Friday, February 28, 2014

"City of God" IV.31-34

Chapter 31:
Even in the best pagan writers (Varro this time), we see an understanding of the true God. Unfortunately, this understanding is buried both because of confusion over His exact nature and because of fear of what the "rabble" will do to any who speaks contrary to the common religion. Only the grace of God in Christ and through the Spirit can set men free from such superstitious bondage.

Chapter 32:
Political leaders, too, seem to know the truth about the One true Holy God, and yet they suppress it as well--this not out of fear (as with Varro), but out of social and political ambition and the desire to keep society bound together in one unified civil religion. Besides, the example of the gods' lives allows these leaders free reign in pursuing their own vices.

Chapter 33:
Political power, therefore, is a gift of God to good and bad alike, while happiness He gives only to the good (those who have received his saving grace). How does he decide who will receive worldly glory? "Neither does He do this rashly, and, as it were, fortuitously,—because He is God not fortune,—but according to the order of things and times, which is hidden from us, but thoroughly known to Himself; which same order of times, however, He does not serve as subject to it, but Himself rules as lord and appoints as governor."
This is the doctrine of the secret will of God, from which unfolds history and election and reprobation and all the other mysterious governances of creation. For an extended treatment of this subject in a thoroughly Augustinian vein, see John Calvin's Defense of the Secret Providence of God.

Chapter 34:
We see that all these things are true when we look at the record of the Jews in the Old Testament. They prospered without worshiping any of the pagan gods or performing pagan rites, and it was only when they turned to those very gods and rites that they were punished and their kingdom destroyed. But that is the subject of the next book...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"City of God" IV.28-30

Chapter 28-30:
The gods of the Romans have not rewarded Roman piety with Empire--if that were how it worked the Greeks would have ruled forever, given their veneration for the gods on the stage!
Claims by the priests to the contrary through the use of augury and divination are simply false, and easily shown to be so by even the most rudimentary of methods (the chief of which being that the Empire's borders have so regularly shifted and changed, even under 'good' pagan emperors like Julian!).
And of course, we know that even the best of pagan writers (Cicero, in this case) don't really believe in either the power of the gods or the value of augury. Instead, they go along with tradition because it's what the masses demand, all the while slighting the very practices they're engaged in.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"City of God" IV.26-27

Chapter 26-27:
What we see in the 'gods' are creatures and demons of malicious caprice, who at the best of times harass their followers. At the worst of times, they're lied about by the chief priests and magistrates of the people who should know better, but instead choose to continue the deception for their own wicked ends...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"City of God" IV.23-25

Chapter 23:
Above all else, why would you ever worship anyone but Felicity ('happiness')? After all, if you are happy, you need no other gods nor care about anything else that might happen to you. If, on the other hand, 'felicity' is not a god, but is rather a gift of the true God, then no amount of worship of 'happiness' personified will ever make you happy. "If Felicity is not a goddess, because, as is true, it is a gift of God, that god must be sought who has power to give it... For he cannot be free from infelicity who worships Felicity as a goddess, and forsakes God, the giver of felicity; just as he cannot be free from hunger who licks a painted loaf of bread, and does not buy it of the man who has a real one."
The same of course is true today--everyone searches for happiness. In self help books, in drugs, in political and social engineering, in escapist literature, in, well, everything you could possibly imagine, we search for that which will bring us joy and delight. The problem is, true joy only ever comes from the God who created us through the shed blood of His Son. Until we stop pursuing happiness and start pursuing God we'll never find the happiness we all want. One of the best books ever written on this subject is Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (which admittedly can be a bit of a slog at times, but is always worthwhile in the end). If you have never spent time with John Piper, his website is a treasure trove that's far too easy to get lost in...

Chapter 24:
It's easy enough to see where the pagan gods come from--they are simply common objects or ideas personified by the mind of sinful man (and often not even given a different name).

Chapter 25:
The pagans seemed to have some understanding that true happiness came from the One true God, but they were mistaken in thinking that it was Jupiter. Even they seemed to know this since they came up with the goddess "Felicity" rather than simply leaving that with Jupiter himself.
Instead, we must look to the true God. He alone can satisfy if only we will be content in Him. "For him, I say, God the giver of felicity will not be enough to worship, for whom felicity itself is not enough to receive."

Monday, February 24, 2014

"City of God" IV.21-22

Chapter 21-22:
All other considerations aside, why would you ever pray to any gods besides Virtue and Felicity? After all, if you are virtuous and happy, what more do you need?
Clearly at the end of the day all of these multitude of gods are no gods at all. And the fact that wise writers like Varro can be taken in by them only shows that sin has corrupted even human wisdom.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"City of God" IV.17-20

Chapter 17-20:
Clearly pagans have a logical problem when they have both a "supreme" god (Jupiter) and a god of winning (Victory), two goddesses of luck (Felicity and Fortune), and a goddess of virtue. Why bother having a supreme god if you've got all these other deities running around in charge of things, and why bother having these lesser deities if you've got a supreme god?

Friday, February 21, 2014

"City of God" IV.12-16

Chapter 12:
The pantheists, who believe that God is the soul and the world is the body, must either be wrong or live in a constant state of blasphemy as we trample upon God's 'body' even in the daily use of creation.

Chapter 13:
Nor should we worship universal reason as god--this is akin to contemporary trends in rationalist scientific thought (as well as certain mystical Eastern streams, at least if my Facebook feed is any indicator). "God" is not the totality of all reason that then works itself out through mankind. This sort of pan-en-theism was very popular both in Augustine's day and in the works of certain heretics of the 19th century (one thinks of Swedenborg and the fringes of German Idealism). Given the pervasive nature of human sin, we certainly cannot say that we are a part of God. Augustine is careful to maintain the creature/Creator distinction.

Chapter 14:
Jupiter does not even reign over the kingdoms of this earth (let alone everything). If we had to pick a pagan god to attribute such things to, surely it would be "Victory"? After all, it's the victory of a nation in wars that expands the borders. What other god would be necessary?

Chapter 15:
Theoretically, wars should only happen in a "good" nation with "good" rulers when neighboring nations are unjustly awful and need to be subdued. You can hear Augustine's sarcasm as he suggests that clearly the Romans were lucky to be surrounded by so many unjust figures!
At the end of the day, the only reason for the expansion of a human kingdom is the desire for increasing domination--this is not something which we can say Jupiter provides.

Chapter 16:
The priorities of the Romans when thinking about the gods are clearly skewed, since they put the temple of "Quiet" outside the gate and inside worship a cacophony of demons in the guise of gods.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"City of God" IV.10-11

Chapter 10:
The pagans know that Jupiter isn't the one true God since they surround him with a host of other deities--gods of earth, air, fire, water, and time. In challenging these conceptions, Augustine is not only going after the myths, as he points out he is also taking aim at the philosophers. Specifically in this chapter he is targeting the pre-Socratic philosophers, who had various theories about the composition of the universe. While there were enough of them that a survey is perhaps more trouble than it would be worth here, their project can be summarized as a search for a "theory of everything", by means of which all that we would ever need to know about God, man, and the universe can be expressed in a simple and understandable axiom. Socrates (and his student Plato) would break away from these philosophers and approach philosophy from a different direction--and Augustine will have much to say about that in a later section. Here Augustine refutes both these theory of everything philosophers and the gods that go along with them by contrasting them with Christ: "all this nonsense ought to be completely abolished and extinguished by Him who is born of a virgin."

Chapter 11:
But what about the argument that there's one all-encompassing god (Jupiter, in this case), aspects of which may be seen in all the various other gods? Surely when pagans (I suppose today we would have a different list of false religions than 'pagan') worship these other gods, they're worshiping the truth of the one true god that they see on display there?
Augustine clearly has little patience with such religious pluralism--being sincere about your false religion, even worshiping in a false god a characteristic that is found in the true God of the Bible is absolutely not okay with Augustine. We cannot divide God and worship Him piecemeal--not even Jupiter would accept such devotion (as a moment's reflection reveals)!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"City of God" IV.7-9

Chapter 7:
We know that the "gods" don't grant kingdoms because of the rise and fall of other pagan kingdoms (Assyria et al) which were no less devout than the nations which conquered them, and yet fell anyway. And of course, they cannot blame Christians either since 1) Christ had not yet come when they fell and 2) they would have known nothing of Christianity in any case, being so far to the East.

Chapter 8:
Besides, which gods would we give credit to even if we did think it was the pagan gods? The pagans have multiple gods for everything, and picking one out to worship is always at best a crap shoot.

Chapter 9:
But let's not deal with these lesser deities, let's engage the chief 'god' of all--Jupiter ('Jove'). If the Romans owe their Empire to any single god, surely it must be the king of the gods whose temple is at the top of the Capitol Hill ("Jupiter Optimus Maximus", or "Jupiter the highest and greatest"). Yet, if this is true, why are the Romans allowed to get away with abusing him--namely with representing him as an image? "Why," asks Augustine, "has he [Jupiter] been so badly used at Rome (and indeed by other nations too), that an image of him should be made?" As even the great pagan writer Varro notes, making an image of your god results in both taking away the proper fear of the gods (by humanizing them) and adding error (by creating a likeness that is by definition inaccurate, to say nothing of the sin of idolatry!).
Even the pagans in their more thoughtful moments understand that idolatry and the worship of images are sins, and never to replace the worship of the one true God who alone gives and takes away power from the nations of the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Book Review: "Eric Voegelin" by Michael P. Federici

I confess that despite eight years of grad work at Catholic University under the instruction of folks like David Walsh, I haven't read nearly as much Voegelin as I should have. In part this is because Voegelin is an obscure, relatively minor 20th century figure who probably isn't worth the effort it would take to slog through his books, but mostly it's because I'm lazy.
To that end, this introduction to Voegelin is a great place to start cracking into a dense philosophical writer. In fact, I would suggest reading this before attempting any actual Voegelin, otherwise you'll run the risk of getting lost in Voegelin's made-up terminology and self-referential thought. Once you've got this book under your belt, then pick up Israel and Revelation or some such and dive in...

Voegelin aside (and despite what it sounds like here, if you're interested in the 20th century Voegelin is worth at least some attention), Federici's book is well-written, interesting, and thorough in its treatment of the subject matter. Beginning with a brief biography, Federici walks the reader through Voegelin's overall project, his history of philosophy, his philosophy of history, his political theory, his philosophy of consciousness (the place where most people will need help, I suspect), the critics of Voegelin, and Voegelin's contribution to the discipline of politics. Perhaps most useful in the long-term is a glossary of Voegelinian terms that I will certainly be referencing when I go back to some of texts I probably should have read in grad school.
Just to give you hint of how necessary something like this introduction (and the glossary) is, take the example of Gnosticism. This is one of Voegelin's nemeses, but it has nothing to do with Nag Hammadi. Instead, by "Gnosticism," Voegelin means:
An ideology that claims absolute knowledge of reality. It characterizes the modern world according to Voegelin. It is engendered by dissatisfaction with the structure of existence as it is and the belief that a new order can be created by implementing a revolutionary plan of action based on gnosis. The new order represents a transformation of human nature and the very structure of existence. (219)
So clearly we're dealing with an in-language that needs some clarification if one is to really get at what Voegelin is doing.
With that said, it is worthwhile to get at what Voegelin is doing, and Federici has provided us with an excellent means of doing so.

Recommended for those interested in trends in 20th century philosophy.

"City of God" IV.3-6

Chapter 3:
At the end of the day, we have to ask what is the point of worldly glory in the first place? Is it not better to be poor and content than rich and always worried for your own wealth? In the same way, isn't it better to be a small-but-satisfied state than to pursue greatness, always knowing that it is the way of the world that your greatness will pass?
Even having wicked rulers is no great calamity, since it merely provides a place to test our faith and virtue.

Chapter 4:
This chapter is good enough to stand on its own, with no comment:
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
And, just for fun:

Chapter 5-6:
If we want evidence for this, we can look at both the bad men who have been Emperor and the slaves and gladiators who have escaped and risen to great heights of power. Great power and majesty in the world does not make one good and does not imply Divine favor.
We can also look for evidence at the general pattern of the nations of the world, including Assyria. What we see is that nations grow on the backs of their oppressed neighbors, with injustice at the root of their expansion.
Whether we're talking about its leadership or its expansion, Augustine's point here is that the city of man is shot through with sin and must be neither romanticized nor glorified.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review of "Death at the Movies" by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli

"I should point out that with certain rare exceptions, Christians have generally done a poor job witnessing to those coming from Eastern perspectives. We make two mistakes: First, as a preface to evangelism we all too often we hold out the promise of progress, science, material prosperity, and the affluent lifestyle of the average middle class American. We become evangelists first for the American dream, rather than offering a bloody and broken Savior on a cross reconciling a just God and a sinful people. And when we make this mistake, we not only fail to serve our God well; we radically misunderstand those we are talking to. (To be sure, the former is the far greater sin, but the latter needs attention as well.) More on this in a second.
Second, when we do manage to set aside the superficiality of technological and material prosperity, we have a tendency to offer a watered down version of the Gospel. A sort-of “God’s awesome/you’re awesome/God loves you/shouldn’t you love God back?” Because we’ve discussed the shallowness of American Christianity on this blog before I don’t think I need to go into detail, I just want to be sure to point out that such an empty faith falls flat when faced with Eastern thought.
With that said, Death at the Movies is a great place to begin for those interested in communicating well with Buddhists. It provides a taste of the sorts of things that Buddhists think about and will help us engage in conversation from the perspective of what they are interested in, rather than beginning from our own cultural biases. (Of course, we do not stop at such a beginning point—we obviously need to end any such discussion with an explanation of how Christianity alone can satisfy.)"

Read the rest here:

"City of God" IV.1-2

Chapters 1-2:
The point of the first books was to respond both to the thoughtful-but-biased educated critics of Christianity, as well as the ignorant rabble whom those thoughtful critics stir up. We've seen both the immorality of the pagan 'gods' and the long, long, line of disasters which befell Rome down through the end of the Republic--before the birth of Christ and hence before there were any Christians around to throw under the bus.

All of this raises the question: if the pagan gods aren't real and don't reward virtue or punish justice, what about the true God? Where is He in all of this? Which sets up book IV...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"City of God" III.29-31

Chapter 29-30:
What we find when we look at Roman history over all is that the Romans have been more brutal to themselves in their own Civil Wars (especially those before the time of Christ) than anything suffered under the worst of the barbarians--either the current Goths or the ancient Gauls. After all, it was the war between Marius and Sulla which led to that between Caesar and Pompey, which led to that between Octavian and Anthony, the last two sets of which destroyed the Republic completely.

Chapter 31:
Given all the tragedies that befell the Roman Republic, which died before the time of Christ, how can the Romans logically blame the Christians for the current tragedy? The pagan gods did nothing to stop those earlier calamities, so it can't be a matter of them having abandoned Rome because it has turned to Christ. Something else must be at work in the world.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"City of God" III.26-28

Chapter 26-28:
Not that the Romans learned anything from their wars--the list keeps growing as we go through Spartacus' rebellion, the wars with the Pirates (which both Caesar and Pompey got caught up in), and the major civil war between Marius and Sulla, when even the "best" men in the Republic turned on each other and revealed themselves to be little more than savages.

In this litany of Rome's internal and external warfare, we see that every level of society from the slaves to the aristocrats was marked by violence, lust for power, and cruelty. Even when these wars came to an end, violence marred the peace as the victors (Sulla, in this case) exterminated their enemies as a warning to others: "Peace vied with war in cruelty, and surpassed it: for while war overthrew armed hosts, peace slew the defenceless. War gave liberty to him who was attacked, to strike if he could; peace granted to the survivors not life, but an unresisting death." In every instance sin is the defining characteristic of the city of man.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"City of God" III.22-25

Chapter 22-24:
Both internally and from without, the Romans repeatedly suffered disaster after disaster which the gods did nothing to prevent. Mithridates slaughtered Romans abroad and the Gracchi fomented civil war within, and at no point did the gods lift a finger to restrain anyone.

Chapter 25:
Augustine hopes we can all see the irony of the Romans' temple to Concord, who clearly has no place in the city. If they were honest and consistent, they would worship Discord, who seems to have reigned supreme during the time of the Republic.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

300--but not the movie

I had originally intended just to let this slip by, but since I'm down with a cold and not terribly focused on work I should be doing, I thought a reflection or two in honor of my 300th blog post is in order. (Since this is the 300th blog post, I suppose technically it should be in honor of the first two hundred and ninety-nine posts...)
So, what have I learned since putting up that first short post just over three years ago? I like to think a lot, given that since that time I have 1) gotten married; 2) finished my Ph.D., 3) become gainfully employed in a job I love; 4) bought a house (well, the BANK bought a house--but they're kindly letting the wife and I rent-to-own); and 5) have a baby on the way.

But, what have I learned about blogging? A few things:
1) Blogging is easier than writing a dissertation but harder than writing a letter. I don't know that it's exactly halfway between those two things.
2) Blogging for yourself is a lot harder than blogging on a corporate blog. I don't know if it's because of the added accountability or because the sinner in me likes the accolades that come from a wider readership than my minuscule corner of the internet provides, but it's always easier to get something ready for my other site than for this one. (It may also be because the other one 'pays,' in free books if not in actual money.)
3) I don't have nearly enough self discipline. While I never planned to achieve Challies-levels of blogging (i.e. daily), I had hoped for more than 300 between November, 2010 and February, 2014--especially when we consider how many of those are quotes, reposts, and City of God reflections. I don't know that I'm going to resolve to change this pattern (especially with a wee one on the way), but it's at least worth some reflection.
4) I have a tendency to start a series of posts and then get distracted/give it up.

And, well, that's probably enough. This doesn't have to be an earth-shattering post or anything, just a brief nod to a passing landmark. Maybe I'll do it again at 500 or 1,000 or some such.

For those of you who need hard numbers and like to quantify things, here are the stats:
All-time Pageviews: 25,636
Most Popular Post (Presumably because of Google):
Most of my traffic comes from the US, followed by Britain, Russia, Germany, and Canada.
And the VAST majority of my hits come from people Googling "Dante's []." Not all, but enough to keep me humble...

"City of God" III.20-21

Chapter 20:
Where were their gods when Hannibal destroyed Saguntum? If the gods did indeed preserve Rome from Hannibal's forces as we would be led to believe, why not this other city?
In fact, only Christianity can make sense of suffering in the world. After all, "if the population of Saguntum had been Christian, and had suffered as it did for the Christian faith... they would have suffered with that hope which springs from faith in Christ--the hope not of a brief temporal reward, but of unending and eternal bliss."
The pagan gods clearly have nothing to offer to individuals or the city in this life or the next. Only a life lived by faith in Christ can suffice to endure what the world has to throw at us.

Chapter 21:
At the moment of the Roman Republic's greatest triumph--following its victory in the Second Punic War-- when even the pagan historians admit that Rome was at its moral height, Rome cast out its greatest citizen and fell into luxury and vice. And if it's true (which Augustine thinks it is) that at this time Rome was at least a little bit more peaceful and prosperous that at other times in its history, what does it say that such peace and prosperity comes only with the destruction of others? If the best the world has to offer is a momentary peace brought about by mass slaughter, how can we ever hope to find what we truly need in the city of man?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"City of God" III.18-19

Chapter 18:
Even the Punic Wars, that time in Roman history which everyone (Augustine included) believed to be the height of Roman virtue and excellence, was not exempted by the pagan gods from destruction and devastation. The idols themselves were swept away in fire and disaster. Which, for the Romans, was the equivalent of the gods being killed: "These objections of ours would be idle if our adversaries maintained that their idols are consecrated rather as symbols of things eternal, than to secure the blessings of time; and that thus, though the symbols, like all material and visible things, might perish, no damage thereby resulted to the things for the sake of which they had been consecrated, while, as for the images themselves, they could be renewed again for the same purposes they had formerly served."
That of course is contrary to the nature of idolatry. Even when it begins as mere symbolism, it inevitably ends with the prostration of man before the work of his own hands. Idolatry, like all sin, grows without ceasing outside of the power of the Gospel. And so we should be quite grateful for the efforts of those faithful believers who have warned us repeatedly of the dangers of worshiping objects of gold, silver, stone, and wood, and who regularly remind us that worship is due to God alone through Christ.

Chapter 19:
When the Romans were losing to Hannibal in the Second Punic War, they in a sense turned on their gods and turned to the slaves and the civic virtue of the leading citizens for safety. That is, they pressed the slaves into the army and stripped the temples of ceremonial weapons in order to arm these new soldiers. All of this was done on the dollar of the citizen body, for the state had no more to give. For just a minute, the cranky old conservative comes out of Augustine as he asks whether we could imagine a similar circumstance being endured today, when people get upset at the slightest disruption of the public amusements...

Monday, February 10, 2014

"City of God" III.17

Chapter 17:
Throughout the Republican period, war, civil discord, and natural disaster was not only common, but functionally unceasing. It's hardly fair, then, to blame Christ or the Christians for the terrible circumstances facing the Romans. We've seen all of this many times (and no doubt will hear it again).

But there's something new here that's interesting. In the course of his exposition, Augustine drops a hint about the method Christians ought to use when engaging the world. Having just cited the pagan historian Sallust on the calamities that have befallen the Romans, Augustine tells us:

Now, if those historians judged than an honorable freedom of speech required that they should not be silent regarding the blemishes of their own state, which they have in many places loudly applauded in their ignorance of that other and true city in which citizenship is an everlasting dignity; what does it become to us to do, whose liberty ought to be so much greater, as our hope in God is better and more assured, when they impute to our Christ the calamities of this age, in order that men of the less instructed and weaker sort may be alienated from that city in which alone eternal and blessed life can be enjoyed? Nor do we utter against their gods anything more horrible than their own authors do, whom they read and circulate. For, indeed, all that we have said we have derived from the, and there is much to say of a worse kind which we are unable to say.

I think there are three things we can take away here:
1) Whenever possible, we should draw facts from worldly sources.
2) Whenever possible, we should draw criticisms from worldly sources.
3) We must speak freely in unbending honesty. 
This is of course not to say that Scripture is not sufficient for the life of a Christian--heaven forbid that we ever say that! But, when talking to non-Christians, whenever possible we ought to argue with them from their point of view. While we certainly should argue about, for example, original sin from the pages of Scripture, we should also point to worldly historians, news stories, and other sources which non-Christians will be hard pressed to deny are examples of naked human evil. This further means that we need to be aware of such sources and competent to speak from them, as Augustine clearly is with Sallust, Cicero, Virgil, etc.
Further, when doing this we need to be relentless in our analysis of the dire situation the world is in. Those outside of Christ are on the direct path to hell as even their own writers admit, and anything less than open honesty is doing them a disservice. While of course in personal settings gentleness and delicacy may be called for (something I certainly need to work on), in generally honesty about sin is always the best policy.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"City of God" III.15-16

Chapter 15:
Despite our tendency to cover the past in a golden hue, the reality is that even the leadership of the city of man is fallen and comes to a bad end. Romulus himself was torn apart in the Senate (the legend that he became a god is a verifiable falsehood), while countless other Roman kings met their deaths often even at the hands of their own family.
In fact, the kings in Roman history who seem to have the most success (and so be the most blessed by the gods) are often the worst ones morally--the parricides, the tyrants, the bloodthirsty and cruel. As a consequence, we either have to say that the gods value such behavior, or that they are no gods at all

Chapter 16:
The Republican period of Rome is no better. Having expelled the kings, the Republican leadership immediately begins killing themselves off in a grab for power. Brutus himself, the George Washington to Tarquin's George III, killed his own sons, as well as expelling his co-ruler merely because he had the same name as the former king. If this is the golden era of Rome, it is hardly evidence that Christianity has led to moral decline!

Friday, February 7, 2014

"City of God" III.14

Chapter 14:
Augustine here uses one of the founding stories of Rome (whether myth or historical account hardly matters) to further expose the fundamental nature of the city of man. Where the Romans would look at their own past and their city through the filter of ideas like "'glory' and 'victory'," what we really see is that the city of man is driven by power and the lust for domination. When we strip away the glitzy surface rhetoric with which we adorn ourselves, when we "tear off the disguise of wild delusion, and look at the naked deeds: weigh them naked, judge them naked," we find that the true motivation of mankind is for self-glorification. Hobbes had it right when he said "I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death." We all want to make ourselves look amazing, to be as gods, and just as the Romans sought out a war with Alba Longa (which as Augustine points out was Rome's parent-city, and so adds parricide to the mix) so we will go out of our way to promote our own ego under any and all circumstances.

Again, we're reminded that if there is to be any hope for mankind it can never come from the city of man. Even when it appears to be at its best, this world slays the innocent (as with the widow of the Curiatii) and never stops longing to unseat God from His throne.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"City of God" III.12-13

Chapter 12:
A multitude of gods does the Romans no good at all. The Romans were famously syncretistic, adopting nearly all of the religions they encountered (with a few major exceptions, namely the Bacchae, the Druids, and after a period of toleration, the Jews and the Christians). And yet despite the plethora of deities, at no point in their history could they said to be safe under the protection of any of them.
I don't know if the parallel is intentional or not (and I'm too lazy to look up the Latin original), but at least in the Dodds translation Augustine talks about the city of Rome as "enjoying the protection of such a cloud of deities," and that so it "might surely have been preserved from some of those great and horrible calamities" if those deities had any power at all. This makes us think of the passage in Hebrews that describes the Christian faith: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." There are numerous contrasts which we might mention: the Christians have only one God, but He has already won the race; the pagans are surrounded by a cloud of impotent beings, while the Christian runs surrounded by brothers and sisters in the faith; the pagans are surrounded by sinful beings, while for the Christian the act of running towards Christ results in the falling off of sin.
Again, I don't know if the parallel is intentional or not, but it's at least worth noting, so long as we're careful not to slip the cloud of Christian witnesses into the place of the pagan gods--Augustine would be horrified by that (to say nothing of the author of Hebrews!).

Chapter 13:
Lest we be misled by Augustine's closing statement in the previous chapter, he goes on to remind us that even in its youth when it had few gods, Rome was by no means virtuous. Rape, fratricide, and all manner of sin defined even the youth of the state. "See what rights of marriage these were that fomented unnatural wars. These were the Roman leagues of kindred, relationship, alliance, religion. This was the life of the city so abundantly protected by the gods."
Whatever we think of the present (and Augustine certainly has much to say about that!) we should not be tempted by the idea of a past 'golden age' to which we should try to return. While to be sure the Christianity looks in faith to a one-time occurrence in the past as its foundation, in terms of human history and the city of man it is exclusively future-oriented. We do not strive in this world to restore the lost golden age of the Roman (or American) founding, we look instead to the future return of Christ when the world will be judged and made new, and all that is wrong set right. Part of keeping that good future in view involves having a realistic view of the sinfulness of the human past (and present).

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"City of God" III.9-11

Chapter 9:
Again, we see 'historical' proof (at least, accepted as history by the Romans) that the pagan gods do not even provide the peace that their worshipers seek when pursuing them. We have to remember the Christian doctrine of Providence, that "peace is a great benefit; but it is a benefit of the true God, which, like the sun, the rain, and other supports of life, is frequently conferred on the ungrateful and wicked."
In other words, the cessation of war is neither a sign of Divine favor nor evidence that the worship society is engaged in is the correct worship. It is merely (well, 'merely') the undeserved favor of God being temporarly poured out on a rebellious world.

Chapter 10:
But how do we respond to the argument that without its wars of expansion, Rome would never have been so great as it was (even if it has declined in modern times)? Augustine replies with the virtue of moderation: "why must a kingdom be distracted in order to be great? In this little world of man's body, is it not better to have a moderate stature, and health with it, than to attain the huge dimensions of a giant by unnatural torments, and when you attain it to find no rest, but to be pained the more in proportion to the size of your members?"

And this without even really discussing just how Rome got so big in the first place. I love Augustine's non-condemnation of the means: "But obviously the Romans have a plausible defense for undertaking and carrying on such disastrous wars--to wit, that the pressure of their enemies forced them to resist, so that they were compelled to fight, not by any greed of human applause, but by the necessity of protecting life and liberty."
In other words, the Romans never really wanted their huge Empire, they just kept having to defend themselves and, because they were so awesome, at the end of every war their state was that much bigger.

Whether that is true or not, the fact remains that the entire process of national expansion was nothing more than an open display of sin. The pursuit of empire, the luxury and opulence that corrupted the state once it was achieved, and the constant refusal to be content with what they had been given are pictures of how sin affects human life. We are never content with what we have, once we get what we desire it just makes us worse, and then we are ready to move on to new desires never once having stopped to reflect on our rebellion against our Creator, self-justifying the whole way.

Chapter 11:
Through all the processes of world history, the wars and conquests (whether Roman or Greek seems not to matter here, Augustine switches seamlessly between the two), we see at the very least that the pagan gods are impotent. Even studying the basics of history should be enough to convince the Romans of that!

If you're interested in some of the stories Augustine draws on in this section, they can be found in Virgil's Aeneid (the Fitzgerald translation is my favorite, but Fagles is quite good too); Sallust's Catiline's War (really a must-read for students of Ancient History); and Livy's History of Rome (probably longer than it's really worth, but at least sometimes interesting).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"City of God" III.5-8

Chapter 5:
But in any case, the argument of the pagans having a socially effective religion (suggested in chapter 4) that we can all go along with is simply irrelevant. As much as they may or may not be real, the gods themselves live completely immoral lives. Even if we wanted it to work, syncretism is simply impossible because of the nature of pagan theology.

Chapter 6:
And if we need more evidence of that, they spared (and eventually blessed) the fratricide Romulus. We of course would think of the story of Cain and Abel, where the justice of the true God is clearly displayed in a similar event.

Chapter 7:
The pagan gods provide no discernible worldly help to their followers, as history shows us time and time again.

Chapter 8:
If the gods couldn't protect Troy, why on earth would the Romans (according to legend the descendants of the Trojan Aeneas) turn to them for protection and help?

Monday, February 3, 2014

"City of God" III.1-4

Chapter 1:
What we see when we look at those who continue in rebellion against God is that human nature, whatever its ability to recognize good when it sees it (we are after all able to "praise good things"), is only evil in its desires. The proof of this is in the way we look at the world: "it grieves them more to own a bad house than a bad life, as if it were man's greatest good to have everything good but himself." Of course, not even the pagan gods actually provided fulfillment for these desires, and so we're left with the sorry spectacle of man longing for the wrong things and not getting either what is good for him (the virtue that comes through Christ) or the wrong things he desires, as we'll be seeing in the rest of Book III, or so Augustine promises.

Chapter 2:
Consider, for example, the ancient city of Troy. Was it kept safe by the gods? Did their patronage protect anything or anyone in the city--a city which those very same gods had a hand in establishing? We can't even really say that the gods were angry at the Trojans for the sin of perjury, given how common perjury has been through history. I love Augustine's closing thought, which he applies to perjury but which could easily be applied to a number of contemporary issues: "For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury."

In our setting, I would suggest:

  • "For it seems that the ancient practice of marriage has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of adultery."
  • "For it seems that the ancient practice of athletic competition has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of pride."

And so on.

Chapter 3:
The gods certainly could not have been punishing the Trojans for adultery either, given the number of times the gods themselves commit that particular sin.

Chapter 4:
In this chapter, Augustine raises the interesting question of the value of the noble lie--is religion useful solely -as a goad to inspire us to greater heights as human beings, even if it's not true? While so many atheists in the late 20th and 21st century are quick to shrilly condemn religion across the board, the older position of more thoughtful atheists was that whether true or not religion had a great deal of social value. Augustine points out that when we hold such a view of religion, it really opens up the ecumenical possibilities: "You see how wide a field is opened to falsehood by this opinion of Varro's... and how comprehensible it is, that many of the religions and sacred legends should be feigned in a community in which it was judged profitable for the citizen that lies should be told even about the gods themselves."

This is absolutely critical for Christians to hear today, especially given the long tradition of social gospel-style belief in our country. Whenever we begin our analysis of the faith with its social utility, we then proceed to embrace all religions that have share those same social goals, and ultimately end by jettisoning the truth. Which is not to say that we Christians can't work in a political sense towards shared goals with non-believers in the political or cultural spheres--I'm quite happy to stand side-by-side with someone who rejects the Trinity or the sufficiency of the Cross while working in pro-life movements or for defense of marriage or, well, in any number of public policies. But it is to say that we shouldn't start with those social goals and reason backwards, assuming that since we share these goals our foundational beliefs must likewise all be true, and that as long as we all believe something (a fuzzy "faith in faith") and try to do good to each other, we're all okay. Such thinking is anathema to Augustine, and it's certainly anathema to Biblical Christianity.