As we near the end of the City of God something of its epic ambition is really starting to hit me. It is a phenomenal book, charting history, philosophy, Greek gods, the rise and fall of Rome, the repeated conquering of the known world.
As we near the end (Book 18 of 22), you expect the pace to slacken off, easing into the final straight. Instead the 80 pages of Book 18 are encyclopaedically expansive. We are treated to a view from Augustine, probably writing in 426AD, of the entire history of human society since the founding of cities to his present day. The reigns of rulers and kings are recorded from Augustine’s extensive records and compared with the equivalent sequence of events in the history of Israel.
Rather than recount all that here, I want to focus on two key themes that emerge and have striking relevance for today. Firstly, our intrinsic desire to deify ourselves, and secondly the purposeful intermingling of the heavenly and earthly cities. These two themes shed light on the difference between the two cities.
In charting the origins of many of the so called Greek Gods Augustine shows how people elevate others who achieve some spectacular feat, incredible military victory of undertake some form of quest. He notes that “ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the king of Greece” during the time of Joshua.
The recurring theme is that people want to be more than human. Whether it is an origin story like Romulus & Remus being raised by a she-wolf, or a mythical tale of “Gorgon with serpent locks and turned to stone those who looked upon her” there is the repeated desire to ascend from this mortal body and live forever among the gods. Often on pain of death societies would reinforce the divine nature of these ascended super-humans as they wrote plays and invented ceremonies to celebrate and replay the legends to rapt audiences.
It got me thinking how we still have this desire to ascend. It is perhaps expressed differently today but the impulse is still strong. Just today there was a football match where a successful player was retiring and the eulogies had religious undertones – how this legend would never be forgotten by the fans, effectively living forever, immortal in their collective consciousness.
Similarly hosts of actors are effectively immortalised through the silver screen by their work to live on beyond their years as downloadable content for fans not yet born. We cannot escape the human attraction of becoming like God, even after all these centuries since that false promise was made in the Garden of Eden. Then, as now, it is an empty aim, disappearing as quickly as grasping the morning mist. We just can’t lift ourselves up to become more like God.
By contrast the City of God is all about a people who are not being lifted up to possess unnatural abilities, but are being pressed down to experience pain and suffering as they go about their very human pilgrimage to heaven. This is our second theme. The intermingling of the two cities leads to the church suffering from outward attack:
In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome.XIII.49
And inward division from false teachers:
There are those in the Church of Christ who have a taste for some unhealthy and perverse notion, and who if reproved – in the hope that they may acquire a taste for what is wholesome and right – obstinately resist and refuse…they become heretics and, when they part company with the Church, they are classed among the enemies who provide discipline for her.XIII.51
This is profound teaching, and as someone who grieves for the state of the visible church in the west, I am greatly encouraged to read:
The dearer this name (Christian) is to those who want to live a devout life in Christ, the more they grieve that evildoers within the Church make that name less beloved than the hearts of the devout long for it to be.XIII.51
It is ok to grieve for the state of the church – Augustine sees this as part of our persecution in this world – and have our hearts broken by the sinfulness within the church. Reading this book, I realise there would probably be something wrong with us if we didn’t care about the purity and health of the church. The key is to balance this with the the comfort of God and to draw deeply from the wells of salvation so that we can say with the psalmist “you’re consolations have gladdened my soul” Psalm 94.19. This will ensure our sufferings are redeemed for our good.