Augustine, Benedict, and the Future of Christianity in the West

By John Bauerschmidt

How are Christians to witness in a rapidly changing culture? More than 130 people from a variety of Christian communities gathered in Nashville last month to examine this question through the lenses of two ancient philosophers, St. Augustine and St. Benedict.

The conference, held at St. George’s Church, was sponsored by St. George’s, Communion Partners, and the Living Church Institute. It featured keynote speakers Mark Clavier and Rod Dreher, as well as other Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders from around Nashville. They came together over two blustery days to seek guidance and encouragement for our own cultural moment from the riches of the Christian tradition.

Dreher, noted journalist, editor, and author of The Benedict Option, placed the sixth-century saint in the context of life in Italy after the collapse of Roman rule in the West. Benedict’s monastic experiment took place against the backdrop of crumbling institutions, political transition, and economic disruption: in Dreher’s account, a profound scattering of society.

Dreher pointed out the parallels with our own time, and noted how this Benedictine “withdrawal” into small, spiritually supportive communities led to the survival and then the renewal of society, now shaped and formed by the Gospel. He was careful to point out that individuals in modern communities of believers may very well (and probably will) work regular jobs, live in their own house and apartments, and attend their own parishes — in other words, be a prayerful, mutually supportive cloister in the midst of the world.

Mark Clavier, canon residentiary of Brecon Cathedral in Wales and author of several notable books on Augustine, said the fifth-century North African saint also lived in an age of transition, in the midst of the decline of Roman power and the armed immigration of peoples into a fragmenting empire. It was also a time of religious change, marked by the continued eclipse of traditional paganism, and an expansive Christian movement. Clavier offered a model of intentional Christian engagement with society, rooted in confidence in the power of the Gospel, noting his own “optimism” about our particular cultural moment.

Clavier examined Augustine’s rhetorical strategy, itself shaped by the Roman tradition of rhetoric (“present, please, persuade”), and also Augustine’s understanding of sin, which itself follows the same invasive pathway. Clavier pointed to parallels with modern advertising strategies, which use this same device. The Christian pastor, as a teacher of rhetoric, seeks to delight and persuade in pursuit of God, who is the source of true delight and true blessedness. Christian rhetoric takes place within a community, living in the earthly city, but which is journeying on to the city of God. His point is that this joyful journey can and will draw the world along with it. The line of demarcation between the two cities runs not primarily between believer and unbeliever, but right through the divided will of each person.

Speakers in breakout groups included: Todd Lake of Belmont University; Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-winning historian and biographer; Tom Douglas, Grammy-winning songwriter; Christie Holmes, traveler and entrepreneur; Aaron Howard, educator at Franklin Road Academy; Joy Riley, medical ethicist; and Morgan Wills, physician and founder of Siloam Health, which is a temporary medical home for uninsured and foreign-born patients in Nashville.

In his presentation, Meacham offered a solitary valediction of a Christian vision that shares common ground with the values of the Enlightenment: The search for “a more perfect union” evokes the insight that “we are all one in Christ Jesus.” For his part, Wills spoke on the work of Siloam among immigrant and refugee communities, reminding participants that as Christians work together on pressing concerns, our differences tend to become “rubbed into the fabric of need.”

St. George’s hospitality was exceptional. In greeting participants, Fr. Leigh Spruill, rector of the church, was a reminder of St. George’s commitment to engage the culture in which it carries forward its mission.

The conference was enormously encouraging. One of my own discoveries of these two days was that the contrast between the perspectives of Augustine and Benedict is in large part artificial, a convenient rhetorical device for the purposes of the conference. Dreher and Clavier spoke of common concerns and analyses in a shared conversation on the final day. These are challenging times, but the conference was a reminder to the participants of the various ways Christians are connected to one another — and to the world — in common concern, and inheritors of a rich tradition, including exemplars to guide us in faithfulness, whatever the future.

See photos from the conference.

Learn about TLC’s upcoming conference in Oklahoma City.

The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt is the Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee, and president of the board of directors of The Living Church Foundation. 


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