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)

Augustine, Koheleth, and Mariette in Ecstasy

The quotidian cannot avoid being taken up into the sacramental. Here, Augustine interprets Ecclesiastes:

‘For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, “There is no good for a man, except that he should eat and drink,” what can he be more credibly understood to say, than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament Himself, the Priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with His own body and blood?’ (civ. XVII.20)

The way Augustine reads Koheleth (the writer of Ecclesiastes), the Preacher’s original intent is effaced to reveal a deeper spiritual meaning. Koheleth probably really just meant eating and drinking, but Augustine sees the bread and wine of the Eucharist in this verse.

I have been wrestling with a different “figural reading” of the relationship between the quotidian and the sacramental as I finished reading Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy.

A thorough synopsis of the plot of Mariette in Ecstasy could probably be written in less than ten sentences. It’s about a young woman who may or may not be experiencing religious ecstasy in a convent in 1906 rural New York. But while the plot only contains a handful of major events, the rest of the novel floods the reader with an overwhelming number of lush descriptions of mundane objects. The characters of the novel are almost crowded out by all of the descriptions of birds, livestock, furniture, frost, dust motes, cleaning supplies, the weather, the sky, the landscape. It is almost as if people, animals, and objects are all leveled to same starting and ending point — a quotidian existence equally distant from God, who is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves. From the perspective of the more skeptical characters in the novel, Mariette’s experience of God is surely spurious. The reader, however, is confronted with so many descriptions of created reality nearly crackling with energy that the world seems the most obvious of receptacles for divine presence. Mariette’s religious experience is not an aberration to the natural order but the most consonant expression of a doxological harmony between God and creation that Hanson has been describing for the entire novel.

For Augustine, when Koheleth is talking about eating and drinking, he is only talking about the Eucharist. For Ron Hansen, all eating, all drinking, all of the quotidian has the potential to be taken up by the Spirit and made more than it is. To be fair, Augustine elsewhere broadens his definition of “sacramentalish” things (my word). But for me, Hansen has joined the ranks of those other Christians (Occam, Hopkins, von Balthasar) who are looking for a way to reconcile the this-ness of things with the revelation of God.