City of God, Book 1: Welcome to the City

During this time of less activity, I thought I’d take up a book I’ve wanted to read since college, but haven’t read in its entirety – Augustine’s City of God.  I read portions in college for Political Science classes and more in seminary for Theology and Church History classes. But, the 1100 pages are intimidating.

This week I finished Book 1. The book, written in the early 5th century, is amazingly relevant today as we book through this pandemic together. Augustine took up his project, in large part, to defend Christians against the accusation that they were the cause of the fall of Rome. The city of Rome had been sacked in 410 Goths/Visigoths and King Alaric. Some in Rome were blaming Christians, claiming that if Rome and the empire had continued in the worship of the traditional pagan gods, they would not have allowed this catastrophe to happen.

Book One, about fifty pages, depending on the version, covers a lot of ground. There long discussions about suicide and whether it is an option for the Christian, specifically a Christian who is trying to preserve their virtue and worried that the ravages of war will spoil it (i.e. being raped spoiling chastity, etc). He argues that this is unnecessary, for assaults on one’s body when suffered unwilling, do not besmirch one’s chastity or virtue. But, taking one’s life to prevent such assualts is a serious crime. While Christian and pagan alike suffered these cruelties (more below), Augustine points out to those who’d blame the Christians for this calamity that it was out of deference to Christ that many people, Christian and non-Christian, were spared from destruction by those who destroyed the city, for churches became sanctuaries (unlike pagan temples).

Book One ends with an insightful section regarding how the two cities – the city of man and the City of God – are intertwined at present. Augustine comments that there are some among the church’s worst enemies who will, in the long run, prove to be sons and daughters of the church. Conversely, there are some presently counted by the church as sons and daughters, because of outward appearance, who will prove to be enemies.

All of this is was interesting, but two points stuck with me.

First, Augustine answers those who point out that Christians suffered the same catastrophe as the rest of Rome by arguing that, while they suffered the same cruelties, the purpose and outcome was different. He writes, “the sufferings of the Christians have tended towards their moral improvement because they viewed the with the eyes of faith.” More, “they do not regard themselves as so far removed from wrongdoing as not to deserve to suffer the temporal ills which are the recompense of sin.” Augustine recognizes that God’s discipline, his training in righteousness, is often painful – why should this surprise us, we have been called to take up our cross and follow Jesus in his way. But, the pain of discipline and training produces in us a good. Augustine saw that suffering shakes the Christian free from the love of this temporal good, a love we should have eschewed from the beginning.

This pandemic and the adjustments we make will expose a lot in us – and that exposure will likely be painful. We’ll realize how much we love our delicacies, our pleasures, our comfort. God will see us freed of these false loves one way or another.

Secondly, Augustine confronts the reality that many Christians died during the Goths rampage through the city. In essence, he says “yeah, so what.”  I love it.  He writes, “I am certain of this, that no one has died who was not going to die at some time.” Augustine, Master of the Obvious. Augustine, Master of the Truths we Ignore. Here was my favorite two sentences in Book 1, “Death is not be be regarded as a disaster, when it follows on a good life, for the only thing that makes death an evil is what comes after life. Those who must inevitably die ought not to worry overmuch about what accident will cause their death but about their destination after dying.”

I am going to die. It’ll be from a car accident, my Snicker bar habit, cancer, or covid-19. This isn’t saying be reckless. Instead, don’t worry. I think Edwards had a great balance on this. In his Resolutions, he:

  • Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live (Resolution #6)
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death (Resultion #9)
  • Resolved, I will act so as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world (Resultion #50)

More from City of God throughout our time of slow down!