No Continuing City: The Paradox of a Christian Society

By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies.


Benedict of Nursia pictured the ideal monastery as “a little state, which could serve as a model for the new Christian society.” Those who respond to the call of monasticism and draw apart from secular society are to undertake a new community based upon the bond of fellowship set forth in The Rule of St. Benedict. The discipline of the Order was so rigorous as to make the Spartans appear hedonists by comparison. “The life of a monk,” Benedict writes, “should be always as if Lent were being kept. But few have virtue enough for this,” he adds sadly, “and so we urge that during Lent he shall utterly purify his life, and wipe out, in that holy season, the negligence of other times.”

The “negligence” to which Benedict referred might crop up any time, for example, when it came a monk’s turn to do kitchen work. Servers are urged to “wait on their brethren without grumbling or undue fatigue.” As an inducement to good behavior they are awarded an extra portion of food. But what about wine? “God gives the ability to endure abstinence” to some; the others are rationed to a pint a day. Benedict yields this point reluctantly. “Indeed we read that wine is not suitable for monks at all,” he writes. “But because, in our day, it is not possible to persuade the monks of this, let us agree at least as to the fact that we should not drink to excess, but sparingly.”

No monk is permitted to call anything his own. “He should have nothing at all:” reads the Rule, “neither a book, nor tablets, nor a pen—nothing at all. For indeed it is not allowed to the monks to have bodies or wills in their own power.” But the instinct for ownership sometimes broke through this prohibition, and the abbot is instructed to search each monk’s bed frequently for concealed private property. “And if anything is found belonging to any one which he did not receive from the abbot, he shall be subjected to the most severe discipline.”

Life within the walls outdoes nature in the harshness of its struggle for existence and only the most fit are permitted to enroll. “When any new comer applies for admission,” reads the Rule, “an easy entrance shall not be granted him.” He must persevere in knocking at the gate, and if he is “seen after four or five days to endure with patience the insults inflicted upon him, and the difficulty of entrance, and to persist in his demand, entrance shall be allowed him . . .”

But the new man must then pass time in each of several decompression chambers lest he get the spiritual equivalent of “the bends.” He stays a few days in the guest cell, then graduates to a novice’s cell under the surveillance of an elder brother who tells him of “the harshness and roughness of the means through which God is approached. . . .” After two months of this the Rule is read to him. If he doesn’t falter “again he shall be tried with every kind of endurance.” Six months of this and the Rule is again read to him; four more months and another reading. And then, after “he shall promise to keep everything, and to obey all the commands that are laid upon him: Then he shall be received in the congregation; knowing that it is decreed, by the law of the Rule, that from that day he shall not be allowed to depart from the monastery, nor to free his neck from the yoke of the Rule, which, after such long deliberation, he was at liberty either to refuse or receive.”

Even after this rigorous culling of the unfit the old Adam continued to reassert itself, in ways noted above, and even in physical violence among the monks. This is the implication of Rule LXX: “No one shall take it upon himself to strike another without orders.”

Benedictine Influence

Such is the discipline of one earnest and successful effort to fashion a society of and for saints. It endures to this day. Benedictine monks converted England. The important Clunisian reformation of the tenth century stemmed from the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny, France. The Cistercian Order was a twelfth-century offshoot. The influence of these movements on western culture was immense. “By degrees,” says Newman, writing about Benedict, “the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”

Let us turn from the sixth century to the sixteenth, from the historical reality of the Benedictines to a literary artist’s dream—to Rabelais’ exuberant ideal construct of a society of gentlefolk, the Abbey of Thélème.

Gargantua is the hero of Rabelais’ masterpiece. He is a mighty leader in battle—among other things—and with the help of friends emerged victorious from the Picrocholian War. His friends deserve a reward for their help, and what is a more suitable gift for a knight than a castle? This will hardly do for Friar John of the Funnels, however. Why not, in this case, find a suitable monastery and make Friar John its abbot? “But the monk gave him a very peremptory answer, that he would never take upon him the charge nor government of monks. `For how shall I be able,’ said he, ‘to rule over others, that have not full power and command of myself? If you think,’ continued John to Gargantua, ‘that I have done you, or may hereafter do you any acceptable service, give me leave to found an abbey after my own mind and fancy.’ ” This was done, and we are given a Renaissance man’s vision of a model community.

The Thélèmites had but one rule: Do What Thou Wilt. “All their life was spent” writes Rabelais, “not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure.” This did not mean that Rabelais countenanced a lax hedonism; it means that Rabelais had confidence in the gentleman and his code: “Because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that promptest them unto virtuous actions and withdraws them from vice, which is called honor. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which formerly they were inclined to virtue, to shake off that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable to the nature of man to long after things forbidden, and to desire what is denied us.”

In order to get this kind of a person for his abbey, Rabelais practiced an exclusion almost as rigorous as that set forth in the Benedictine Rule. The inscription on the great gate of Thélème warned off “. . . religious boobies, sots, impostors,… bigots.” Rabelais wanted no “attorneys, barristers, nor bridle-champing law-practitioners;” no “usurers, pelf-lickers, . . . gold-graspers, coin-gripers. . . . Here enter not, unsociable weight, humor-some churl. . . .”

But the red carpet is rolled out for others. “Here enter you, and welcome from our hearts, All noble sparks, endowed with gallant parts. . . . Here enter you, pure, honest, faithful, true, Expounders of the Scriptures, old and new; Whose glosses do not plain truth disguise. . . . Strange doctrines here must neither reap or sow, but Faith and Charity together grow.” The net result is that at Thélème, “Sound bodies, lined with a good mind, Do here pursue with might, Grace, honor, praise, delight.”

Mere Freedom—Only That

The vision is an enchanting one, and even Albert Jay Nock was moved to enthusiasm. “The lover of freedom,” he writes in his essay on Rabelais, “the disbeliever in a dull and vicious mechanization of the human spirit, its debasement and vulgarization of life’s abiding values, will nowhere find a more abundant consolation and encouragement than in this vision of the humanists. Nowhere, we believe, is there a more elevating, convincing, and wholly sound conception of human nature’s possibilities when invested with no more than mere freedom—only that.”

Let it be granted that the vision of Benedict of Nursia and the Rule it inspired reflected a saint’s nature and met, to a significant degree, the needs of spiritual athletes for whom life is a period of probation only, and the delights of the world a snare for the soul. Rabelais, on the other hand, although consciously within the Christian heritage, was most at home in that wing of it which embodied those elements of Christianity which have been called the last creative achievement of classical culture. As a humanist, he projected the vision of an ideal society which reflected the new awareness of what a marvelous creature man is at his best—”how like a god”—inhabiting a world only a little less wonderful than himself.

Thus we have, in theory, taken care of those constructed along heroic lines—the saints and the gentlefolk. What about the rest of us, who are neither saints nor heroes, and who have been forced to concede that the gentleman’s code—while it works well on the tennis court or in the drawing room—does not fully meet the demands of life on all its levels? What about the run-of-the-mine citizen? It was possible to discount him in classical political theory, whose most enduring expositor, Aristotle, could not conceive of a civilization without slavery. But Christian social theory cannot take this way out. As every man is precious in God’s sight, so every man must signify in any Christian sociology, and he must signify in terms of the Christian understanding of man—a creature who is out of joint with his true nature, who has to negotiate a fallen world, and who must await another order of reality to attain his own fulfillment.

I take it to be a distinguishing feature of Christian sociology that it is non-ideological and anti-utopian. I would call a social theory “ideological” which views man in terms of only one of his aspects; which takes account only of man’s material needs; or regards him as a purely spiritual being; or stresses his rationality, or his instincts, or whatever, at the expense of his wholeness. It is obvious that man is a creature of many facets, but violence is done if the wholeness of man’s nature is ignored or denied.

Social Heredity

A social theory is “utopian” to the extent that it assumes that man’s felicity is attainable in time and within history by a simple reliance on the natural harmonies, when these are uncorrupted by the artificial institutions of civilization. “Man is born free,” cried Rousseau, “and is everywhere in chains”—fastened on him by the societies he has fashioned. Actually, society is man’s native habitat. Society is as natural to man as water to a fish—neither organism could survive without its natural environment. As a creature of his genes man is a mere anthropoid; his “social heredity”—absorbed and learned one generation from another—makes him human.

Harmony, according to the utopians, is to be attained in one or the other of two directions; by anarchism or collectivism. That is to say, we might achieve an ideal society if the arrangements between people were the result of freely contracted relationships based on each man’s rational calculation of his own self-interest or advantage. Or, on the other hand, social harmony might be attained by the political imposition of a rational plan from the top down which put every man through his paces, according to the superior wisdom of a ruling elite.

In contrast to the position of the utopians—whose dubious premises and faulty reasoning can be used equally well to justify either anarchism or collectivism—man, as he is understood in Christian thought, has his citizenship in two realms, not one after the other, but concurrently. The natural sensory world engages him, obviously. It is an essential part of his environment which he shares with the animals; but man is the only animal who participates also in a non-spatial, non-temporal environment. This means that society has a more than natural and social significance; it is part of the cosmic scheme.

Our economic needs could not be met if we tackled them individually; and fellowship with others is a demand of our natures. But society has a significance beyond the meeting of our creaturely need for bread and our social need for fellowship; by a just ordering of social life we are, as Augustine put it, “schooled for life eternal.”

City of God

The contemporary Anglican theologian, V.A. Demant, writes, “Perhaps, only because man is not in the Kingdom of God has he to make civilization, but the effort is made because of the pull of his Patria in the Eternal World impels him to make a frame of life which upholds him when he is in via on earth.” This point is, of course, the theme of Augustine’s City of God, and I quote from Book XIX. “Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can truly be called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.”

Christian social theory is at odds with most secular social theory, but this is not the only difficulty; it has intramural problems as well. Yielding to those who demand a Single, Simple Formula, Christian social theory may become a parody of itself in one or the other of two directions—material or spiritual. Although Marxian communism is a purely secular scheme of salvation on the social level alone, and within time, there are some who have seen no incompatibility between communism and Christianity. A more common parody of the full-bodied Christian position is that which vaporizes it into a cloying spirituality. The former seeks to resolve social problems without reference to man’s spiritual nature and needs; the latter stresses the inner life as if there could be a healthy spirituality apart from a righteous ordering of human relations. When things are right the inner, spiritual life of individuals is “in play” with the structures of their social life. Josef Pieper has said that the western culture of Christendom might be characterized as “theologically grounded worldliness.”

A Bedrock of Faith

If man is more than a natural and social being it follows that the problems emerging on these levels cannot be resolved, or even understood, on these levels alone. The dislocations that bedevil us on the political and economic level cannot be cured at that level because they stem from a malady rooted on the spiritual level; they are surface manifestations of a distortion of our beliefs and our system of values. Our society was originally founded on the bedrock of a spiritual faith, and today we must again probe beneath the surface to that same bedrock. But the purpose of going down to bedrock is not to stay there; it is to build from there!

Every Christian believes in spiritual values, but not necessarily in the kind that are vacuum packaged; not in the kind that become the private jewel of some connoisseur for his solitary ecstasy. The path between altar and marketplace has always been a two-way street. Jesus’ summary of the law was twofold: love God and love your neighbor, balancing ethical expenditure by spiritual income. It conveys something like a half truth and a whole error to label man a spiritual being. He is, in fact, a spiritual being who eats, feels the cold, and needs shelter; a being whose nature demands fellowship with his own kind. True spirituality cannot exist apart from sound thinking, just dealing, and efforts to improve the quality of human relationships.

We have gone through a period when large numbers of people shared a belief that we could solve just about every human problem by political action. This is, of course, absurd. But it is a sorry reaction to this absurdity to subtract one’s weight and influence from such healthy forces as are now at work in social and political life. This mood of retreat and resignation is a dubious kind of spirituality. In reality it is a new “failure of nerve,” and a critic has written caustically about those so afflicted: “Having abandoned genuine thought about problems—especially the new problems that cannot yield to old formulae and incantations—they luxuriate in the feeling of greater purity and spirituality than their fellows.”

The Ancient City

If we reduce spirituality to a kind of private fancy it is easy for us to think of religion and politics as two distinct spheres, as separate as church and state. Such a view would have been incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks. The classic study of the religious and civil institutions of ancient Greece and Rome is The Ancient City by Fustel De Coulanges. “The foundation of a city,” he writes, “was always a religious act . . . A city was like a little church, all complete, which had its gods, its dogmas, and its worship. . . . Neither interest, nor agreement, nor habit creates the social bond; it is this holy communion piously accomplished in the presence of the gods of the city.” It was a social system “where the state was a religious community, the king a pontiff, the magistrate a priest, and the law a sacred formula; where patriotism was piety, and exile excommunication; where individual liberty was unknown; where man was enslaved to the state through his soul, his body, and his property.” Christianity, on the other hand, “taught that only a part of man belonged to society. . . . The mind once freed, the greatest difficulty was overcome, and liberty was compatible with social order.”

It is risky to generalize thus about a complex civilization like Greece which underwent several changes of character over the centuries, so let us use Socrates as a type case. Ernest Barker, in his Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, writes “The laws of his country were to him (Socrates) a sacred thing. . . . For him there was no rule of natural justice outside the law . . . what is just is simply what is commanded in the laws.” Barker goes on to say that “To a State like the ancient State—both church and State in one—any new religious beliefs, or disbeliefs, resulting in the formation of hostile groups of opinion, were in reality dangerous.” The ancient society, in other words, represents the fusing of religion and politics into a unitary state, leaving little elbowroom for the exercise of individual initiative.

“The victory of Christianity, “writes Fustel, “marks the end of ancient society. . . . It was not the domestic religion of any family, the national religion of any city, or of any race. It belonged neither to a caste nor to a corporation. From its first appearance it called to itself the whole human race.” Such a religion was bound to have momentous political consequences. Christianity created a new kind of individualism. After some fifteen centuries of its influence, “The Englishman .. ,” G. G. Coulton writes, “could carry his own atmosphere with him everywhere; he was self-sufficient avec sa Bible et son Anglaise.”

Encounter and Tension

The enlargement of the idea of God, from a family, urban or tribal deity into a Being with universal attributes, developed the kind of religious institution—a church—which must forever confront political institutions in an atmosphere of encounter and tension. The history of Europe is in large measure polarized between the two powers; sword and scepter, crown and miter, Empire and Papacy. Such a dualism is fatal to the idea of the monolithic state. The effect of this polarity is to decentralize power and disperse authority. There is no other way to deal with the root problem of politics—the governance of power. In addition to the division of authority between Empire and Papacy, power was further fragmentized among numerous kings, counts and lesser officials.

In practice, then, during much of the history of Europe, power got itself deadlocked; with the result that there was widespread practice of what might be called “interstitial liberties” by the people. Men were free in the spacious nooks, crannies and crevices of European society long before the law moved up to recognize specific freedoms. We had to wait till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for a developed philosophy of freedom.’

But just about as that occurred, Christianity as conscious faith lost its hold on men’s minds and loyalties, and we began to slide back toward a kind of pseudo-theocracy, or “totalitarian democracy,” which, in modern communism and fascism, amalgamates religion with politics and succeeds in debasing both. Politics, in the collectivized state, is a sheer power struggle with no concern for the ends of justice and freedom. Religion, in the collectivized state, must be forced into state service as an opiate of the people. Omnipotent government cannot abide a universal religion; it must construct its own domesticated variety of secularized religion.

The history of the Eastern Church and Empire is another story. Christopher Dawson writes: “The Byzantine Church became so closely bound up with the Byzantine Empire that it formed a single social organism which could not be divided without being destroyed. . . .” The Making of Europe, p. 57.

And thus we complete one of those enormous spirals of history. Religion, ethics and politics are once again wrapped up in one package, as they so largely were in Greek speculation. The individual Greek could hardly conceive of ends for his life outside his Polis. Aristotle’s remark that “man is a political animal” might be translated “man is a creature found only in city-states.”

Beyond Society

With modern men it is different. Our pilgrimage has brought us to a different turn on the spiral of history and we know that we have a potential that projects us beyond society. We have acquired a sophistication which will not permit us to be reabsorbed into our societies without inner tension and conflict. This is one result of our centuries of encounter with Christianity. We may be anti- or non-Christian but nevertheless its effects have leaked into our lives to shape the modern psyche in the region of the values and premises we take for granted. Our mood is mostly Christian, whatever creed or philosophy we profess.

This may sound like a call for a religious revival, and, in a sense, it is just that. But a mere revival of religion is not what we need, unless the religion which is revived understands that man exists for ends beyond society and beyond history Augustine’s two cities again. Nor will this sort of a revival be accomplished by mere exhortation. Perhaps it will not happen at all so long as men expect to wring utopian results out of any kind of political or economic action.

There are political implications in the concept of spiritual liberty; the practice of justice is urged upon us as a religious imperative, and the relevance of the Christian religion to American institutions has been spelled out many times. But where does economics fit in? At first glance, economics appears to deal solely with the provisioning of our material and creaturely needs and to have no religious significance. This is a misreading of the situation, I believe, so let me say a few words about economics.

Economic Activity Fundamental to Human Existence

Economic activity is fundamental to human existence. A Robinson Crusoe could get along without politicking, but if he did not work he would die of hunger and exposure. Emerging from economic activity are the concepts of rights to property and claims to service around which many political battles are fought. Economics, on the surface, deals with prices, production and the operations of the market as determined by the buying habits of every one of us.

In reality, however, economics is concerned with the conservation and stewardship of the earth’s scarce goods; human energy, time, material resources and natural forces. These goods-in-short-supply are our birthright as creatures of this planet. Use them wisely, as natural piety dictates and common sense confirms—that is providently and economically—and human wellbeing is the result. Ignore the realities in this area, as we have done in our time, and a host of evils follows. We might be able to live with economic ills if we didn’t think we could cure them with political nostrums, but our political efforts aimed at mopping up the consequences of economic mistakes head us in the direction of the Total State.

Every collectivist ideology—from the Welfare State idea to totalitarian communism—is strung on a framework of economic error. People are prisoners of their beliefs, and so long as they cherish a wrong understanding of economics they will be appealed to by one form of collectivism or another. But when they embrace sound economics, collectivism will cease to be a menace.

All creatures take the world pretty much as they find it, save man. Man alone has the gifts which enable him to entertain an idea and then transform his environment in accordance with it. He is equipped with needs which the world as it is cannot satisfy. Thus he is compelled to alter and rearrange the natural order by employing his energy on raw materials so as to put them into consumable form. Before he can do much of anything else, man must manufacture, grow, and transport. His creaturely needs man shares with the animals, but he alone employs economic means to satisfy them. This is an enormous leap upward, for by relying on the economic means man becomes so efficient at satisfying his bodily hungers that he gains a measure of independence from them. And when they are assuaged, he feels the tug of hungers no animal ever feels: for truth, for beauty, for meaning, for God.

A Means to All Our Ends

Whatever may be man’s capacities in the upper reaches of his nature—to think, dream, pray, or create—it is certain that he will attain to none of these unless he survives. And he cannot survive for long unless he engages in economic activity. At the lowest level economic action achieves merely economic ends: food, clothing, and shelter. But when these matters are efficiently in hand, economic action is a means to all our ends, not only to more refined economic goods but to the highest goods of the mind and spirit. Add flying buttresses and spires to four walls and a roof, and a mere shelter for the body develops into a cathedral to house the spirit of man.

There are two schools of thought which incline to dismiss economics, but neither has much excuse for being except as a protest against the errors and one sidedness of the other. On the one hand are the economic determinists, who argue as if man were merely a soulless appendage to his material needs. For them, the modes of production at any given time decree the nature of man’s institutions, his philosophies, and even his religions. Economics, under this dispensation, will lose its independence and become a mere tool of the State.

On the opposite side of the fence is a school of thought which appears to regard it as a cosmic calamity that each soul is sullied by connection with a body which must be fed and kept warm. Spiritual purity will not be attained until there is deliverance from this incubus; but until that happy day let us try to forget that man has creaturely needs which only the products of human labor can satisfy. Nothing in this scheme disposes men to pay any attention to economics! But there is a third way.

The mainstream of the Judeo-Christian tradition is characterized by a robust earthiness which makes it as alien to the materialism of the first of the above alternatives as to the disembodied spirituality of the second. Soul and body are not at war with each other, but are parts of our total human nature. It is the whole man who needs to be saved, not just the soul. Creaturely needs are, therefore, legitimate; and being legitimate they sanction the economic activities by which alone they can be met. They cannot be met by political action. The market economy presupposes a moral order, and it needs a framework of law to punish breaches of the rules. But granted this institutional framework economic activities are self-starting and internally regulated. Political action which goes deeper into economic life than maintaining the Rule of Law commits the injustice of giving economic advantage to some at the expense of others.

Christianity is a religion of world and life affirmation. It includes the dimension of eternity but it is not “other worldly.” It can therefore extend diplomatic recognition to the temporal order and respect the integrity of its political and economic rules while insisting at the same time that ultimate felicity is not to be attained by any conceivable improvement of that order. Utopia is not within its purview.

Contemporary social and scientific theory is now at least open-ended toward this idea, having shed the utopian expectancy of last century. Theories about people and things are no longer expected to hang together with the neatness of a proposition in Euclidean geometry. The rationalist may demand that life conform to his verbal formulations of it, but reality refuses to be thus coerced. Anyone can draw up a blueprint for an ideal society composed of bloodless abstractions who are expected to perform like puppets. But when we deal with man in all his concreteness, the rules must be tempered with artistry. In religious terminology, this artistry is the practice of the traditional religious virtues of mercy, compassion and charity.


Originally published in the February 1978 edition of The Freeman. Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.