Christianity and Society


The Critique of Ideology
"Things are seldom what they seem," crooned Little
Buttercup, full of a revelation that would transform the
society around her. Augustine would have agreed. No a
priori reason compels us to think that appearances,
depending directly on the subjective experience of the
observer, give any very coherent picture of reality. The
perceptions that record these appearances have no
compelling independent authority. On this point
Christianity shares the ground with other philosophical and
religious traditions. It holds that there is such a thing
as real being, and even that the world of appearances is
directly related to the world of real being. But it claims
that human perception and reason is for now impotent to
deduce the exact nature of that relation, although human
beings do not cease to create patterns that claim to define
the relation. In short, human beings live in a dream world
from which they can be liberated into reality only with
help from outside. Hence, revelation.
Revelation is at the center of Augustine's thought, for it
functions in the order of knowledge as grace functions in
the order of action, and right knowledge and right action
are impossible without revelation and grace. Hence at every
turn in Augustine we observe that the formal patterns
according to which he interprets the world of appearances
derive directly from his understanding of the way God's
Word works in the world. So Christian Doctrine is the
necessary preliminary to everything else in Augustine. When
we consider his view of what we may somewhat whimsically
call "macrotheology," this is especially true. To
understand the relationship between Christianity and
society is nothing more and nothing less than to open the
question of the relation between competing interpretations
of the nature of reality. Human societies that evolve
without Christianity differ among themselves about the
meaning of sense-knowledge and the nature of reality; but
Christianity, wherever it appears, makes special claims on
the credence of nations. Civil societies form themselves as
the visible manifestation of commonly held principles.
Taken at this level, Christianity presents a radically
different set of ideas about the nature of the world and
the way men ought to live within it.
Whether a "Christian society" as such has ever existed or
can ever exist is irrelevant. What is important is to
understand how the Christian perspective intrudes upon the
complacencies of the world-views with which it comes into
contact. In Christianity through the centuries there is a
constant tension between the actual order of society and
the principles Christianity proposes. What Christianity
offers is an interpretation of social reality that claims
to come completely from outside human society (as
revelation) and that sets itself up as an insistent critic
of the natural views of fallen men and women. Christianity,
as a social organization, is a constant reproach to the
secular world and a constant challenge to custom and mores
(even when custom itself carries the Christian name).
In theory and in practice, Augustine had words to describe
this situation. In theory, his familiar distinction between
letter and spirit served him well. The letter represents
hard, empirical reality (or at least the world of
appearances masquerading as such), things the way they
definitely seem to be to the unaided understanding. All of
life, without benefit of divine revelation, is a literal
narrative, devoid of meaning and value, only an interaction
of atoms in the void. But in the presence of revelation,
meaning and value take shape under the power of the spirit.
In this way, deep faith and radical nihilism can be located
at opposite ends of a spectrum. Between the two lies a
whole range of forms of belief and nonbelief. Christianity
can take two approaches to those who occupy the middle
ground. All vague stirrings of belief can be treated as
well-intentioned motion towards God and embraced in the
all-enfolding arms of a generous church; or the same
failures of total faith can be treated as apostasy from God
and consigned to the outer darkness. Paradox again:
Christianity takes both positions simultaneously.
Christianity must remain, as one recent observer has said,
"radically open to all truth and to every value," for the
presence of the spirit cannot be denied in any of these
stirrings. At the same time, Christianity itself is
meaningless unless it gives unyielding witness to the power
of grace and total commitment to the truth of revelation.
So radical is the Christian claim that the latter position
is the one that usually predominates in Christian discourse.
Because Augustine never ceased to challenge the ideologies
of the secular world with the Christian message, he
insisted on drawing the line between letter and spirit
(between, that is, fantasy and reality, between the
world-asappearance and the world-as-reality) as high and as
sharp as he could. Even those in this world who see the
message of the spirit with rare clarity are still not fully
assimilated to the reality the spirit betokens. Only death
can free them from "the body of this death" (Rom. 7.24) and
bring them home to authentic reality and true being, to God.
Thus even members in good standing of the visible church
were still themselves more on the side of the sinners than
of the blessed. They are separated from those around them
not by any final distinction (that must await Judgment Day)
but by the intermediate distinction that is the result of
grace working in their lives. The boundary between the
saved and the damned in this world, as long as people live,
is completely permeable. The church does not seal itself
off from the world around it, but remains permanently,
vulnerably, open to it. Those outside can still come in at
any time--and those inside can fail, and fall, at any time.
(This way of putting the Augustinian case leaves aside the
difficult subjects of grace, predestination, and
perseverance that must be faced when the relation of Christ
to the individual soul is taken up. For the moment, we can
speak in social terms, with no window into individual
The implications of this view for our attitude towards
natural society are simple but staggering: The mass of
humanity lives in a fantasy world. Human societies, created
by sinful men and women, are all based on mistaken notions
of the nature of reality and are merely dream castles.
Societies constitute themselves to bring about results that
are impossible. Misery, discord, and death are absolute
constants in human experience, despite all the advances of
civilization. Nevertheless, human beings retain the most
touching faith in the power of effort, scientific
knowledge, and the innate good will of their fellows to
bring about a more rational and just society.
Ordinary men and women, left to their own devices, go on
living in their fantasy world. What sets Augustine's
Christians apart is a vision of the real nature of the
world in which they live, or at least a glimpse of it. This
joyful suspicion hardens them to face, and to refuse to
take at face value, the world of appearances. The faith and
hope of the Christian embolden him to be despairing about
civil society. Where it is the natural tendency of human
beings to respond to change by clinging to institutions
(thereby guaranteeing the destruction of institutions), the
Christian can bid farewell to fading institutions and
passing loves, secure in a love that lasts forever and a
vision of reality that depends for its goodness, not on the
fragile creations of fallible mortals, but on the eternal
goodness of God.
In Augustine's time, Rome was the center of the world of
fantasy. The literature and culture of antiquity presented
a society in which a visible civil institution, the Roman
empire, embodied all the hopes and expectations of
reasonable men. Rome was, everyone knew, eternal.
Uncivilized peoples loomed outside the empire but they were
no threat to the magnificence of Rome. Vergil's Aeneid,
read as a paean to Imperial Rome, was the center of the
literary imagination and the text around which much of this
fascination hypnotically revolved.[2] Augustine himself
knew that fascination, and in both City of God and his
Confessions he labored long to pay off his debt to Vergil
while disentangling himself forever from the mythology of
civil power to which Vergil's text lent itself.
Providentially for Augustine, something terrible happened
to disturb the civil faith. The sack of Rome by the
Visigoths in 410 provided at least the pretext for a
reassessment of conventional ideologies. Some people appear
to have used the event as an opportunity to attack
Christianity for failing to take care of Rome, but
Augustine saw that the more lasting message of the event
was the weakness of Rome itself. Christianity gave
Augustine a perspective from which to view Rome, at least
in the imagination, from outside.
So he wrote City of God, in terms fit for a non-Christian
audience, to provide first Roman history, then all history,
with a thoroughgoing Christian interpretation, to show the
presence of the spirit in the world in the literal world of
appearances. Apologists often use the device Augustine did,
writing ostensibly for outsiders, when in reality they
speak mainly to insiders whose faith has been shaken (or
shown to be insufficient) by events around them. Modern
readers do not much appreciate the destructive part of
Augustine's argument. To us it takes little effort to
believe that the pagan gods of antiquity were not in fact
responsible for the rise and greatness of Rome. But in
Augustine's own day, his undertaking was still audacious.
Plenty of professed Christians were unready to deny that
other forms of divine power besides the Christian one had
influenced, and could continue to influence, the affairs of
men. Even Augustine granted the pagan gods a claim to
exist, but saw them only as feeble demons, allowed a small
sphere of mischief by an infinitely more powerful deity.
Cleaning house, as Augustine set out to do, of all the
lingering faith in divinities other than the Christian one
was thus a drastic step to take. The question at issue was,
where was reality to be found? Were there many spiritual
principles animating material reality and giving it life
and meaning, or was there only one? A plurality of
experience destroys community. Every man can have his own
god and his own pattern. Reality becomes the least common
denominator of a plethora of subjective imaginings. For
Christianity, on the other hand, reality is the authentic
pattern from which the human imagination has defected. The
unique, omnipotent God manifests himself throughout
history, at all places and at all times, as creator and
lord of the world. On this rests the Christian claim to
know objective reality.
We now stand at sufficient distance to see how faith in
Rome and its greatness had become, by Augustine's time, a
crutch on which a distraught and insecure people wanted
desperately to be able to lean. The elite of the empire
went on deceiving themselves as long as they could, long
after the barbarians had come and gone. What Augustine
offered was a chance to throw away the crutch.
Scholarship has documented nothing about the late Roman
empire more clearly, I would venture, than that it deserved
to fall. It had become a military dictatorship, existing to
protect and perpetuate itself, regardless of the cost it
demanded from its subjects. Augustine's contemporary
Salvian, the priest of Marseilles, claimed (with some
justification) that barbarian invaders in the western half
of the empire were often greeted with open arms as
liberators from the oppression of Roman taxation and
bureaucracy. Its culture was politically and morally
bankrupt. The "successful" half of the empire, the
Byzantine east, was better than the west in preserving
itself, and lingered through a sterile middle age until
final destruction came at the hands of the Turks in 1453.
Nothing has come of Byzantium since.
Faced with Rome and the possibility of pluralism, Augustine
in the first five books of City of God set out to defend
the Christian claim of unity. A single divine power, God
the father, is the source of all the world of appearances,
is the center of the world of the spirit, and is the
foundation of all being and goodness. A claim such as this
authorizes a human society; for if there is a single source
of meaning and value in the world, there can then be
agreement on moral principles. Only agreement on moral
principles can make a society function. The argument runs
through City of God (from 2.21-24 to 19.21) as a debate
with ideas from Cicero's Republic (a work known to us only
in fragments). Moral discord is the sure sign of impending
disintegration. To a chaotic society, the Christian church
provides a radical life-giving principle that can dwell in
the world--for the church is a temporal institution in the
service of a higher moral principle.
The first books of City of God require more annotation and
historical comment than do the later books. The first three
books were written with that audience we described above in
mind--the refugees from Rome who were haunting the salons
of Carthage in the early 410s, lamenting their dismal fate
and blaming the Christian God. Those books were published
together by the end of 413; the rest of City of God becomes
more and more general in its appeal and less tied to the
immediate polemical situation. The first book is the most
closely tied to circumstances. For example, at least a few
religious women seem to have been in Africa who had escaped
from Rome after suffering outrages at barbarian hands; the
largest section of the first book both encourages these
women and rebukes those who insulted them. (1.17-27)
The opening books of City of God, therefore, demonstrate by
negative argument, with polemical verve, that in the order
of knowledge, God--the Christian God--prevails alone. What
remains is for Augustine to show that this God prevails in
the order of action--and love--as well. That is the
business of Books 6 through 10.
To show the adequacy of the Christian claims, Augustine
confronted the surviving ancient philosophical tradition in
debate. He began by making bold admissions. By Augustine's
time, the diversity of conflicting philosophical schools
(Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Academics, etc.) had virtually
disappeared. To be a philosopher in the serious sense of
that word meant to be a disciple, at some distance, of
Plato. Modern writers call this movement Neoplatonism and
confer the leadership of the school on Plotinus (d. c. A.D.
265). This is a useful but somewhat imprecise form of
reference. The people who belonged to the school called
themselves simply Platonists and claimed to owe allegiance
only to Plato himself, whom they interpreted in a variety
of ways.[3]
What any reader of the surviving works of the Neoplatonists
discovers is that in the realm of speculation, they had
much superficially in common with the Christians. In the
three hypostases of Plotinian thought one finds a parallel
for the three persons of the Christian trinity; this late
Platonism contained a firm belief in the existence of a
single realm of the spirit that gave value and meaning to
the lives of people living in the material world. It
softened this virtual monotheism by allowing that the
ancient religions were, in their various styles, talking
about the same thing. The divine spirit leaked through into
the world of matter in a variety of forms, variously
interpreted by ignorant men in a profusion of different
cults. A proper philosophical understanding, the Platonists
argued, would lead to an understanding of the unity of
Augustine introduced the Platonists in City of God (see
8.2-12) so as to deal with the question whether there was
any possibility of salvation without revelation--whether,
in short, men's unaided efforts could lead them to right
knowledge and hence to virtuous life. He admitted that the
Platonists were great philosophers and wise men, and
acknowledged their virtues, but then he proceeded to offer
an explanation how this situation had come about in a way
that left the primacy of the Christian interpretation
Augustine's argument always had a scriptural basis. In the
first chapter of Romans, Paul sought to justify God's
dealings with the heathens who had not heard God's
revelation to the Jews. The pagans, Paul argued, had no
excuse for ignorance. "For the invisible things of God are
clearly known from the [visible] things of creation." (Rom.
1.20) Thus on the one hand, even in a fallen world, direct,
unaided knowledge of God remained possible, in the sense
that those who failed to achieve it were blameworthy for
their failure, but impossible, in the sense that in this
fallen world no one ever achieves direct knowledge of God.
To remedy this defect of human reason, revelation was given
to mankind through the instrument of the church. In
practice for Augustine it is only through the revelation of
the spirit in the church that true knowledge can be
acquired. What then of the Platonists? They are allowed by
God to exist to offer corroborating evidence. As the most
excellent and reputable of philosophical schools of
antiquity, they are seen to have gone a long way towards
understanding the basic truths of theology (as seen by
Christians), without ever getting the whole picture.
Formally, then, Augustine's argument in Books 6 through 10
of City of God is this: If the best of philosophers (best
by virtue of the nearness of their approximation to
Christian theology, as well as by virtue of their
reputation among men), cannot achieve a complete and
adequate picture of the divine dispensation for salvation,
a fortiori no other philosophical sect can provide such a
picture. Without such accurate knowledge, salvation is
Philosophy fails in another, somewhat more significant way
as well. It has no place to stand. Philosophical knowledge
takes the form of individual comments about the nature of
things emitted by learned and serious men on no authority
except their own. Philosophers may think that their
conclusions are self-evident and may chafe at the unbelief
of the masses in the face of their sober and well-reasoned
arguments. But Augustine saw that this is not only a likely
result, but a necessary one, in a fallen world.
One thing that was lost in the fall of man was the trust
that underlies all human communication. The story of the
tower of Babel (Gen. 11.1-9) implied that sin renders every
individual an isolated fragment of consciousness, cut off
from the consolation of shared experience. If civil
societies are created by men as fraudulent attempts to
duplicate the unity they instinctively desire but cannot
achieve, so too in the philosophical order, when the most
pressing issues of salvation and happiness are at stake,
the most men can do is create new sects and philosophies,
small attempts at an intellectual tour-de-force by which a
few individuals will pretend to have transcended the
conditions of human ignorance to attain real knowledge.
But such constructions in the realm of the spirit are no
less fraudulent than great empires in the realm of matter.
Philosophical schools come and go, and the mass of mankind
is left alone, with no profit to show for all its deference
to the sages. Philosophy, finally, is so individualistic
that it becomes undemocratic. Only the initiated few can
achieve the heroic feats of knowledge and thought that make
them philosophers. Their less learned fellows are condemned
to make do with the much less satisfactory frauds
perpetrated by the pagan religions. Augustine, speaking for
Christianity, insists that if there is any salvation at all
in this world, it must be accessible to all, not merely to
those with the money and leisure to pursue university
studies in philosophy.
In place of the sages then, Christianity offered a
mediator, adequate and unique, not only between what was
divine and what was human, but even between human beings
themselves. Where the philosophers had only the arid
consolations of logic, Augustine preached the power of
Christ. In Christ the divine principle entered the world,
revealing the will of God and providing a common basis for
the mutual understanding (and love) of all those who
accepted him. Christian theology challenges the
self-centered intellectual autonomy of the philosophers by
insisting on self-surrender and acceptance of a power of
knowledge coming, not from effort and innate virtue, but
from outside the individual.
The central paradox of Christianity underlies doctrine. On
the one hand, mankind is utterly responsible for its
actions and its failures to achieve salvation
independently-- hence the justice of damnation; but on the
other hand, God intervenes in the affairs of fallen mankind
to provide a certain and independent means of
redemption--hence the mercy of salvation. For Augustine's
contemporaries, this ineffable combination of justice and
mercy could be the largest stumbling block to Christianity.
But for now, while he was writing City of God, the logical
ramifications of this theory were not yet his concern. The
purpose of the first ten books of City of God was
demolition, not construction. Much of his rhetorical skill
went into making the Christian alternative to the pagan
claims emerge almost effortlessly and inevitably once the
pagan arguments were disposed of. The first five books
cleared the central position for God the father and creator
in the disposition of the affairs of the material world,
while the next five books blast away at the pagan
interpretation of the ordering of affairs in the world of
understanding and the spirit. When the smoke clears, God
the son, Christ the redeemer, appears at the center of the
picture, the true power for salvation of individual souls.
Where the first five books required historical annotation
and illustration, the second five require what is in some
ways a more difficult effort of understanding. Augustine
shared with his opponents a common view of the reality of
what we would call supernatural phenomena. He did not need
to debunk all claims of miraculous intervention into nature
by spirits other than the Christian God; he could simply
revalue them as works of the demons, the fallen angels of
whom scripture spoke. All this makes alien reading for us,
but we should envy Augustine the polemical situation in
which he found himself. He merely had to explain the
mysterious supernatural events his opponents alleged; the
skeptic is in the far more difficult position of having to
deny the supernatural features of the events outright.
Whether we should give credence to the ancient tendency to
see miracles everywhere is another question, not addressed
by City of God. Augustine himself was for many years
disinclined to accept the probability of Christian miracle
in his own day (holding that it had been a special gift to
the generation of the apostles), but later shifted his
position and in the last book of City of God a whole
dossier of contemporary miracle stories (almost entirely
limited to curse of the sick) may be found (22.8).
Augustine did not possess anything like the same conception
of natural/supernatural that we bring to such stories; what
was important for early Christians in miracle stories was
not the event itself (which was merely one more surprise in
a surprising world), but the meaning of the event. The New
Testament speaks of miracles by Greek words that mean
"signs and portents," and even the word "miracle" itself
derives from a Latin word meaning "marvelous." In both
languages the ancient focus was on the reaction of the
observer, drawing from the event meaning for his own life.
The deity manipulated human affairs in such a way as to
bring about this communication. Seen objectively, the
theology of miracle had something of the qualities of a
self-fulfilling prophecy. If a miracle was something that
was meant to astonish and communicate a theological message
(whatever the nature of the event itself), then all the
miracles recorded by the early church were truly miraculous.
Thus Augustine could readily exploit the credulity of the
pagan world from which Christianity arose to establish the
polemical structure of the first ten books of City of God.
In them he demonstrated the ruling power of God (Books 1
through 5) and the redeeming power of Christ (Books 6
through 10) as the only adequate hypothesis to explain the
ways of the world. The world in which the pagans had lived,
be it the material world of Rome or the spiritual world of
the philosophers and demons, did not exist. It was a
kingdom of fraud, built by fallen human minds attempting to
make sense of the world around them. Augustine was not
insensitive to the nobility and high intentions of the
pagan sages, but he could not blind himself either to their
failures. At the end of the first ten books of City of God,
Augustine stood poised between pagan and Christian worlds,
having shown the failure of the pagan world-view and
intimated the necessity of the Christian. His business in
the books that followed would be to turn away from the
world that antiquity had made and show how Christianity
proposed that men and women go about living in the real,
fallen world.The People of God
Christianity defies time and validates history. On the one
hand, the eternal vision of God is the norm against which
human notions of time are judged and found wanting;
sacramental actions destroy the supremacy of time, while
eternal happiness, outside the tunnel of transience, awaits
the blessed. On the other hand, history has unique value.
Christ died once for mankind's sins and need not repeat the
sacrifice. Cyclical theories of history are ruled out and
the whole pattern of human life is given a linear purpose.
Indeed, Christianity may be said to have invented history
in the modern sense of the term. Before Christianity,
ancient writers of what we call history were often little
more than sententious purveyors of recent memories and old
legends; at best, they chronicled the events of their own
society in light of hindsight and their own philosophical
preoccupations. Each generation lived isolated in time from
all others, with only the traditions and institutions of
the political realm--as the ancient religions faded--to
offer escape from time into history. Christianity
introduced the notion that the history of the world might
have a single pattern. A beginning, a middle, and an end
spring up around the whole of human existence. Instead of
an endless succession of solipsisms, there is a single
human community, united across time and space, to which the
Christian belongs.
This is the vision of the human condition that Augustine
unfolds in the last dozen books of City of God. His
divisions are simple: beginning/middle/end, or rather past/
present/future. What we would recognize as history is all
in the middle section, devoted to the world after the fall
and before the last judgment, suspended in the material
interim but revolving around the presence of Christ. The
tasks Augustine set for himself in these books were to
explain the fall of man and its implications; then to
prescribe the Christian remedy for the ills of the present;
and finally to explain the Christian hope for the world to
First, the fall. Augustine knew full well that the seven
days of creation were a literary figure for a much more
complex process whose temporal duration he did not care to
speculate about (11.6-8). Similarly, he believed in the
historicity of the story of Adam and Eve, but he did so in
a world in which there was literally no reason why he
should not believe the story. He would not have found it
difficult to adjust his views to accord with the
development of modern anthropology. Indeed, the Augustinian
theory of original sin becomes much easier to defend when
the mythic qualities of the Adam and Eve story are
recognized. The result is that, in the terms we discussed
concerning Christian Doctrine, Augustine cheerfully accepts
the literal meaning of the Genesis story, but passes
quickly on to what he knows is more important, the
spiritual meaning. Until the story's ramifications are
applied to the whole church and to each Christian, there is
no point in lingering over its details.
"Two loves gave birth to two cities." (14.28) In this
statement all the doctrine of City of God is summarized,
and in it we see reflected the more abstract formulas of
Christian Doctrine. The selfless love of God ("enjoyment")
was replaced in Adam and Eve by love of self, manifest in
the first instance as the pride that leads to disobedience.
Augustine always emphasizes the rebelliousness the first
sin entailed. The precise command God gave was irrelevant.
What mattered was that the serpent appealed to the selfish
longings of the first couple, and that appeal found a
willing response. Though repentance swiftly followed error,
the pattern was instilled in the human race once for all.
For Augustine, the fact of sin in the world around him, the
fact that men and women enter the world in a state of
separation from God, found corroboration in the biblical
story of the first couple. He never found a satisfactory
theory to explain the transmission of original sin, but of
the fact of its presence he had no doubt at all.[4]
But City of God sets the human story of original sin in a
wider context. The first error of Adam and Eve was not
something innate in them, but the response to a suggestion
that came from outside. Hence Augustine goes at great
lengths into the origins of the two cities in the fall of
the angels. Satan was the highest of creatures, so he fell
the lowest. Pride again (the notion that the self is
supremely loveable) was the seed of evil. This planted in
the world of creation the possibility of evil for man.
Humanity seems to be given the second chance offerred by
Christianity because it was not itself the source of all
the evil in creation. The fallen angels enjoy no such
redemptive favor.
Thus from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell there
are created two separate societies of angels and men, with
a boundary between the two societies that runs right
through the earthly world. Augustine calls those societies
civitates, which we usually translate "cities," but which
more precisely meant "communities," that is, cities in
their human dimension. The reasons for Augustine's choice
of this metaphor are deeply rooted in his theological
writings. One obvious implication was that it enabled him
to pick up again the theme of pilgrimage he had used in
Christian Doctrine and elsewhere.[5]
The material world, then, is disputed territory, where the
enemy holds sway for the moment. The followers of Christ,
the citizens of the heavenly city, must live in this world
as foreigners (peregrini, "pilgrims") do, using the laws of
the city in which they find themselves to shelter
themselves, but always planning and preparing to leave that
city behind to return home. For those of the earthly city,
the earth seems (wrongly) to be home and they treat it as
such, abandoning their claim to citizenship above.
This theme looms all through these books. First, however,
Augustine had to explain fallenness itself and what it
entails, for it seemed he had painted himself into a
logical corner. God created all things, and insofar as they
were created by God, they were good; evil, then, is the
mere absence of good, not--as the Manicheans claimed--an
independent power in itself. How then came evil into the
Not as a material presence, Augustine would say. Natural
disasters may trouble the hearts of men, but they are not
truly evil. Evil resides only in the rational souls of
fallen angels and men. Those souls are, for Augustine,
tripartite: the human soul exists, knows, and loves.[6] The
moral worth of the individual lies in the quality of the
love, that is to say, the quality of the will, and evil
results from a turning of the will's love away from the
things it should seek (enjoyment of God, love of neighbor)
to other things (usually self-love).
So how does the will, created good by a good God, turn to
evil? Augustine does not know, nor can anyone know. "Seek
not to find the efficient cause of an evil will. It is not
a matter of efficiency, but of deficiency. ... To defect
from the one who is the highest being to something that has
less being, this is to begin to have an evil will. To seek
the causes of such a defect--deficient causes, not
efficient ones--is like trying to see darkness or to hear
silence." (12.7) Evil is a nothing, and a turning to evil
has no cause (all causation is divinely ordered and hence
good) but is entirely self-generated. The most that can be
said is that God created rational creatures with wills
genuinely free so their worship of God would be a source of
glory. The source of evil is, finally, a mystery, and a
mystery that all of Augustine's later debates with the
Pelagians never tempted him to pretend he had solved.
More than logical trickery underlies this evasive answer.
If the turning of the soul towards evil were rational and
comprehensible, there would be something good about it,
since all reason is good. Everything in the world that is
intelligible is intelligible by virtue of its reflection of
God's creative power. When the will turns away from God it
thus separates itself from the goodness of creation into a
self-created darkness that is no longer intelligible. The
real question was not so much how evil arose, but what it
meant. The condition of fallen men and women preoccupies
Augustine through Books 11-14. He concludes that the fall
from grace led as well to a kind of fall from freedom.
Human beings after the fall remained entirely responsible
for their moral failings, which come about only as a result
of their own free acts (on the hypothesis that original sin
is justifiably imputed to each individual at birth). But
fallen people are not, because of the chains forged by sin,
capable of restoring themselves to God's favor by their own
efforts. By choosing to assert their own power rather than
submit to God's, they discover how powerless they are.
The most palpable manifestation of fallen human nature is
concupiscence, the importunate nagging of the flesh's
desires. In the fall, the natural order and harmony of the
person was thrown into confusion. The will turned from God,
knowledge was darkened with ignorance, and a debilitating
derangement of the will resulted. Thus, the higher
faculties of the person, were no longer in control as they
were when the natural hierarchy of the soul was
undisturbed. The ensuing disorder is most visible in the
appetites of the flesh.
Augustine began with the observation of a pastor that it is
in human sexuality that the confusion and disorder of sin
is most visible. Treating sexuality as a biological
question, he observed that human beings are scarcely
masters of their own bodies, unable to subject the sexual
organs to rational control. Treating sexuality as a
psychological question, he saw the same recurring failure
of control and discipline. From Paul he heard confirmation
of what he saw: "I see another law in my members, warring
against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity
to the law of sin." (Rom. 7.23) The history of human
relations is full of good intentions overthrown by powerful
appetites, a plight that cannot be blamed only on
repressive social conventions.
But sexuality remained for Augustine fundamentally, even
supernaturally good. His (in many ways comical) depiction
of what sex would have been like in the Garden of Eden if
Adam and Eve had not fallen shows him earnestly (and
perhaps even with conscious whimsy) attempting to give
concrete form to his recognition of the fundamental values
of sexuality (14.21-27). To what extent Augustine may be
made the parent of later attitudes towards that now seem
unduly negative is open to doubt; he did hold that
virginity was superior to marriage, but emphasized
repeatedly that both states of life were inherently good;
he held that the purpose of sexual intercourse was
procreation and that even in marriage it was otherwise
culpable, but he was careful to minimize the burden of that
fault. His contemporary Jerome had engaged in a famous
battle of pamphlets with Jovinian, a monk who held views of
sexuality that sound refreshingly modern; Jerome is far
more negative than Augustine.[7]
But the implications of fallenness run far beyond the
disorder of human sexuality. In sexuality, lack of control
manifests itself at every level of society. But that lack
of control stemming from confusion and selfishness is
characteristic of human affairs of all sorts in all times
and places. The disorder began with the fall of the angels
and entered history with the fall of Adam. Indeed, it may
be said that "history" in the limited sense we now use is
the result of the conjunction of human beings with sin. The
middle four books of the last part of City of God, Books
15- 18, recount the present condition of human society,
between the first sin and the last judgment, while the two
societies (heavenly and earthly) find themselves mingled
together and doing battle with each other in the arena of
human society.
Such is the world of fallen man: the good mixed with the
bad, seemingly inextricable: "These two cities are
intertwined here in this world and entangled with each
other, until they are to be separated at the last
judgment." (1.35) No vision here of the saintly few penned
up temporarily among the mass of the damned, waiting for
release; rather, the boundary between the two societies
runs through the hearts of individual men and women. The
two societies cannot be identified and distinguished in
this world: that is an absolute condition of fallenness.
Powerful forces in Augustine's time sought to identify the
heavenly society with one visible institution, with the
Christian empire itself. Greek Christians in particular had
concluded that even biblical prophecy spoke of the coming
age of happiness under Christian emperors. They assumed
that a special grace could be seen in the Roman empire that
had now given itself over to Christ.[8] This attitude grew
and developed in the middle ages, producing abundant
imperial and papal misconceptions. Augustine himself was
invoked as a patron of this ideology, in a way that merits
Augustine opposed all such identification of earthly
societies with the heavenly society of which the church is
an earthly shadow. Even when he engaged in panegyric of a
recent emperor,[9] he saw in such an emperor virtue only
when he saw personal submission to the church of Christ.
But Augustine made one crucial mistake in judgment that led
to much later confusion. In the early 410s, a young priest
from Spain named Orosius came to Africa seeking Augustine's
advice on theological controversies in his homeland. While
he was there, Augustine apparently delegated him (we have
only Orosius's word on this) to compile a history of the
calamities of the human race, to show pagans that the
Christian reading of history was true. (In Book 3 of City
of God, Augustine declined to outline his position in
detail, fearing to become a "mere writer of history."
[3.18]) Orosius, however, did not fully grasp Augustine's
ideas, but his energy quickly produced seven books of
universal history destined to have a wide readership in the
middle ages.[10] Augustine never actually disowned Orosius,
but it is clear from Books 15-18 of City of God that
Orosius had gone astray. Orosius wrote as though church,
empire, and heavenly city could be identified in one
confused mishmash. The medieval audience was often readier
to read Orosius's exciting (and gory) narrative than to
plod through twenty-two books of City of God, thinking to
find Augustine's doctrine in Orosius's pages. Given the
extent of the medieval misrepresentation of Augustine that
ensued,[11] it is worth examining his attitude towards
earthly societies (including "Christian empires") in some
detail. The first principle is paramount: that earthly
societies contain, just as people do, an undistinguishable
mixture of good and evil.
Only if that point is kept in mind can the redemptive power
of Christ in Augustinian thought be fully appreciated.
First, the coming of Christ gives sense to history. It
places a fixed and final benchmark by which all other
events are measured. But the heavenly city had been
represented on earth before Christ's coming as well as
after. Cain and Abel were the earthly founders of both
cities, and throughout the Old Testament Augustine traces
the pre-Christian history of redemption. The Old Testament
patriarchs did not merit salvation by their own deeds, for
the grace that saved them was the grace Christ brought.
Though Christ came at a particular time, his grace pervades
Christianity and the church hold a central, but temporary
place in the drama of salvation history. They embrace the
imperfection of human existence in the fallen world, and
like this world they will pass away. What is genuinely
important for all men is the ultimate progress towards
union with God. Those who are outwardly in God's good favor
(as loyal members of the Christian church) but who are
finally found wanting in divine judgment have never been
part of the heavenly city, appearances notwithstanding.
Similarly, those who have not been visible members of the
church but who do experience the transforming reality of
God's grace (in Augustine's explicit discussion these
people are limited to the Old Testament figures, but
nothing he says compels us to keep the limits there) win
final union with God.
In all this drama, Christianity and the church are far from
irrelevant. The paradox is that they are essential and yet
dispensable. The message of grace could not have come into
the world without them, and the church continues to bear
the special marks of divine favor that make it a sure guide
and a channel of grace. More than that, it is pointless to
speculate. Faith and hope, not assurance, are the marks of
a Christian believer.
So, paradoxically, history is entirely changed by the
intervention of Christ--and nothing is changed. To the
world of appearance, only appearances change. A new
religion comes to compete with the others, a new clique of
the self-proclaimed elect declares itself. But in reality,
divine grace works unceasingly in the hidden recesses of
the lives of all those who open themselves to it. Much
mystery surrounds the encounter of grace and the will, and
that mystery characterizes the church in the world. But for
Augustine in City of God, the elucidation of the ambiguity
is less important than the recognition of its main features.
Augustine's historical vision is far from narrow. The
actions of Christ and his church have affected only a
portion of the human race in the conventional view of
history, but for Augustine it is the Christian revelation
that gives all history its meaning. All history is
salvation history. The meaning given to human life by
Christ by a single intervention is true for all men and
women everywhere. The message is sent forth to all nations,
and all nations can be called to receive it. This is the
finality of the Christian message. What remains is to be
revealed, in the last days, will be revealed in accord with
what is already known, and no less universally. Despite its
recursions into various forms of exclusivity, Christianity
gave the world the first vision of human history as a
coherent and organized whole, not merely as a welter of
mutually hostile exclusivities.
For Augustine's account of human history in Books 15- 18,
the primary text is always scripture. This may appear to
imply a kind of exclusivity in itself until we recall that
according to the principles laid down in Christian
Doctrine, the allegorical interpretation of that scripture
is the medium by which the apparent exclusivity of the text
is broken down and the pertinence of every page to every
age of history is clarified. Thus, when Augustine expounds
the spiritual, or allegorical, sense of scripture, he uses
the limited text of scripture as a key to unlock a vision
wider than the text.
In this comprehensive view of human history, so trivial and
evanescent a thing as the Roman empire plays little part.
Augustine had no wish to deny the achievements of that
empire, for in the world Augustine knew the Roman empire
was easily the most extensive and the longest-lasting
exercise ever undertaken in creating a substitute for
paradise. But the Augustine who had once proclaimed an
emperor's praises could, with the guidance of the Christian
message, tear himself away from the secular vision of Roman
glory. Once he did so, it was easy to turn back to the
Roman world and see it as no more ultimately meaningful
than a modern scholar would.
By the time Augustine came to the end of Book 18, he was
ready to recapitulate the results of his attempt to
disentangle human affections from human creations. Book 19
contains his vision of human society seen sub specie
aeternitatis.[12] The evocation of peace, true peace, the
goal of human life even in fraudulent human societies
created by sinful people is profoundly appealing.
The subject is approached in several ways. A long and
whimsically pedantic analysis traces the 288 possible
philosophical approaches to happiness that the Roman
polymath Varro had outlined (19.1-4). All are reduced to
one way, the Christian way. An old quarrel with Cicero,
postponed from Book 2, is taken up to show where justice is
absent true community cannot exist (19.21). In communities
robbed of justice by original sin, the real peace of an
ideal soci- ety cannot exist. (He had earlier asked, "What
are kingdoms without justice? Mere bands of hoodlums."
The Christian community lives on, loving the true peace of
the heavenly Jerusalem, devoid of illusions about the
transient world in which it finds itself. This illusionless
existence gives the Christian church a detachment from the
secular world that in practice it does not always maintain.
While secular governments attempt to create lasting peace
in a world destined to know only strife and struggle until
the last days, there is a subversive quality about the life
that Augustine imagines for the church in these
circumstances. She is, he says, to "use the peace of
Babylon," (19.26) that is to say, take advantage of all the
limited and partial peace that human society can find for
itself, without ever settling for that peace. She is to
use, not enjoy, the peace of the earthly city, and always
to keep her eyes focused on the ultimate goal. As citizens
of the heavenly city, Christians are always to recall where
their true allegiance lies.
What then of the warfare of the earthly city? Augustine is
often invoked as a kind of patron saint of the Just War.
The passage in City of God in which he expounds his theory
in its greatest detail deserves quotation in full: "But the
wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he
remembers that he is a human being, he will much rather
lament the need to wage even just wars. For if they were
not just he would not have to fight them and there would be
no wars for him. The injustice of the opposing side is what
imposes the duty of waging wars." (19.7) For Augustine, the
Christian's job is to resist, conceding the justice of a
cause only with reluctance, always on the lookout for the
moment justice deserts his own cause. The siege of his own
Hippo in the last months of his life seemed to Augustine a
conflict both just and wretched, a calamity for the people
he had served lovingly for forty years.[13]
In earthly terms, the vision of human society City of God
provides is unremittingly bleak, even if indisputable. Most
human societies, enamored with the daydreams of politics,
pretend the human condition is better than it is. Men
forget history because they do not want to remember that
others have gone down paths of prosperity and complacency
before them. But in western Christianity since Augustine
there has always been a prophetic voice to proclaim the
ultimate weakness of human political societies.
Christianity offers mankind a hope besides which the gloom
of the human condition is as nothing. Christian theology
after Augustine is always hopeful and, in the deepest sense
optimistic. But for those who reject that theology, the
vision of human society that is left is stark and
terrifying. In this sense as well, all history is salvation
history. The salvific quality of that history makes it
possible to be realistically honest about the damnable
qualities of life in the interim; there are no easy ways
out for Augustine.
In the last three books of City of God, Augustine gives
substance to his hope. At the close of human history in the
present age, there come the last things: death, judgment,
heaven, and hell. Eschatological thought animated the early
church long after it became clear that the second coming
would not occur in the lifetime of the apostles. The
fathers are not being morbid and gloomy when they speak of
last things at times of material and moral crisis in their
society; eschatology is hope. We have lived too long in a
society growing from Christian roots and have become
overfamiliar with the most vivid and negative
representations of eschatological themes to be able to see
that hope fresh when we encounter those themes in the
ancient writers.
Augustine is in fact as restrained as a modern liberal
theologian in his depiction of what lies ahead. He knew the
alluring dangers of too-explicit representations for
popular piety and contented himself instead with insisting
on the most abstract of outlines of future life. At one
place he does list the principal scriptural manifestations
that are prophesied to accompany the last days, but he
promptly qualifies what he says by adding that he is sure
all these things will happen, but he cannot be certain of
the order in which they will occur, nor does he think that
the list is in any way exhaustive. (20.30) He feels deeply
the deceptive quality of metaphor in such description.
Human language is always a broken instrument, and thus it
labors under a double burden. Not only is the language
itself suspect, but it draws its terms of reference
entirely from a world that is suspect as well. The notion
of life itself is only partial and inadequate in human
experience and language. Whatever it is that the blessed
will experience in their union with God--that is life, and
what we now experience is metaphor, even though language
tries to make it the other way around.
Augustine's discussion of the afterlife thus does not
establish a clear picture of what awaits, but instills
expectant hope, while nurturing the faith and trust that
will enable the hopeful to accept what they find. The
weakness of the human mind and its language are just too
great in the face of the greatest of mysteries. Theology
can only instill reverence and leave behind a residue of
So far the purposes and so far the plan of City of God. Ten
books outline the weaknesses of the secular vision of
history embodied in Roman life and thought, then twelve
books sketch the pattern of history, putting life here
below in the middle panel of a triptych, with God the
creator standing before and God the judge standing after.
This vision of history draws authority entirely from
outside the conventional limits of history, and hence can
claim for the transient affairs of time-bound men and women
a dimension of meaning no secular ideology can manage. We
will debate to the end of time whether any vision such as
Augustine's can be valid or not. Augustine himself would
expect this, since the final revelation is by definition
withheld until precisely the end of time. For the time
being (which is, Augustine would point out, all we have)
the rhetorical and polemical power of Augustine's vision in
undermining the claims of Rome and supplanting them with
the claims of his own community was dramatic. 


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