The City of God, a Travelogue

Having just finished reading the City of God for the first time (phew!), here are a random assortment of thoughts on it, in no particular order. Some of these will hopefully turn into full essays at a later date. Lastly, a disclaimer: just because I list these things doesn’t mean I agree with Augustine on all of them.

  • Whoever said that Augustine hated the body was flat-out lying. Augustine actually goes to great lengths to defend the goodness of the body. He even spends a fair amount of book XXII arguing about just how physical bodies could be present in heaven, and how the eschaton will be corporeal. I’ll say it again: Whoever tried to paint Augustine as an ethereal body-hating Greek-tainted neoplatonist is basing their assumption on an unbalanced reading of book XIX and Confessions. Now, his understanding of sexuality is a different story…
  • Augustine’s vision of the world is resolutely non-egalitarian. I never realized (silly me) that his oft-cited concept of “rightly ordered love” is a hierarchy. HIs understanding of being, personhood, society, and eschatology are all hierarchical. I’ll write more about this later.
  • Augustine’s ethical methodology is proportioned by the difference between time and eternity. When scaled to eternity, temporal troubles, evil, and suffering became “mathematically” inconsequential. Whether or not this is a good move, I am struck by how absent it appears to be from contemporary ethics, whether evangelical or liberal protestant (I don’t think I can speak for the Catholic tradition)
  • I came to Augustine from reading David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. In that massive tome, Kelsey begins with an over-one-hundred-page introduction in which he argues that his project is reacting to all the ways that contemporary evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, social theory, and gender theory have seriously problematized Augustine’s theology. Before reading City of God, I confess that I thought that Augustine was above a lot of the literalism of his contemporaries, but I was wrong. He spends a lot of pages arguing for things that are now scientifically laughable. Unfortunately, these goof-ups are placed in uncomfortably close proximity to important dogmatic claims. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when Augustine tries to use the “fact” that peacock meat has antiseptic properties to prove that bodies in hell will burn eternally without being consumed. (You can’t make stuff like this up…) Things get even more dicey when he starts talking about what we would now call the historical Adam, and the presence of physical bodies in heaven, which for Augustine is “up there.” I’m not saying I’m with Kelsey on these issues, but I am saying that reading Augustine raised the stakes for me even more: modern science and traditional theology have a lot of junk to work through together, and, like any unhealthy relationship, I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.
  • Augustine’s use of the word “sacrament” is surprisingly loose, and I love it. I’ve always chafed under the two sacrament limit of the Reformed confessions, and I love the way Augustine is free to see things as “sacramentalish” (my term).
  • Augustine’s theology of scripture is very nuanced and I am still trying to sort it out. It doesn’t help that he never (at least in City of God) lays it out systematically, so I had to piece it together from his ad hoc exegetical side quests. (While we’re on the topic: the exegetical side quests were probably the best part of the work.) Perhaps most surprising about his theology of scripture was his understanding of the Septuagint as inspired translation, including the times when the septuagint changed the Hebrew. The dark side of this was a latent antisemitism, but the good side of it was an understanding of revelation which incorporates translation. This is huge, people.
  • Augustine’s use of allegory was (as always) very entertaining and enticing. But I was surprised by how strongly he argued for a middle. He was openly trying to avoid both extremes: either denying that the text has a second, allegorical meaning, or denying the historicity of the text. I was surprised to see Augustine fighting against both extremes.

 

I wish I could say that I recommended The City of God, but honestly, it was kind of a mixed bag. I am glad to have read it, and I’m also glad that I have a rough map of it, so that when I read it again I will only have to read the relevant portions. If you only read one tiny section of the City of God, read the last book, (book XXII), chapters 29 to the end. There is some gorgeous language in that passage, and when I first read it on Holy Saturday of this year, I found myself weeping in the middle of Lemonjello’s on a Saturday morning. It is stunning.

Augustine is still my favorite theologian. Even when I disagree with him, I still love him.

Next up in the major theological works category: The Institutes! (dun dun dun)

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2 thoughts on “The City of God, a Travelogue

  1. Your first bullet point made me reflect that the question of de/valuing the body and the question of de/valuing sexuality are often conflated. People talk about the former and have chiefly the latter in mind, and I’d never stopped to notice it. On the other hand, maybe it’s not so easy to separate the questions. Is it possible that Augustine is a stout supporter of “bodiliness” in the abstract—i.e., he thinks it’s a good thing that matter exists and that human beings are (partially?) made of it—but that he’s no great fan of bodies as we actually have them?

    I have no particular expertise on Augustine, but my stereotype of the fathers is that however much they want to defend a material resurrection (perhaps using a new and improved “spiritual” type of body—cf. 1 Cor 15:44) the bodies we in fact have are to be suspected, I think because they have all sorts of disorderly desires. So far, so good; we can talk about bodies, too, corrupted by sin. But my worry is that they don’t just dislike the desires as *disorderly*, but dislike them as *desires*—as if the ideal body wouldn’t itself want anything, but act as the mind’s submissive tool. Confessions XXXI, 43: “By eating and drinking we restore the daily losses of the body until that day when thou destroyest both food and stomach … But now the necessity of habit is sweet to me, and against this sweetness must I fight, lest I be enthralled by it. … [44] This much thou hast taught me: that I should learn to take food as medicine.”

    Augustine can’t be against desire as such, right? He’s all *about* desire; but it seems like it has to be a desire that proceeds from the mind or heart (spiritually conceived), and bodily desires are to be thought of as snares. That doesn’t seem quite right to me; those bodily desires seem good gifts, etc. In fact, I might wonder if, by allowing as legitimate only the kind of body that didn’t have such bottom-up desires—i.e. a sort of body that doesn’t exist and perhaps never will—Augustine would be *effectively* a hater of the body even if he won’t own up to it. QED.

  2. Zing! Can’t argue with you on that. Looks like we’ve still got constructive theological work to do. Howsabout you write a book on a theology of desire?

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