Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thoughts on Augustine's City of God

A while back I promised myself to read City of God. It was a bit like reading through Calvin's Institutes, in that it is a massive work written at a pivotal time in Christian history, and also in that Augustine and Calvin really do sound a lot alike (as much as two men separated by more than a thousand years can sound alike). I have not blogged through my entire reading of the book, as I did for Calvin, and I did not space my reading evenly over a year, but I think I still retain enough of an idea to summarize some of my reactions here.

Augustine was writing at a time just after Rome had been sacked. The world had changed. In light of that change, a defense of Christianity had to be given. I confess that I'm so underinformed about history that I still have trouble making sense of this--hadn't Christianity already become the religion of the empire? But perhaps this book alone sheds some light on how naïve it is to think that Christianity was ever really the religion of Rome. The Roman pagans gave what would be, I suppose, the natural response to Rome's fall: it's the Christians fault. And so Augustine launches himself into a critique of paganism in all its forms, followed by a philosophy of history based on the Christian Bible, in order to put historical events into a larger narrative.

I'm not an expert in how this book shaped history following that moment, but the very fact that we're here (Christians in the West, that is) means that it probably had a massive influence. After Rome fell, Christianity not only held on but continued to spread, eventually shaping all of what we now think of as "Western culture." (As an aside, I always find it terribly confusing when people think of Christianity as merely the "local religion" of something called "Western culture." As if there would be anything called "Western civilization" had it not been for the spread of Christianity which eventually united all of these European barbarians!)

Now to the text itself. The first ten books are devoted to refuting paganism, starting with gods and goddesses, then moving on to various pagan philosophies, and finishing with the Platonists, who Augustine says are the closest to the truth of Christianity. If you've ever engaged in modern debate on religion and theism, you've probably heard someone ask something like this:
"Why should we believe in the Christian God and not, say, Zeus or Poseidon? What evidence is there for one which there isn't for the other?"
It's true that in the modern world we don't feel the pressing need to refute the existence of Zeus. Augustine did. So if you'd like to know why Christians reject the existence of Zeus and other gods, you can read about 300 pages of painstaking refutations. Fair warning: you will, as a modern person, feel a bit silly reading them. Yet Augustine took the religions of his day seriously, as I think modern Christians take (or ought to take) Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and of course Judaism very seriously. (Note that Augustine never "refutes" Judaism, which was also an important competitor to Christianity. The implication seems to be that the only dividing line between Judaism and Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I suppose that despite the divergent evolution of the two religions, that's still ultimately true today.)

What gives me occasion to reflect very deeply about my faith is the fact that Augustine's refutations of paganism rest largely on moral grounds. The gods were either immoral, or were worshipped in immoral ways, or were celebrated in tales of immorality. Is not the same charge leveled today against the Christian God? The argument worked very well for Augustine, because in fact Greek and Roman philosophers really did find the popular religion quite embarrassing (I recall that Plato wanted to ban poetry from his ideal Republic, because it gave people false impressions of the gods). In some sense that argument works today on Christians, does it not? In my experience, when you talk to more sophisticated Christian theologians, they tend to finesse difficult biblical passages until they are allegorized or spiritualized into oblivion, or else they flat out reject those passages! On some occasions you will find a very stern theologian willing to bite the bullet on every biblical passage, but these find it more and more difficult to get a hearing in today's world, even within the Church. And I think this is not without reason. It is just plain difficult to see how the same God who would lovingly die on the cross for our sins, refusing to fight evil with evil, would also order the wholesale slaughter of women and children or even of anyone at all, as we read in the Old Testament. To me this question remains perpetually unresolved, which is either part of the beautiful mystery of Christianity or else a grave weakness which will ultimately be its undoing. Yet this is not a new problem by any means--it has been there since the beginning of Christianity--and here we are after 2000 years.

So much, I suppose, for the first half of the book. The second half is Augustine's attempt to explain all of human history. I read in the preface that many scholars think of this is the first "philosophy of history" ever written, and I suppose that's one way to think of it. It's hard to imagine you'd ever consider a "philosophy of history" something worth writing unless you already had one given to you by Scripture or something else. And that is indeed the case for Augustine. He looks at the Bible as a whole, and from its contents deduces an outline to all of human history based on the presence of two cities: the city of man and the city of God.

I won't outline the whole argument. I will instead tell you to simply go read the Bible, cover to cover, with Augustine's basic framework in mind. The city of man is all the children of Adam after being expelled from Eden, and the city of God is all those who by faith in God lived and now live in the hope of new life to come in Jesus Christ. Indeed, one way to think of Augustine's work is as a "philosophy of history," but perhaps a more direct way to think of it is as a synthetic exposition of all of Scripture. In that it really is akin to Calvin's Institutes.

There are other ways in which Augustine's and Calvin's works are similar, and that is because they appear to have similar theological bents. First, they both emphasize regularly the power and foreknowledge of God, the weakness of the human will after the fall, and the sheer unmerited grace which allows us to attain to the hope of new life in Christ. Second, they both base their arguments on the sheer authority of Scripture as an unquestionable guide in matters of doctrine. I think it's good to put this second point after the first, though some might believe it should go first--after all, it's from the Scriptures that we know about God's power and foreknowledge, isn't it? Yet it pretty clearly acts as an interpretive framework over Scripture, so that any time God is said to change his mind or make a decision, this is interpreted as merely a way to describe God in human terms, and not literally true. Everything else in the Bible might be literally true, but not those parts! This comment is not meant to prove that Augustine and Calvin are wrong, but only to show which ideas they truly put first. In my view, there simply is no interpreting Scripture without some first principle(s) guiding you, which must come from outside of Scripture itself.

Now, the reason I am emphasizing similarities between Augustine and Calvin is mostly because of my own experience reading through Calvin, and not to do any favors to Calvinists, who will take such comparisons as a compliment. Personally, I find that the things Augustine and Calvin hold in common are what make them both difficult to read. Consider their view of Scripture. Now, their justification of the authority of Scripture is slightly different: Calvin emphasized the direct confirmation of the Holy Spirit, while Augustine uses a somewhat different argument. Isn't it amazing, he says, how the whole world has come to accept the authority of the Bible? And this, he says, is also a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, which only bolsters that accepted authority. The argument isn't circular in either case, but it is rather frustrating, because it seems completely inaccessible to reason.

Let me stay with Augustine's argument for a moment. It interests me, because its plausibility in Augustine's mind must have been related to the historical context. Christianity had just seen, over the course of a few hundred years, a breathtaking rate of growth throughout a pagan empire, despite (or indeed because of) persecutions, all by the transmission of these words of Scripture. It is commonplace today to insist that "many other religions" have had similar experiences, but how many are there, really? Buddhism counts, I suppose, and perhaps certain sects within both the Christian and Islamic traditions. And of course there is Judaism with its own rather unique story, but it bears repeating that the line between Christianity and Judaism has always been, frustratingly, very thin. I honestly can't think of many others which have spread and flourished in quite the same way that Christianity did in its early years. Given all of that, I think we should be sympathetic to Augustine's argument. The words of Scripture changed people in a way that suggests real power.

Yet of course it's quite a logical leap to conclude that the Bible is therefore completely accurate in everything that it says. This is an aspect of Augustine's thought that disappointed me. I was set up for this by modern pastors and theologians of a certain intellectual type who like to bang on about how we don't read the Bible today the way ancient Christians did. They bring this up in the context of modern debates about faith and science, claiming that the early Church Fathers never did take Genesis 1 literally, and so why should we do any different? We should relearn to give sophisticated, spiritual readings of biblical texts, not focusing on their historicity but on how they point to Christ. I find this approach attractive.

It's true that from what I've read of Origen, that man truly did not take Scripture literally. But Augustine, let's face it--he's a fundamentalist. Now, that does not make him less intelligent, nor does it mean that his philosophical reflections are any less sophisticated. Some of the most profound reflections on joy and suffering in this world can be found in Augustine. And of course, Augustine loves allegorical interpretations of the Bible--as everyone does! I find it absolutely laughable when modern Catholic and Orthodox Christians assert or imply that Protestants hate allegorical interpretations, insisting only on the literal. They have clearly never listened to a Bible-thumping Baptist sermon, full of allusions and comparisons between Scripture and present-day events. It is simply impossible to read the Bible and not draw analogies between the texts and our own world, or between different texts themselves. No one has ever seriously denied this. But Augustine, like traditional Protestants (and all traditional Christians, I suppose, depending on what you mean by "traditional"), believes that the Bible should also be taken historically. He leaves no doubt that he thinks Adam was the first human being, that the world is only a few thousand years old, and that every word of the Bible is to be taken as telling us how human history happened exactly. To be fair, he is not so simplistic as not to notice all the problems of translation, all the mysterious numbers that appear in certain texts, and all the competing historical claims from nonchristian sources. Yet to a modern reader, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to share Augustine's confidence in the veracity of Scriptural history.

All of this causes me more and more problems as the book draws to a close, where Augustine finally deals with judgment and salvation. I will have to save that for another post, because there is a lot to unpack.

Let me conclude this summary post by saying what I learned about myself by reading City of God. I learned that I am truly (sadly?) unfamiliar with the Greco-Roman world, but perhaps more at home than I thought I would be in the ancient Christian world. When Augustine talks about Homer or Plato, I struggle to recall the few basic lessons I learned in school, and my reading is slow. When Augustine quotes Scripture, I find myself reading quickly. It is not just what he says, but even the objections he responds to, which I find amazingly familiar. Truly, there are few theological controversies which divide Christians today which did not already exist in the early Church. We may have new language in which to express them, and perhaps new reasons to find them important, but we are not the first people to think of such problems.

Finally, I have to mention that City of God is a very different reading from, say, Confessions. I learned to love Augustine from reading the latter when I was much younger, and so I assumed (perhaps naïvely) that reading City of God would only reinforce that love. That is not quite true. I find now that I both love and hate Augustine, much in the same way that I both love and hate Calvin. That is perhaps an inevitable reaction to anyone with enough gumption to lay out a definitive history of the human race. You will find incredible beauty in this book, but you will not be able to look away from all the things which perplex and terrify you.

If I find time, I will come back to some particular passages of this book, because they deserve some meditation, but I think I've managed here to touch on all my general reactions. It's a work that certainly makes an impression, and I'm glad I took the time to read it.

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