Facing Up to the City of God: Transposing Augustine's Political Theology for Modern Christians

John RoxandichSymbolic World Icon
May 9, 2023

The question of politics has been the point of contention in much of public discourse. Whether on social media or at the dining table for a holiday dinner, we find ourselves in varying degrees of disagreement on any number of issues. However, as the common thread of the Symbolic World Blog has been, we can find within the Christian tradition patterns that can situate us in a truly Christian view of political life. I would argue that St. Augustine of Hippo offers an essentially true pattern in his work The City of God that accomplishes this task in a manner that is both symbolically and theologically coherent.

However, the horrors of the last century rattled the minds of theologians and laypeople alike in disgusted disbelief that humanity could undertake systematic destruction of human persons combined with frivolous atrocities on a massive scale. Maoist China, Stalin’s regime, and Hitler’s genocidal enterprise culminated in a crescendo of destruction and a senseless loss of life. And yet common culture has also realized the profound impact such blatant evils have had on the consciousness of individuals and societies alike. What can traditional Christian narratives offer to face these issues? What could Augustine’s thought offer the nihilistic tendencies of modernity?

Yet, this necessarily entails what the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan calls “transposition,” whereby we recognize the contingency of history which provides the context for questions of theology and narrative.1 We acknowledge their relativity. Judgments are not relatively true, but rather are relative to the historical contexts that produced them. This appears to be following the thought of Lonergan, as Jeremy Wilkins writes describing Lonergan’s ideas: “If Christian theology mediates between the one Gospel and all peoples with their many cultures, if its matter is at once transcendent and historical, it must integrate what is permanently valid into an ongoing process”.2

This then is my project, namely that if Augustine’s paradigm has an essential truth to it, then it is useful and applicable today, though it is necessary to transpose the paradigm to meet the questions of modern times. It is also my intention to be methodologically aware so that I might provide an example of how to mediate between the Christian narratives of the past and modern discourse, following insights from Bernard Lonergan.

If we are going to examine Augustine’s thoughts on the interplay between Christian life and political life, we must first understand Augustine in his own time and context. His work, the City of God, was a preeminent attempt to explain an already existing tension by way of a proper attitude for Christians to hold toward worldly rulership, in the context of the symbolically charged event of Rome’s destruction in 410 A.D.3 Augustine’s two cities, the one heavenly and the other earthly, became a recurring paradigm for a Christian approach to civic society.

I will consider first what Augustine would claim is the true relationship between the city of God and the earthly city. This section will primarily focus on understanding Augustine’s position in the early Christian context. I will consider fractality as a basic criterion for a real pattern. Augustine argues this point for me, as I will show. If it is a true pattern, then it will be manifest at multiple levels of reality. By this, I mean that the pattern will have explanatory power at different levels of analysis that enlighten our understanding.
Augustine begins his work of developing a proper account of worldly society and the heavenly society by pointing out what he considers the most basic instinct and desire of human persons. He establishes a real pattern in nature that builds up to and culminates in the pattern of human community.4

He claims that when one examines the recurring themes of human history and the situation of his own time, there is a struggle in nature, but even more fundamental to the presence of struggle is the desire for peace. He says, “For every man is in a quest for peace, even in waging war, whereas no one is in a quest of war when making peace.”5 Building from the simplest observations of animals to the complex societies of humans (even robbers, as it turns out), it is peace that is the constant aim of intelligent creatures, as it is naturally with the beasts.6 Whatever is to be unified into a whole, as a general principle, is at peace insofar as its parts cohere in an order as derived by nature.7

And yet Augustine would add a further element, that of agency in human persons. Humans possess a unique element of elevated being, that is reason, which enables them to know and to choose. Thus, Augustine lays out the fractal nature of peace:

The peace of the body and the soul is duly ordered life and health of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is an ordered obedience, in faith, in subjection to an everlasting law; peace between men is an ordered agreement of mind with mind; peace of home is an ordered agreement between those who live together about giving and obeying orders; the peace of the Heavenly City is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God; the peace of the whole universe is the tranquility of order….8

Augustine would understand all the levels of the intelligible world arranged in their ideal relationship first. Furthermore, he has introduced the ideal distinction between the order of human communities and what he has termed the “Heavenly City.”

While the relationship of the city of God and the earthly city are said to be “intermingled,” it would be inaccurate to characterize the relationship as confused. Analogously, Augustine will liken the relationship of the Christian people and the earthly community to the relationship of the soul to the body.9 In one sense, the soul is plagued by the corruptibility of the body, yet the soul can only act with a body. Likewise, the soul and the body form a composite whole, though a distinction between them can be made. The Christian people are in a similar relationship with the earthly city that differs from the city of God because of differing ends and abilities to obtain those ends.

Photo by Kharbine-Tapabor/Shutterstock (6051086eq)
The City of Men, manuscript illumination, early 15th century, from The City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo, 354-430, detail, allegory of diligence and laziness. Ms. 246 f3
Art (Manuscripts) – various
Location: Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Paris

The political society or earthly city as such attends to the material well-being of the “polis” and its individuals, therefore its goals are necessarily contingent, mutable, and dissolvable. But Augustine argues that humanity is destined for a higher ordering of life that transcends the merely material well-being of the community. It is necessarily not contained in the earthly city but in God. The peace which the people of God enjoy is uncontested by earthly worries or political strife since “as the soul is the life of the physical body, so God is the blessedness of man’s life.”10 The Christian community has an eternal goal in a temporal world, therefore “making use of earthly and temporal things like a pilgrim in a foreign land, who does not let himself be taken away by them or distracted from his course towards God.”11

The Augustinian paradigm relies upon the concept of a hierarchy of desires. The hierarchy of desires mirrors the hierarchy of ends toward which they advert. In an ascending and descending scale according to the goodness of what is desired, the earthly city and the heavenly city could be put into a proper relationship. The state could operate according to its ends, those of material well being, and the Christian community could participate in the fullest manner so long as it did not forget the ultimate fulfillment of desire in God. God represents the highest value possible.

Yet, the prospect of sin problematizes this resolution. Sin has disrupted the initial order between the city of God and the earthly city.12 If the earthly city is merely a matter of contingency and materiality, then why does Augustine indicate that it is also occupied by sinners? There are persecutors of Christians, pagans, false philosophers, and fallen Christians all said to belong to the city of the earth. The earthly city then seems to be in total opposition to the city of God.11 Like an idealist dichotomy between the ideal and the material, it seems that sin, matter, and contingency are inseparable collaborators having no likeness to God’s city.

To make sense of the Augustinian paradigm and to account for the seeming inseparability of sin and contingency, we must distinguish between two ways of conceptualizing the earthly city. These two ways are not to be considered antithetical. Rather, within the idea of the “earthly city”, Augustine implicitly shows the distinction, and we can see this when we consider the different contexts that surround the uses of the “earthly city.” This will be an example of how I am transposing paradigms and positions in the sense that Lonergan has indicated. Augustine himself was not addressing the distinction explicitly because his primary concern was how to help Christians understand their role in an increasingly Christian, but once dominantly pagan, empire. The first way to conceptualize the earthly city is the most fundamental way, which we previously discussed. It is characterized by its contingency, mutability, and finitude. The second way is more complicated. It can be characterized by sin insofar as we determine sin to be a corruption of being.

Augustine takes up the Platonic notion of sin as a corruption, a deprivation of being. It is therefore a negative concept. In Book 7, Chapter 12 of his Confessions, Augustine states that, “ … those things also are good that are subject to corruption [emphasis added]. If they were the supreme good, they could not be corrupted, but they could not be subject to corruption unless they were good.”13 When Augustine speaks about the earthly city, in the sense of sinners and their works, he is speaking of the human society disconnected from the proper hierarchy of desires and, therefore, disconnected from the hierarchy of being. This would be when human goods are desired to the exclusion or subservience of higher goods. Thus, the sinful city (as it will be referred to hereafter), remains part of the earthly city insofar as it has “being,” but insofar as it represents a deprivation, it participates in “non-being.”

The sinful city is the earthly city primarily seen in its deficiency, that is, when individuals or communities posit contingent goods as the ultimate objects of desire. Simply, the sinful city is the earthly city when it is corrupted by sin, by missing the mark. On the other hand, Christians just as much as pagans or sinners need to be in communities that are necessarily passing and lower goods than God. Therefore, if desire is aimed at God and all lower goods have God as their ultimate reference, then this is the appropriation of the earthly city into a proper relationship.14This is the city of God. In the latter sense, the earthly city remains mutable, uncertain, corruptible, and caught up in all the distracting perils of human life. Because the human community is not crystallized, it can be subject to sin. But the community of believers is ordered to and loves God; it has been qualitatively elevated.

This is why the term “earthly city” is sometimes used in opposition to the city of God and at other times used to describe the contingent ordering of human persons in community. Here, we must be careful not to collapse the real duality that exists between the heavenly city and the earthly city while at the same time emphasizing their intermingled relationship.15 I use Augustine’s term of “intermingled” because it shows us that while we might make conceptual distinctions, the lines are often unclear in our everyday lives. The sinful city is everywhere, even in our churches. We also find ourselves falling into the sinful city through our personal sins. Yet, Augustine’s work is meant to help Christians understand a theoretical framework so that they can apply it to the particulars of their lives in the community.

Addressing the Charge of Pessimism

Particularly in the United States, we are painfully aware of the recent sanctification of activism. Yet, for the Christian there is also the injunction of a form of activism. After all, we are told to love our neighbors. Does Augustine eliminate the need for social or political activism? Hannah Arendt levels the charge against him; his elevation of the Heavenly city above “this-worldly” matters would undermine the necessity of loving one’s neighbor and loving the world.

In a review of Arendt’s Love and Saint Augustine, Charles Mathewes explains how Arendt criticizes Augustine for leaving “individuals isolated from one another, and so not even grace can solve the problem since social life is still rooted in sin.”16 Human agency, not the hierarchy of being, is the primary way to understand how persons are relational based on their experience as subjects. Augustine is guilty by this account of “worldlessness” whereby Christians are called to separate themselves from this-worldly activities in favor of the heavenly reality.17

But, as Mathewes suggests, Arendt does not properly engage with Augustine within his own context, “confusing the spirit for the letter” of what Augustine has proposed.18 Rather than being “other-worldly,” Augustine’s pessimism is a recognition of the most universal experience of human subjects: there is a destructive tendency of the embodied, historical, and social nature of human life. It is entropic of its own accord, and it is actively broken through sinful activity.

Here we can make use of what Augustine means by “pilgrim” and what Michael Lamb addresses in his work Beyond Pessimism: A Structure of Encouragement in Augustine’s City of God. Indeed, if we understand “pilgrim” as “one who passes through,” then there is good reason to see how political activism would not fit the role since the pilgrim is not meant for the places through which he passes. However, a pilgrim makes use of the lands he passes through. He does not reject them for their nourishment, their shelters, and even their hospitable natives. However, the pilgrim would be rejecting his homeland if, in passing through, he forgot his journey and settled in the land, leaving his true home, his true family, and his true occupation bereft of his presence.

Augustine’s framework for understanding the “polis” and its unity posits the fundamental starting point of desire as a teleological movement (more precisely, it is an eschatological movement when in reference to the whole City of God) of the pilgrim towards his desired end. It affirms both the transitory nature of pilgrimage and its potentially proper use. As was discussed earlier, like the body being the mode of activity for the soul, a pilgrim can only reach his destination through the pilgrimage itself.

Lamb further indicates that Augustine is setting himself against the utopian visions of the state and therefore it is both necessary and problematic. 19 This relates directly back to the two ways to view the earthly city as sin and contingency that are not properly addressed by the critics. Earthly goods, and therefore political goods, are valuable when they are ordered toward their highest end in God. Otherwise, they become seeds of alienation, globalization, and radical individualism.

Augustine’s City of God does not propose a naïve understanding of the relationship between the Godly end of human existence and the mode by which humans necessarily attain their proper end. Through the theoretical and ontological foundation of his work, the City of God sets up the necessary framework for any proper account of the Heavenly City and the earthly city.

Human existence is a problematic study, and human community even more so because it is not clearly experienced in dualistic terms. However, the world needs improvement, and the source of a critique or improvement cannot be from the very level that is systematically flawed. Theology defeats both itself and activism for social and political justice if it does not have reference to a higher framework. The City of God is adequate for our times because its relevance is not limited by its historical context, though to properly engage with it, an understanding of this context is necessary. The pedagogical points and the use of the concept of the “pilgrim,” city structures, and motifs of empire and kingdom are accidental to the essential claim of the text. The pattern that Augustine describes stands strong in the face of modern critiques.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Here we can relate a similar idea described many times by Dr. Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau. The concept of transposition in a methodologically aware approach to theology would propose a more positive way of understanding the “revival of the dead father.” It does not negate the findings of the past but rather sees Christian theology as a developing process that mediates the eternal truths of the Gospel to different times and cultures. What Peterson might characterize as the symbolic role of Osiris, Lonergan would understand as an old position or paradigm that addressed theological problems of a particular time and place. It requires a renewal that does justice to the eternal, revealed truths of God while living up to the tradition. See Peterson, Jordan B., “Beyond Order Jordan B. Peterson Montreal | Host: Jonathan Pageau,” at 32:05. YouTube. June, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPcILp35oU4.
  2. Wilkins, Jeremy D.. Before Truth: Lonergan, Aquinas, and the Problem of Wisdom, at 203. The Catholic University of America Press, 2020.
  3. Christian Tornau, “Saint Augustine,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September, 2019
  4. Augustine. “City of God, Book XIX, Chapters 11-28.”, in Phillips, Elizabeth, et al., ed., T & T Clark Reader in Political Theology, at 31. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021
  5. Augustine, “City of God”, at 33.
  6. Ibid, at 34.
  7. Ibid, at 35.
  8. Ibid, at 36.
  9. Ibid, 36.
  10. Ibid, 54.
  11. Ibid, 42.
  12. Ibid, 39-40.
  13. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, at 186. Translated by J.M Lelen. Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1952.
  14. We should also make note that Augustine uses the terms “earthly city” and “city of man” interchangeably even though a distinction can be drawn out.
  15. Though I do not discuss it here for the sake of brevity, Augustine’s paradigm relies heavily upon his eschatological view of history that resolves itself in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%2021&version=NIV.
  16. Charles T. Mathewes, “Review of Love and Saint Augustine, by H. Arendt, J. V. Scott, & J. C. Stark,” at 490. The Journal of Religion 77, no.3, 1997.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, 491.
  19. Lamb, Michael. “Beyond Pessimism: A Structure of Encouragement in Augustine’s City of God,” at 593. The Review of Politics 80, no. 4. 2018.

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