Saturday, February 27, 2010

Literary Neanderthals (and you thought they were stupid!)

One of the online journals I read fairly regularly is MercatorNet, a site that features articles on a variety of subjects, whose common link is attention to the inherent dignity of the human person. The subjects of the articles are taken from news headlines, and one of the aims of MercatorNet's editorial policy is to take on polemically the assumptions embedded in many offerings put out by "objective" journalistic media. Or, as the MercatorNet editorial staff put it,
We're proud to have enemies and we attack them repeatedly by confronting them with evidence. Here they are: moral relativism, scientism, crass commercialism, utilitarianism, materialism -- in short, any ism which reduces persons to ciphers and treats them as soulless machines. We delight in dissecting media cliches.
They actively invite comments on their articles and encourage discussion among readers who may or may not agree with the views expressed. Since comments are moderated, the resulting discussion is always civil in tone, although not necessarily univocal. (By the way, the same publisher also has an online journal that focuses on bioethical issues: BioEdge: bioethics news from around the world.

Reconstruction of
Neanderthal child
I mention this partly to encourage others to read MercatorNet online, and partly to draw attention to a recent piece discussing a Harvard professor's proposal that we begin cloning Neanderthals. The view of the professor, genome researcher George Church, is that of most proponents of scientism: "If we can do something [e.g., clone Neanderthals], we are ethically compelled to do it if it will yield new knowledge." This is just another permutation of the old "Might makes right" argument, which most thinking people would consider suspect, if not plain wrong. For this kind of scientist, however, the only moral imperative is to seek knowledge (scientia). But while knowledge itself may be morally neutral, the means by which we seek it, and the uses to which we put it, are not. (I seem to recall a story about a couple of early humans -- even before the Neanderthals! -- who sought some knowledge for self-serving motives, which turned out not to be good for themselves or for anyone else ever since.)

It's quite an amazing thing that scientists have been able to reconstruct the genetic sequence of members of a long-extinct branch of the human race, and I can well understand the burning curiosity such a development must excite in the imaginations of many modern people. However, as Michael Cook, author of the MercatorNet article, points out, the global scientific community has already acknowledged that human cloning is unethical and should be off limits; that general rule should apply as much to ancient strains of the human race as it does to those of us living today. Read the article for Cook's analysis of why cloning Neanderthals would be unethical, and and his answer to the arguments Church uses to try to head off objections.

All of this made me think about some literary treatments of questions that Michael Cook raises, such as: what were Neanderthals like? why did they die out while we (homo sapiens) survived and throve? Is homo sapiens really superior and, if so, in what way? What would the world be like if we suddenly found cloned Neanderthals among us? Would it be good for us? Good for the Neanderthals? And, if you think about it, it would be strange indeed if we did not try to imagine what these ancient human cousins were like, and how the world might be different today if they had survived (or if they should return through the miracles of modern genetics). These questions have already been explored to some extent in modern fiction (no, I'm not talking about Clan of the Cave Bear or suchlike). Two quite different novelists came to mind as I read the MercatorNet article: William Golding and Jasper Fforde.

William Golding's The Inheritors: Were Neanderthals pre-lapsarian humans?

The Inheritors
William Golding The Inheritors cover
Golding was morally serious novelist, while Fforde's novels are light-hearted and whimsical, but they both manage to deal imaginatively with some of the moral and ethical questions about our relationship to the Neanderthals. It has been many years since I read William Golding's The Inheritors (he is better known for Lord of the Flies), but it made a big impression on me at the time and I've been intending to re-read it ever since. As I recall, the story follows a small Neanderthal family as they live their simple but happy lives, until they meet a race of more intellectually gifted men. I won't spoil the story for you by telling you what happens, except to say that the Neanderthals were very sweet and appealing, while the "superior" race they met struck me as quite demonic, almost as if Golding intended the Neanderthals to represent unfallen humanity and homo sapiens as the fallen race of Man (ironically, the more advanced humans in the novel view the Neanderthals as demons). That realization struck me rather hard at the time. I've read a few more of Golding's novels since then and have found that fallen human nature is one of the most pervasive themes found in them. While I can't entirely trust my 30-year-old memory of the novel, I believe that it pretty effectively turns on its head the materialist Darwinian assumption that whatever species survives is in some fundamental way "superior" to whatever has already suffered extinction;  at least, the novel provokies the reader to question what equivalence (if any) there may be between biological and moral "superiority."

Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book: Neanderthals would not thank us for their return

Jasper Fforde's novels are pure fun, but that doesn't mean he doesn't (at least obliquely) draw his readers' attention to some of the more problematic trajectories of modern culture. He does this primarily by the means satirists have always used -- drawing ridiculously distorted pictures of the world and then daring readers to recognize themselves in the caricature. Successful satire gets the reader first to laugh at the ridiculous and then, almost simultaneously, to feel a pang of discomfort as he realizes how close to home it strikes. In Fforde's well-known Thursday Next series of novels he satirizes, among other things, contemporary culture's increasing disregard of literature, as well as its penchant for exploiting each new technological achievement quite mindlessly, without concern for the consequences -- for instance, selling home genetic reproduction kits, by which ordinary consumers can create for themselves pets from now-extinct species (Thursday herself has a pet dodo from an early model kit -- the poor critter has no wings or feathers, but Thursday keeps it warm by knitting it cozies to wear). Among the cloned species are Neanderthals -- developed in a government program, I believe, for experimental purposes, which had to be abandoned when the scientists realized that they had cloned people, not simply "medical test vessels." As our heroine, Thursday Next, tells it:
The neanderthal experiment was simultaneously the high and low point of the genetic revolution. Successful in that a long-dead cousin of Homo sapien [sic] was brought back from extinction, yet a failure in that the scientists, so happy to gaze upon their experiments from their ever lofty ivory towers, had not seen so far as to consider the social implications that a new species of man might command in a world unvisited by their like for over 30 millennia. It was little surprise that so many neanderthals felt confused and unprepared for the pressures of modern life. It was Homo sapiens at his least sapient. (Lost in a Good Book, ch. 4)
The neanderthal characters in the novel are sensitive, thoughtful (sometimes to the point of being morose), unimpressed by the complications of modern life, and melancholy over being brought into a world where they don't really belong, and where they are not legally considered to be human, although they are eventually allowed to take employment in jobs that most modern humans think beneath them. In this fictional world -- as would likely be the case in our real world, should we ever successfully clone one -- male Neanderthals are infertile, so there are no Neanderthal families, a real tragedy since they are very clannish by nature.

This last is a serious point that Michael Cook raises in his MercatorNet article when he analyzes why it would be unethical to clone Neanderthals:
The ultimate argument against cloning Neanderthals is that it violates human dignity to create a being outside of the loving circle of a family. The first right of a human being is to be loved for who he or she is, not as a product or scientific experiment. A cloned Neanderthal would be as close as possible to synthetic humanity as you can imagine. Part of her would be chimpanzee [because the proposed method would involve using a chimp ovum]; the rest would be a patchwork quilt of Neanderthal DNA sequenced from the bones of dozens of forebears who may have lived thousands of years apart, scattered across Europe. Everyone involved in her conception and birth would want to exploit her; none of them would cherish her. She would enter the world as a circus freak.
If this is true, isn’t there something really troubling about the mindset of scientists who are willing to acquiesce in cloning a Neanderthal? They ignore the humanity of the being they propose to create, viewing it merely as an instrument for their own curiosity or utility. For them, a human being is reduced to his genetic code or to anatomical novelties. Of course, it is just a thought experiment, but an unsettling one. Because what it reveals is the persistent capacity of science for dehumanisation.
This last point, I think, is what troubles me most about researcher Church's proposal to create a Neanderthal clone -- he views as an ethical imperative a project which, ultimately, is as unethical as it could possibly be. Science reduces human beings to abstractions, and it's hard to empathize with an abstraction. Imaginative literature, however, can do what science never will -- it humanizes the abstractions by turning them back into concrete individuals (even if imaginary ones) whose thoughts we hear, through whose eyes we can see the world. We can't help but feel the desolation of Golding's Neanderthal protagonist Lok after the last of his family has been killed by the new race of homo sapiens or that of Fforde's Neanderthal, doomed to a short, lonely life among people who don't even respect him as a human being. By getting us to engage imaginatively with possible worlds and situations, literature can help us to consider the consequences of our choices without actually putting anyone at risk. We can indulge our curiosity without allowing it to take us into realms where we should not wander. In this way, it is superior to science.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Conversion stories in the Christian Tradition

St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo
St Benedict restores life
to a young monk
Various things the last couple of weeks have kept me from much reading or writing. (Okay, I read a few Janet Evanovich novels about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter after she loses her job as lingerie buyer at a local department store -- I'm all for career flexibility, but have decided not to follow her example.) This being Lent, I scrounged around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!), and found a copy of the second book of St Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and a number of miracles worked through him. This is an edition from Macmillan's Library of Liberal Arts series, translation and introduction by Myra L. Uhlfelder, which I picked up a few months ago from Half Price Books for 98 cents.

Hagiography -- i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons -- was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and of course the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us and to firsthand accounts of personal experience with the trials and triumphs of Christian life. One of the key differences between the Old & New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events they describe transpired, but the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are based on eye witness accounts that had been shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, much of their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St Paul's personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that from the very beginning, personal accounts of God's action and intervention in men's lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition.

St Augustine of Hippo understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God's providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine (who has constantly addressed his narrative to God) brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God:
What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men's lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves? (X. iii.3)
This, of course, was one of the most important reasons Augustine wrote the Confessions -- to get others to see in his own story something that resonated with their own experience, and to learn, perhaps, a lesson similar to the one he has learned. He wants others to recognize what God has wrought in his life, seeing "not what I once was but what I now am," recognizing his former faults and the way God's grace has amended them:
Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief [...] but whether they see good or ill still love me. To such shall I show myself: let their breath come faster for my good deeds: let them sigh for my ill. (X.iv.5)
Perhaps what inspired Augustine to take on such a project was the fact that he himself found encouragement to turn from his sinful ways in the conversion stories of others. Book VIII of the Confessions relates a series of episodes in which the example of others inched him step by step closer to the brink of conversion. By this point in his account, Augustine has overcome all of his intellectual scruples and has become convinced of the truth of Christianity, but he hesitates to convert because he knows that the Christian life will demand a total commitment on his part. (Sadly, few Christians today appreciate this!) Doubting that he will be able to overcome his lustful nature, Augustine finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: he wishes to take up the Christian life whole-heartedly, living a celibate life of devotion dedicated entirely to God, but his inability to control his sexual urges suggests that he should marry, which would mean that much of his time and attention would be consumed in providing for his family. Seeking advice on how to overcome this dilemma, he visits a wise old priest, Simplicianus.

Rather than giving him straightforward advice, Simplicianus chooses to encourage Augustine by telling him the story of the conversion of one Victorinus. He probably chose Victorinus because he had a lot in common with Augustine: both were prominent teachers of rhetoric, "deeply learned, trained in all the liberal sciences," who came to accept the truth of the Christian faith but who hesitated to enter the Church formally. In the case of Victorinus, his hesitation seems to be due to his prominence among the pagan "movers and shakers" of Milan, whom he apparently did not wish to offend by a public profession of Christian faith. Repeatedly, when Simplicianus told him, "I'll believe you are a Christian when I see you in church," Victorinus would parry by asking facetiously, "So is it walls that make a Christian?". However, Simplicianus was honest enough that when, through his careful reading and study of Scripture, he became "afraid that Christ might deny him before his angels if he were afraid to confess Christ before men," he promptly requested formal instruction in the Faith and shortly thereafter made public profession of faith and was baptised. Afterward, when it became illegal f\under Emperor Julian (the Apostate) for Christians to teach rhetoric and literature, Victorinus quite willingly abandoned his career.

Saint Augustine reading
Augustine was greatly encouraged by this testimony and "was on fire to imitate him." But he did not immediately do so he attributed because what was holding him back was not simply pride (which had caused Victorinus' hesitation) but a divided will, a sinful habit of the flesh that he was not eager to break -- we might say, "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak." As Augustine puts it:
The new will which I now began to have [to love God] was not yet strong enough to overcome that earlier will [to indulge his lust] rooted deep through the years. My two wills, one old, one new, on carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul. (VIII.v.10)
Not long after his visit to Simplicianus, however, Augustine would get further encouragement from a personal account told him by an old friend, Ponticianus, which would give him hope that God would be able to help him overcome his struggle against his lustful habits. That, however, is a story for another day.

Meanwhile, we might consider the extent to which these stories from the Confessions resonate with our own experience. How many of us have not known (or been!) someone who claimed that (s)he was a Christian but was unwilling -- because of laziness or what "other people" might think -- to make any public show of it? Shouldn't we, like Simplicianus, doubt the sincerity of such a claim? (Isn't Christianity more than merely a private opinion?) And haven't we all, from time to time, made Augustine's mistake of thinking that it is up to us, on our own, to overcome our bad habits and sinful proclivities through a force of will ("mind over matter")? The Augustine who wrote the Confessions -- many years a Christian and now a bishop -- can recognize how God was working in his life, although his younger, unregenerate self remained blind to those operations. He "now" knows that Grace can work even through an obstinate will, and that only God's grace would allow him to overcome his old, carnal will.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Planet Narnia: Tutelary Deities

Last week when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, I visited Ward's website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:
Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog.  I'm delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.

Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired.  One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word 'red herring' with respect to Aslan as Christ.  Sure, it's a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles.  But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than 'mere' Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.

But that's a small point.  Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging.  Thank you!

With kind regards,

I can see that my use of the term "red herring" was confusing, so I've revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn't mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that's the usual meaning of "red herring"). It seems quite clear to me -- as I think it will to almost any reader -- that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan's actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.

medieval engraving of Roman god Jupiter
For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I'll explain a little bit about Ward's thesis. What Ward calls his "Eureka moment" occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis's poem, "The Planets," which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): "winter passed / And guilt forgiven." Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:
Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train. (Planet Narnia, 251)
That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis's Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).

Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, "Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer." Here's a longer answer: Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages -- and well through the period of the Renaissance -- was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana's planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.

medieval conception of the cosmos
Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to find the ancient pagan gods who had given their names to the heavenly bodies to be transformed into personifications, or allegories, of the one true God who reigns over all Creation. Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God's nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.

The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its "donegality"). Not only does the planet in question "flavor" the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, such that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Comment on Gilson' s Foreward to City of God

Aside from agreeing with Gilson’s general thesis -- that we wouldn't have the modern notion that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine's City of God --  I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth (according to the secular or the Christian model) – in fact, we often seem to be going in quite the opposite direction! – it seems that in the present day, when the secular world presents itself more and more as being necessarily antagonistic toward the Christian faith than perhaps at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with – or at least collaborate with – the Catholic Church, to make common cause toward building a just society consonant with (not striving against) Christian principles. (In fact we see, more and more, that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used that term “Catholic,” he meant not only "that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope)," but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)” – i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness, and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any Christian individual or corporate body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church's teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that "separated brethren" may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don't say this polemically -- that is, I'm not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it, because Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that "If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society ("one world, one Church") can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-unified with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism, but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).

Sixty years after Gilson wrote his essay, the gulf between the Christian and the secular mindsets has become only more pronounced, much deeper and wider than it was only a few decades ago, to the point that no one denies the profound differences between the two. One evidence of this is the increasing stridency of self-proclaimed atheists. In the mid-20th century, public atheists could still cheerfully make common cause with religious believers, because they could recognize that the two shared many ideas about the common good; this seems no longer to be true. Public atheists today (notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) argue that religious believers are not only wrong (mistaken) but downright evil, and must be eradicated (I believe it was Dawkins who recently suggested that inculcating religious faith in one's children should be considered child abuse).
At any rate, there seems to be plenty of evidence that today, more than ever, Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, is under the guns of the secularists. (Remember that even in Augustine's own day, those who wanted to blame Christianity for the world's problems did so on religious, not atheistic, grounds.) I think this explains why both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have labored so ceaselessly not simply to be “ecumenical” in the pallid sense often used by those who profess to embrace the “spirit of Vatican II” ("let's all make nice and pretend that all religions are equally good and true"), but in the more vital sense of trying to bring separated bodies of Christians back into the embrace of Mother Church, so that they may not only have the benefit of the sacraments of the Church and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Magisterium, but also so that the Body of Christ may be truly unified and at full strength – both lungs, all the arms & legs, fingers & toes cooperating fully with their Head, which is Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Roman pontiff. Only if the Body is whole and healthy can it most effectively build up society on earth, so that it more closely resembles the City of God, of which all Christians are citizens by virtue of their baptism, and to which all men are called.

We have seen in recent years a remarkable amount of progress toward this re-unification: not only the restitution of some of the ancient churches to the Roman Communion under Pope John Paul II but also great progress more recently with traditional-minded Anglicans (Anglicanorum Coetibus) and in ironing out remaining obstacles between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. It should be noted that Rome has taken some pains to show that the legitimate spiritual patrimony of these other Christian traditions should be preserved and allowed to flourish in their own right, rather than trying to homogenize everyone to become cookie-cutter "Roman" Catholics; the present and former Holy Fathers have shown that this legitimate diversity, when secured by a common faith, enriches the Church, rather than weakening it.

In addition to corporate reunions, there have also been a number of public statements issued by representatives of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant bodies, affirming their common faith on many points, not only of doctrine but how that doctrine bears on Christians vis à vis the problems of modern society. If this trend of solidarity continues, there may be some real hope of the Christian Church in the future being able, as She has in the past, to make lasting and beneficial contributions to the common good of the City of Man.

Gilson's Foreward to the City of God

What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson's introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God that I'm reading. It runs on a bit, so I'll put my commentary in a separate post.
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny – that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors – religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of what that good is. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God; thus Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He suggests, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”