Between Sweetness and Nausea
By Timothy George
This article was originally presented as the commencement address at The Geneva School, Winter Park, Florida, on May 23, 2014.
A few years ago I learned a new word. I wonder if you know it—ecotone? An ecotone is where two ecospheres come together—where they meet and merge into one another. The Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico—that is an ecotone. Or imagine flying over the plains out West, and then you look up and there are the Rocky Mountains. Where the plains meet the mountains, where the current meets the tide—that is an ecotone. An ecotone is always a place that is fragile, unstable, shifting, fluid, risky, filled with danger and yet, at the same time, it is a place that is incredibly fertile, where new life is spawned and new hopes are born.
If I can extrapolate from geography to history, I want to say that you, graduates, are living in a great ecotone yourselves—the third great ecotonic moment in the history of Christian civilization. The first one took place in a.d. 410 with the fall of Rome. Nobody ever thought Rome would fall. Roma Aeterna (“eternal Rome”) was inscribed on her coins, and yet in 410 a barbarian chieftain—we would call him a terrorist today—named Alaric sacked Rome. Alaric and his army invaded Rome, destroyed the city, burned the temples, and left it in devastation. This event marked the end of classical antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The second great historic ecotone took place about a thousand years later and involved the fall of another great city—Constantinople. The year was 1453. The Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Mehmed II, destroyed and sacked Constantinople, inaugurating a conflict between Christianity and Islam that continues to our present moment.
We are now living in the third great ecotone. It is symbolized by the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. I know that most of you were only five or six years old when that happened. If any of you have a memory of it, it is likely a vague memory, but you have heard a lot about it. It marks the transition from modernity to postmodernity.
What is postmodernity? It is an era that defies definition and yet has distinctive traits—the privileging of pleasure over identity, and the downplaying of rational truth claims supported by logical argument. Postmodernism discounts any overarching metanarrative in favor of local, privatized stories. It is a world marked by the visual, the emotional, the immediate, the dramatic, the disconnected, and the disengaged. This is your world! It is the age of Twitter and twerking, of selfies and MTV. This is your world!
As my friend Chuck Colson asked in a book published several years before he died, “How now shall we live?” I think we get some guidance if we look back to that first great ecotonic transition, the end of classical antiquity and the beginning of the medieval era, especially to the figure of Aurelius Augustine—St. Augustine.
First of all, he was not born a saint. His father Patricius was a pagan, and his mother Monica was a Christian. He went off to study in Carthage, the great metropolitan center of North Africa. There he excelled in the field of rhetoric. Rhetoric, in Augustine’s day, was a combination of what we would call today law, politics, theater, and media—all aimed at the ability to persuade with eloquence and power.
At the same time, he was drawn away by his own desires and self-absorption. He says in the Confessions, “I traveled very far from you, and you did not stop me. I was tossed about and spilt, scattered and boiled dry in my fornications. And you were silent” (II. i (I)). Augustine was interested in three things—there are only three things in life to which people with no ultimate purpose give themselves—money, sex, and power; or gold, glands, and glory. Those were the three things to which Augustine gave himself. But then he came across a line in a now lost treatise of Cicero called Hortensius. That one line said something like this, “Riches, gold, fame are not the telos of life” (III. iv (VII)). That sentence turned his life around.
Did you ever see Jean Anouilh’s play about Thomas à Becket? He was an archbishop of Canterbury in the Middle Ages. But he was really a political figure more than a religious one. He worked as a crony in the court of King Henry II of England. There comes a point in the play when Becket stands on the stage, disrobed of all of his official regalia, and looks out into the darkness of the theater and says, “Oh God, there must be more!” Augustine realized this too and it set him on a restless journey through many philosophies, superstitions, and religious worldviews. At last, sitting in a garden, he opened the Bible to Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:11-14) and read, “It is high time for you to awake out of sleep. Your salvation is nearer than you suppose.” In a flood of tears, he realized that the quest of his life for meaning and purpose had led to naught. It was a moment of surrender and new life in Jesus Christ.
We can speak about St. Augustine because of that event. But being a Christian, or even a saint, does not make life automatically easier. When Alaric and his army were sacking Rome, Augustine was living as a bishop in North Africa. During this time, he began to write his best-known treatise, The City of God, in response to a question asked by those who were fleeing Rome, “How now shall we live in this kind of crumbling world?”
Augustine urged the Christians of his day to avoid two extremes, two alternatives to which they and we are tempted to subscribe in our own crumbling world. One extreme is utopianism: the mistake of thinking that we as human beings, in our own power and by our own skill, can solve the problems in our world and in our society and thereby bring about the kingdom of God on earth. This was the basic error of both Marxism and nineteenth-century liberalism. It is the utopian dream that perfection is in our grasp—and the fantasy of thinking we can make it on our own. Instead, Augustine offered a complex moral map that creates space for loyalty, love, and care in this fragile world. Jean Bethke Elshtain called this “a chastened form of civic virtue.” God has put you in this world—this tottering world—and you are to love it as Jesus loved it, be engaged in it as he would have you be, and exercise a chastened form of civic virtue.
There is another extreme—and maybe for your generation it is the more urgent temptation: It is the lure of cynicism. We become jaded about our world, about ourselves, and about God. It creeps up on us as we withdraw into our own self-contained circle of contentment. It can happen in a pious holy huddle as well as at a secular skeptics club. Ultimately cynicism will destroy your soul. Avoid it, flee from it!
How can we avoid the misplaced hope of utopianism on the one hand, and contemptuous cynicism on the other? I think we can learn a lesson from two other figures in Christian history. One is St. Francis of Assisi, a remarkable Christian of the Middle Ages. One day as he was riding back into his hometown, he saw a leper by the side of the road. He reached out to embrace this despised man and extended to him the hand of comfort. The leper reached up and grabbed Francis and gave him a kiss. It was the kiss of peace. Francis said that while embracing this filthy, diseased outcast he was overcome by a dual sensation—on the one hand an overwhelming sense of sweetness and wellbeing and on the other hand nausea.
You are going to live your life, graduates, on the thin line between sweetness and nausea. To the extent your faith is all sweetness—being a happy, clappy Christian, for whom everything is coming up roses—you will really have nothing more than shallow sentimentality. It will not see you through the dark nights or lonely hours. On the other hand, if all you experience is nauseating disgust—and there is much in our world today to provoke this response—then you will never be able to reach out in Jesus’ name and say a healing word or give a hopeful response.
The other person I want to mention is C.S. Lewis. On October 22, 1939, he preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. Less than two months earlier Hitler had invaded Poland, and Britain was about to face the horrible onslaught of the Nazi attack known as the Battle of Britain. This is what C.S. Lewis told the assembled students:
It may seem odd for us to carry on classes, to go about our academic routine in the midst of a great war. What is the use of beginning when there is so little chance of finishing? How can we study Latin, geography, algebra in a time like this? Aren’t we just fiddling while Rome burns?
This impending war has taught us some important things. Life is short. The world is fragile. All of us are vulnerable, but we are here because this is our calling. Our lives are rooted not only in time, but also in eternity, and the life of learning, humbly offered to God, is its own reward. It is one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty, which we shall hereafter enjoy in heaven, and which we are called to display even now amidst the brokenness all around us.
Graduates, this is your calling too. Amidst the brokenness all around us, and sometimes even within us, we are summoned today to be faithful to God’s calling. We are to be steadfast, persevering in discipleship so as to bear witness to the beauty, the light, and the divine reality that we shall forever enjoy in heaven. We are called to do this in a culture that seems, at times, just like Augustine’s—a fragile world beset by dangers we cannot predict. You will not do this perfectly—you will fail, as all human beings do—but reach out and claim the promise of God’s forgiveness. Reach out and accept the gift of a new beginning, the stewardship of starting all over again.
As Augustine thought about the world, the culture, and the civic institutions, like an old man tottering and about ready to die, he said:
Are you surprised that the world is losing its grip? That the world is grown old? Don’t hold onto the old man, the world; don’t refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: “The world is passing away; the world is losing its grip; the world is short of breath. Don’t fear, your youth shall be renewed as an eagle.”
Remember that, class of 2014. Now go out and crash in the gates of hell!
Published at Firstthings.com, 8.25.14
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.