Category Archives: City of God

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.

Fortuna favours the bearded

Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day – an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He was described as “Varro, that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”.  Back in the final years of BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular religious author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists from Constantinople to Carthage.

It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in Book 6 of City of God in order to refute the widely held belief that, the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps, he asks, we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?

It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life, from the growing of beards (Fortuna) to eternal life (Juventas) to everything in between. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the fabulous (from fable), natural and civil.  The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro states that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theatre; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.

Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude. In frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.” Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.

Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people as superstitious, just as today’s atheists look at Christians as equally superstitious. We live in the age of secular humanism, where there are absolutely no gods behind the scenes, only the mechanistic mono-dimensional world where the only reality is the reality I see with my eyes. The so-called rational secular humanists claim the voice of reason as they heap scorn on our belief in things that the human eye cannot see. In chapter 6 of City of God the roles are reversed. It is society that sees hundreds if not thousands of gods everywhere, and it is Augustine who is claiming the voice of reason. In chapters 1-5 he has argued against those who believe that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of benefit in this life, in chapters 6-10 he takes on the belief that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of eternal life.

Mankind has always oscillated between pantheism and atheism, with a healthy dose of monotheism thrown into the mix. The world is such a wonderful, capricious and unsentimental place and our lives are so fragile that we struggle to reconcile the certainty we long for with the uncertainty we experience. Are the failed crops a sign of divine displeasure, a random act or ecological karma? The response of people in Augustine’s day was to humanise their gods and make each one accountable for a different aspect of life, even the growth of beards. Their gods were an integral part of everyday life – the topic of the theatre, the focus of ceremonies, the theme of the academics. They were awash with superstition and contradiction.

Augustine asks the key question, “can these gods give you eternal life?” Does following them bring reward in this life, or the next? Augustine sought to refute the idea that the gods had any real power to control events and uses the most well known philosopher of the day on the topic. Atheists say that Christians are right to argue there are not thousands of gods – but that they stop one God short of the correct answer. But this underestimates the magnitude of the binary difference between 1 and 0. For me it is like finding a spouse – for the boy desperate to find his perfect girl the difference between no one and someone is immense. It is the difference between happiness and sadness, joy and despair.

No matter what the prevailing fashion of society is, there will always be Christians who hold to the reality of the Someone. For they have met their true soulmate and have found lasting, deep joy. The contrasting religious background may be black or white, pantheism or atheism, but the red of the cross will always stand out. Let society say we are alone in the universe, or let them say there are hundreds of mini-gods under every stone, we cannot agree.

Six impossible things before breakfast

4243505603_c52b2c9890“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Alice Through The Looking Glass)

Everything & Anything

So the White Queen implores Alice to learn how to believe the impossible: close your eyes and try really hard to ignore the obvious and disregard reality. This picture is a perfect description of how many secular humanists view Christians today – blindly wishing that what is obviously not real is real. Wishful believing in fanciful tales.

When Augustine wrote The City of God he lived among people who believed in almost everything and anything – they had plenty of practice in believing what we would think impossible. Augustine takes a pragmatic and rational approach – asking whether the gods can deliver on what they promise, and whether the lives of the followers match their beliefs. It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in chapter 6 of City of God in order to refute the notion that the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?

Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day, an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He is described by Terentianus Maurus as “that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”.  Back in the first century BC Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular science author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists in Constantinople and Carthage.

Poets, Plays & Philosophers

It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the  fabulous (from fable), natural and civil.  The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro States that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theater; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.

Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and sexually immoral temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude, in frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.”

Custom, Creed and Conviction

Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.

Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people all those years ago as superstitious and the atheists look at us today as superstitious. And in the middle are those thinkers who call us back to reason. Augustine is arguing from first principles – and like Alice he is seeking to expose the impossible inconsistencies in our belief and practice.

Back in those days the Jews and Christians were the “rational” ones – understanding what they believed and why, and following these beliefs. The majority of society were carried along on a wave of beliefs they inherited but never questioned. But we would never be so foolish…would we? Whether we believe in one God or none, or thousands, do we know why we believe what we do? Do we live in such a way that is consistent with our beliefs? The superstitious are those who unthinkingly follow the crowd and pour scorn on those who differ. May we be people of conviction who know why we believe what we believe, and may we follow through with our beliefs in a world that needs to see Christian’s with a reasonable faith.

The Good Life

1975_television_the_good_life_02One of my favourite family programmes growing up was The Good Life. For those outside the UK, this was a 1970s sit-com following the lives of the Tom & Barbara Good (in case you’re wondering I saw the repeats not the orginal series!). They sought to go back to basics and live life as it should be; to live off the land and provide for themselves by their honest hard work. The wife was played by Felicity Kendal and I thought of her this week when studying Augustine. For in book 5 of Augustine’s City of God he speaks about the pursuit and possession of felicity.

Felicity

For most of us, felicity is probably a rather old-fashioned girl’s name, but long before the olden days, it meant the “complete enjoyment of all that is to be desired” – what we call happiness. Felicity, or happiness, is the ability to enjoy life. It is more than being blessed in our material possessions; it is the ability to enjoy whatever possessions and situation we find ourselves in.

Augustine frames felicity within a wider question to his reader: “what is the virtuous life; how much is it due to God, and how much is it due to us?” His penetrating question combines 1) the concept of felicity (the ability to enjoy life), with 2) God’s Providence (his provision and direction over our lives), and 3) our virtue and choices.

He describes how the ability to enjoy and be satisfied in our blessings is a greater gift than simply the possession of those blessings. He compares our possession of blessings to a meal that has been prepared and served. It is great to possess a meal, but even better to participate in it; to eat and enjoy the meal. How much more the blessings of life – not just to have them, but to enjoy them?

However, he also recognises that God bestows felicity as he wishes, even on those who are not good. Therefore, he asks the question “why then was God willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long?” That is, how did Providence, felicity and virtue play out in the Roman Empire?

Providence

Augustine begins by attacking the practise of worshiping multitudes of gods in every aspect of life. He wonders why they need all these gods, when if they only had Felicity they would be content in life. “Why not worship Felicity?” he asks, for felicity is to be sought above all other gifts.

He then goes on to confront the superstitious belief in astrology that held sway amongst many Romans. Many saw their destiny dependent on the position of the stars at the time of birth or conception, others believed in pure chance. Augustine argues that God cares for and directs all of life. However, if God has already planned what will happen, does this take away our free will? What is the interaction between free will and God’s foreknowledge?

For Cicero the two things were mutually exclusive, he believed we must have free will and this meant no room for God’s will. For Augustine “the religious mind chooses both, foreknowledge as well as liberty; it acknowledges both, and supports both in pious faith.” But how can this be? Augustine argues that as every event must be preceded by a cause our wills also have causes and have been included in the preceding cause of God’s foreknowledge. God is the ultimate cause, we have a perceived freedom because we are a participating cause and our will is important because it forms part of the overall plan of his will.

Augustine says God is free to do his own will, for he is truly ALL-powerful. We do what we desire, so does God. He cannot do what he does not desire. Sometimes we desire and will something and it does not happen. God alone has the power to desire and the will to achieve. Augustine argues that if he foreknew our will then there was something he saw, not nothing – therefore we have a part to play.

He says that we have responsibility for willed sin. In God’s providence he has given man governance of creation. We share our existence with the stones, our reproductive life with plants, our senses with animals, and our intellect with the angels. We are responsible creatures and have been endowed with responsibility, over not only individual creatures but also their kingdoms.

Virtue

Augustine argues that the best characteristics of this governance were displayed in the Roman Empire. For, at its noblest, it was passionate about glory and this passion restrained other vices. Men were “greedy for praise, generous with money, seeking vast renown and honourable riches.” They were prepared to die for what they believed in, and this was a powerful force for good.

The important thing for the men of that time was “either to die bravely, or to live in freedom”. However, he also recognises that “in early times it was the love of liberty that led to great achievements, later it was the love of dominationWhen liberty had been won such a passion for glory took hold of them that liberty alone did not satisfy – they had to acquire dominion.”

They sought glory, honour and power – the good men sought these through virtuous deeds, the “worthless wretch” sought them through deception and trickery. However, over and above all these stood virtue, for virtue was considered greater than glory “since it is not content with the testimony of men, without the witness of a man’s own conscience.”

In a devastating critique of the decline of Rome he asks where have the virtues that made Rome great gone? Things that have ceased to exist: “energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy, a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions. Instead we have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We praise riches: we pursue a course of sloth. No distinction is made between good men and bad: the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit. No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; when at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.” The parallels for our own time are too obvious to mention.

Conclusion

Augustine saves the biggest challenge for the citizens of the heavenly city. “Very different is the reward of the saints” for our reward is to be enjoyed forever in the next life. However, in this life we are despised “for the City of God is hateful to the lovers of this world.” Nevertheless, we can learn much from those who sought their reward from earthly dominion. If they were willing to expand such devotion to virtue for earthly praise and honour, should we not be rebuked for our love of ease? Can we not learn from their self-denial, single-mindedness, integrity, poverty and temptations? If we have been made citizens of the City of God by the Providence of God, should we not seek even deeper virtue without the need for glory?

The Good Life is worth living because it is the only way to really enjoy life. Virtue is worth seeking even if no one else ever knows or sees. Felicity can be achieved without achievements.

Father help me not to seek power, prestige or popularity. Help me to seek only you and enable me to enjoy the blessings you have given me. Amen.

It is good for the good to rule

Sub-title: Tim Tebow, Bubba Watson & Fabrice Muamba – does God help those who take a stand for him?

It seems that wherever you look these days there are sports stars confidently declaring their Christian faith. NFL star Tim Tebow puts “John 3.16” on his eyelids and 90 million people Googled the text, golfer Bubba Watson gives God the glory for his 2012 Masters victory and professional footballer Fabrice Muamba says God protected him after being dead for 78 minutes.

The success of these outspoken sportsmen has caused many to ask, “Is God helping them win? Does he tip the game in favour of those who claim his name? What happens when they lose?” It is an intriguing question and is essentially the same issue at the heart of Book 4 of the City of God. In this chapter Augustine seeks to address the underlying reasons for the growth of the Roman Empire. He argues that God actually promoted the growth of Rome because he endorsed the principals upon which it was founded – their passion for glory based upon merit, rather than deceit. He essentially sees the rule of Rome being a force for good in the world, establishing justice and promoting peace.  

While many at the time were blaming the Christians for the downfall of Rome, Augustine turns the argument on its head. He seeks to explain that the expansion and victory of Rome was actually due to God’s providence, rather than Pagan gods, or the fate of the (celestial) stars. Augustine saw God’s hand raising the Roman Empire to the heights of glory and success it achieved.

So the question remains, are those who make their faith explicit and wear their commitment to God on their sleeve supported by God in their actions? “He who honours me, I will honour” God said to Samuel and it was with this verse ringing in his ears that Eric Liddell won the 400m Olympics and set a new world record. Does God help his servants win? Whether that be in sports, in elections, or in battles – is God the critical unseen factor endorsing his celebrity athletes and military generals?  If he does, then what about at the national level, does God take sides for nations? On which side of the war on terror is he? Is he for flying the flag or burning it? Does he have favourite nations that he backs, or is all our divinely-soaked imperialism an assumed support too far?

This debate goes right back to David and Goliath – the little guy with the big heart, against the big guy with little respect for Israel’s God. There is no doubt that God fought alongside his people in the Old Testament. They were to be his nation and he would endorse their faithfulness by guaranteeing their success. Indeed, since Augustine, many have seen this religious imperialism as a natural consequence as God’s Sovereignty over all of life. Their reasoning went along the lines that, as there was no domain outside God’s rule, from the individual to the family to the church, to society each spehere should and could be under his rule. The assumption being that those who followed his rules, at each level of hierarchy, would receive his blessing.

However, the nature of the Kingdom of God dramatically changed with the coming of Jesus. It moved from being national and local, to personal and global, and ultimately, Augustine goes too far in this chapter. For in his confidence that God would restore the fortunes of Rome, he betrays an over-emphasis on nationalism. In effect, he soaks his national fervour in religious principles – a mistake too often made since the BC turned into AD.

If we are willing to listen to our Founder who said “my kingdom is not of this world”, we cannot extrapolate from the individual to the national. So, why is it that those who claim the name of Christ are often seen succeeding? I think there are a few principles that can guide our thinking about the connection between success and faithfulness:

  1. Christian principles all promote (but do not guarantee) success in whatever field they are applied (e.g. the old “Protestant work ethic”, good old fashioned values such as honesty, integrity and diligence).
  2. God may intervene directly on behalf of his people, or may not (e.g. the fiery furnace – Shadrach et al accepted and were resigned to whatever would happen).
  3. God does not take sides – he is no respecter of persons, there are no favourite nations, people or leaders (and he often disciplines his chosen leaders e.g. David and Moses)
  4. It is good for the good to rule – for the good of mankind in general God may raise up leaders who follow him for the benefit of all (e.g. Joseph sent by God to provide leadership in time of national disaster). Its important to note that this also applies to leaders of moral courage and principles that are not Christians (e.g. Churchill).
  5. Even the best role models will fail at some point – let’s not make the mistake of elevating anyone, no matter what their gifting, so that their fall brings us down. In the end we are all servants of the same master.
  6. God is in control of all of life – even refereeing decisions and the bounce of a ball are down to his decision (e.g. Proverbs 21.31).
  7. All success is ultimately short-lived – our bodies age, our glory fades and our name is remembered no more, what really matters is our relationship to God.

Sport-stars come and go, empires come and go, God uses people and they pass away into history. Yet through it all the purposes of God are fulfilled. We should not strive to be famous but focus on being people of merit. God may choose to use our faithfulness to promote his purposes in the public sphere, or he may not. But if we are focussed on integrity, devotion and a passion for his glory, then no matter what, our lives will have been worth living.

War and Peace and the judgements of God

It was during the final year of my MPhil life that I decided to read War and Peace. I was frustrated by how long it was taking to finish off my research and I wanted a book that I would keep me company until the end. It’s was an epic read, much of it was very enjoyable, other bits mundane. But through it all Tolstoy weaves the lives of a small group of people into the macro events of 19th century Russia as they alternate between times of war and peace.  

In Book 3 of City of God Augustine takes up a similar challenge. He has dealt with “the evils which affect the character and the mind” in Book 2 and now turns to the “only evils dreaded by fools, namely physical and external disasters”. Thus in this book Augustine traces the often violent history of Rome since its foundation to modern times.  His purpose throughout is to discredit the claim that the most recent disasters are due to the abandonment of the pagan gods in favour of Christianity. How could this be, he asks, when the entire history of Rome is peppered with civil and federal wars – all of which occurred while these same gods were worshipped?

Before examining the historical events, Augustine begins with a note of exasperation. He asks his reader why it is that “the only things which evil men count as evil are those which do not make men evil? (3.1)”. He ironically observes that men “are more disgusted by a bad house than by a bad life” – they are more concerned with their possessions than their characters. Nevertheless, Augustine takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of the Roman Empire to show how inconsistent their own gods have been in their protection.

So here’s a history of War and Peace in ancient Rome…

  1. War: The destruction of Troy. Augustine explains the founding of Rome through the destruction of Troy, but then he asks “why was it (ie Troy) defeated by the Greeks when it had the same gods as the Greeks?” The explanation according to his opponents, is that Priam, the king of Troy, paid the penalty for perjury of Laomedon, his father. Moreover, the gods were incensed at the adultery of Paris and abandoned Troy. But, Augustine argues, the gods do not punish adultery among the gods, or fratricide, upon which Rome was founded. Augustine asks “what benefit can they bring Rome when they failed to protect Troy?”
  2. Peace: The rule of Numa Pompilius. Numa succeeded Romulus, the founder of Rome and enjoyed a time of peace. However, this time of peace was not associated with worship of the gods as the sacred rites which required their worship were not established yet. Interestingly, Augustine asks whether wars are inherently necessary to prove Rome’s greatness or were they merely a result of aggressive neighbours?
  3. War: with Alba during the time of the kings of Rome.
  4. War: during the time of the consulship and the conflict between Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius, when Brutus killed his own wife and sons because of their conspiracy to restore Tarquin.
  5. War: the Punic Wars fought against Carthage, the other superpower of the day.
  6. War: the siege of Saguntum (219BC), initiating the Second Punic War, because of their affiliation with Rome and yet the Roman gods gave no assistance to this city that had trusted in them.
  7. War: the massacre of Romans by Mithridates, king of Asia.
  8. War: the Civil Wars (88-82 BC), initiated by well-meaning Gracchi who wanted to redistribute  the land wrongly possessed by the nobles but turned into a blood-bath by Marius and Sulla.
  9. War: the Servile War (73-71 BC), started by a handful of gladiators – notably led by Spartacus.

It is easy to see that there was more War than Peace, but both were equally dangerous for the opponents of those in power. For “Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize. For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenceless.”

Augustine’s opponents claimed that “the reason for the worship of these gods, the reason why their worship is demanded, is to safeguard men’s felicity in respect of things perishable and impermanent”‘. But if that is the case, and it is really true that Rome was protected by their gods – why were those who had pledged allegiance to Rome not protected? As he states emphatically “what folly to believe that Rome did not perish beneath a conquering Hannibal because of the protection of the gods who had no power to save Saguntum from perishing as a reward for its friendship with Rome”!

The key question that this chapter raises is: How do we relate the events of history to the judgement of God? Augustine is arguing against the wrong assumption that the gods (with a small g) were punishing Rome for abandoning them in preference for Christianity. He strongly argues that no clear parallel between war and peace and the object of a nation’s worship can be drawn. Switching Augustine’s argument round the other way and applying it to today – surely this means we need to be really careful about pronouncing doom and gloom from specific events of war and peace.

In many ways we in the West face a mirror situation to that of Rome. The West has turned its back on the Christian God, is God now punishing it for its unfaithfulness? The message from Augustine is to be careful ascribing specific events as a judgement from God. There have been many preachers willing to ascribe the rise of AIDS, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the global banking collapse and many other events to the judgement of God. These grab the media headlines for a few days but is there any real substance behind them, other than personal opinion?

The lesson for ancient Israel was that it should learn lessons from the defeats in battle. When Israel was faithful it could expect the help of the Lord in fighting against their enemies, when they were unfaithful they were quickly subdued. There was a clear relationship for ancient Israel in this area. In fact this was the error of Sennacherib (repeated by the New Atheists today), for in his taunting of Hezekiah he recognised no difference between the God of Israel and all the other gods of the nations he had defeated (2 Kings 18.33-35). There was no such God who could protect his people from such a powerful army. But he was wrong, and he was soon defeated because of his insolence against Jehovah.

So, does this pattern carry forward for the Christian? The crusades provide ample evidence that some have believed that they do. However, does scripture support the view that “God is on our side”? The key point that needs to be understood to have a correct view of what makes something a judgement of God is whether there is an interpretation of the event. In the passage above in 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah prays to God and receives the word of the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 19.20-34). The prophetic word provides the context for the action of God. Thus, in verse 35 when the angel of God killed 185,000 soldiers overnight, Sennacherib leaves in defeat the next morning. Interestingly, the converse is also true (and more common) – the prophets provide the explanation for the defeat and exile of the people of Israel through the ministry of Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others.

As someone who believes in the sufficiency of scripture, this means that events in our day may or may not be judgements from God. But we can never be sure without the prophetic word which no longer comes infallibly.  The facts that we can be sure of is that there is a final Day of Judgement coming when the justice of God will break forth in a final, complete,  fair way. We already have the interpretation for this coming event in the book of Revelation, and this is the judgement that is to be prepared for. We should spend less time retrofitting disasters into convenient “told you so” straplines and more time lovingly, patiently, compassionately warning of the ultimate judgement to come, where every thought will be exposed, every motive weighed and every action repaid.

“For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying “Peace and safety” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” 1 Thessalonians 5.2-3

There is no wrong, there is no right

Moments after entering a darkened room you are disoriented and lose your bearings, particularly if it is an unfamiliar place. Slowly, your eyes become accustomed to the shadows and you begin to pick out the shades of grey. Eventually your eyes can see the frame of the room and you can walk around without falling over. This process is called adaptation and has been something of my experience in encountering Augustine’s City of God. It is a foreign world, an alien land. All of Augustine’s arguments in Book 2 make sense, logically. But there is a disconnect between his world and mine that jars and stops me in my tracks, waiting for my mind to become accustomed to his train of thought. In fact, as my theological eyes have become accustomed to the surroundings I see three disconnects in particular that separate our worlds:

  1. Augustine’s world assumes the existence and central importance of Truth, Morality and Virtue. 
  2. Augustine is able to appeal to a common foundation for, and understanding of morality.
  3. Augustine is able to appeal to his critics to use morality as a barometer of truth.

Each of these presuppositions has been destroyed during the last two millenia. The idea of absolute or ultimate truth has died, to be replaced by Travis’ anthem “there is no wrong, there is no right, the circle only has one side”. Thus, in the UK today there is no shared concept in public life of a virtuous or moral life.  It has been replaced by the utilitarian principle – whatever makes the most people happy most of the time. And so yesterday David Cameron appealed against the scandal of our booze culture that is epidemic in the UK. But what does he give as the motivation for us to change our behaviour? Is it because this is a shameful way to treat our own bodies? Is it because it opens us up to degrading acts against ourselves and other people? No, it’s because it’s costing the NHS too much money!! How ridiculous. There is no appeal to what is right or wrong, just what a vague sense of duty, which ultimately comes from what is helpful or harmful to others. He says in effect “all this drunkenness is wasting lots of taxpayers money on the NHS that could be used for treatment – please grow up and realise how irresponsible this is.”

So I am left to wonder how this parallel universe was created. When was the moment when Augustine’s world and ours detached? Or perhaps it is more like The Picture of Dorian Gray, where each small act of defiance left an indelible mark that over time created a beast.

The sad thing is that this type of change is ultimately futile for it tries to motivate change for the sake of other people. For real change to happen a person must seek to be virtuous for its own sake – because it is the right thing to do, not because it has a positive impact on other people. Although this sounds selfish (to be more concerned with our own behaviour), it is paradoxically self-effacing. No longer is everyone out to claim their rights, as happens in a utilitarian society where each voice is equally right or wrong and only the loudest voice get their views accepted. Instead, a powerful new centre of morality and virtue emanates from within an individual, independent of whether society at large requires such behaviour of them. Thus, individuals are able to rise above their surroundings and the moral milieu of their day to live as they themselves demand, not because of external laws or peer pressure.

This is what Augustine was arguing for in Book 2. That there is a source of all good in the world and truth and morality are objective realities. As a result he argues that those forces which lift us above our savage lusts and restrain our appetites are reflected beams from the source of all goodness. That those things which raise our character to new heights should be recognised as indicators of ultimate truth. These are his presuppositions that he doesn’t seek to defend – rather he argues from this standpoint that the disgusting religious rites of the pagan gods reflect the demonic nature of their origin. How can they be true when they require such behaviour from their followers and make men more depraved, not less? He sees Christianity as providing a moral standard to aspire to, lifting us above what we are by nature. While we may say there are alternative moral teachings from Buddha and Mohammed these days, the questions remain “Why should we be good? Where does morality come from? Can what is created be more virtuous that the creator? Where do honour, respect and virtue come from?”

Although not directly addressing it, in his assumptions Augustine demonstrates his belief in the relationship between truth, goodness and morality. The source of all truth is also the most moral being in the universe. The highest truth should lead to the highest good. Virtue and Enlightenment together – truth is the ultimate virtue. We are far too inclined to see truth as an abstract 2-D binary quality that is independent of any moral component e.g. “Is it true that you were there that night?” Whereas Augustine wants us to consider truth in three dimensions, with a moral quality. Jesus himself does this in John 8.32 – “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Truth brings the freedom to live as we were made to live. To live a life pleasing to God. This dynamic was ultimately revealed in the one who is “the way, the truth and the life” – beautifully uniting the source of truth and the pattern for living in one person. For the Christian this means that the more we get to know the source of truth, the more our lives will reflect this pattern. There is no debate, if our lives don’t reflect this pattern then we don’t know the truth (1 John 2.9).

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4.8

A Roman Empire State of Mind

Are you proud of your home city? What about your capital city or country? As someone who was born in Bradford and lived all my life in the UK, its hard to imagine what true patriotism feels like. The closest I get is my feelings for my homeland of Yorkshire, (but unfortunately, rumours of a referendum on independence are completely unfounded!). So it’s hard for me not to be cynical when you see others being effusive about their home city. I love the uplifting sentiments and soaring chorus line of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind – a song about her beloved New York. But I can’t help feeling this is the exception in the cynical and apathetic world we live in.

So I ask myself:

  • What would it be like to be so passionate about your national identify that you were as devoted to it as much as we are our football clubs or celebrities?
  • What if you loved your home city so much it was the dominant element in your identity?
  • What if the values that had shaped the formation of your nation also united the nation’s people?
  • What if those same values had driven the conquest of all other nations and had brought great wealth and glory to your nation?

Well, then you would have a tiny inkling of what it was like to be a Roman citizen.

For those of us in the West I think it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to admire and even idolise your capital city and nation. We are so full of cynicism that its hard to imagine people ever being so naive. But this was the wonder and beauty of Rome – that although it had its fair share of problems, it was loved, really loved, by its people. More than a logistical head of an empire – Rome was a dream.

But then what would happen if that dream was shattered? How strong would be the emotional outpouring when it was finally crushed and the city was sacked? Well this is exactly what happened in 410AD. As the Romans were looking around for explanations for this disaster, some pointed the finger of blame at the Christians. It was in response to this criticism that Augustine wrote the City of God and in Book 1 he attacks these criticisms head on. 

Augustine helpfully summarises the focus of Book 1 at the start of Book 2 “the first duty that presented itself was to reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is tormented, and in particular the recent sack of Rome by the Barbarians.” He goes on to say that his opponents ascribe the defeat to the Christian’s prohibition of “the offering of abominable sacrifices to demons”. 

He begins his defence by looking at the remarkable restraint that the Barbarians demonstrated in sparing many of those who took refuge in the tombs of the Christian martyrs. He seeks to highlight the ungratefulness of those that were saved from death by their momentary association with the protection offered by the name of Christ, who moments later were vocal opponents of the very faith that had rescued them. This all happened while many Christians were tortured and killed. In response to these injustices, he asks the questions: “why did these divine blessings extend also to the godless and the ungrateful? And why did the hardships inflicted by the enemy fall alike on the godless and godly?”

Thus, the start of Book 1 seeks to understand the cause and effect relationship between religious worship and temporal blessings. If it is true that gods are to be worshiped for blessings in this life only and there is a causative connection between the two, then there could be some ground for complaint. However, as Augustine demonstrates, Rome’s pagan gods had been unable to prevent past defeats when they had been worshiped as the national religion. He then explains, that although there is no direct connection between the two, there is an indirect undercurrent at work. He explains that there is a purpose in suffering – both for the righteous and the wicked. For the righteous God uses suffering to purify their desires and refine their character, while for the wicked he uses it to judge their behaviour. He explains it with the analogy of fire: “the fire which makes the gold shine makes chaff smoke” (1.8).

Augustine then address some of the practical pastoral issues that such suffering produces – what about Christians who were not buried? What about Christian women who were raped? What about those who committed suicide because of the shame of their assault? These were pressing issues of his day and he seeks to answer the issues they raise. Regarding the issues of burial, he says that based on Matthew 10.28  those who cannot kill the soul can do nothing with a dead body that can threaten the resurrection.

With regard to rape, Augustine seeks to comfort those who have suffered under this terrible violation with the thought that chastity and purity is something that cannot be taken away without our consent. He uses the example from popular culture of Lucretia’s suicide to illustrate that the Romans believed it was possible to remain innocent and yet be violated in this way. However, he cannot agree with her suicide as the right response for he sees this as an unnecessary reaction to perceived immortality. He quotes a saying of the time that “there were two people involved and only one committed adultery” (1.19). Hence, he sees this as murdering an innocent person – themselves! For if the person really is innocent of immorality then what right have they to murder themselves and commit such a sin.

He then asks if suicide can ever be a noble act of self-sacrifice to avoid being defiled. Augustine argues that one sin should not be avoided by committing another – particularly if committing an actual sin to avoid a potential sin. He takes this to its logical extreme and says that if we really wanted to avoid all potential sin we should commit suicide straight after being saved. For at this point we can avoid all future sin and ensure that we have been cleansed of all sin. By using this extreme example he shows how absurd this train of thinking is. True greatness, he argues, is a “spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it” (1.22). He does add the caveat that in some exceptional circumstances (e.g. Samson’s suicide) God may directly proscribe a particular act that in normal circumstances would be disallowed.

In the final few chapters he returns to the issue that he began with and says that the real reason the anti-Christians complain is because they want to return to their indulgent and indolent past. He paints a vivid picture of pagan hedonism that was mediated through the plays and actors of ancient Rome. Actors that were, apparently, producing degraded plays at the request of these pagan gods. He concludes that a further use of temporal judgements is to curb our lusts by fear of punishment. He rebukes their inconsistency when “you refuse to be held responsible for the evil that you do, while you hold the Christian era responsible for the evil which you suffer” (1.33).

Response

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking first book from Augustine. I agree with his basic argument about the difficulty of attributing cause and effect between temporal events and the worship of false gods or even the true God. For it is only when God speaks into his creation (either in prophecy or interpretation) to explain the purpose of a particular event that we can be certain of his intention. It would be difficult to argue for the truthfulness of Israel’s God if military victories were the only criteria we had to go on. Many times Israel was routed before its enemies – most often because of their unfaithfulness. But to an outside observer, such as the Assyrians attacking Judah in 2 Kings 18.31-35, it seemed that Israel was like any other nation. Only the interpretation of the prophets provides the context for the various judgements on the nation.

However, I found his view of rape to be too influenced by Greek thought, who regarded the body (flesh) as evil and the spirit (soul) pure. Hence he thinks that what happens to one can be isolated from the other – the body can be defiled while mind and spirit remains pure. I struggle to share this view as I see the body inextricable connected to spirit so that what defiles one defiles the other. Finally, I didn’t share all his comments on suicide. However, it did remind me of the current debate on assisted suicide in the UK and his encouragement to take the nobler path of enduring difficulties rather than taking the drastic but immediate way out is a timely reminder of the virtue of perseverance.

Father, help me to see you are guiding the current of my life, but not need an explanation for every breaking wave. I seek you and know that you are shaping my life, through the good and hard times. Help me to be content with knowing the destination, without questionning the purpose of each trial that leads me to you. I trust in you Lord, grant me perserverance to endure to the end, Amen