This is a significant and learned book. Its basic concern is the theology of Augustine and its implications for citizens seeking to live responsibly in a liberal democratic society. Before I get to Eric Gregory's argument, a few words of explanation about Augustine and "liberalism" may be helpful.
As most readers of Modern Reformation know, Augustine of Hippo was a great theologian of the church in fourth- and fifth-century North Africa. Many aspects of Augustine's theology have been widely influential in subsequent Christian theology, including his convictions about the place of Christians in social and political life. In The City of God, perhaps the greatest work of Christian theology ever written, Augustine spoke of two cities: one consisting of those who love God above all; and the other consisting of those who love created things above all. Though these two cities have different destinies in the age to come, they intermingle in the present world. Augustine proposed that Christians, as citizens of the City of God, must learn to live in common with the citizens of the city of man here and now, even as they remain distinct from the world in their religious devotion to God and their expectation of the eternal heavenly kingdom.
This is where the question of Augustine's relevance for liberalism comes into play. Readers should not think of "liberalism" here in the sense of left-wing political or theological views, but in the classic sense of the term. Classical liberalism refers to the kind of society that America represents: a religiously pluralistic and tolerant society typically characterized by the rule of law, democratic election of political leaders, protection of individual human rights, a market economy, and freedom of speech. Many influential social thinkers of the past century have been "Augustinian liberals." Despite various differences with one another, these thinkers have found Augustine's theology helpful for defending the existence of a social-political world in which people of different religious faiths live together peacefully. They have also found in Augustine's ideas a helpful balance between the need for Christians to live responsibly as citizens and the need to have limited expectations about what political action can accomplish in a sinful world that will one day pass away.
Politics & the Order of Love is a delightful engagement with various aspects of Augustinian liberalism. Frankly, it is a book written primarily for scholars who already have some acquaintance with Augustinian theology and modern political theory. Among theological and political ethicists this work may become required reading, but the typical lay reader would probably find it very difficult. A short review such as this cannot do justice to the wide-ranging discussions of Gregory's book, but I offer a few comments about his argument in order to give readers a general idea about what it accomplishes.
Gregory has two basic goals in this book. First, he seeks to describe the various versions of Augustinian liberalism and the important critiques of it over the past century or so. Gregory leaves few stones unturned, and readers who wish to learn about the history and contours of Augustinian liberalism will find this book a tremendously helpful resource. Second, Gregory develops his own constructive version of an Augustinian liberalism. He does an admirable job in trying to account for the strengths and weaknesses of the various proponents and critics of Augustinian liberalism. The end result is a nuanced and balanced proposal that seeks to engage his interlocutors in a winsome and generous way. To put it (a little too) simply, Gregory interacts with Augustinian liberals who tend toward a pessimistic view of what politics can accomplish in a sinful world, with Augustinian anti-liberals who believe that Christians should look to the church as their community over against civil society, and with anti-Augustinian liberals who think that love is an inappropriate virtue for political life. In response to the concerns of them all, Gregory presents an Augustinian liberalism that upholds the importance of both love and justice in civil society and that affirms both the limits of politics in the face of sin and the beneficial prospects of politics as we seek the good of our neighbor in Christian love.
Gregory is to be commended for this stimulating study. I confess to being an Augustinian liberal of sorts: I believe that Augustinian and Reformation theology, following the teaching of Scripture, properly set forth a twofold vision of Christians as pilgrims in this world. On the one hand, Christians should recognize themselves as citizens of heaven who view political institutions as temporary and limited in scope-not to be identified with Christ's heavenly kingdom. On the other hand, Christians should not withdraw from this world but participate responsibly in political life, seeking to promote the (modest) social goods that politics appropriately pursues. Faithful readers of Modern Reformation will be familiar with these themes. Liberalism, as described above, is not a perfect political system and it will not usher in the Kingdom of God on earth; but it does, I believe, provide a relatively congenial context for Christians to worship freely and to pursue good in this world without putting their ultimate hope in political action. Gregory's work generally shares this perspective.
With the limited space remaining, I offer one brief critical comment. I greatly appreciate Gregory's Augustinian refusal to choose between love and justice in political life, as if they were mutually exclusive virtues. Seeking justice is itself a form of love, a pursuit of the good for our neighbor. But I do not believe that Gregory has given due account of the uniqueness of the fullness of Christian love as revealed in the New Testament. Christian love in its fullness is a love grounded in the love of God in giving his Son over to death for our redemption (e.g., see 1 John 3:16). As such, Christian love does not seek justice so much as it presupposes that justice has already been satisfied once-and-for-all when Christ satisfied the demands of God's law. Thus Christian love freely and unconditionally forgives but in no way violates justice in the process. This fullness of Christian love is in fact the standard of conduct in the life of the church and its discipline. But a love of unconditional forgiveness cannot serve as the standard for civil law nor as the goal of politics. Gregory very helpfully shows us an Augustinian way truly to love both God and neighbor. Difficult and important questions still remain, however, for Augustinian liberals seeking to understand the uniquely redemptive and forgiving character of Christian love and how we are to express that kind of love in the context of a political life whose chief task is to secure justice in a very sinful world (Rom. 13:3-4).