It is no small thing for a society to set aside its certainties, and its subsequent rehabilitation is a precarious process. The theatre of academia has not merely dismantled absolute Truth, but has negotiated away many of the traditions, values, texts, and linguistics which underpinned it. The great debunking of authoritative Scripture, of moral and spiritual ‘meta-narratives’, was root and branch, a purge of epic proportions which has divested most individuals, communities and public sphere of measures and manners of meaning. A rush back to certainty, a desire for Truth among the relativism, may not see that its reconstruction is perishingly difficult, and is only possible via repentance.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to discover that some subtle shifts are taking place in our society with regard to Truth. Having lived through the moral and political interregnum of postmodernism during the past twenty years, it appears that there is an increasing appetite for certainty, for verifiable facts, for bedrock ideas on which one can build one’s life. Political leaders and newspaper columnists appear to be leading the charge towards a world where we can say definitive things, where every claim and counter claim is not up for grabs. Postmodernism appears to have bled itself to death and, with neither funeral nor eulogy, we are moving towards a different way of thinking and believing. In the wake of a US election whose results depend on which side of the divide one stands on, and in the midst of a virus around which fake and dubious news is on the rise, people increasingly find themselves hungering for words which carry weight and merit on their own.
As Christians, having contended for absolute Truth throughout this period, it could be tempting to view this as an upturn, an outcome in favour of what we have been saying all along, and to rejoice that the best ideas of the best minds in the past half-generation have come up short. We might imagine that the move toward bedrock beliefs might open the doors of people’s hearts and homes to hear about the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life. In this post I want to probe and gently contest that idea, suggesting that the tidal change we are witnessing in our culture could damage the Truth at least as much as postmodernism has.
Between the Theatre and the Temple
Resorting to the writings of a fourth century African bishop might seem like a strange move when assessing our present cultural moment, but Augustine of Hippo’s thought is more relevant to twenty-first century dilemmas than we might first imagine. In City of God Augustine devotes extended and nuanced thought to the nature of idolatry in the Roman Empire, and its relationship to Christianity. His arguments are complex, sarcastic, and caustic, but they are dead on target in terms of the issues and demands of his day. In assessing the moral and spiritual life of pagan Roman practices Augustine casts aspersions on their viability as a way of seeing the world, showing the inconsistency that marked the pre-Christian Empire.
One of the points which Augustine repeats and constantly bolsters is the disconnect between civic religion, and the depictions of the gods in the theatre. In the theatre, in ‘scenic plays’, the gods are portrayed as being as deviant and defiled as human beings, with a casual promiscuity and propensity for violence which could have shocked even the most licentious of audiences. The theatre was the realm where fantasies could run riot, where deities could ride roughshod, where the full implications of the pantheon could be unashamedly placed on display. When it came to the temple, however, to the civic religion which was linked to the ‘real’ life of the Empire, then things were more morally tempered and politically tethered. The riot of the theatre was restrained by the social centrality of the temple, with the excesses airbrushed, and the dignity of the gods adulated.
Augustine exploits this disparity to powerful effect, showing that the descent into chaos which the stage facilitated was in no way mirrored by the hard reality of political and civil necessity. The foment of the theatre could not be allowed to transgress into concrete reality, a fact which excluded actors from holding public office. The theatre was the arena for flights of fancy and sin’s full tyranny, but once it imperilled the true social order, its boundaries were fixed and policed.