If I had a wish-list for the church today, it would include a request for three saints of old to re-appear in a new guise. What the church needs today is a new Augustine of Hippo, a new Francis of Assisi, and a new Thomas More.
First, we need a new Augustine: St. Augustine was a rare genius, an intellectual, an artist, a brilliant person who, before his conversion to Christianity, looked upon Christianity as a superstition, a naivete, a gentle myth which, while it sustained his mother whom he loved, lacked the intellectual rigor to be real truth. His original attitude towards Christianity was one of condescension, he saw it as something beneath him, beneath his intellectual and artistic dignity. Slowly, through the very honesty of his own intellectual search, he came to see the truth of Christ. A day came when he dropped to his knees, committed himself to a truth that he had once despised, and then for the rest of his life put his great genius at its service.
What he did then was to marry Christian revelation to the experience, language, art, and intellectual life of his time. In terms of an image, he wrote a software for Christianity that has, for the most part, lasted for nearly 17 hundred years. Bill Gates may have given us Windows 98, but Augustine gave us Christianity and Common Sense 400 AD. In the Western world, this software has endured essentially intact down to this very day.
A new Augustine is called for today. What the church would most need is for some young, post-modern genius, an intellectual and an artist, to convert to Christianity and, right by the dynamics of his or her own conversion, show that the enlightenment and what follows from it is not what it espouses itself to be, namely, something intellectually beyond Christianity, but rather that it, in its best expressions, is simply a cousin in truth. We need too for that person to write a new software for Christianity. We need a new Augustine to again make Christianity an intellectual and aesthetic option for a culture that perceives it as lacking in both.
Then too we need a new Francis of Assisi: We need someone, man or woman, who can re-inflame the romantic imagination of Christianity. Francis was a saint, but he was more than that. He was also a man of rare imagination. He was someone who, like a great artist, could reshape the collective imagination. What Francis was able to do, among other things of course, was to give to the world a new and a more attractive vision of how Christianity is connected to nature, how a life of simplicity itself can be an aesthetic, and how the altruism which lies at the heart of Jesus’ message can be more attractively imaged and lived. What he said, did, and founded became, almost instantly, something analogous to a great work of art, it drew people to itself and inflamed their imaginations. Hundreds of years later, it is still doing the same thing. But his images no longer fire the imagination as powerfully as they once did. We need a new Francis, a post-modern man or woman, who can again inflame the romantic imagination of world in the same way that Francis once did. This is badly needed in an age that all but militates against simplicity, altruism, and nature. In a time of morally-authorized greed, where celebrity is divinity, and where restlessness and grandiosity have been taken to new levels, in a world of high-rise living, some great artist must again show us that what we really want is to live simply, altruistically, and in harmony with nature.
Finally, we need a new Thomas More: We need someone, woman or man, who is a top-level lawyer, a politician, a great humanist, a lover of the arts, fully immersed in the affairs of culture, and yet is able to combine all of these involvements, and such a love of the world, with a simple faith, an uncompromising integrity, human attractiveness, an enviable wit, and a capacity for moral martyrdom. This woman or man too, unlike Augustine and Francis, needs to be married, with children, not a monk, priest, or nun. We need models of non-celibate sanctity. Thomas More was driven by two great loves and two great loyalties – love of the world and loyalty to it and love of God and loyalty to God. His life – that of a great humanist and a great Christian – continually radiated both those loves and both those loyalties. In the end, of course, they weren’t equal. God was given a certain priority, but, even then, love for the world was never denigrated. He loved both, God and the world, solidly to the end, modelling what a healthy, full, joyfilled and faithfilled life can look like. We need a new Thomas More today.
And so the want-ads are out: Wanted – A new Augustine of Hippo. Wanted – A new Francis of Assisi. Wanted – A new Thomas More. Applications anyone?