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We Need More Moral Ambiguity

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

One of the strangest sagas of social media outrage in recent memory has centered on Captain Marvel. The troubles began when its star, Brie Larson, made comments about diversity that were interpreted as anti-white male, triggering many Incels (Involuntary Celibates) and leading to a cadre of trolls working to sabotage the film. Based on misinformation, this campaign was successful enough that the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes changed its policy, preventing films from being reviewed and rated before their release.

The film’s release was followed by a review from the evangelical Calvinist ministry Desiring God, which decried Disney/Marvel’s decision to depict a woman rescuing men rather than needing men to rescue her, and lamented the loss of helpless man-dependent femininity from the Disney films of yore. Predictably, this review provoked another cycle of outrage.

The Captain Marvel dispute encapsulates a trend endemic to our present moment. All around us and within us, the fires of righteous outrage burn bright, threatening to consume us entirely. Self-styled conservatives devote themselves to “owning the libs,” progressives sneeringly look down upon the insufficiently woke, and from purported sidelines would-be moderates and centrists cry out A plague o’ both your houses!, unaware of how this posture is not immune to the same ire.

Society’s polarization finds a dark echo within churches. Continued debates threaten to deal further blows to already fractured unity. Everyone is angry about something, and there is plenty of fodder for anger.

Forgotten is the biblical counsel: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19–20). Satisfying as anger may be, it quickly becomes toxic, and it robs us of the opportunity to order our lives and our society according to the justice that pleases God. In this context, we would do well to retrieve a proper Augustinian moral ambiguity.

By this I am not suggesting moral relativism or abandoning objective standards of morality. That is a separate issue. Allow me to explain.

Our contemporary context seems especially adept at reproducing positions analogous to those Augustine sought to oppose in his late fourth- and early fifth-century North African context. The first such tendency is toward Donatism, which we mimic when we retreat into enclaves designed to reinforce ideological purity and to spare us the contagion of associating with ideological inferiors. This occurs when churches divide for the sake of moral or ideological purity (whether the purity is conservative or progressive in its orientation). And a quasi-Donatism is evident in our siloed approach to media, which abhors any reportage or commentary that might reorder or break down our preferred echo chambers.

The Donatists sought a pure church, one that was not contaminated with the moral failures of its members, and especially its clerics. In the days before Christianity became a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire, many, including some bishops, caved to the pressure of persecution and handed over (tradire) the Scriptures in surrender to the Empire’s might. When the persecutions ended, many of these traditores repented, and hoped to resume their episcopal ministries. Their readmittance was a bridge too far for Donatus and his followers, who split away in order to maintain purity.

While today we tend to think of Donatism in terms of the sacraments’ efficacy (i.e., a minister’s moral failure does not impede the grace of the sacrament), Augustine’s criticism of them was more profound. The Donatists were correct in their moral stance: it was wrong for the traditores to abandon the Scriptures. But by departing from the unity of the Church in search for purity, the Donatists had abandoned love, causing even more serious harm to themselves (On Baptism 1 and 2).

In contrast to this rigorist drive for purity, Augustine championed what Robert Markus called Christian mediocrity, which, while not excusing or endorsing sin, recognized the human tendency toward failure and a universal human dependency upon divine grace for achieving the good. Sin is not just a failure, but also wounds and traps us so that without the healing of grace, we would remain forever stuck in the quagmire of the habits that weigh us down and prevent us from achieving the good or properly enjoying God (see Confessions 7 and 8).

Augustine honed these positions during the Pelagian controversy, during which he opposed the British monk Pelagius, who called Christians to purity and even perfection, and who saw Christ as offering no more than an example to be followed. If Augustine’s response to the Donatists guides us away from seeking to carve out communities of ideological purity, his response to the Pelagians teaches us not presume upon our moral achievements, which if not mainly illusory, and certainly shot through with ambiguity, are entirely due to God’s grace.

This insistence on our moral ambiguity might lead us to assume that Augustine is suggesting a pessimistic appraisal of reality, and yet this is not the case. A good deal of the motivation for these commitments derives from his opposition to Manichaeism, a movement to which the young Augustine belonged for nearly a decade.

The Manicheans were a radically dualistic sect that said all of reality was a struggle between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, as equal and opposite forces. For the Manichaeans, radical evil existed in the same way as the good. In opposition to this is the biblical vision of reality, within which everything that is not God has been created by God, and is good (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 4:4). After leaving the Manichaeans, Augustine came to recognize that nothing is evil in itself, but rather that evil is a matter of disordered priorities, a matter of preferring a lesser good to a greater good (On the Nature of the Good).

Our reactions to our ideological others tend to be visceral and Manichaean. The mere mention of certain figures, parties, or movements provokes ire and concern. Our visceral reactions prevent us from entertaining the possibility that those with whom we disagree might be acting in good faith. Instead, they must be evil. An anti-Manichaean perspective directs us away from these assumptions, and enables us to assume that even our opponents are acting in good faith, and seeking to pursue some legitimate good. It opens the space for us to find better ways to attain these goods, rather than dismissing others’ concerns out of hand. As long as we dismiss our opponents as evil people, no solutions will be possible except for the violence of gaining political control and coercing others to toe the line.

Recovering this Augustinian vision of moral ambiguity can teach us once more where hope is found: Not in ourselves, or our moral achievements, or our ability to police the boundaries of morally pure communities, or through political maneuvering, none of which will deliver our ultimate happiness. The efforts of the human city have a certain provisional reality and a relative good, but they are, at best, a pale approximation of the city of God, whose joys lie beyond the confines of history (City of God 19). Instead, our hope is in God and in his Christ, and we can recognize that the kingdom of God is a gift to be received, not an empire to be built or policed.



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