The history of Western philosophy may be but a footnote on Plato, but the history of the whole of Western philosophy, theology, politics, science, art, and the all the relationships among them—is more likely a commentary on St. Augustine. Indeed, one cannot dwell upon the West’s religion and politics without using the structure of Augustine’s City of God, whether positively or negatively. It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that the man responsible for setting so much of the stage for the world of Western thought considered himself only a pilgrim on a journey through this world he so brilliantly established. And he considered the people most important to him, the Church, as on that same pilgrimage.
Since the twenty-first century is transitioning in a way considered catastrophic by many, Augustine’s thought, which arose from his own catastrophic milieu, is again timely, even more so than usual. In particular is the issue of “home” and the loyalty owed to it. That was at the root of the question of City of God, and in this stage of “liquid modernity” it is again a root of our questions. Due to the uprooting advances of technology, the continuing progress of political individuality, and the current antipathy towards anchors like heritage, nation, even sexuality and religion, is humanity now doomed to wander? Or can people, and specifically Christians, somehow dwell in the land in such a way that we learn to love that land and feel loyalty to it?
Karl Barth, a pillar of twentieth-century Evangelical theology who has offered more footnotes on Augustine than most, gives his answer to the question of home most succinctly in an unlikely passage. In a section of Church Dogmatics I.II where the topic is the Christian’s seeking after God, he mentions, seemingly out of place,
“If we are quite clear about His lordship and therefore His love on the one hand, and our own lovelessness and unworthiness of love on the other, it will strike us quite clearly that the autonomy of our existence has been taken from us. He has taken it to Himself; He has not taken away our existence from us. We have not ceased to be ourselves. We are still free. But in that existence He has left us without root or soil or country, ‘having transferred us to the Kingdom of the Son of his love’ (Col. 1.13), having Himself become our root and soil and country” (391).
According to Barth, Christians do not have the blessing of belonging to the place where they were born, for God has taken hold of us and “left us without root or soil or country.” That answer is quick and fair enough, especially in this current climate where many orthodox Christians do not at all feel at home in their surrounding culture.
What is more important, however, is what Barth does not give as the answer of home: the Church. It is not the Church that God has made “our root and soil and country,” but only His own Self. Even in the “home” of the local church, the denomination, and even the overarching ecumenical body of the Church, the Christian is still not settled. For he is “at home” with brothers and sisters who likewise have been uprooted, who likewise have been taken from their countries and homelands and placed into something—Someone—else. And so these fellow wanderers cannot of themselves offer any sense of place to their fellow believer. This Gemeinschaft (literally “a gathering of people,” Barth’s preferred descriptor for the Church) is one of people equally homeless, people who can only find their home in a God, not in each other. It is a tension that this community of love is built on the acknowledgment that the community cannot come from within itself, its own capabilities of love for each other, but only from a Love which comes from without, from above.
The gravity of this ecclesiology is that Christians do not have any confidence of physical manifestations of home—not even those felt in the bricks and mortars of the church or in the souls of fellow believers—but instead must go on a pilgrimage quite blind, hoping for things unseen and grasping for an invisible guidance from God apart from any representation in the temporal order. The Christian must then discern his “at-homeness” with God in relationship to his family, country, and even also his church; and the boundaries between each of these is fluid and ambiguous, as the “living God,” as Barth often labels him, is, in His mystery, always surprising, always radically authoritative, as the lord of the Christian heart in each of these contexts.
This may explain why, though grace and faith began in the Reformation as equals, faith has become, for better or worse, more key to the Evangelical spiritual journey than grace. It is simply needed to “feel at home” more so for Protestants than for other Christian traditions. The Evangelical is more homeless in this world, as he is a pilgrim depending on faith in something with no physical manifestations besides the cross on Golgotha and the empty tomb in the garden.
Barth’s answer to the question of home may, at first glance, seem an embodiment of modern displacement. Indeed, in defending Barth’s answer, one should not be so quick to dismiss this critique. For the unfortunate truth is that, in history, Christians (and especially Protestants) have often failed either tragically or comically at holding to God alone as their home in this world. Thinking they discarded the idolatries of the syncretistic old gods masquerading as saints and holidays and rites, Protestants often merely traded them for more insidious idolatries like autonomous reason, the ego, the nation, or the market. Modernity and all the heresies therein are profoundly Protestant. And at the heart of all of them is the effort of man to find his home in a place besides Jesus Christ—whether in the Volk, the individual, the nation-state, the ivory tower, or the market. In depending upon faith as the way to reach a sense of home, so often the only true Object of faith has been totally missed.
This utter failure however, cannot be used to debunk Barth’s ecclesiology. The fact that so many in Protestant-born modernity have apostatized in one way or another does no more than prove that, indeed, “narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life . . . ” (Matt. 7.14). The failure of modernity only reveals that a proper sense of Christian homelessness is all the more difficult, so easily can it be abandoned for other pursuits. Rather than include Barth’s ecclesiology in the common indictment against modernity, it would be well to simply understand the severity of the idea that God Himself has first uprooted us and then has set our new rooting in Himself.
A truly conservative response to Barth’s ecclesiology would not entail dismissal, but rather in remaining with the severity of this thought. Just as Heidegger’s stance towards Western philosophy—that, since Plato, Western thought has misinterpreted being and thus followed an implicit and eventual nihilism—did not entail rejection of the tradition, but rather a return to its beginning with an extensive exegetical appreciation, so too did Barth’s theology by no means entail abandonment of the tradition or orthodoxy but a deeper engagement and appreciation.
In thus following Barth, the reasoning behind his discussion of home in a section concerning the seeking after God may come to light. For, as pilgrims, home in this world lies in homelessness, albeit a special, holy homelessness. This is nothing other than the seeking after God, a grace that:
“frightens [Christians] away from themselves, deprives them of any root or soil or country in themselves, summons them to hold to the promise, to trust in Him, to boast in Him, to take guidance and counsel of Him and Him alone.”
Every Christian’s true, primordial home, then, lies precisely in seeking after God Himself, holding to His promise with trust (and even boasting!). Christians thus do have a sense of home, though one opposed to the traditional understanding. Whereas non-believers may find home or the lack thereof in their senses of place or their ideologies, Christians have a totally different orientation: Home is found through trust in God, faith in His sovereignty, and a constant seeking after His guidance in the Christian life.
How does this orientation of home which is found in homelessness, so far articulated in theological terms, relate to the political life? Barth was not oblivious to this question, and one cannot overlook his important caveat in the above passage: “He has not taken our existence away from us. We are still ourselves.” Christianity does not at all entail the destruction of human life. Having become uprooted, yet we still are ourselves. We are not God or gods—otherwise, we would find home in ourselves or in our churches. We are to live as pilgrims, but we are also to live as pilgrims, to dwell where we already are still “as ourselves,” only now having been taken by God “to Himself.” But if our true home is to be Jesus Christ, making us strangers in a world obviously not at home in Him—it did after all crucify Him—how are Christians to dwell in the places we were born, the nations under which God has subjected us?
In an interest for the particular rather than the abstract, I will be content to focus on my own case and also the case of many readers: America.
G.K. Chesterton so famously commented that America is a “nation with the soul of a church,” and much ink has already been spilled on such an insight. But a little more should be spilled in expositing that churchly soul of America as one of homelessness. Chesterton found the source of that strange soul in America’s creedalism, the fact that the web which historically held the country together is its belief in a general way of freedom and democracy enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But in this he erred, as he only found the symptom of the true churchly nature of this country. America’s creedalism is not the source, but a resulting corrective of the true source: homelessness. America is unique in that, historically, the American has no blood or soil as answer to the primordial question of home, as other civilizations do. This is the case even now for those whose families have spent generations in America.
True roots, even those of the stereotypically American “WASP,” did not spring in American soil. America is a nation made of people uprooted from somewhere else and looking forward to somewhere else. Whether in search of religious community (in the case of the Puritans, Quakers, Pilgrims and Maryland Catholics), freedom and land and economic opportunity (in the case of the early English, Dutch, and German settlers, usually in the lower colonies), or even the home which was taken from these former groups searching for land and freedom and religious practice (in the particularly tragic cases of Native Americans and African Americans), we are a country of the displaced, without roots or home but with a desire to find it. And this legacy has only continued into contemporaneity with the Poles, Germans, Italians, other Europeans, and the Chinese and East Asian immigrants of the nineteenth century, and even those coming in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from India, Mexico and Central America, and the Middle East. Even the modern liquidity that brings many to American shores shares an affinity with that rootlessness characteristic of America’s earliest people.
The father of the Baptist tradition in America, Roger Williams, may best exemplify the spiritual restlessness of the American heritage. He was fiercely independent, uncompromising, moralistic—and at the end of his life, he called himself only a “Seeker” rather than even a Baptist. If the American “national church” were to have saints, this nation of seekers would probably have that first Seeker as its patron.
The common portrait of Roger Williams exemplifies how this seeking can become distorted, however. Advertisements by liberal and progressive Baptists hold Williams up as the father of religious freedom and tolerance (which he was), but also the archetype of a tolerance that forgoes dogma and ignores difference while gazing at his navel and withering away (which he certainly was not). In fact, he was a rigorously Particular Baptist who relentlessly engaged in theological debate. His tolerance arose precisely from his relentless spiritual seeking and restlessness, which arose from a deeply theological, not pragmatic or even humanist, sense. But the spirit of our age, with its emphasis on political activism and liberative dissention, tends to liken him more to a caricature of Martin Luther King Jr., while he was probably closer to the person of Martin Luther. And this is an unfortunate confusion, for it sets the political as the ultimate seeking, while it is really only a derivation from the spiritual. The true Object of Williams’ seeking, as well as our American seeking, has been mistaken.
This mistake, made early and often in the country’s history, has the consequence that America has been a nation of heretics and land-grabbers and uncontented dream-chasers. In the essay “Writer and Region,” Wendell Berry effectively critiques American restlessness in his exposition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Berry demonstrates that Finn’s final unwillingness to join the community, to “get civilized,” and his desire rather to go “out West,” marks a failure in the conclusion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a sign of the immaturity of the American soul, its desire to always look further to the horizon rather than take root in the life of home.
If Mr. Berry’s critique is accepted superficially, however, the impulse which will result may ignore the authentic spiritual restlessness that is a genuine heritage of American culture. In doing so, no truly “conservative” thought will take root, as it will only be a lesson learned from European thought or elsewhere, and it will not have any appreciation of the founding restlessness which begat American thought. Any truly conservative American idea must appreciate this restlessness. And the greatest role of conservative thought in America may be to remind again and again that this restlessness is at its deepest a theological restlessness, the kind found in Scripture as articulated by Barth, a kind far different from mere economic anxiety or an immature manifest destiny.
This means that there is a good beyond simple necessity to the American sense of displacement: It is in their nature to ask the questions, Where is home? And how can we find it? Americans have been asking that question since the country’s pre-history. Now that the rest of the world is, thanks to modernity’s uprooting, arriving to that same question, perhaps America, rather than being the evil harbinger of this rootless world, is instead a people most experienced and best suited to dwell in the state of that questioning.
Is it any coincidence that the most individualistic country is also the most religious of the developed world? No, for America’s individualism is not the product of a stale Enlightenment but of an organic religious searching. Since they never had the comfort of blood and soil, Americans have had the opportunity of having seen clearly the choice of God as blood, root, soil and country perhaps better than most.
The difficulty now faced is that the answer to the question of home lies in remaining with the question. For the question itself is the dignity, not the plight, of the Christian, and especially the American Christian.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on January 13, 2018.