Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Augustine's Political and Theological Realism

One of my colleagues at work, Judy Granberry, is making her way through selections from St. Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God, with her Adv. English I students. She sent me the following question and what follows is my response to her inquiry:
Adam - What is Augustine suggesting about free will when he asserts that one community of men is "predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil"? Is this contrary to his argument that by living rightly we may obtain the supreme good and escape the supreme evil?

You asked some excellent questions. Here is my hopefully thorough and clear response.

And these we also mystically call the two cities, or the two communities of men, of which the one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil. (Book XV, Chapter 1)
Augustine's conception of the two cities is derived from synthesizing biblical exegesis and a philosophical and religious reading of history. Put simply, the Bible teaches and Augustine affirms that some souls choose the righteous path and attempt to follow God obediently by conforming their wills to His will, while other persons are hard of heart and refuse the grace that God freely offers, opting instead to assert the primacy of their own wills over and against His will. The former are received into Heaven by the grace of God; the latter are condemned to Hell for their pride and obduracy.

The proclivity to stray from God’s will originated with the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and will continue until the end of time. As I often tell my students, read literally the Genesis account seems antiquated and remote from modern consciousness to say the least; however, when read allegorically as Augustine himself most assuredly did (See On Christian Doctrine), the second creation account offers profound and luminous insights about human nature and why people, including ourselves, act the way they do again and again and again in every age and epoch.

Augustine extrapolates from these twin revelatory truths—original sin (man’s fallen nature) and the two possible eternal destinies of man— an allegorical interpretation of history foreshadowed by scripture and affirmed by philosophical and rational investigation. This is why, for example, he links the City of Man with Cain and Hell and the City of God with Abel and Heaven.

Every man and woman possesses dual citizenship in a City of Man and the City of God in this life; in the hereafter, however, an individual pledges his or her allegiance to only one of these cities by virtue of how he or she conducted him or herself in this life and whether or not he or she accepted the gift of grace and forgiveness from the loving triune God.

The Two Cities, then, possess at least two primary significations for Augustine (secular and eternal). A City of Man is a secular polity and its respective laws and particular order and ethos to which a man or woman may claim with a clean conscience a measure of earthly fidelity and loyalty. This is good and right to the extent that its laws, ethos, and order do not compel or coerce the pilgrim citizen of the City of God to compromise his or her faith. The City of God is, of course, the heavenly city to which the Christian owes absolute faith, but how he or she achieves this is complicated by the fact that he or she lives in the secular and temporal order with its attendant temptations and ever present potential for condemnation. Grace is needed daily in this realm, hence the ubiquity of the sacraments.

Since cities are constituted of fallen men, they possess a fallen nature, too. They will rise and fall for the same reasons that individuals do, weakness and concupiscence. Cities of Men cannot supply salvation to their citizens nor could they ever. This explains why any and all utopian political ideologies are doomed to failure and why even the mighty Roman Empire, and our own American hegemony, will not stand the test of time. It is the very belief that a City of Man could be enough for its citizens in and of itself that makes the citizen of the City of God wary and cautious in placing any trust in the state. This is also why Augustine associates it with Cain and Hell. The Christian must always be on guard and skeptical against the real and potential injustices of the state because they may endanger his or her soul. Also, the Christian pilgrim must resist the temptation to forget God and to posit too much faith in the self-sufficiency of the state or him or herself.

On the other hand, we should not look for chimeras either. We must live in the world even if we are not ultimately of the world. This is what Augustine is trying to do with his masterful treatise after all. He wants us to engage the City of Man but to remain faithful to Heaven. Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of history grounded in biblical exegesis is extremely pragmatic and realistic. It keeps the pilgrim believer sojourning in this alien land from growing too comfortable and confusing earth for his true homeland, Heaven. It explains why the rise and fall of nation states has nothing to do with any perceived inadequacies or contradictions of Christianity and everything to do with man’s fallen nature on a macro-scale. It encourages the Christian to be an active participant in his or her society but always with a level head, a prudent mind, a charitable heart, and a Christian hope founded on Christ. At the end of the day, it is only Abel’s city that can provide the needed succor and safe harbor during the storms of life and which can deliver salvation in the next world.

I hope this helps!


1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I found your blog (listed on Nick Senger's) I'm going to add it to my reader. I teach 9th and 10th grade religion - the subjects of Church History, Old Testament and Morality. I like your explanation here. Very relevant to my Morality curriculum. Reading your response reminded me of something I read in a book by NT Wright called Simply Christian. Great book. Have you heard of it/read it? I actually diagrammed the picture he described. It was a Venn Diagram with the spheres of Heaven and Earth intersecting. In that intersection is where we are called to live and to help spread the Kingdom here on earth. One note on the subject of pre-destination-- an omniscient God existing outside the constraints of time is able to know everything even "before" it happens within our earthly timetable. I believe it is possible for Him to know our fate without it interfering with our free will if that makes sense...