Augustine, Luther, and the Rise of Post-Christian Culture

A critique of Anthony Kronman’s case against Christianity

Image by Tomas Anunziata, from Pexels

In his magisterial, neo-pantheistic critique of Western philosophy and religion, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, Anthony Kronman argues, in effect, that what John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis is caused not by the rejection of Christianity but by the existence of that religion.

Owing especially to the impact of Christianity, the inherent tensions within Western culture lead to the world’s disenchantment, which Kronman means to rectify by updating the ancient pagan worldview.

The Ironies of Augustinian Theology

To take just one strand from his sprawling argument, Kronman shows how Christianity both implicitly deifies nature and distances God from his creation. To understand Kronman’s argument, we should contrast his view of Christianity with what he says about ancient Greek philosophy.

Aristotle followed Plato in equating divinity with the forms, structures, or general features of the material world, whereas the Catholic theologian Augustine follows Judaism in isolating divinity within a singular supernatural abstraction. For Augustine, only God is worthy of worship and he created the universe from nothing, which ensures not just that the regularities and laws that govern natural events are divine, but that particulars or instances of kinds are likewise full of divine meaning.

For Kronman, that implies that although individual things and events in the universe aren’t inherently divine, as in pantheism, they are implicitly so since they’re seeded by God’s intentions. As Kronman says, “The assumption that the endless inquiries of science will be rewarded at each step by a deeper understanding of the world reflects the belief that its laws are merely provisional statements of the infinite intelligibility of everything that happens within it.”

To magnify God’s majesty, Augustine defied pagan rationality in theorizing that God had no help in his act of creating the universe. There were no preexisting materials and God wasn’t compelled by any reason or desire. Creation was a spontaneous gift and outpouring of his free will; in short, Creation was a miracle that surpasses human comprehension.

That doctrine of Creation raises a virulent form of the problem of evil, which has to be answered by a powerful theodicy. After all, if God alone created the universe, God should be responsible for all the suffering that occurs. How, then, can God be divine as the sole, original creative force, while the universe as we know it is imperfect at best?

Augustine appeals to human freedom as the source of real evil and suffering. Natural suffering such as the kind inflicted on animals in the wild is only apparent, the evil of which dissipates from God’s perspective, since that suffering is a means to an end so great that the means which disgusts us pales into insignificance. We, however, are made in God’s image and are gifted with supernatural freedom; therefore, just as God can choose to create a universe based on nothing, we can choose to violate God’s plan and commit sins.

In his later writings, Augustine adds to God’s magnificence by belittling us with the doctrine of original sin, that is, by deemphasizing our freewill and by positing God’s omniscience and his predestination of our salvation. As Kronman writes, “The problem is that Augustine’s theology requires both divine omnipotence and human freedom, between which there can be no accommodation. In the end, it is necessary to give one of these two ideas priority over the other, and once one does, there is no stable resting point short of the complete obliteration of the idea that has been put in second place.”

This seesawing is apparent also in the Christian doctrine of grace, as Kronman points out. Augustine follows Paul in proclaiming that God freely and graciously creates not only the world but his plan for our salvation. We all earn destruction in hell for our free choice to reject God and to set ourselves up as sovereign authorities, but God sends us his son Jesus who sacrificed himself to pay the debt we owe God.

So God gets all the credit for creation and we get all the blame for evil. Moreover, God alone is credited for our Christian salvation, which helps vindicate the world’s apparent imperfections, and we must take pains to grovel before God to reflect his exclusive praiseworthiness.

By condemning human pride as the root of sin, however, Christianity fuels the satanic fullness of pride, as Kronman explains: “The Christian concept of grace…compels the conclusion that no human gratitude can ever be adequate to the gift of God’s self-imposed suffering. God’s human creatures remain forever incapable of returning his love with one as good and great.” Thus, Kronman says,

The familiar human longing to give thanks for the love one has received with a love of an equal if necessarily imperfect kind is thus not merely denied but condemned by the doctrine of grace. The condemnation of this longing arouses anger at the one who makes it a sin to feel it, and stirs the jealous wish to take his place. By raising the value of gratitude to an unprecedented height, the Christian religion thereby becomes the breeding ground of pride in its most extravagant form. It drives those that it condemns to an unparalleled disappointment in love to take their revenge, as Satan sought to do, by usurping the place of the God who has done this to them. For this satanic wish, Christianity itself is responsible.

The upshot is that whereas Augustine meant to glorify God at the expense of everything he created (including us), Augustine’s theodicy leads him into tensions and compromises. The universe becomes indirectly divine, after all, because it flowed purely from God, which opens the door for Kronman’s neo-pantheism.

Moreover, we become particularly divine because of our godlike freedom to sin, which Augustine has to balance with the doctrine of original sin and by beefing up God’s omniscience with his foreknowledge of who would be saved or condemned. The result is a deity that’s hard to love and easy to rebel against; thus, Christianity begets anti-Christianity.

The Literary Franchise of Christianity

Kronman makes much of Augustine’s interest in protecting the concept of God’s omnipotence, but there are two broader ulterior motives of his theology to keep in mind, both of which likewise lead to ironies that would support “born-again paganism” or neo-pantheism, that is, an enchanted, religious version of philosophical naturalism.

First of all, it’s crucial to recognize that Augustine was practicing theology, not philosophy. Philosophers are proto-scientific in seeking knowledge of objective reality. Their primary tool is abstract reason. Not so with regard to theologians, since their primary subject isn’t apparent reality but a fiction they call “scripture.” Theology is a futile exercise in harmonization, in which the theologian must interpret events in such a way that they seem to conform to a particular poetic narrative.

The theologian’s tool of choice isn’t reason in the honourable, philosophic sense, but casuistry, the specious application of rhetoric and pseudo-reason that serves various psychological and political purposes, such as the distraction of the flock and the preying on their gullibility. The task isn’t to understand how nature really works, but to explain away unsettling facts to preserve the power of the religion’s myths and creeds and of the religious institutions that own those intellectual properties.

Augustine wrote not as an independent mystic or wondering monk, but as a priest of Hippo, Algeria where he was ordained in 391, and later as bishop from 395 to his death in 430. Thus, it’s misleading to compare Augustine’s work to that of Aristotle or Plato. Augustine drew from pagan materials only to make sense of his primary source, which was the Bible, particularly the Christian story of Jesus’s profoundly-meaningful death.

Augustine was a theologian, not a philosopher, which means truth for him was literary and subjective, not rational or coldly factual. Nietzsche, then, is closer to the mark when he suggests the Christian theologian’s primary motive is the resentful defense of slave morality, since that’s what drips from the pages of the New Testament.

A theologian is like an author of fiction who writes within the restrictions of a franchise, a shared literary universe like Harry Potter or Star Wars. Above all, such an author has to ensure his work is consistent with the canon, although he can add to it or adjust details to suit emerging circumstances.

Augustine therefore follows Paul, the early theologian who invented the idea of original sin, to make sense of the founding Christian narrative. Why did Jesus, that great, innocent man, die like a criminal on a Roman cross? Not because the world is godless, absurd, amoral, and rife with injustice that will never be corrected, since that would be intolerable. No, the reason must be because Jesus was furthering God’s plan for our salvation, by dying as a sacrificial offering.

Thus, we must be both incapable of saving ourselves, because of original sin, but free and able to condemn ourselves in the first place by sinning. We must be free and morally culpable for our actions to make us worthy of hell. But we must simultaneously be beloved by God (to inspire him to send his son to save us) and lowly and helpless, corrupted by original sin to prevent us from pleasing God with our freely-accomplished good deeds.

Such contradictions are obviously found within Christianity’s founding stories, the Gospels, not just in Augustine’s reworking of Paul’s harmonizing commentaries. Contrary to Kronman, the conflict in Augustine’s theology isn’t due primarily to the incompatible needs to respect God’s omnipotence and his benevolence, which drove that theologian to posit creation ex nihilo and human freewill. Augustinian theology is a story within a fictional Christian universe that’s already several times removed from the initial literary inventions.

The Untouched Horror of Natural Reality

In short, the conflict was in the event that inspired those inventions in the New Testament (and in the Gnostic and other early non-canonical Christian writings). There’s no need even to posit an historical Jesus, since the foundational event was Rome’s occupation of the Jewish people as a whole, which included countless pagan killings of zealous Jews such as those who rebelled against Rome, leading to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and to the second rebellion under Bar Kokhba in 132 CE.

Christianity as a whole was an exercise in theodicy — as was Judaism, since Jews suffered under foreign occupations long before the Roman Empire. The real conflict, then, is between human ideals and natural reality. On the one hand, we envision a just and bountiful world in which everyone gets what they deserve and there’s no need for war or oppression. On the other hand, we don’t live in that world but in one where the strong dominate the weak. We prefer to think of ourselves as having the potential to be angelic or godlike creators, but we often behave like animals because, it turns out, we evolved from animal species.

That’s the existential dichotomy the New Testament attempts to explain away with a fantasy about God, sin, and divine sacrifice. Because Christianity is only a theological fiction rather than a more responsible exercise in philosophical understanding, Augustine hardly resolves the existential conflict, but only ramifies it with his sophistical distortions and red herrings.

Augustine’s theology is incoherent, as is Paul’s, and that’s as it should be since Christian theology is only a fictional description of a real horror. The description comforts and distracts, if you can suspend your disbelief, but the horror remains what it’s always been.

There’s an irony of the theological nature of Augustine’s discourse which Kronman doesn’t pick up on. By positing that God created the universe from nothing, Augustine turns God into an inhuman source of an incomprehensible miracle. God’s supernatural freedom can’t coexist with any psychological attributes such as reason or emotion, since those would naturalize Creation and undermine God’s transcendent majesty. Therefore, Augustine’s God is indistinguishable from the nothing from which the universe is supposed to have derived.

Given Augustine’s interest in turning God into a supernatural abstraction, to work out the implications of the monotheistic Judeo-Christian theodicy, Augustine leaves himself with mysticism which is consistent with atheism. Saying God miraculously, mindlessly “willed” the universe into being from nothing adds precisely nothing to saying that the universe popped inexplicably into being just from nothing.

Notice the closeness of the latter view to scientific cosmology as informed by quantum mechanics. Augustine’s cosmology already amounts to pantheism, since his abstract deity is as good as nothing (no intelligible thing), which leaves the universe as the only positive subject of divinity.

Christian Politics and the Natural Power of God

The second driver of Augustine’s theology is political. Again, Augustine was a bishop at a time when the Church inherited the authority of the Roman Empire and was empowered to hunt heretics. Theodosius the Great began persecuting Roman religion in 381 and issued his decrees against non-Nicene Christians holding Church office, between 389–392, consolidating his power as sole emperor and extending his bans over the next couple of years — all while Augustine held church office in Hippo.

Here the comparison with literary franchises can be strengthened, since at the bottom of entertainment franchises are, of course, corporations which seek to earn profit. Likewise, Christian theology is promulgated by churches. Hollywood movies studios mean to protect and increase their wealth by fulfilling a demand for entertainment, and officials of religious institutions want to secure not just their material wealth but their power over the laypeople.

By glorifying God, Augustine indirectly glorifies the Catholic Church that he serves. By holding God to be all-powerful, this theologian and “saint” establishes the authority of God’s earthly representative that supposedly inherits its institutional power from Jesus through Peter, the first pope.

The political nature of the Catholic Church means God is once again effectively equivalent to nature, for Augustine and for all Christian theology. By distancing God from his creation, what Augustine is doing is reinforcing the tangible inequality within a certain social dominance hierarchy. That’s the same hierarchy that’s at the heart of the mystery motivating the entire religion of Christianity: powerful Rome crushed the omega male Jesus; alphas, betas, and omegas — the strong dominating the weak.

The Christian theological invention is of a foreordained overturning of that power asymmetry, when the last will be first and the first will be last. Jesus is secretly lord of the earth and will prove as much when he returns to redress every instance of natural bullying and oppression. God represents the secret store of the slave’s power. The lowly only seem to have nothing, but in the end they’ll have everything when they inherit the earth. All of which is wishful thinking and the Christian miracle stories are empty, which is why when you read between the lines of these commentaries on the Christian myths, the deity of the downtrodden amounts to nothing (as in Augustine’s cosmology).

But that’s only the esoteric, mystical truth of Christianity. Exoterically, the Christian God represents a changing of the natural guard, as the Catholic Church replaces the Roman Empire. The Christian deity is a figurehead for the actual overlord, which was the earthly Christian institution that rationalized its dominance with self-serving fictions, dogmas, and draconian policies against the freedom of thought.

This is another palpable irony, since Christian politics, too, is a basis of Kronman’s post-Christian neo-paganism. The fact that the fantasy of God’s spiritual kingdom was thought to be established with war and hellfire indicates that the supernatural abstractions of Christian theology are only ruses. The Christian plot and main mythical characters are natural, not supernatural. What really matters to leading Christians isn’t any mystical symbol or fictional figurehead, but the earthly church from which they draw their tangible power and wealth. This is especially true of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant sects.

In this light, God’s “grace” should be compared to the alpha wolf’s free gift to his subordinates of resources which are his “by right” of his physical supremacy. The free gift of Christian salvation which we can’t possibly earn is like the pack leader’s generosity or show-boating, to the demonstration of his right to dominate, with his largesse.

Of course, in nature the alpha isn’t all-powerful and survives by surrounding himself with the group he leads. Likewise, in the subtext of monotheistic theologies, the relationship between God and his worshippers is akin to sadomasochism in that the weak need the strong to save them, but the strong ruler likewise needs the weak to glorify him and feed his corrupted ego.

This why we’re not all automatically saved from Hell thanks to Jesus’s sacrificial death, but must verbally accept the sacrifice by confessing our sins and groveling before God Almighty — none of which makes any sense on Christian grounds, unless the deity is actually modeled on primitive animal pack leaders that dominate as false gods.

Faustian Pride and Church Hypocrisy

Finally, Kronman’s argument about the Christian basis for satanic pride seems to me farfetched. Perhaps the manifold incoherence of Christianity exacerbates secular ambitions, but I doubt the convoluted reasons for disappointment with Christian theology could be crucial factors in the rise of what Oswald Spengler calls the Faustian aspect of Western culture, with its individualism and science-centered obsession with secular progress.

The urge to progress in that fashion is largely biological and is thus tens of thousands of years old. Organized spirituality and religion typically serve as fig leaves to commend that animal drive to us, as we seek to control the natural environment for our benefit. Rather than looking squarely at our existential predicament, at the lack of any deus ex machina, in the humanistic manner, we tell stories about how the gods intend for us to progress, or more specifically, how the fruits of progress are reserved for the upper-class theocrats.

As for deserved Western opposition to Christianity, there’s a simpler explanation than Kronman’s which appeals merely to Catholic hypocrisy. Jesus taught one thing (world-weary asceticism), the Church did largely the opposite (imperial theocracy). Plus, Jesus was wrong about the imminent destruction of the world, which deprives his radical morality of its authority and justification. Those considerations would neatly account for how Christianity paved the way for its downfall.

Martin Luther and Post-Christian Culture

Indeed, we can identify more narrowly the catalyst of the rise of Faustian arrogance, and that’s the figure of Martin Luther. Luther did as I just suggested: he scorned the Church for its egregious corruption and hypocrisy. He sought to simplify matters, to cast aside the Church hierarchy and hold as sacred only the narrow, practically-solipsistic relationship between God and each individual. Works were irrelevant and only faith, inward conviction, and biblical information mattered.

As Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the Protestant Revolution was a major, unintended cause of capitalism, by providing theological excuses for secular achievement. Beyond that, there was Luther’s radical egalitarianism, which prepared the way for something like the American Dream: everyone is equal in God’s eyes because of our original sin and because religious institutions are spiritually impotent; therefore, with no rigid class divisions, there’s the potential for upward economic mobility, and we can go from rags to riches if we work hard.

Luther’s German vernacular translation of the Bible took power away from the Latin-speaking Church elites and democratized Christianity, setting the stage for the English equivalent, the Tyndale Bible. Again, that Protestant egalitarianism overlapped with Faustian humanism, the difference being only that Luther thought everyone is equally unworthy in relation to God and can only beg for the gift of salvation, as Augustine said, whereas post-Christian humanists ignore God altogether, leaving only our equal gifts of intelligence, creativity, and empathy as our means of progress (rather than salvation).

Lewis Mumford expressed this well in The Condition of Man: “Luther’s doctrine of faith lent itself to exploitation by far darker powers than those this doctrine opposed: the very fact that the private world of the believer became sacred for him, prevented him from acknowledging the criterion of sanity — the congruence of private conviction with the historic experience and the common sense of other men.”

Moreover, said Mumford, “the gospel of self-sufficiency and self-determination is no innocent one: the self that has escaped oppression is as open to the corruption of pride as the greater authority from which it has escaped. Morally speaking, the cant and conceit of a village may be as vile as the claims of an empire.”

Mumford was speaking there of some offshoots of capitalism which sprang up from Luther’s critique of the Church, which were nationalism and ultimately Nazism, the crucial ingredient being the esteem of self-sufficiency, that solipsistic emphasis on the irrelevance of everything apart from each individual’s trust in God. Likewise, for Luther, Germany had to be walled off from the rest of the world, which required industry and wealth.

From Luther’s Hypocrisy to American Conservative Christianity

Luther’s insane absolutism is obvious from his betrayal of the peasants’ revolt against the German aristocracy. Both Luther and the peasants abhorred the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church elites, yet Luther condemned the peasants (sounding a lot like Hitler who railed against communists, liberals, and Jews, as Mumford points out), writing, “let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel…I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants.”

The aristocracy “slaughtered up to 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers.”

Luther’s stated reasons for siding with the secular elites are only some sophistries that should be expected from a theologian. For example, Luther said the peasants committed blasphemy by fighting in the name of Christianity. Would Luther be so lawyerly as to likewise condemn the heavenly warrior who will slaughter the nations and defeat the Beast, according to the Book of Revelation?

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war…He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations…He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty…And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small” (Rev.19:11–18).

Sheldon Wollin identifies Luther’s true reason, in Politics and Vision: “church organization was regarded as an impediment to true belief.” Thus, Luther’s “doctrine of political authority had evolved towards a more enlarged view of the functions and authority of the rulers. The rulers were now entrusted with some of the religious prerogatives previously belonging to the pope.”

As Wollin goes on to say, “Political authority naturally tended to be pictured as a mighty engine of repression…designed to enforce peace and to protect the Christian remnant from the terrors of the world. Such a government aimed not at virtue, but at keeping men from each other’s throats; mankind had never really given up the Hobbesian state of nature.”

Luther was stuck with the secular powers, because the alternatives were government by earthly religious authority, which he rejected, and anarchy and chaos. Notice that the Hobbesian state of nature has always been with us only in so far as God hasn’t. To align himself with the aristocracy against the peasants, even after idolizing the Bible with its condemnations of wealth, was to concede that Christian theology is fictional, that the peasants had to be put down because animal instinct is our default ruler rather than any supernatural power. If the peasants succeeded in their revolt, there would be endless riots and lawlessness — because the Christian God is absent from the real world.

The incoherence of Luther’s theology is foundational also for the obscenity of American conservative Protestantism, which is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Christian franchise. In both cases, the “Christians” condemn religious institutions for obstructing the individual’s path to God. Meanwhile, this individualism generates social Darwinian competition and transnational corporations that are more powerful than any religious organization and that lead theologians and televangelists to twist Jesus’s radicalism into a defense of imperialism, war, and material prosperity.

How easily late-modern Christians forget that the material world was supposed to have been terminated or spiritualized long ago, but remains amoral and godless enough to allow for the spread of such religious subterfuges. Then again, the content of that literary franchise is divorced from reality, so the plot can be modified to please the crowd.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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