By David Gushee
For both professional and personal reasons, I am returning this year to an engagement with the best Christian theological reflection that I can find.
Professionally, I am attempting to seed the ground for the completion of a long-delayed book on the sacredness of human life. I also want to read with my students here at McAfee School of Theology in some of these great theological works.
Personally, I feel the need for a time of refreshment after three years spent mainly in bitter fights over Christian political engagement on such issues as climate change and human rights. Inevitably, I will continue to be engaged with such issues and with the broader question of how America’s Christian people ought to approach the public square. I have reasons for hope that — at least on some issues many of us have been pursuing, such as the government’s treatment of terror detainees — positive change will soon be coming. While working toward these goals, though, I need to return to the sources of the faith that has motivated me to pursue them.
Here the personal and the professional converge. I believe that what Christians need right now more than anything else is not another day spent reading the newspaper, trolling the Web, or watching the latest political news. I think we need a deeper engagement with Scripture and with our ancient theological resources — for only that kind of return to the sources can draw us nearer to God and prepare us to say a public word that is something other than merely ephemeral, reactive, ideological, or partisan.
To that end, I want to tell you about an extraordinary ancient-postmodern book that I am reading. It is A Theology of Public Life, by Christian theologian Charles Mathewes, a youngish scholar who teaches at the University of Virginia. It is a new day when an Augustinian scholar like Mathewes can do this kind of robustly orthodox and theological kind of work at a place like Virginia, long a deeply secular university.
Reading A Theology of Public Life is like drinking theology from a fire hydrant. It is so much more thirst-quenching than what passes for theological reflection in most Christian circles that it really ought to be named something different. Probably this space will find me revisiting this book every now and again reflecting on key insights.
Today I will linger just a bit over Mathewes’ treatment of the concept of human longing.
Following Augustine’s lead, Mathewes argues that human life involves a “pilgrimage of our affections” in which we learn how to cultivate the proper disposition toward God, others, self, and the world. Discerning what that disposition should look like involves a prior reading of reality, of the situation facing humans in the world.
Augustine argued that human beings are characterized by their desires, or longings. These longings are rooted in our “persistent lacks,” says Mathewes — those aspects of our being that always ache for a fulfillment beyond ourselves.
Augustine, of course, became famous for writing that this basic human restlessness could only be fulfilled in God. But even the extent of that fulfillment possible here in this broken world leaves us longing for a future consummation of all things in which at last we and all the world find wholeness and rest rather than fragments and failure and further longing. Only God can and will bring about that consummation.
The ancient Stoic philosophers, and certain others, have taught that the urgency and pain of unfulfilled longing is so intense that the better part of wisdom is to seek to self-cauterize all longing. But Augustine called for us to continue longing while cultivating patience, endurance, and watchful waiting as those longings remain mainly out of reach. He reminds Christians not to fall prey to idols, which are essentially ways humans come up with to try to satisfy or distract ourselves from our ultimate longings. He said that “the whole life of a good Christian is a holy longing.”
This longing — for God, God’s reign, Christ’s return, the triumph of good over evil — keeps us from complacency or a premature sense of satisfaction with a self and world whose brokenness must never be accepted.
No human good or human achievement is ever complete, final or perfect. Every human person or project that we hope will meet our longings always comes up short. Recognition of these hard truths enables us not to deify any politician or party, or overload a spouse with impossible expectations, or think that another trip to the mall will finally bring us the happiness we seek. Such apparently esoteric theological insights are actually essential to a proper Christian posture to such this-worldly pursuits as marriage, business, and politics.