Politics and religion

Somehow, it seems like we live in a volatile, politicised age. Most of the people on my Twitter feed are academics, yet alongside nerdiness there is a lot of social commentary. My Facebook feed, with a more diverse cast, is similar. The rise to stardom of Jordan Peterson is tied up with hot-button political and social issues. Some days it feels like you can’t breathe without hearing about the follies of Donald Trump or the woes of Brexit or whatever new idea Doug Ford has come up with.

And everyone is digging their heels in. Everything is a zero-sum game. There is no higher ground, only winning. And if the ‘other side’ ever ‘wins’, that’s the end of the world or civilisation or whatever as we know it.

What is a Christian to do in the age of hyperbole?

First, political and social issues can’t take the place of true religion in our hearts. Yes, politics is a way to solve certain problems, but Donald Trump is neither saviour nor Satan.

Christianity has had a varying relationship with the powers of this world. Jesus was crucified by Romans after being handed over to death by the leaders of his own nation. Variously for the next two hundred or so years, Christians were sometimes persecuted and usually ignored. They were legally protected in the latter half of the third century to have that later stripped away in the final and Great Persecution in the early 300s under Diocletian.

And then, with Constantine throwing his lot in with the Christian god in 312, things started changing yet again. Not that the relationship Christian emperors was always rosy — consider the torture of Pope Liberius at the hands of Constantius, the multiple exiles of Athanasius, the judicial execution of Priscillian for heresy. Julian had a relatively mild repression of Christians, and then under Theodosius I Christianity started to really become the state religion. Meanwhile, because of its association with Roman Emperors, followers of Christianity in Persia were at times persecuted.

Becoming a state religion was not necessarily good for Christianity. David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox philosopher, thinks it was a bad thing. The story goes on, a story of Christian kings and governments, of collusion with secular powers, of being manipulated by them, of using them to repress religious opponents, of being repressed by them. Wherever there are Christians, they have some sort of relationship with government, whether persecuted under Communism and certain Islamic regimes or wielding great power under certain western regimes — but usually somewhere in between.

And we should not fear working within government, acknowledging that it is a means of working out certain aspects of discipleship — caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan (which is what true religion is about). Working with government can make for a more just society.

But that will never, ever, be perfect this side of eternity.

This means that we should keep calm and carry on, rather than freak out and throw our entire lot in with any of the demagogues or political parties and demonise our opponents.

We should love our political opponents. We should love them lavishly. And when our preferred parties fail to promote justice, or even promote injustice, we should pray for them, we should maybe even engage in normal political practices, like writing letters to MPs. But we shouldn’t get all apocalyptic or throw our hands up in despair.

It will never be perfect, because only God is perfect.

Politics isn’t religion. We shouldn’t treat it that way. Trump is (probably) not the Antichrist. Neither is Brexit the Apocalypse.

Saint of the Week: St. Hilary of Poitiers

Among western theologians of the patristic era, St. Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) is one of the important/major theologians of the Trinity, although his name does not ‘rank’ amongst the Famous Four (Doctors) — Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great — and he is less likely to be referenced than North Africans like Tertullian or Cyprian. Nevertheless, his work was read by Augustine as well as by Leo the Great who cites passages from St. Hilary’s De Trinitate in the patristic testimonia on two-nature Christology that he appended to Ep. 165 to Emperor Leo I (the ‘Second Tome’).

Hilary was born to well-to-do pagan parents and studied the Greek and Latin classics (as so many great men in history have done!), a study which in its breadth brought him to the Greek Old and New Testaments. It was the reading of the Scriptures themselves that converted St. Hilary, a testament to the power of God’s word written, enlivened by the Power of God’s Living Word to save.

He, his wife, and his daughter were baptised into the Catholic Church.

In the year 353, although his wife was still living, the people of Poitiers unanimously elected him bishop, demonstrating the quality of life exhibited by this saintly man. He immediately joined the controversy between Nicene and Arian theologians which was afoot at the time by excommunicating Saturninus, Bishop of the eminent see of Arles, with the aid of his fellow Gallic bishops.

Around 355, he wrote Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, pleading the case of the Nicenes against their Arian opponents who were persecuting the Pro-Nicenes. This letter was so unsuccessful that Constantius convened a synod in 356 that resulted in four years’ exile in Phrygia for Hilary.

Nevertheless, Hilary continued his anti-Arian work at breakneck pace, producing De fide orientalium in 358, a work addressed to the semi-Arians of Gaul that made clear the work of the Nicene theologians of the Greek East, seeking to bring about understanding in the minds of his theological opponents. In 359-360, he published his great work De Trinitate which brought to Latin theology many of the subtleties of Greek theological thought and laid the work for the great works of Latin theology to come in the later fourth and fifth centuries.

He made it home in 361, and spent a few years occupied with the Arians of his own diocese. Then in 364, he took on Auxentius of Milan, accusing him of being an Arian heretic. However, when face-to-face with Auxentius in Milan itself, he found that Auxentius answered all of his provocative questions adequately. He was kicked out of the city.

Around 365 he wrote a book denouncing Constantius, the emperor who exiled him and now dead, as a heretic and the Antichrist.

In his later years, he produced commentaries on the Psalms and on Matthew.

He also helped found a monastery in his diocese, giving assistance to the new ascetic movement as it grew in the West.

He died in 368.

St. Hilary of Poitiers is one of the many ancient theologians who serves as a reminder of the endless pursuit of holiness and truth. We must never give up. We must always seek to help others find the truth, even if the truth is inconvenient for them and this action on our part brings about much inconvenience for us. The truth is out there, and it matters, even if it brings us into controversy and conflict with the prevailing opinions of our times. Even if it leads us into exile.