History can be told as the story of what happened, but it can also be narrated as the story of what could have been but was not. We look to history, in part, to see not only what is now but what may be. This is in part the motivating force behind various genealogies whether they be Michel Foucault’s or Alasdair MacIntyre’s. If the past is not what we have been told, perhaps the future may be different from what we have been told it will be. …
Auden was skeptical of a “program of Christian social renewal” in part because of his concern that it was “a massive misunderstanding of the claims of Christianity” to treat it as “a means to an end, that end being social cohesion” (81). This is the threat of conservatism for Christianity: it makes Christianity a force for social good—the city of God makes a better terrestrial city. But as Auden knew: “This is to re-enact the Constantinian error, which was to ‘profess and practice a religion of success’” (81). The crass version of this is the prosperity gospel in which Christianity will help us win so much we get bored of winning. In the richer traditions of Christianity, the question remains: what is the victory we seek?
For Auden, this victory could not be a social, cultural, or political. He challenges us to ask if we “believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints?” (55). These values probably do not benefit society, but the contemplative and the saint seek a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet, for Auden in For the Time Being, they must remain at work here for we have “the time being to redeem / From insignificance.” Our victories this side of Eden are ironic ones redeemed only by the hope of Someone Else’s victory. We can only pursue this true victory by working for small victories “In the Kingdom of Anxiety” for it is only here that we can “Love Him in the World of the Flesh.” If you hope in the most ironic victory—that of the Cross—you may come to “the great city that has expected your return for years.” All we can do until then is win some and, more often, lose some, work against technocracy and nationalism, and actively wait as a service to God and to all. Ultimately, it is not social reform that matters; what matters is becoming saints. …
Perhaps it is Auden’s sense of irony and hope that leads Jacobs to close with the message of yet another writer: the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. Jacobs sees Ellul as having been “more realistic” in choosing “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” (206). For a Christian, this is the truest realism, for our only hope is for the continuing miraculous deliverance of the Cross, Resurrection, and Return. Still, this reader was left grasping at the end. Is our only hope, as the diminished thing, a miracle? Jacobs leaves us with the advice that we must learn from these writers and that we must be aware of the signs of the times. But what can either teach us? As the diminished thing, how are we to arrest this diminishment and maybe even grow? These writers did not arrest the time. If, as I posited in the beginning of this essay, a genealogical approach gives us a sense of what was not, but also what could be, then Jacobs seems to provide us with little in the direction forward. The past that failed seems now merely a prologue towards continued diminishing.
Perhaps then, this diminishment provides us the spiritual lessons we need. Genealogical accounts are meant to remind us of contingency and so possibility for what may be. But what Auden teaches is that social reform is not our ultimate goal even if our social reform is a new Christendom. And now that comprehensive Christian social reform is wellnigh impossible, we must learn to dwell as diminished. Jacob’s lesson is that our calling is to be diminished in the year of the Lord 2019. What Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Auden provide ultimately is not the wisdom of a new Christendom, but the wisdom of a diminished Christianity. The possibility they open up is the possibility of a wiser Christianity, which has been shorn of its political power but also liberated for its work in the time being as we await another but very different coming of Christ.
What is a Christian’s telos or purpose? By God’s grace, becoming a saint. Christianity’s telos is not social cohesion per se, but of achieving a greater soul and greater soulfulness.
This is why the “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” is Christian realism at its best, because it recognizes that its hope in “miraculous deliverance” corresponds with our little-thought-upon “miraculous appearance” at conception and emergence into this life. Just as our coming into life was an unanticipated gift, our leaving it too can be looked upon as a “going home” to the God who brought us into being.