Posted by: mmkelly | October 6, 2009

St. Augustine, City of God, Part II

Why does St. Augustine write City of God?

Supposedly, St. Augustine writes the City of God to refute those who blamed the sack of Rome on the state conversion from the Greco-Roman gods to the Christian Gods. This discussion segues nicely into a proof of the superiority of Christianity over all other religions and philosophies that Augustine knows of. After all, the best theological defense is a good theological offense. However, by the end of the book, it is clear that Augustine has more ambitious plans than a mere defense of Christianity. In fact, what he is really trying to do is institutionalize and formalize the essential technical details of the early Christian faith and to provide a foundation for the City of God which exists in the temporal world.

Augustine spends a great deal of time refuting people. These people fall into two different types of categories—doubters from outside the faith and heretics from within the faith. Examples of the former would be the various schools of philosophy—Platonist, Epicurean, Skeptic, Neo-Platonist, etc.—who, even though many approach Christian doctrine, lack the essential ingredient for salvation: the belief in the one God; examples of the latter are varied and often highly specific—people who believe baptism guarantees entry into heaven, people who believe acceptance into the Catholic Church guarantees entry into heaven, people who believe being merciful guarantees entry into heaven, etc.—and Augustine criticizes them for misunderstanding and misconstruing the scripture, which he believes to be highly articulate in expressing its message. Though individually wearying and overly specific, Augustine’s grandiose refutations and tedious quibbles aggregate into a more profound whole. In such a thorough review of the various theological debates of the Mediterranean tradition, Augustine attempts to create a clear and coherent theology, a theology without contradiction and differing geographical flavors. He wants to establish a religion that is objective and true.

Bosch, Heaven and Hell

Bosch, Heaven and Hell

This desire for objectivity is overt. Augustine tells us that while “Varro asserts that the defining characteristic of the New Academy is this view that all things are uncertain[,] The City of God…wholly detests such doubt, which it regards as madness.” (947) For those who believe in the one true God—a God who is benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.—how can there not be certainty? With such an ultimate force, with such an absolute arbiter lingering overhead, the entire cosmological structure must be fixed. The belief in such a precisely defined and infinitely powerful divinity necessitates a hierarchical structure that is firmly rooted and beyond the doubt of human rationalists like Varro.

It may perhaps be important at this point to analyze how St. Augustine envisions the ontology of the universe. Above all, of course, is God, the triumvirate. Then follow the good angels and spirits. The two middle levels are convoluted and intertwined between humans living in the temporal world: the City of God, with its community of saints waiting to join their superiors in heaven, and the City of Man, with its unrepentant sinners unknowingly approaching an eternity in hell. Beneath them come bad spirits (no doubt where Augustine would place the divinities of Greco-Roman heritage) and demons who distract humans from the love of the True God. Finally, lowest of all lurks Satan, the absolute evil.

What is interesting about this hierarchy is that everything in the eternal world is already set and cemented. God can only be good; Satan can only be evil (although in his evil, he is merely a tool for God); etc. These realms are static and unchanging. In contrast, the temporal world is fully dynamic, it is the place where humans have the opportunity to determine their destiny. This human world has history and action; the divine world lacks history, for nothing can ever change. Though Augustine may seem to disparage the temporal world, he is actually emboldening it and emphasizing its importance. Until the Day of Judgment, God and Satan are really on the fringe of the cosmos—watching impotently as humans skitter between eternal salvation and damnation.

The central cosmological hinge, then, is between the City of God and the City of Man. This is the distinct but oft-hidden boundary between eternal salvation and eternal punishment; this is the space where all moral and existential decisions are made. Augustine gives us the source and definition of the two cities in Book XIV, Chapter 28:

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self…In the Earthly City, princes are as much mastered by the lust for mastery as the nations which they subdue are by them; in the Heavenly, all serve one another in charity, rulers by their counsel and subject by their obedience.

However, while the difference between these two cities is of enormous import, it is often incredibly difficult to distinguish between them. As God tests and rewards each individuals in different ways, it is impossible to tell in the temporal world to which city they belong. Indeed, though Augustine provides us with a definition of these two cities, it is clear that the only time this definition will be applied is on the Day of Judgment when Christ comes to determine the fate of all humans. However, though we cannot hope to assign humans to either City ourselves, it is in our vital eternal interest to attempt to place ourselves in the City of God and we therefore need to utilize the definition of the City of God as a goal to aspire too.

But while the City of God is the goal, the City of Man is inescapable. It is what humans are born into, it is what surrounds them, and only through strenuous moral effort can they hope to climb up to the higher stage. The City of Man, then, is the true center of the cosmos. With God and Satan occupying both polarities, the City of Man is the only place where there is a doubtful outcome, the only place susceptible to the pulls of both poles. (Here I am assuming that those who have entered the City of God won’t leave. It seems unlikely that someone who has accepted God and realized the benefits of his Truth, would give it up for eternal damnation.) Augustine seems to have a profound ambivalence on this point. His book is about the City of God and it’s fight against the pagans. He claims that the Bible depicts the City of Man only to further the aims of the City of God:

The writer of these Sacred Scriptures, therefore—or, rather, the Spirit of God acting through him—is concerned only with those events which both compose an account of the past and also foretell the future, and only with those which pertain to the City of God. For whatever is said here of those men who are not citizens of that City is said to this end: that the City of God should profit or be conspicuous by comparison with its opposite.” (697-98)

He exults in the salvation of man through entry into the City of God, asking even “Whether the life of mortals should be called death rather than life”? (550). Yet, it seems that his book is really not at all about the City of God nor about heaven, rather it is about the necessity of exiting the City of Man. The book is truly a cautionary tale, urging its readers to accept a life in Christ so that they may escape eternal punishment. After all, the members of the City of God are already on the path to salvation, they have already imbibed the truth of Jesus Christ the Savior, and therefore need no succoring en route to their eternal existence in Heaven.

Ultimately, Augustine describes two ends of sin: “Either, like the Sodomites, the men themselves are punished for their sins, or, like the Ninevites, the men’s sins are destroyed by repentance.” (1088) And this, it seems, summarizes the world. People have two choices: to sin and be punished or to repent and be saved. This is the nexus of Augustine’s cosmos, this is the center. For a human being on earth, God need not be considered at all—the decision to leave the City of Man to enter the City of God is all that matters.

I thought that I would add some other topics that I found particularly interesting for discussion:

1) Last time we talked about teleology, the sense that history has a beginning the leads inexorably to a predetermined end (the Day of Judgment). I thought Augustine’s claim that Plato and Porphyry, if they could have talked to one another, would have discovered the essential truths of Christian doctrine is particularly fascinating. Essentially, he is asserting that even without Christ, humans could have somehow obtained a philosophical version of Christianity. (Book 22, Chapters 26-8)

2) I found Augustine’s historical treatment of the City of God somewhat troubling. If the City of Man dies in the flood and only Noah’s family, which belongs to the City of God survives, how is the City of Man recreated? Similarly, why does the City of God follow genealogical lines? Does this mean that there is a fate aspect to belonging to the City of God? Certainly it seems to imply this. Overall, this is an argument that Augustine never resolves. He tries to solve the fate/free will dialectic through the introduction of his vague and abstract conception of will, but this seems to create more complexity than clarity. (The discussion of will is in Book 12)

3) Augustine is very hard-line in enforcing entry requirements into heaven against the lax mindset of other theologians. He tends to emphasize the enormity of original sin, and the consequent debt that humans owe, than the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice, which might surpass the original trespasses of Adam and Eve in its importance. (This is all Book 22)

4) Finally, and this is a somewhat goofy subject, I had never thought about the difficulties of instituting eternity. After all, it would be quite hard to reduce a life, which has constantly changed for its entire existence, into a permanent and static body. The list of questions in Book 22, Chapter 12 is wonderfully creative and provocative.


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