Martin, Hilary, & the Limitations of Knowledge

So, I’m kind of a big fan of Martin of Tours. I’m writing him into my Master of Theological Studies thesis at Duke Divinity School, which I am doing under Stanley Hauerwas (theological ethics) and Warren Smith (historical theology). I think Martin is one of the most under-sung heroes of the early Church, and we’d all do well to look more into his life and witness. Not just because it is from him that we derive the word Chapel and Chaplain, and not just because he was homies with a couple of Caesars, but because his life says more than his writings. Like another guy we like in the Church, maybe you’ve heard of him, we call him Christ…

So jokes aside, I’ve been doing some light research (read: Wikipedia) in getting ready to write this sucker. I want to know who influenced Martin and why, where he was involved and what events he found himself embroiled in. One of the biggies was the Priscillian Affair of 385, when the Church leaned on the state to do its dirty work of silencing heretics. In this case by killing them. Priscillian was the first person the Church appealed to Rome to have killed because we couldn’t have a decent conversation between Bishops. But that’s beside the point I hope to make in this particular blog post.

What is keeping me up at night for the time being is thinking about who mentored Martin and where he got some of his views (or, at least the views he didn’t get while serving his 25 year Roman military obligation). Martin sought out Hilary of Poitiers as a mentor, who was considered the greatest theologian of the era. Hilary, like Martin, was raised by two pagan parents and went thru a conversion, eventually becoming a theological force to be reckoned with. He had some really concrete views on Constantine, the emperor who baptized the state and made Christianity a legal religion. Hilary thought Constantine was the anti-Christ…

Martin, on the other hand, didn’t feel the same way. He couldn’t have, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have remained in the Roman military for 20+ years after his baptism. But he seemed to think Hilary was pretty cool, since he continued to be mentored by him. Another early Church figure who wasn’t totally agro about Constantine was Ambrose, who mentored another church father we all know and love, Augustine.

Here is where it really gets interesting (and I will leave it here for tonight, maybe writing more about my thesis work in later blogs). Augustine is to whom the modern church turns for what we now call Just War theology/doctrine/tradition. I think this is a huge mistake. For one, Augustine never systematized a theory of when war was just. Instead, most of what we have of his writings directly on war were pastoral replies to high-ranking soldiers and government officials. Hardly a deliberate attempt at providing a framework through which to understand how war can be just. More importantly, the question of Priscillian should cause us pause. Augustine didn’t start his ministry until after the Church learned that it could have Caesar execute those it wanted silenced, and neither Ambrose nor Augustine seem to critically engage whether this is just (or theologically credible at all) to begin with.

In contrast, Hilary’s student Martin spoke out vehemently against the planned execution (as well as the heresy Priscillian was propagating), even excommunicating the two bishops most active in appealing to Rome. It took Caesar himself to convince Martin to return to communion with these persecutors, a move that Martin went to his grave regretting, since Priscillian was executed nonetheless. Ambrose seemed to have remained silent about the affair, allowing the state to assert an authority over a Christian that had absolutely no historical precedent. Ambrose, who was a cradle Catholic, mentored Augustine (whose mother, Monica, was also famously Christian), who similarly failed to critically challenge Caesar’s authority in the realm of ecclesial violence.

My thesis will be to look at Martin and how we have come to privilege a kind of ‘intellectual’ knowledge over that kind of knowledge we acquire through a lived experience. To understand war, we look to a thinker (Augustine), instead of a soldier (Martin), and that is a problem. To think that we can ‘know’ something exclusively or primarily through abstracting it is horse manure. Certainly there is a kind of knowledge that comes by submitting a subject to intellectual scrutiny, but that knowledge is inherently limited to that which we can imagine apart from experience. For example, I might read about changing a diaper, but I won’t really know shit until I get my hands dirty. In relying too heavily on Augustine (Aquinas is another good example), we think we have ‘understood’ war and justice, but we have really only learned that which is possible exclusively through contemplation. But to really get down to brass tax, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to trust those who are practitioners at least as much as we do those who are theorists (if not more so). If we want to understand war, we should be looking toward Martin and the soldier saints long before we turn to Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, Ramsey, or Walzer, to name a few.

One thought on “Martin, Hilary, & the Limitations of Knowledge

  1. Hey Logan, great piece… I absolutely adore Martin! Have you asked Bishop Gumbleton about him and who else might have mentored him? He is the first person who ever told me about Martin of Tours, the story of his conversion, his cape, cappella, chapel, chaplain, etc. I often use the story to point out how military chaplains owe their tittle to a CO (haha!!).

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