Category Archives: City of God

A message from the Oracle

In a scene from one of my favourite films Neo is anxiously waiting for a message from the Oracle – an all wise guru who he believes will tell him his destiny. It is one of the key moments in The Matrix and drives to the core of our hero’s self discovery. Is he really “the one” or just another wannabe?

As he sits in the waiting room surrounded by kids bending spoons he suddenly appears uncertain, inexperienced and bemused. What the prophet says to him only adds to his confusion. It appears the path of his destiny is not as clear as he thought it would be after meeting the Oracle.

If the focus of The Matrix is the self-discovery of the chosen one through a vague Oracle, the focus of the Bible is rather a decisive Oracle declaring great promises to chosen people. In Book 16 of the City of God Augustine traces the separation of the people of God from the people of the earthly city – beginning in Adam, to Noah and then Abraham and his descendants.

Augustine compares this period to “the boyhood of this race of God’s people from Noah down to Abraham himself. As the people of God began to be identified from their kin:

When we are studying the people of Christ, in whom the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, if we look for the physical ancestry of Christ in the descendants of Abraham, we discount the sons of his concubines, and Isaac presents himself. If we look in the descendants of Isaac, we set aside Esau, and Jacob presents himself, who is also Israel. If we examine the descendants of Israel himself, we set aside others, and Judah presents himself, because it was from the tribe of Judah that Christ was born.

XVI.41

So we see this sifting of a family from among a people, of a brother from his siblings, and the younger being favoured over the older. To each is given precious promises of land, a people and prosperity.

Only in King David did this come to fruition, for “David marks the beginning of an epoch and with him there is what maybe called the start of manhood of God’s people, since we may regard the period from Abraham to David as the adolescence of the race”.

What strikes me about looking at these passages through Augustine’s eyes is the deliberate detail that he picks up in the ancient record. At one point he points out that the line from Adam to Noah to Abraham “does not include anyone without a statement of the number of years he lived”. God took effort to ensure there is an accurate and detailed history of the early growth of the City of God – names, ages, locations, promises and answers are all given in detail.

Looking back from thousands of years later, during what we might call the “setting sun” stage of our growth, it’s comforting to rest on the certainty of fulfilled promises from the original Oracle, and observe the global inheritance of Abraham now being displayed for all to see. There is no counting of the number of believers alive today – millions around the world who shine like the stars in heaven.

“He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”” Genesis‬ ‭15:5‬. Abraham believed the clear message of the original Oracle – the true hallmark of all those citizens of the heavenly kingdom who would follow in his footsteps down through the ages.

The right and wrong cause of conflict

Looking back over the last few weeks we have touched on some big themes – some of which we like to talk about, others we try to avoid. I’ll let you decide which is which!

I was struck when reading Book 15 of the City of God this week that there are really insightful lessons for us on a key topic that perhaps we don’t like talking about but is an inevitable part of being human – conflict.

In this section Augustine traces the early days of the earthly and heavenly cities, right back to their founding fathers Cain and Seth. He sees the conflict between Cain and Abel as a picture or symbol of the conflict that will always exist between the two cities.

As we trace Cain’s descendants they are the first to establish a physical city on earth. He compares this to how Rome was founded by two brothers, one of whom killed the other. Augustine contrasts the evil jealousy of both sets of brothers with the goodness experienced in the heavenly city:

Cain was the diabolical envy that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil. A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them.

XV.5

He goes on to explain that the members of the earthly city “fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked. But the good, if they have reached perfect goodness, cannot fight against themselves”.

Thus we see that there will always be conflict between the citizens of the two cities as well as conflict within the earthly city as it fights itself. Moreover, we know that no citizen of the heavenly city has reached perfection so “there may be fighting among them inasmuch as any good man may fight against another as a result of that part of him which makes him also fight against himself”. He goes on to say

Spiritual desire can fight against the carnal desire of another person, or carnal desire against another’s spiritual desire, just as the good and wicked fight against one another. Or even the carnal desires of two good men may fight.

XV.5

There is much more in Book 15 worth exploring, including a fascinating explanation of the long length of life before the flood, incest and giants. But that is for another day! The jewel that I would hold up before us is this brief dive into the types of conflict, summarised as:

  • Earthly city infighting
  • Earthly and heavenly city fighting each other
  • Individuals within heavenly city fight with themselves against their own sinful nature
  • Spiritual desire of one person fights against carnal desire of another (within the heavenly city)
  • Carnal desires of two good men fight against each other

While the first and the last in the list are ultimately ungodly conflict, the other three causes could have a godly purpose and motivation. Indeed, there can be no progress towards perfection without conflict – either in the individual or the church. There are remnants of the sinful (carnal) nature in all of us, even the most godly.

What this tells me is that in vain do we seek a life free of conflict, whatever city we belong to and whatever our need for peace and calm. We should expect conflict, welcome it (to some extent), and learn from it in order to grow in godliness and spiritual maturity.

Choosing a life void of conflict, with comfort or any other object as our goal, is choosing a life of spiritual stagnation. The key question I leave this section of the book with is this…will I live determined to be driven and controlled only and ever by my spiritual desires throughout any and all conflict I experience? Whilst I naturally avoid conflict, if when it comes, I can keep this as my spiritual north, then the conflict will be redeeming and healing whenever it arrives and wherever it leads.

“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Shame, lust, and sex in paradise

Now that I have got your attention let me say right up front, I wouldn’t be writing about these topics if they weren’t the main theme of Book 14 of the City of God. But having committed to blog my way through it, these are the topics Augustine addresses and there are some timely lessons, reminders and corrections that we need to heed. It’s probably good for me to write about things I would ordinarily avoid!

Augustine begins by tracing the origins of our first disobedience and the ethical standards within the two Cities – one that lives by the standard of the flesh, the other that live by the standard of the spirit. These two cities are “different and mutually opposed”. Augustine then investigates how our corruption manifests itself and finds faults of both mind and body (ie flesh). Although he notes that:

Man has undoubtedly the will to be happy, even when he pursues happiness by living in a way which makes it impossible of attainment.

XIV.4

Four “disturbances” or “passions” are identified that drive our emotions: desire, fear, joy & sadness. Augustine rightly sees that these passions are not good or bad in themselves but are dependent on how our wills direct them.

A love which strains after the possession of the loved one is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief. Consequently, these feelings are bad, if the love is bad, and good if the love is good.

XIV.7

Switching gears to before we had our fallen and corrupt nature, Augustine takes us back to the Garden of Eden – paradise! He asks what kind of emotions they possessed while they were sinless. He says there was “a serene avoidance of sin” and proposes that offspring could have been granted in this sinless bliss until “the number of predestined saints was made up”.

Unfortunately we never got to see what would have happened if Adam had never sinned. All subsequent offspring were conceived after the Fall. This raises a very specific question in Augustine’s mind – how would procreation have been different in paradise? He sees the evils of sexual lust, the sense of shame it creates and wonders how it could ever have been done purely.

For Augustine it boils down to the inability of our wills to control every part of our bodies. Why did our first parents, as soon as they had sinned, feel shame when the knew they were naked, and sought to cover themselves?

It was after the sin that man’s nature felt, noticed, blushed at, and concealed this lust: for man’s nature retained a sense of decency, although it had lost the authority to which the body had been subordinate in every part.

XIV.21

Augustine imagines a paradise where there was no conflict between lust and will, and the act as of procreation was as natural and pure as any other bodily act.

Reading this book I can understand why Augustine has been perceived as “anti-sex”. He is willing to speculate beyond the bounds of scripture, and his piercing intellect wraps his arguments up in a forceful hypothesis. But in areas in this book he is over-reaching scripture’s solid ground.

Unfortunately in the following centuries the church built upon teachings such as these a disapproving tone regarding sex. We know God loves marriage and designed it as an illustration of his love for his bride, the church. We will never know this side of eternity what marriage was like in Eden.

Moreover, shame of their nakedness was quickly followed by shame and guilt from lying about their deception, and shame of murder by their son. Perhaps a better perspective on this discussion is the concept of modesty rather than shame?

Those within the City of God know every act they do has the faint taint of sin, but yet we seek to use our wills and direct our emotions to serve God and others by acts done in love. We know too well that no act we ever do, or relationship we ever have, will ever be wholly free from sin. Those within the City of Man deny their shame, redirect their wills and rejoice in the fulfilment of their selfish desires – preventing them achieving happiness whilst desperately seeking to attain it.

Death is the most certain possibility

If there is one topic that no one wants to talk about or think about it is death. Many people would rather think about anything else than their own mortality. We prefer escapism to realism, counting our “Likes” to numbering our days, numbing our pain to meditating on our end.

Into this world Augustine is a counter-cultural cold shower. Book 13 is seared through with the facts of death, encased in cold hard biblical logic. At the heart of his essay is the question of the nature of the fall of man and how this can be overcome by the granting of the life-giving Spirit.

Augustine investigates many important themes including the relationship between the soul and the body, the interplay between death and punishment. The quote of Book 13 for me was this:

There is no one who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year, nearer tomorrow than today, today than yesterday, who will not by and by be nearer than he is at the moment or is not nearer at the present time than he was a little while ago. Any space of time that we live through leaves us with so much less time to live, and the remainder decreases with every passing day; so that the whole of our lifetime is nothing but a race towards death.

XIII.10

Wow! Stop and re-read that several times. This knuckle-grating realism quickens our senses and alerts us to the coming last stop. Rather than breed fatalism there are two urgent applications that this truth sharpens in our focus and we would do well to heed.

Through a detailed analysis of what it means to pass from like to death Augustine proves there is only life or death, and speaking about someone dying is illogical. He looks at three situations: “before death”, “in death” and “after death” and concludes there is only life which immediately becomes death, with no in between phase. Yes, yes, I say to myself, this is clear, why are you stressing this so much? Then his reason slams home as he describes the second death (the abandoning of our soul by God).

For that death, which means not the separation of soul from body but the union of both for eternal punishment, is the more gracious death; it is the worst of all evils. There men will not be in the situations of “before death “ and “after death”, but always “in death”, and for this reason they will never be living, never dead, but dying for all eternity.

XIII.11

This is an horrendous sadness. There are no words to soften the blow of this reality. The only hope is to avoid this situation before it is too late, before the final sand grain falls

By contrast, the second major application is a ray of hope for all those awaiting a new body, without the failings and foibles of our current version. Augustine meditates on the difference between the body Adam had in Eden and the bodies we shall be given in the new Paradise:

For the body which will be incapable of death is that which will be spiritual and immortal in virtue of the presence of a life-giving spirit. In this it will be like the soul which was created immortal… The immortality with which they are clothed will be like that of the angels, an immortality which cannot be taken away by sin; and though the natural substance of flesh will continue, no slightest trace of carnal corruptibility or lethargy will remain.

XIII.24

Given the certainty of death and the exhortation of our Creator to consider these two destinies, who wouldn’t chose life? The psalmist said “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90.12). May we be wise to reflect on the brevity of life, choose wisdom, choose life and choose Jesus.

The God beyond time

As I went on my morning walk today I noticed the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. It seemed to me the perfect illustration of the debate at the heart of Book 12 of the City of God – how does a changeless God relate to a changing world?

Augustine’s opponents were suggesting that God’s decision to create time & nature somehow reflects a change in his essential being. How can he go from being in perpetual eternity, outside of time, to then creating the world in a specific moment if God cannot change?

This is a lot more practical than it sounds. Essentially the arguments Augustine is dealing with here are very similar to the debate a few years ago on Open theism. This debate sought to highlight the bible verses that talk about God changing his mind, or changing a decision based on human activity.

Both the modern and ancient questions drive at the heart of God’s relation to his creation – either in its inception or its growth. Although I am finding I don’t agree with Augustine on everything in this book, his reasoning on the question of God’s unchangeable nature (his immutability) is outstanding.

His opponents were suggesting that perhaps God has always been sovereign over creation because there have been an endless cycle of birth, growth and death of planet earth and humankind. They argued that this cyclical theory avoids God transitioning from an eternity of nothingness into a time bound physical universe. Augustine argues that no matter how many cycles there have been there must have been a beginning to the process, and compared to this:

“any space of time which starts from a beginning and is brought to an end, however vast its extent, must be reckoned when compared with that which has no beginning, as minimal, or rather as nothing at all.”

XII.13

There was a moment when eternity observed the birth of time and the invisible beheld the arrival of the material world. Augustine recognises this is “certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alternation in his purpose and design”.

Augustine is right to warn against digging to deeply into this mystery. I think the problem with trying to probe this mystery is that we are bound within time. It’s like the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. A child might observe this and wonder how a tree’s shadow can make the ground so cold it creates frost within the shadow, while the ground all around is green. When time is taken into account we realise that it’s not that the tree’s shadow causes the frost, but that the sun is melting all the frost except for that protected by the shadow. The effect of time on the movement of the sun fools us.

So too we look at the “changes” that God instigates in time from our perspective and try to peer into eternity from within the tree’s shadow. It is impossible. Only the one who is outside of time can answer these mysteries.

“Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God, because it cannot be beyond the embrace of his knowledge”.

XII.19

All this is to do with origins, as Augustine is dealing with the origin of the Two Cities in this book. I suspect we will get to the even bigger brain-buster on this theme, which is the incarnation. Never mind God entering time from eternity, what about the omnipresent God entering a human body? Faith rests in the wisdom and revelation of God, unbelief asks why the tree’s shadow is producing frost.

The scattered traces of his being

Have you ever wondered why we are here? Many of us have asked this question at one point or another. As Augustine hits his stride in this first book (XI) of Part 2 of The City of God he asks a number of incisive questions: why do we exist at this moment in time? Why here in this part of space? What is the origin of the two cities? When did time start?

As this book pivots away from ancient discussions on the spiritual realm to the very real existence of planet earth, Augustine is diving head first into deep waters. He is unafraid to tackle the biggest issues head on – the origin of humans, angels, demons, goodness, evil, and philosophy. Through it all he keeps his Rule of Faith to guide him in what is truthful, helpful and appropriate.

Two discussions in particular are worthy of highlighting: his treatment of the origin of pure & fallen angels and his masterful handling of God’s creative purpose (ie the who, how & why of creation).

It fascinating to read how Augustine builds his case using the creation account in Genesis 1. He proposes that time began with creation and that “the world was not created in time, but with time” – hypothesising that there is no time without change and motion, which both started with the act of creation.

Augustine refers to Job 38.7 as evidence that angels existed before stars were made. As the sun wasn’t made until Day 4 he proposes that the “Let their be light” of Day 1 refers to the creation of angelic beings, with the separation to greater and lesser light being the division of the obedient and fallen angels.

“Thus the angels, illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became lights, and are called “day”, by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made.”

XI.9

Building on his consideration of creation, Augustine reflects on God’s verdict on his work – declaring it is good. Like an expert surgeon he unpacks this divine declaration, on multiple levels. He recognises that “it is not that God discovered that it was good, after he had made it. Far from it… he is not discovering that fact but communicating it”.

Augustine goes on to say how God experiences things is totally different to us. He is not time bound like us mortals, no rather “he sees in some other manner, utterly remote from anything we experience or could imagine”. He says

“God comprehends all these (ie past, present & future) in a stable and eternal present. And with him there is no difference between seeing with the eyes and “seeing” with the mind, for he does not consist of mind and body”.

XI.21

So, says Augustine “he saw that what he had made was good when he saw that it was good that he should make it”. And why was it good that God should make such things? We find the answer by asking: “who made it, how he made it, and why he made it”. So for the statement Let their be light, the answer to these questions are: God / He said “let it be” / it was good!

“There can be no better author than God, no more effective skill than his word, no better cause than that a good product should be created by God, who is good.”

XI.21

This has tremendous implications as we consider our own existence: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” XI.26.

In a world that has lost its grip on the divine intent and pleasure behind our existence it is no surprise that we are also losing our sense of purpose, inherent self-worth and the preciousness of existence.

If we take one thing away from Book XI it should be that each and every one of us is crafted by the heart of a God of love who is delighted at his good handiwork. We are his prized possession – one he was willing to rescue by sacrificing his only Son. May we discovery this afresh this Easter Sunday.

The royal road

On first impressions a mirror appears an exact copy of the real world. Everything is the same as reality – save for one thing, everything is reversed. The left is the right and the right is the left. Perfect in detail, opposite in order.

So to for this latest section of The City of God, where we travel back in time to a mirror world. In Book 10 Augustine is responding to the views of a philosopher named Porphyry (234-305 AD) who is from the Platonic school of thought.

As I read the arguments it struck me how they were wrestling over issues that are on the whole the exact opposite of what we face today. They were concerned with the spiritual realm of angels and demons as a way to the blessed life, the world today is concerned with the god within ourselves.

They were concerned with finding the one right path to truth, society today has abandoned the idea of an absolute truth. They were concerned with understanding the heavenly realms, we are obsessed with the physical.

If this is the case what benefit is there in studying this mirror world, and what can this book teach us? Much I believe. By stretching our minds over a long span of time we can see that the ancient days were different but similar to our own. Despite the different cultural backdrop mentioned above these discrepancies only serve to highlight where we are still the same after over a thousand years later.

We still are lost! We are still looking for the secret to a blessed life. We still debate the validity of the historical record of the New Testament (despite overwhelming evidence). We still need help to find the path to life.

At one point Augustine notes that despite his great learning Porphyry admits “no doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul; no such way has been produced by any philosophy, or by the moral teaching of the Indians or by the magical spells of the Chaldeans…this universal way had never been brought to his knowledge in his study of history (X.32).”

Ironically, here we are over a thousand years later and still the world is looking for the answer to life – now within the dark corners of our souls. Not much has changed!

Down through the ages Augustine teaches that there is indeed a “royal road, which alone leads to that kingdom whose glory is not the tottering grandeur of the temporal, but the secure stability of the eternal.”

Porphyry dismissed Christianity as the “universal way” because he lived at a time when it was being persecuted and thought this would “soon lead to the disappearance of this way…not realising that this persecution which so influenced him, and he was afraid of suffering if he chose to follow that way, in fact tended to strengthen Christianity and commend it more forcefully”.

As we approach Easter this is the perfect time to discover the truth that so evaded Porphyry – that there is indeed a Royal Road that is open to all – a universal way to find truth, please God & live a blessed life. It is this road that leads to “the eternal dominion of the glorious City of God in the deathless enjoyment of the vision of God”. May we discover it this Easter and find the life that it brings to all who journey on it.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:13-14‬

The not so super-natural

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of a young genius mathematician from India who can see formulae for incredibly complex theories as if they are simply colours in the rainbow. He explains (spoiler alert!) that these equations are given to him by the goddess he worships. Is it possible that the gods and goddess communicate with their followers? And if so can they help them find eternal peace?

This is the question that Augustine is wrestling with in Book 9 of the City of God. Perhaps a question unfamiliar territory for modern day Western minds, but maybe not so for Eastern religions. The issue Augustine is addressing is the problem of our separation from God. He is seeking to understand how a being who is infinite and spirit, can be known by those who are finite and physical.

In the ancient world (and still today in some parts of the world) this problem was attempted to be solved through the mediation of gods on behalf of people to the supreme being and vice versa. But does this solution withstand closer scrutiny? Augustine takes what their own philosophers have said about these beings and challenges the logic to see if there is any real possibility that they can help humans bridge the divine divide.

He starts by asking, are there good and bad gods? Followers of Plato saw all gods as good. So, how then to explain the things they do that we disapprove of? The bad ones some call demons, those who do evil activities and have degraded passions. These philosophers believed that gods have no contact with man, so gods are established midway, to carry men’s requests and bring back the benefits the gods have granted.

In order to more accurately define what we are talking about Augustine uses the definition of Apuleius, saying that these beings (described as demons throughout the chapter) are “animals in respect of species; in respect of soul, liable to passions; in mind, capable of reason; in body, composed of air; in life-span, eternal“. Some of these characteristics these creatures share with humans, some with the supreme being.

Humankind is described as having “a lowly abode, mortality & misery“, while gods are described by “the sublimity of their abode, the eternity of their life, the perfection of their nature“. Thus we can see three key elements that distinguish people, demons and God: i) their mortality, ii) their location and iii) their nature. People are temporal, earthly and unhappy, demons are eternal, ethereal and miserable, while God is eternal, spirit and forever blessed.

Augustine says these demons are worse than men, “older in wickedness and incapable of being reformed by the punishment they deserve” and so they are tossed about on “the raging sea of their minds“. He says that “only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against the turbulent and degraded passions” if we are not to be carried along with them on the path to destruction.

To all this Augustine poses the question, can such beings that share our misery help us acquire the eternal blessedness of God? Can they aid us to achieve that which they are unable of accomplishing themselves? No, says Augustine, we need a mediator that has the opposite characteristics to demons, something, or someone who is mortal, earthy and perfectly blessed:

all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be also wretched. If this is so, we must look for a mediator who is not only human but also divine, so that men may be brought from mortal misery to blessed immortality by the intervention of the blessed mortality of this mediator. It was necessary that he should not fail to become mortal, equally necessary that he should not remain mortal“.

In order to bridge the gap between two worlds a mediator must share common ground with each side of the divide. In theory it may seem that demons could do this as “they are immortals, like the gods, and wretched, like men“. However, their desires are corrupted and even if they could help humankind reach the divine, they would not want to unite people with their sworn enemy. In fact they would do everything in their power to separate them from their eternal home.

In Augustine’s time they did this through creating a counterfeit religion which attempted to divert people from worshiping the true God. In our day they do it through covert means of maintaining the illusion that the only reality is the visible realm. Hiding behind the curtain they use their power to filter out the ripples of real supernatural activity, and hide their true nature from prying eyes.

These days we would never ask the same questions Augustine does of these beings. The average Westerner would claim they couldn’t care less about whether such demons exist, they are the thing of reality TV shows in haunted houses, and gory Hollywood horror movies. Our fascination is less about salvation and more about sensation – helping us escape from the real world for a few hours in our imagination.

We would do well to reconsider our limited view of the supernatural if we would avoid the twin errors of a counterfeit religion and a covert deception. We must find our refuge in the one true mediator who truly has our best interests at heart and has once and for all bridged the chasm between the divine and the debased. God the Son fulfilled the criteria perfectly by demonstrating that “the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness“. And he invited each of us into that blessedness through his atoning death on the cross.

Lord Jesus, help us to rest fully on your mediating work, the one and only rescue to bring us safely to our eternal home. Thank you for taking on our frail humanity and weak nature to join us with you for all eternity. Amen

The antidote for our selfie generation

As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.

As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.

Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.

If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.

Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?

To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.

Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.

“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?

If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonumthe Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?

Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:

  1. Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
  2. Natural, devoted to speculation; and
  3. Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood

Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:

  • “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
  • “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
  • “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?

When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”

Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.

Tellus the answer Mother

Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.

In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.

So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.

Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.

What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.

An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.

The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.

All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.