” And then we lose these things anyway, caught up with the city of man in the judgments that fall upon it.
Ah, Rome—now, as then! And Washington? How goes it in Washington?
The Mystery of Lawlessness
Eric Voegelin’s judgment in A New Science of Politics is sound: “A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves.” What we call secularity is, by all appearances, systemic ingratitude, a refusal to give “full thanks to God” for the benefits we receive, as Augustine says in book 19. No wonder, then, that ingratitude is coupled today, as in Augustine’s day, with “horrendous pride, lasciviousness, greed, and detestable wickedness and impiety,” not to mention a large dose of hypocrisy. This will have its limit. It always does. Before our age is out, it will reach its limit, its absolute limit. For, as Paul says, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work, though there is one presently restraining it”—until he doesn’t restrain it, until God himself restrains it, and that without possibility of appeal.
Just there, we glimpse a secret within the secret, one not to be overlooked. For in due course “the lawless one will be unveiled, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, and bring down by the display of his parousia: the one whose [ersatz] parousia is according to the working of Satan, with all demonic power and with false signs and wonders and with every wicked deceit—a parousia unto those who are perishing for want of love of the truth, which they did not receive that it might save them” (2 Thess. 2:8–10). Perhaps that is more than we can bear just now. But I remind you of it for a reason. Evil also improvises, mimicking providence. When it improvises on the gospel, when it makes use of the Eucharist, it becomes more potent than ever it was or otherwise could be. For evil is nothing in itself. It is only the perversion of the good. The greater the good perverted, the greater the evil produced. And there is no greater good in this or any age than the gospel and the Eucharist.
Our “secular” saeculum has its own gospel. In it we announce choice itself, not choice about something. We announce raw choice, autonomous choice, choice for its own sake and for private ends, uncoupled from any command. We have taken up the idea of the self as the repository of all goodness; but this repository is not, like Mary, full of grace and gratitude. It is, like Eve, full of desires and demands. It is possessed, like Adam, of many rights; but it does not do what is right and just, or even acknowledge what is right and just. It seeks power and authority, not from and for justice, but in order to decide what “justice” will be. It advocates progress in everything but virtue. It is not interested in virtue because it is not interested in God, the goal to which virtue leads. Thus, the mystery of lawlessness advances under cover of an ever-expanding positive law that no longer acknowledges any foundation for law. In the name of liberty, we are making progress in law at the expense of liberty. And so far from being grateful for the gifts of providence, we no longer know how even to make sense of the idea of “the gift,” an idea our philosophers tell us is incoherent. The economy of grace and gratitude is a currency we no longer recognize.
In our putative secularity, the rough draft of our response to the heavenly court has begun to take shape. Is there silence in heaven? Very well. Then let there be silence on earth also. That court shall not be named, not in public; neither shall the Christ, whose authority it has confirmed. Our secular silence is not a repentant silence. It is not a mournful silence in sackcloth and ashes like that of the Ninevites, to whom God brought Jonah that he might deliver his reluctant rebuke. It is not a prayer, but a refusal to pray. It is not a contemplation of our sins, but a refusal to allow that there is any such thing as sin—save the sin of honoring God and admonishing one another to heed the commands of God, which is now both a sin and a crime.
And where is the Church in all this? Down at Joppa? On her way to Tarshish or Beijing? Defending her tarnished reputation? Defending the environment? Holding synods about synods? Busy defending religious freedom at home, perhaps, as if Dignitatis Humanae were itself the gospel rather than a by-product of the gospel? I hope not, because religious freedom, though very pertinent to the announcement that has been made and to the choice that must be made, is not itself the issue of the age. Gratitude, eucharistia, is the issue of the age. That is what religious freedom is for.
The false doctrine of secularity that prevails today is designed to make us think otherwise. The false pluralism of today, with its ironic rainbow and its diversity mantra—which serve to deny, rather than affirm, that God (in Augustine’s words) “knows how to weave together the beauty of the whole in the similarity or diversity of its parts”—seeks to assure us that the best option, indeed the only option, is not to reprove our neighbor for his ingratitude and his disordered loves. But this, Augustine would remind us, is a pre-Alaric option. This, Jesus would remind us, is a pre-Titus option: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Matt. 23:37–38).
The heavenly court will sit, whether we like it or not. Surely it is already stirring in its chambers. Meanwhile the open secret of the saeculum must be declared openly. The churches of the living God, like embassies scattered among the nations, exist precisely for that purpose, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Of course, this must sooner or later draw the mystery of lawlessness out into the open, where it will be seen for what it really is and do what it really means to do. That’s how things work in the music of providence. But when it is altogether out in the open, it shall discover its limit, its Absolute Limit, which Tolkien augured thus: “In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.”
Douglas Farrow is professor of theology and Christian thought at McGill University.