Discover more from The Path Before Us, with Matthew Lee Anderson
#492: Fraternal Correction and the Culture Wars
Augustine would like a word.
MLA: Preorder the book already, people. Pretty, pretty please?
What posture should Christians have toward a hostile world? In the past year, I have started to wonder whether the Christian logic of ‘fraternal correction’ might be an underdeveloped resource for thinking through the answer to this question. While there are certain advantages to describing the shape of the Christian witness in terms of virtues—“winsome!” “courageous!” “conviction!”—those types of answers often suffer from two discrete flaws: insofar as they are virtues they are difficult to disagree with, and they are too underspecified to be of much use.
It might be the case that thinking about “fraternal correction” offers no more specific guidance. But it at least puts a discrete question before us about what we owe to another that framing our posture through virtues does not. While we ought be courageous, we still have to know what we should say to whom, and identify what context in which we ought say it. The notion of “courage” answers none of those questions; fraternal correction might.
We can start with this: both Augustine and Aquinas make it clear that we ought not always seek to correct others for their wrongdoing. In Book 1 of City of God, Augustine notes that those who refrain from “reproof and correction of ill-doers” because they are looking “for a suitable occasion, or because he fears that this will make them worse, or fears that they will hinder the instruction of others, who are weak, in a good and godly way of life, and that they will oppress them and turn them away from the faith,” would seem to be avoiding such correction not from “self-interest but by counsels of charity.” Those are an astonishing set of criteria for when we ought not tell someone they are engaging in bad conduct, many of which might be invoked within our own political context. It is reasonable to expect that fraternal correction in some cases would make those outside the faith worse, or induce them to oppress weak believers and so prompt them to leave the faith.
Yet while Augustine acknowledges the possibility of these cases, he seems especially concerned with those who would abstain from fraternally correcting others because people are “concerned to avoid giving offense to them,” and because they might “harm themselves in respect of things which may be rightly and innocently enjoyed by good men…” That is, fraternal correction might be appropriately abstained when the good of the wrongdoer or third parties is at stake—but if one’s own good is primarily at stake, then abstaining from fraternal correction is likely to be a sign of indulgence and cowardice. Augustine notes that even those who are celibate and live frugally are often “fearful of attacks by the wicked upon their reputation and their safety, and so refrain from reproaches.” Such a fear is due to “weakness,” and a delight in “flattery and popularity and because they dread the judgment of the mob and the torture of death of the body.”
There are two different reasons for abstaining from fraternal correction, then, one of which is motivated by charity and the other of which is animated by self-interest. How can we know when we are doing so out of charity?
I take it that Augustine points to how we receive the chastisement of God through the “temporal calamities” of the loss of peace, prosperity, and comfort as an indicator. Rome had just been sacked and Christians and pagans alike are in turmoil over it. Augustine notes that when such disasters befall a community, the “good and bad are chastised together, not because both alike live evil lives, but because both alike, though not in the same degree, love this eternal life.” The good ought to have “despised” this worldly life, though, such that they meet its loss with equanimity and peace. (As Augustine writes elsewhere, the time for Christians to fear is when things are going well, not when they are going badly.) In despising the goods of this temporal life, Christians point others to the eternal life and call them to repentance—and, if they do not, then Christians are empowered to bear with them as “Christians should love their enemies, since in this life it is always uncertain whether or not they are likely to experience a change of heart.”
There is a deep spirituality of self-denial and ascesis here, which underwrites Augustine’s account of fraternal correction. The power of fraternal correction comes from Christians who point the lost and wayward toward our eternal home—but that can only be done effectively if Christians themselves love our eternal home, which we learn and discover about ourselves through the fire and testing of losing the temporal goods that we are tempted to believe are the source of our joy and happiness. The infliction of temporal suffering, for Augustine, should be welcomed as a positive good and benefit by Christians, as it tests us so that a man may learn “the degree of disinterested devotion that he offers to God.” Without embracing such testing with joy, without seeing the correction of God as a benefit, without loving the chastening of the Father who corrects His sons (Hebrews 12:6-11), our fraternal correction and admonitions cannot sound like good news and will not bear the power of the Word of God, a power that saves and brings life to even the most hardened and unregenerate of sinners—as we Christians all once were at some point.
Around the Web
I have some qualms about how Purdue is approaching the liberal arts with their Cornerstone program, but it’s hard to be too dour about places that are making students Really Care about important texts and big questions.
I have MANY thoughts about Donald Trump’s move toward the center of America on abortion. One major question for me about Trump’s 2016 was the extent to which his commitment about pro-life judges actually figured into the electorate’s actual voting reasons, beyond the headlines and goodwill it gave him among ardent evangelicals and pro-lifers. Pro-life convictions clearly matter at the ballot box for a large segment of voters—but it is not so important, I think, that it will make or break a politician in the Republican primary (see Romney, Mitt). If the pro-life movement comes out hard against Trump’s position and he wins anyway, then their hold on the Republican Party is significantly weakened. It is likely that Trump has overreached here and will suffer some significant cost for his position in the primary. But it also seems plausible to me that Trump is not wrong about what the general electorate will accept vis a vis federal bans at the moment, and if he gets through the primary the pro-life movement will face a genuine crisis of whether to grab what it can with respect to federal legislation or continue to seek more advantageous legislation for its cause. Ben Domenech thinks it is a foolish gamble—that will work!
The Penultimate Word
“Children, it is the last hour. In this reading [John] is addressing children, so that they may grow up quickly, because it is the last hour. Bodily age is not within the will’s capacity. Hence, no one grows up in terms of the flesh when he wills, just as no one is born when he wills. But when there is a birth in the will, then there is also a growing up in the will. No one is born of water and the Spirit unless he wills it. If he wills it, then, he grows; if he wills it, he diminishes. What is growing? Progressing. What is diminishing? Regressing. Let whoever knows that he has been born be aware that he is a child and an infant; let him eagerly open his mouth to his mother’s breasts, and he will grow quickly. Now, his mother is the Church and her breasts are the two testaments of the divine scriptures. From them is sucked the milk of all the sacraments that are performed in time for the sake of our eternal salvation so that, having been nursed and strengthened, he may arrive at the food that must be eaten, which is: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Jn 1:1). Our milk is the humble Christ: our food is the very same Christ, equal to the Father. He nurses you with milk so that he may feed you with bread, for to touch Jesus spiritually with the heart is to understand that he is equal to the Father.” — Augustine
The Path Before Us, with Matthew Lee Anderson is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.