Augustine and The City of God

Last night, I turned the last page on St. Augustine’s City of God, all 1182 pages. Whew.

Augustine and I go way back – he had me write the forward for one of his books. I was happy to oblige, anything for a church father. So I was eager to read his central defining work (with Confessions running a close second).

The City of God is beefy. If you plan to go in, you best take provisions and gear, you’re going to be on the trail for a while. I won’t offer a full-scale review, partly because I need some space to process the experience and Augustine’s sense of things – and partly because a proper review of City of God (COG) requires a level of energy I can’t seem to muster.

Essentially, Augustine offered a comprehensive vision of the two competing cities, the City of God and the City of Man. These two cities offer us the two orders of society, or realms of human loyalty. I almost said human reality just there, but I think Augustine would take umbrage with that. For him – and this was one of my favorite themes in COG – there is only one reality. Everything else is a non-reality, unreal. So good and evil are not two somewhat equal forces competing for power in the world. Rather, what is real (God, good, the Kingdom of Light) is, through redemption, overwhelming all that is unreal (Satan, evil, the Kingdom of Darkness).

Emerging from the accusation (amid the rubble of Rome) that Christianity – and its opposition to traditional Roman religion/gods – brought down the Empire, Augustine gave a sweeping vision of God’s purposes for the world and how these purposes set the stage for the outworking of human history. He wrote, not primarily as an academic but as a churchman, one who wanted to spur all who would listen on to their “final good” – that place where, whenever we arrive at it, “each [of us] are made happy.”

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts (which I must admit, feels a bit unjust, like bumper-sticker Augustine)

Moreover, if God, by Whom all things were made, is wisdom, as the divine authority and truth have shown, then the true philosopher is a lover of God.

He is the fount of our blessedness, and He is the goal of all our desires…

For our good…is nothing other than to cling to Him…

[I]n comparison with the Creator’s knowledge, the knowledge of the creature is like a kind of evening light. But when our knowledge is directed to the praise and love of the Creator, it dawns and is made morning; and night never falls while the Creator is not forsaken by the creature’s love…And, indeed, the knowledge which created things have of themselves is, so to speak, shadowy until they see themselves in the light of God’s wisdom and, as it were, in relation to the art by which they were made…they know themselves better in God than in themselves…In Him, therefore, they have, as it were, a daylight knowledge, whereas in themselves, they have a twilight knowledge…

In some cases, therefore, there can exist things which are wholly good; but there can never be things which are wholly evil.

The soul, then, draws life from God when it lives well…

For the good make use of this world in order to enjoy God; but the evil, by contrast, wish to make use of God in order to enjoy this world. By striving after more, man is diminished.

[T]he holier a man is, and the fuller of holy desire, so much more abundant is his weeping when he prays.

And a few of the questions I ponder as I walk away from Augustine for a bit (the same age-old debates here, nothing insightful or new):

To what extent was Augustine influenced by versions of Platonism, even as he critiqued Platonism on many fronts? Was his division between soul and body still overdone?

What exactly is the nature of happiness redemption offers in this world (not the world to come)?

In what ways (other than procreation) is orgasmic sexuality good, rightly pleasurable to the senses? To me, Augustine seems to say that any physical enjoyment of sexual acts are inherently results of our inferior fallen state. Could Augustine give more space to the good of sensual pleasure or even to the higher ideal of sex as sacrament?

Why does Augustine seem to go to such great lengths to absolve central Biblical characters from their wrongdoing (humanity even)? And could he achieve the “more spiritual” reading he desires (in some cases) without running quite so roughshod over the Scriptural narrative actually sitting before us?

And finally (cliche though it is): Augustine, what was your deal with women???

4 Replies to “Augustine and The City of God”

  1. And then abandoned the equivalent of his common law wife.

    Certainly, his past (addictions, I'd call them) played into his view of sexuality.

    However, with my question, I'm more interested in his frequent comments (condescending, if not disparaging it seems to me) about the feminine / Eve / culpability, etc.

  2. I haven't braved City of God yet. I read chapter while sitting in Borders caused it intrigued me and may read it one day. But whew…that's a load. Thanks for the review though.

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