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L'Osservatore Romano, Second Vatican Council

Properly Seeing the Past in Order to Imagine a Better Future

Issue Three / 2021

Conor B. Dugan

Jones, Andrew Willard, The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2021).

A common theme of many postliberal thinkers is that we are too often hemmed in by the boundaries and limits of contemporary thinking. As David Schindler, D.C. Schindler, Michael Hanby, Patrick Deneen, and others have been arguing, new political and social forms are not possible without imagination. By limiting ourselves to liberalism’s categories, we necessarily limit what may come next. But we cannot expand our imaginations without viewing history properly. That is, if we approach history through the lens of a twenty-first-century secular liberal, we will necessarily see history as a series of events that conform to the labels and forms of secular liberalism. We will be limited in what we see in the past and, thus, necessarily limit what we can propose for the future.

In The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics, Andrew Willard Jones offers a history that is an antidote to such a limited view. The Two Cities is a comprehensive account of political and social history from creation to the present. In truth, Jones’s book is really a history of the world. Jones allows us to see things we may have missed and therefore imagine possibilities that exceed those bequeathed us by liberalism.

Every history requires a starting point. Every history requires a narrative. No history is neutral. And Jones’s is not either. He writes: “Everything that happened before the Incarnation was leading up to it, and everything that has happened since can only be understood through it.” Jones reads everything in light of Christ’s coming in the flesh and his founding of the Church to extend his presence through time and space. God-made-flesh means everything has importance. Thus, “Christianity is not about our private lives, and it is not merely about where we go after we die. Christianity is about everything in the cosmos, and the cosmos moves in time” (emphasis added). Jones also rejects the modern view of man as first an individual separate from others, who chooses to be in relationship. Rather, he employs a Christian anthropology, seeing that each person is born into a family and is constituted by the web of relationships into which he is born, the most fundamental of which is his relation to God. Ultimately, Jones offers his book as a “historical narrative that is Christian through and through and which is capable of understanding modernity from within the truth of Christianity and not the other way around.”

If Christians return to seeing history through the light of the Incarnation, God-made-man condescending himself to the world to redeem and purify it—lift it higher—they stand a chance. Success is not a Gospel category. We are called to faithfulness.

To take on this daunting task of understanding all of history through Christianity, Jones employs Augustine’s image of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. The former is a “downward-looking city” that “descend[s] through selfishness to perfect misery in complete war with God, neighbor, and self.” The latter, on the other hand, is an “upward-looking city,” “ascend[ing] through grace to perfect peace in perfect love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.” The cities commingle and the “plot of this history . . . is not simple progress.” “It is filled, rather, with ups and downs, with advances and reversals, with corruptions and reforms”—though always marked by God’s interventions, most significantly his becoming man in Christ.

Jones truly writes a history of everything—a history of the cosmos from creation to the present. He begins with a sketch of creation and the time before the Incarnation. He then moves on to Christ’s coming in the flesh, his founding of the Church and its development, its place in the Roman Empire, the rise of monasticism, and the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire. Jones then describes the Church in the Medieval, Early Modern, Modern, and Postmodern periods. He ends on a hopeful note about what is to come.

While there is so much in Jones’s book one could dwell upon, I’ll highlight just a few aspects. First is the remarkable breadth and depth of this work. In reading it, never did I feel that he skimped or left me wanting more. If anything, there were times when I thought he could have moved more quickly through a particular period. Nor does Jones gloss over or romanticize history. Rather, his is a sober, honest account while at the same time being sympathetic and charitable. Whether he is describing actions taken by the Church or ideas proposed by the most hardened atheist, Jones attempts to understand his subjects’ motivations from the inside—but always in light of the Incarnation.

Second, I was struck by Jones’s deft handling of nominalism. In just five pages, he unlocks the concept, shows how it differs from realism, and helps us to understand its deleterious effects on the Early Modern Church. It is also striking to note how infected the contemporary world—including the Church—is by this intellectual error.

Third is Jones’s description of how the wars of religion actually were pivotal in creating “religion” as a “distinct category of human action.” “They are wars of religion only in retrospect” (emphasis added). Indeed, these wars helped create the modern categories of “the political” and “the religious.” But in the standard contemporary history, these wars are pointed to as the reason that religion must be cabined away from public life (as if that were even possible). Jones also demonstrates how the rise of “the political” vis-à-vis “the religious” has led to a world in which the State dominates.

Fourth, Jones recognizes liberalism as a distinct theory every bit as ideological as nationalism and socialism. It is so easy for us to think of nationalism and socialism as perversions of mainstream Western thought. Liberalism, so the story goes, is the good and basic form of society from which these corruptions depart. But Jones argues that liberalism is every bit as totalizing as these other ideologies and, thus, just as much a threat to Christianity as they are. While postliberal philosophers, theologians, and political theorists have been making this point with great urgency in recent years, it is helpful to hear it from a historian, putting liberalism in its proper historical context.

Fifth, Jones’s account of the Second Vatican Council is one of the best summaries and fairest assessments of the Council I have seen. He discusses its theological background and key documents, its genuine innovations and radical christological core. At the same time, Jones honestly points out tensions and ambiguities in the Council’s documents. Such a balanced presentation is especially needful now.

Sixth, Jones is perceptive in his analysis of the crisis in the Church of the last fifty or more years. He writes that the “discord that rocked the postconciliar Church in the West was in large part, then, a fight that occurred within a general capitulation to the liberal notion that Christianity was merely a religion that operated within a secular world.” The problem is that Catholics—whether of the conservative or liberal variety—are not radical enough. “Neither side thought that the entire social organism, the entire political, economic, legal, and moral order, from the largest of societal structures to the everyday actions of individual Christians, could find its end of true freedom and peace only through a top-to-bottom conversion to Christ and the acceptance of his healing and elevating grace.” The lack of radicalness has led to the integration and assimilation of the Church into liberalism.

Jones nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. He sees the Church’s integration to liberalism as a potential blessing. “Could it be that providence has allowed the Church to fall into the profound worldliness in which it currently finds itself so that the reform movement that will emerge will be a reform not only of the Church but of the postmodern world itself?” If Christians return to seeing history through the light of the Incarnation, God-made-man condescending himself to the world to redeem and purify it—lift it higher—they stand a chance. Success is not a Gospel category. We are called to faithfulness. And from faithfulness comes fruitfulness. Jones writes that “[p]erhaps the Church won’t break free from the world’s domination until the faithful stop thinking of the Church as merely a little corner of the world and allow themselves to be led not by the powerful, but by the religious, by the meek.” If we allow ourselves to be led by Christ, our meek King, the Church can become again an oasis of peace, drawing the world upward and offering everything as a pleasing sacrifice to the Father through the Son. Jones’s book is history at its best, setting us up to imagine and create a more hopeful and civilized future.

Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted 5. 2. 2022

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