Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Getting Augustine Wrong

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Getting Augustine Wrong

Article excerpt

Injustices are done; imprudent, ill-considered policies are pursued. Brutal, cynical men posture as noble leaders. There's a great deal about public life that arouses our passions. It is easy to become angry, bitter, fearful, and despairing. There's another side as well. We can harbor great hopes, throwing ourselves into politics with the conviction that we can end poverty, war, and injustice. As religious believers, we need to check ourselves. Jesus teaches that his kingdom is not of this world. Politics do not constitute the highest good. We render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's-and there's no question which realm commands our ultimate loyalty.

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes a strong distinction between worldly existence and the religious life. "Walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:4). Paul is not designating two different metaphysical locations. The realm of the flesh is just that, a regime or kingdom. It is a set of laws, norms, and expectations that establishes a way of life. Life according to the flesh, therefore, means accepting the world's parameters: Wealth, power, and status are ultimate, and death is final. By contrast, walking according to the Spirit recognizes the sovereign power of God. Death is not final, and the highest good is fellowship with him.

St. Augustine puts this distinction in his own terms. There are two commonwealths, the city of man, an earthly city, and the heavenly city, the city of God. Both exist in this world, but they have divergent faiths, hopes, and loves. The earthly city's faith rests in worldly powers; its hopes are limited to the temporal horizon; and its loves seek finite goods. The heavenly city's faith is in God; it hopes for eternal life; and its love is directed toward God and others in God. Thus, we should not think of the two cities as existing in two different locations, as if the earthly city is New York or America. They do not operate on different planes of existence, with the heavenly city spiritual in the sense of having no earthly embodiment, and the earthly city simply equivalent to any temporal project or endeavor. Instead, the two cities have different orders of love, which, as St. Augustine explains, are intermixed in this life and will be untangled in God's final judgment.

A reader contacted me recently. He chastised me for speaking too strongly about the current political situation and urged a re-reading of Augustine's City of God. The gist of his criticisms suggested that he has a superficial understanding of St. Augustine that I have found to be common. It assumes that our elections, legislative battles, and legal wrangling concern only the city of man, and that Christians, insofar as they are loyal to the city of God, must distance themselves from politics. This is not correct. We are social animals, and our civic lives remain integral to who we are, no matter how far we advance in the Christian life. A person who retreats from public life because it is too inconvenient or unpleasant or fails to accord with his nice ideals acts as a citizen of the city of man, seeking his own good-peace of mind, ideological purity-at the expense of the common good. (This is not to say we ought never to forsake politics. We can come to the conclusion that our involvement corrupts our love of God and neighbor. …

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