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Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas

Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas

by Curtis Chang


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556355202
Publisher: Wipf & Stock Publishers
Publication date: 11/28/2007
Pages: 188
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Curtis Chang is pastor of The River Church Community in San Jose, CA. Previously, he oversaw campus ministry for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Tufts, MIT, and Harvard. Born in Taiwan, he graduated from Harvard University.

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Chapter One

Epochal Challenges

North Africa, 413. The famous bishop opened the letter to find yet another request, Once again someone was asking him to write a book. A renowned man of letters, Augustine was used to requests from agents seeking new literature or people desiring his views on all sorts of topics. As a busy bishop concerned with the many practical details of leading the North African church, he was also used to dismissing such requests with grouchy replies like "I wish I could snatch you away from your titillating disquisitions and ram you into the sort of cares I have to cope with." Yet this particular request drew his attention.

    The letter was from Marcellinus, Augustine's lay disciple and close friend. Marcellinus had been sent to seek the Roman imperial government's assistance to resolve the dispute between Catholics and Donatists in North Africa—a persistent source of headaches for Augustine. But Marcellinus's urgent request had to do with a different concern. He had sought to convert Volusianus, the Roman proconsul to Africa, to the Christian faith. Volusianus came from a noble Roman family, steeped in classical pagan culture. He headed a social group of educated, sophisticated Romans to whom, as one historian noted, "Christianity appeared, as it appears to many today, as a religion out of joint with the natural assumptions of a whole culture."

    Marcellinus needed help. He reported that Volusianus showed some interest but had mounted several strong objections. Among his strongest was the accusation that therise of Christianity had caused the pressing ills now afflicting the Roman Empire. Volusianus had in mind, of course, the horrific and still inconceivable events of three years earlier. For three days in August 410 a Gothic army led by Alaric had captured Rome, sacked it and burned parts of the city to the ground. In the preceding eight hundred years Rome had never fallen into enemy hands, and to many it seemed as if an entire society was disintegrating. Volusianus's impulse to pin the blame on Christianity was shared by many of his peers. So Marcellinus asked Augustine to write a work that would help him answer such accusations.

    Augustine the intellectual was well aware that this educated class of pagan challengers could define the dominant perspective of Roman culture. His own past in precisely that circle had taught him that this intelligentsia could easily seize events like the sack of Rome and produce a widely accepted interpretation that would "harden a prestigious tradition against the spread of Christianity."

    Augustine the pastor also knew firsthand that Rome's seeming collapse already had rocked the Christian world. Almost a century earlier to the year, Constantine had undergone his famous conversion which linked the Empire with Christianity, a linkage that had grown so tight in the ensuing years that leading Christians had come to regard Christian and Roman civilization as coterminous. For the church, therefore, the fall of Rome felt like a blow to its own solar plexus. St. Jerome was so shaken that he complained he could not dictate his commentary on Ezekiel; indeed he could not remember his own name or do anything but remain silent. "If Rome can perish," he wrote, "what can be safe?" Asking this and similar questions, anxious and confused Christian refugees from Rome had streamed into Augustine's congregations in North Africa.

    Thus Marcellinus's request no doubt rang in Augustine's mind as the representative note of challenges and concerns echoing through the era. As he set aside the letter, ideas that had emerged in his letters and sermons over the past few years began to coalesce; soon they took shape in the beginnings of a singular, monumental work: City of God. The year Augustine received the request, he would preface book 1 thus: "Here, my dear Marcellinus, is the fulfillment of my promise, a book in which I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City." Thirteen years and twenty-one books later, the perpetually harried bishop would recall the original request behind City of God: "And now, as I think," he wrote in its last lines, "I have discharged my debt, with the completion by God's help, of this huge work." "This huge work" would stand as one of Augustine's most lasting contributions to Christianity, then and now.

    A Dominican priory in Naples, 1259. About eight hundred years later, another thinker of the church opened a letter from an evangelist requesting help. It was a rather unexpected request, for while Thomas Aquinas had already gained a reputation as a leading authority, it was hardly on matters that seemed immediately relevant to those in the mission field. Most of his works had been commentaries on authors long dead or on rather technical questions of philosophy. Indeed, Aquinas often appeared to prefer to dwell in an abstract realm, ignoring the contemporary world. One anecdote recalls Aquinas making an obligatory appearance at a court dinner of King Louis IX. The customary exchange of political news and gossip filled the dinner-table conversation. Aquinas remained silent, only occasionally nodding politely to guests next to him. Suddenly, in the middle of the dinner, he slammed his heavy fist (for he was a very large man) on the table with a thud that silenced conversation. As all eyes turned to him in shock, he cried out with the satisfaction of one who has just solved a preoccupying problem, "And that will settle the Manichees!"

    The letter now before him was not asking him to respond to an ancient school of philosophy like Manichaeism. Nevertheless, it captured his attention. Its author was Ramon of Penyaforte, who was, like Aquinas, a Dominican monk. Ramon had pioneered missions to the Muslims in Spain, even establishing Dominican schools where friars could receive training on evangelizing this population. He was on the cutting edge of the development of missions as an alternative to the crusades. Yet for all his efforts, Ramon had few results to show. He was now writing to ask Aquinas, according to one fourteenth-century chronicle, "to compose a work against the errors of unbelievers, by which both the cloud of darkness might be dispelled and the teaching of the true Sun might be made manifest to those who refuse to believe."

    Ramon of Penyaforte's failure in Spain was simply one fault line of Western Christianity's relatively recent encounter with Islam—Christianity's first experience with another unified faith that like itself claimed universal status and unique truth. Even the paganism of Augustine's day claimed authority only for its own particular society. In a shockingly brief time a new and self-confident religion had erupted to surround Christendom. From the west via Spain, the south via North Africa and the whole Near East, Islam confronted Christianity. Little wonder then that Ramon's monks experienced great difficulty in getting Islamic audiences to believe or even listen to their claim that Christianity was a superior religion. Like no other challenger, Islam could rub against Christianity with the massive solidity and resistance of a tectonic plate. The crusades were but the most obvious example of how the seismic challenge of Islam disturbed Christianity and defined the medieval era.

    Even before Ramon's letter Thomas Aquinas had registered other tremors from this encounter with Islam. In particular, he was sensitive to developments based in Spain. The Islamic philosophers in Spain had brought the works of Aristotle—long lost to the West—to the attention of Aquinas and other Christian intellectuals. In the previous century alone numerous Islamic commentaries on Aristotle had suddenly descended on the West. Like the Islamic society that bore it to the West, this seemingly complete, self-sufficient and foreign body of knowledge threatened the worldview then dominant in Christendom. In his own efforts to understand and respond to Aristotle, Aquinas had witnessed firsthand how this intellectual invasion disrupted the Christian world. Only four decades earlier the University of Paris (which granted Aquinas his license to teach) had received a ruling from a provincial synod prohibiting the reading of Aristotle's works on natural philosophy "on pain of excommunicalion." During Aquinas's own time at the university, a bitter debate over the study of Aristotle had resolved itself in favor of the study of that philosopher only by the narrowest of margins.

    As Aquinas set down Ramon's letter his ever-active mind began to conceive the shape of his response. He was concerned to meet the Spanish monks' practical needs, but those needs also triggered broader, deeper and more abstract motions in his thought. Over the next five years he would fashion those intellectual motions into one enormous work of four books. One eminent Thomist scholar notes the "keen personal initiative" that fills the pages of this work: Summa contra Gentiles, arguably the greatest work that this giant of a thinker ever completed.

The Postmodern Challenge

Church history is best practiced as an exercise in correspondence. The historian sends inquiries out into the murky past, seeking to understand our ancestors in all their unique historical particularities. Yet it is a tenet of postmodernism that every historian inevitably inquires not as a dispassionate, objective observer but always as one bearing some contemporary agenda, albeit often undeclared.

    Christian church historians have their agenda already declared for them by Scripture. The book of Hebrews enjoins the church to pay attention to that "great cloud of witnesses; communion with our ancestors is meant to encourage those of us facing the next challenge in "the race marked out for us" (Heb 12:1 NIV). As Augustine described his own agenda in researching the apostolic tradition, the church historian seeks to "carve a channel from them to our own times."

    In this book, then, I seek to correspond with two monumental members of that "cloud of witnesses" through their seminal works. I read Augustine's City of God and Aquinas's Summa contra Gentiles to understand these works in their own historical terms, but I also unapologetically pose questions dictated by the challenges confronting the church today. And I expect that our ancestors will answer if we pay attention.

    The topic of my correspondence is the particular kind of challenge that looms before the church today: what I term an "epochal challenge." An epochal challenge is a development that fundamentally threatens how the church has traveled the most recent leg of its journey. While there is no precise criterion for what qualifies as an epochal challenge, Christians encountering one feel that the ground they have taken for granted is shifting. The basic reference points that have guided how they inhabit their epoch as Christians seem to be toppling. To use some popular terms, an epochal challenge presents "paradigm shifts" or new "worldviews" that feel disorienting to the church.

    Observers of our culture—whether Christians or not—widely note that we face a massive paradigm shift called postmodernity. Redescribing postmodernity is certainly not my goal here; suffice it to say that we are in the midst of an emerging new era. One analyst has thus summarized the multiple forces behind postmodernity:

Western culture is in the middle of a fundamental transformation; a "shape of life" is growing old. The demise of the old is being hastened by the end of colonialism, the uprising of women, the revolt of other cultures against white Western hegemony, shifts in the balance of economic and political power within the worm economy, and a growing awareness of the costs as well as the benefits of scientific and technological "progress."

    All these forces of change have fostered a suspicion that the hegemony of Western modernity marginalized those whom postmodern critics describe as the "other" or the "different." Since modernity excluded the marginal by upholding its own norms and truths—often under the guise of a universal rationality—postmodernity now challenges all norms and truths. Thus postmodernity conceives of religion as radically relative, depicts history as a Nietzschean record of the raw will to power and exercises a general hermeneutic of suspicion toward all literature.

    While this epochal challenge affects the wider culture, postmodernity particularly threatens many paradigms that have long guided the church. For instance, religious relativism undermines the church's long-held claim to universal truth. The fragmentation of Western culture splits Christianity's historical alliance with that culture, while also giving rise to histories that implicate Christianity in a wide range of the culture's ills—racial conflicts, the ecological crisis, battles over sexuality and gender. Biblical scholars influenced by postmodern literary theories now scan Scripture not for God's revelation but for evidence of socioeconomic and political agendas. It is no surprise that the average Christian looks out at the changes swirling within our culture and sighs, as one writer put it, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

The Outbreak of Conflict in Epochal Challenges

Instead, the church finds it has landed in a state of conflict. Escalating conflict between the church and the rest of society is a frequent symptom of an epochal challenge. Each epoch usually establishes particular terms of peaceful coexistence between church and society. Where disputes do arise, there exist commonly acknowledged authorities to resolve or at least restrict the tension. The medieval European and Byzantine epochs of Christendom stand as the most obvious examples of a particularly close partnership.

    An epochal challenge tends to erode the terms of such partnerships. Each partnership is constructed under a particular worldview; the emergence of a new worldview undermines the established harmony. The old sources of authority are no longer shared by all. For instance, the epochal challenge of the Reformation fragmented the medieval consensus regarding the authority of the Catholic Church over all Europe and unleashed a string of religious wars. This conflict marked the transition to the modern epoch, as the Enlightenment self-consciously sought to find new terms for peaceful coexistence between society and religion. The West increasingly turned to modern liberalism as the new authority. This authority would demarcate the realm of public facts from that of private values, assigning the former to secular society and the latter to religion.

    In the twilight of modernity, these pacts feel increasingly tenuous. The intractable conflicts surrounding abortion, homosexuality and the death penalty illustrate the breakdown of modernity's neat demarcation between public facts and private values. Alasdair MacIntyre describes such conflicts as being marked by "extreme incommensurability and untranslatability": worldviews facing off without any shared authority to adjudicate the dialogue, without even any shared language to use. The incommensurability and untranslatability are especially pronounced given that postmodernity, while seeking to shatter modernity's governing conventions, has yet to offer any substantial replacements, especially for how religion fits with the rest of society. So in our fragmented age new conflicts have erupted between Christians and secular society, and the two parties struggle to find any common ground.

    With more and more points of tension and fewer and fewer words to share, the former partners are sorely tempted to break off all negotiations and prepare for war. Only force, it appears to both, can resolve the conflict. In his 1991 book Culture Wars, political sociologist James Davison Hunter explored how evangelical Christians and secular society were headed for a clash as each sought to wield political power over the other. Three years later he revisited the scarred political landscape with an even more somber book: Before the Shooting Begins. While the culture war has still been mostly restricted to political and cultural weapons, murders of abortion doctors by serf-proclaimed Christians indicate that real shooting with live ammunition has already begun.

    Beyond the postindustrial West the commencement of hostilities is even more obvious: social pacts for managing religious tension have collapsed even more abruptly. As I write, today's newspaper headlines bear the violent signs of these times. In Rwanda and other African countries, the tattered curtains of colonialism that previously covered over deep hostilities have been slashed apart completely by the machetes of tribes bent on massacre. In the former Yugoslavia the sudden disintegration of communist regimes has released a wave of ethnic cleansing. And in Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, modernity's golden promise of economic development for all has suffered currency meltdowns, triggering mob violence between disgruntled communities. In an these conflicts and still more that daily fill media reports, Christians, Muslims and Hindus figure prominently in the lists of combatants.

The Need for a New Rhetorical Strategy

Given that conflict is an unavoidable reality of the current epochal challenge, the Christian is confronted with a dilemma. Unless the person wants to break off an contact with the rest of society, he or she must step forward and meet challengers face to face. And unless the Christian wants to overpower rivals by sheer force—either that of votes or of bullets—then he or she must at the very least figure out a way to speak. But what should be said?

    The right words do not seem readily accessible. I discovered this early on in my work as a campus minister, in encounters with two students, Jake and Alex. At Harvard University I befriended Jake, an extremely bright student from Montana. Jake is a Native American, but having been adopted by white parents at an early age, he knew little about that aspect of his past. He had come to believe in Christianity as a teenager through reading Hal Lindsey, an author who specialized in correlating biblical prophecies with historical events. By the time I met him, he had moved on to the works of Francis Schaeffer and other modern Christian philosophers. In my times with Jake, he would frequently try out various arguments that demonstrated the rationality of Christianity. He was mesmerized by the hope of working out an airtight case that would win over his non-Christian classmates.

    I eventually said farewell to Jake when I left Boston for a year of missions in South Africa. During that year I received a letter with a Native American reservation as its return address. Jake was writing to inform me that he no longer could consider himself a Christian. He had been uncovering his Native American identity: he had found his original family and had changed his last name back to theirs. He had even left Boston to move in with this newfound family. The more time he spent with his people—especially those who practiced tribal religions—the less comfortable he felt with Christianity. Christianity and Christians, he explained, had almost obliterated his true people and his true self. How could he cling to this alien faith?

    I confess I did not write back for months. Each time I tried, I could only stare at my stationery, not knowing how to fill its blank space.

    I met Alex during an evangelistic presentation in a dorm at Clark University. A speaker had just outlined the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection. Alex stood in the back, his arms crossed and a bemused smile on his face. When I approached him and asked what he thought about the presentation, he shrugged and replied, "I don't see how you can know that any of this is true."

    Eager to use all the apologetics training I had received, I proceeded to debate with him the historical evidence and reasoning involved. After an hour of lengthy debate, I thought I had maneuvered him into admitting a critical inconsistency in his logic. All my apologetics textbooks assured me that this represented a decisive accomplishment. Surely I had "won" a significant battle!

    Alex contemplated his inconsistency for a moment, shrugged and replied, "Yeah, well so what?"

    "So what?" I responded in exasperation. "But ... but ... what you believe can't be true if you contradict yourself!"

    Alex flashed another bemused smile, "But so what? Who's to say that your logic isn't just all made up? Who's to say that everything isn't just made up?" And with that he shrugged again, while in my befuddlement and frustration I could only lapse into silence. What was my next line supposed to be?

    An epochal challenge is so challenging precisely because it presents problems fundamentally different from the previous epoch. The church's evangelists and apologists suddenly discover that the lines they've been taught have the feel of the Maginot Line, that elaborate fortress the French built on their borders after the trench warfare of World War I—only to discover in the new mobile warfare of World War II that German tanks could circle right around their defenses.

    Postmodernity renders obsolete much of the rhetorical strategy we inherited from modernity. The one who demands an answer is not so often the philosophical atheist, but a Jake who asserts that Western Christianity has brutally marginalized native peoples. The challenger is not the aggressive secular humanist who attacks the rationality of Christianity, but an Alex who holds to a personally constructed epistemology of radical doubt. The old arguments no longer sway; the old spells no longer enchant.

The Need for History in an Epochal Challenge

In recent years Christian thinkers have published books that seek to write the church some new lines. Some of them are quite good and helpful. Indeed, I have wondered about my own wisdom in trying to add yet another book to this ever-growing collection. But it is essential to draw on church history as we seek to respond to contemporary questions. Many existing treatments of the postmodern challenge manifest a certain ahistorical tendency, as if this latest epochal challenge represents some threat unprecedented in the annals of Western Christianity. One writer has warned: "Apologetics is especially needed today, when the world stands at a triple crossroads and crisis. Western civilization is for the first time in its history in danger of dying. The reason is spiritual. It is losing its life, its soul; that soul was the Christian faith."

    This feeling that we are encountering an utterly unique threat, of course, imbues an epochal challenge with its disconcerting power. And that is why at such a "crossroads and crisis" we especially need to correspond with our cloud of witnesses. Because the truth is that this is not the first time Christianity has needed to figure out what to say when the Western civilization it is attached to seems to be in danger of dying. Augustine awaits our inquiries. Nor is today the first day that Christian evangelists sought the right words to address a rival civilization that emerged suddenly from the margins, animated by a different faith. Aquinas stands ready to reply.


Excerpted from Engaging Unbelief by Curtis Chang. Copyright © 2000 by Curtis Chang. Excerpted by permission.

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