Christianity and Society

by James J. O'Donnell

The Critique of Ideology[1]

"Things are seldom what they seem," crooned Little Buttercup, full of a revelation that would transform the society around her. Augustine would have agreed. No a priori reason compels us to think that appearances, depending directly on the subjective experience of the observer, give any very coherent picture of reality. The perceptions that record these appearances have no compelling independent authority. On this point Christianity shares the ground with other philosophical and religious traditions. It holds that there is such a thing as real being, and even that the world of appearances is directly related to the world of real being. But it claims that human perception and reason is for now impotent to deduce the exact nature of that relation, although human beings do not cease to create patterns that claim to define the relation. In short, human beings live in a dream world from which they can be liberated into reality only with help from outside. Hence, revelation.

Revelation is at the center of Augustine's thought, for it functions in the order of knowledge as grace functions in the order of action, and right knowledge and right action are impossible without revelation and grace. Hence at every turn in Augustine we observe that the formal patterns according to which he interprets the world of appearances derive directly from his understanding of the way God's Word works in the world. So Christian Doctrine is the necessary preliminary to everything else in Augustine. When we consider his view of what we may somewhat whimsically call "macrotheology," this is especially true. To understand the relationship between Christianity and society is nothing more and nothing less than to open the question of the relation between competing interpretations of the nature of reality. Human societies that evolve without Christianity differ among themselves about the meaning of sense-knowledge and the nature of reality; but Christianity, wherever it appears, makes special claims on the credence of nations. Civil societies form themselves as the visible manifestation of commonly held principles. Taken at this level, Christianity presents a radically different set of ideas about the nature of the world and the way men ought to live within it.

Whether a "Christian society" as such has ever existed or can ever exist is irrelevant. What is important is to understand how the Christian perspective intrudes upon the complacencies of the world-views with which it comes into contact. In Christianity through the centuries there is a constant tension between the actual order of society and the principles Christianity proposes. What Christianity offers is an interpretation of social reality that claims to come completely from outside human society (as revelation) and that sets itself up as an insistent critic of the natural views of fallen men and women. Christianity, as a social organization, is a constant reproach to the secular world and a constant challenge to custom and mores (even when custom itself carries the Christian name).

In theory and in practice, Augustine had words to describe this situation. In theory, his familiar distinction between letter and spirit served him well. The letter represents hard, empirical reality (or at least the world of appearances masquerading as such), things the way they definitely seem to be to the unaided understanding. All of life, without benefit of divine revelation, is a literal narrative, devoid of meaning and value, only an interaction of atoms in the void. But in the presence of revelation, meaning and value take shape under the power of the spirit.

In this way, deep faith and radical nihilism can be located at opposite ends of a spectrum. Between the two lies a whole range of forms of belief and nonbelief. Christianity can take two approaches to those who occupy the middle ground. All vague stirrings of belief can be treated as well-intentioned motion towards God and embraced in the all-enfolding arms of a generous church; or the same failures of total faith can be treated as apostasy from God and consigned to the outer darkness. Paradox again: Christianity takes both positions simultaneously. Christianity must remain, as one recent observer has said, "radically open to all truth and to every value," for the presence of the spirit cannot be denied in any of these stirrings. At the same time, Christianity itself is meaningless unless it gives unyielding witness to the power of grace and total commitment to the truth of revelation. So radical is the Christian claim that the latter position is the one that usually predominates in Christian discourse.

Because Augustine never ceased to challenge the ideologies of the secular world with the Christian message, he insisted on drawing the line between letter and spirit (between, that is, fantasy and reality, between the world-asappearance and the world-as-reality) as high and as sharp as he could. Even those in this world who see the message of the spirit with rare clarity are still not fully assimilated to the reality the spirit betokens. Only death can free them from "the body of this death" (Rom. 7.24) and bring them home to authentic reality and true being, to God.

Thus even members in good standing of the visible church were still themselves more on the side of the sinners than of the blessed. They are separated from those around them not by any final distinction (that must await Judgment Day) but by the intermediate distinction that is the result of grace working in their lives. The boundary between the saved and the damned in this world, as long as people live, is completely permeable. The church does not seal itself off from the world around it, but remains permanently, vulnerably, open to it. Those outside can still come in at any time--and those inside can fail, and fall, at any time. (This way of putting the Augustinian case leaves aside the difficult subjects of grace, predestination, and perseverance that must be faced when the relation of Christ to the individual soul is taken up. For the moment, we can speak in social terms, with no window into individual souls.)

The implications of this view for our attitude towards natural society are simple but staggering: The mass of humanity lives in a fantasy world. Human societies, created by sinful men and women, are all based on mistaken notions of the nature of reality and are merely dream castles. Societies constitute themselves to bring about results that are impossible. Misery, discord, and death are absolute constants in human experience, despite all the advances of civilization. Nevertheless, human beings retain the most touching faith in the power of effort, scientific knowledge, and the innate good will of their fellows to bring about a more rational and just society.

Ordinary men and women, left to their own devices, go on living in their fantasy world. What sets Augustine's Christians apart is a vision of the real nature of the world in which they live, or at least a glimpse of it. This joyful suspicion hardens them to face, and to refuse to take at face value, the world of appearances. The faith and hope of the Christian embolden him to be despairing about civil society. Where it is the natural tendency of human beings to respond to change by clinging to institutions (thereby guaranteeing the destruction of institutions), the Christian can bid farewell to fading institutions and passing loves, secure in a love that lasts forever and a vision of reality that depends for its goodness, not on the fragile creations of fallible mortals, but on the eternal goodness of God.

In Augustine's time, Rome was the center of the world of fantasy. The literature and culture of antiquity presented a society in which a visible civil institution, the Roman empire, embodied all the hopes and expectations of reasonable men. Rome was, everyone knew, eternal. Uncivilized peoples loomed outside the empire but they were no threat to the magnificence of Rome. Vergil's Aeneid, read as a paean to imperial Rome, was the center of the literary imagination and the text around which much of this fascination hypnotically revolved.[2] Augustine himself knew that fascination, and in both City of God and his Confessions he labored long to pay off his debt to Vergil while disentangling himself forever from the mythology of civil power to which Vergil's text lent itself.

Providentially for Augustine, something terrible happened to disturb the civil faith. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 provided at least the pretext for a reassessment of conventional ideologies. Some people appear to have used the event as an opportunity to attack Christianity for failing to take care of Rome, but Augustine saw that the more lasting message of the event was the weakness of Rome itself. Christianity gave Augustine a perspective from which to view Rome, at least in the imagination, from outside.

So he wrote City of God, in terms fit for a non-Christian audience, to provide first Roman history, then all history, with a thoroughgoing Christian interpretation, to show the presence of the spirit in the world in the literal world of appearances. Apologists often use the device Augustine did, writing ostensibly for outsiders, when in reality they speak mainly to insiders whose faith has been shaken (or shown to be insufficient) by events around them. Modern readers do not much appreciate the destructive part of Augustine's argument. To us it takes little effort to believe that the pagan gods of antiquity were not in fact responsible for the rise and greatness of Rome. But in Augustine's own day, his undertaking was still audacious. Plenty of professed Christians were unready to deny that other forms of divine power besides the Christian one had influenced, and could continue to influence, the affairs of men. Even Augustine granted the pagan gods a claim to exist, but saw them only as feeble demons, allowed a small sphere of mischief by an infinitely more powerful deity.

Cleaning house, as Augustine set out to do, of all the lingering faith in divinities other than the Christian one was thus a drastic step to take. The question at issue was, where was reality to be found? Were there many spiritual principles animating material reality and giving it life and meaning, or was there only one? A plurality of experience destroys community. Every man can have his own god and his own pattern. Reality becomes the least common denominator of a plethora of subjective imaginings. For Christianity, on the other hand, reality is the authentic pattern from which the human imagination has defected. The unique, omnipotent God manifests himself throughout history, at all places and at all times, as creator and lord of the world. On this rests the Christian claim to know objective reality.

We now stand at sufficient distance to see how faith in Rome and its greatness had become, by Augustine's time, a crutch on which a distraught and insecure people wanted desperately to be able to lean. The elite of the empire went on deceiving themselves as long as they could, long after the barbarians had come and gone. What Augustine offered was a chance to throw away the crutch.

Scholarship has documented nothing about the late Roman empire more clearly, I would venture, than that it deserved to fall. It had become a military dictatorship, existing to protect and perpetuate itself, regardless of the cost it demanded from its subjects. Augustine's contemporary Salvian, the priest of Marseilles, claimed (with some justification) that barbarian invaders in the western half of the empire were often greeted with open arms as liberators from the oppression of Roman taxation and bureaucracy. Its culture was politically and morally bankrupt. The "successful" half of the empire, the Byzantine east, was better than the west in preserving itself, and lingered through a sterile middle age until final destruction came at the hands of the Turks in 1453. Nothing has come of Byzantium since.

Faced with Rome and the possibility of pluralism, Augustine in the first five books of City of God set out to defend the Christian claim of unity. A single divine power, God the father, is the source of all the world of appearances, is the center of the world of the spirit, and is the foundation of all being and goodness. A claim such as this authorizes a human society; for if there is a single source of meaning and value in the world, there can then be agreement on moral principles. Only agreement on moral principles can make a society function. The argument runs through City of God (from 2.21-24 to 19.21) as a debate with ideas from Cicero's Republic (a work known to us only in fragments). Moral discord is the sure sign of impending disintegration. To a chaotic society, the Christian church provides a radical life-giving principle that can dwell in the world--for the church is a temporal institution in the service of a higher moral principle.

The first books of City of God require more annotation and historical comment than do the later books. The first three books were written with that audience we described above in mind--the refugees from Rome who were haunting the salons of Carthage in the early 410s, lamenting their dismal fate and blaming the Christian God. Those books were published together by the end of 413; the rest of City of God becomes more and more general in its appeal and less tied to the immediate polemical situation. The first book is the most closely tied to circumstances. For example, at least a few religious women seem to have been in Africa who had escaped from Rome after suffering outrages at barbarian hands; the largest section of the first book both encourages these women and rebukes those who insulted them. (1.17-27)

The opening books of City of God, therefore, demonstrate by negative argument, with polemical verve, that in the order of knowledge, God--the Christian God--prevails alone. What remains is for Augustine to show that this God prevails in the order of action--and love--as well. That is the business of Books 6 through 10.

To show the adequacy of the Christian claims, Augustine confronted the surviving ancient philosophical tradition in debate. He began by making bold admissions. By Augustine's time, the diversity of conflicting philosophical schools (Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Academics, etc.) had virtually disappeared. To be a philosopher in the serious sense of that word meant to be a disciple, at some distance, of Plato. Modern writers call this movement Neoplatonism and confer the leadership of the school on Plotinus (d. c. A.D. 265). This is a useful but somewhat imprecise form of reference. The people who belonged to the school called themselves simply Platonists and claimed to owe allegiance only to Plato himself, whom they interpreted in a variety of ways.[3]

What any reader of the surviving works of the Neoplatonists discovers is that in the realm of speculation, they had much superficially in common with the Christians. In the three hypostases of Plotinian thought one finds a parallel for the three persons of the Christian trinity; this late Platonism contained a firm belief in the existence of a single realm of the spirit that gave value and meaning to the lives of people living in the material world. It softened this virtual monotheism by allowing that the ancient religions were, in their various styles, talking about the same thing. The divine spirit leaked through into the world of matter in a variety of forms, variously interpreted by ignorant men in a profusion of different cults. A proper philosophical understanding, the Platonists argued, would lead to an understanding of the unity of experience.

Augustine introduced the Platonists in City of God (see 8.2-12) so as to deal with the question whether there was any possibility of salvation without revelation--whether, in short, men's unaided efforts could lead them to right knowledge and hence to virtuous life. He admitted that the Platonists were great philosophers and wise men, and acknowledged their virtues, but then he proceeded to offer an explanation how this situation had come about in a way that left the primacy of the Christian interpretation unshaken.

Augustine's argument always had a scriptural basis. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul sought to justify God's dealings with the heathens who had not heard God's revelation to the Jews. The pagans, Paul argued, had no excuse for ignorance. "For the invisible things of God are clearly known from the [visible] things of creation." (Rom. 1.20) Thus on the one hand, even in a fallen world, direct, unaided knowledge of God remained possible, in the sense that those who failed to achieve it were blameworthy for their failure, but impossible, in the sense that in this fallen world no one ever achieves direct knowledge of God.

To remedy this defect of human reason, revelation was given to mankind through the instrument of the church. In practice for Augustine it is only through the revelation of the spirit in the church that true knowledge can be acquired. What then of the Platonists? They are allowed by God to exist to offer corroborating evidence. As the most excellent and reputable of philosophical schools of antiquity, they are seen to have gone a long way towards understanding the basic truths of theology (as seen by Christians), without ever getting the whole picture. Formally, then, Augustine's argument in Books 6 through 10 of City of God is this: If the best of philosophers (best by virtue of the nearness of their approximation to Christian theology, as well as by virtue of their reputation among men), cannot achieve a complete and adequate picture of the divine dispensation for salvation, a fortiori no other philosophical sect can provide such a picture. Without such accurate knowledge, salvation is impossible.

Philosophy fails in another, somewhat more significant way as well. It has no place to stand. Philosophical knowledge takes the form of individual comments about the nature of things emitted by learned and serious men on no authority except their own. Philosophers may think that their conclusions are self-evident and may chafe at the unbelief of the masses in the face of their sober and well-reasoned arguments. But Augustine saw that this is not only a likely result, but a necessary one, in a fallen world.

One thing that was lost in the fall of man was the trust that underlies all human communication. The story of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11.1-9) implied that sin renders every individual an isolated fragment of consciousness, cut off from the consolation of shared experience. If civil societies are created by men as fraudulent attempts to duplicate the unity they instinctively desire but cannot achieve, so too in the philosophical order, when the most pressing issues of salvation and happiness are at stake, the most men can do is create new sects and philosophies, small attempts at an intellectual tour-de-force by which a few individuals will pretend to have transcended the conditions of human ignorance to attain real knowledge.

But such constructions in the realm of the spirit are no less fraudulent than great empires in the realm of matter. Philosophical schools come and go, and the mass of mankind is left alone, with no profit to show for all its deference to the sages. Philosophy, finally, is so individualistic that it becomes undemocratic. Only the initiated few can achieve the heroic feats of knowledge and thought that make them philosophers. Their less learned fellows are condemned to make do with the much less satisfactory frauds perpetrated by the pagan religions. Augustine, speaking for Christianity, insists that if there is any salvation at all in this world, it must be accessible to all, not merely to those with the money and leisure to pursue university studies in philosophy.

In place of the sages then, Christianity offered a mediator, adequate and unique, not only between what was divine and what was human, but even between human beings themselves. Where the philosophers had only the arid consolations of logic, Augustine preached the power of Christ. In Christ the divine principle entered the world, revealing the will of God and providing a common basis for the mutual understanding (and love) of all those who accepted him. Christian theology challenges the self-centered intellectual autonomy of the philosophers by insisting on self-surrender and acceptance of a power of knowledge coming, not from effort and innate virtue, but from outside the individual.

The central paradox of Christianity underlies doctrine. On the one hand, mankind is utterly responsible for its actions and its failures to achieve salvation independently-- hence the justice of damnation; but on the other hand, God intervenes in the affairs of fallen mankind to provide a certain and independent means of redemption--hence the mercy of salvation. For Augustine's contemporaries, this ineffable combination of justice and mercy could be the largest stumbling block to Christianity.

But for now, while he was writing City of God, the logical ramifications of this theory were not yet his concern. The purpose of the first ten books of City of God was demolition, not construction. Much of his rhetorical skill went into making the Christian alternative to the pagan claims emerge almost effortlessly and inevitably once the pagan arguments were disposed of. The first five books cleared the central position for God the father and creator in the disposition of the affairs of the material world, while the next five books blast away at the pagan interpretation of the ordering of affairs in the world of understanding and the spirit. When the smoke clears, God the son, Christ the redeemer, appears at the center of the picture, the true power for salvation of individual souls.

Where the first five books required historical annotation and illustration, the second five require what is in some ways a more difficult effort of understanding. Augustine shared with his opponents a common view of the reality of what we would call supernatural phenomena. He did not need to debunk all claims of miraculous intervention into nature by spirits other than the Christian God; he could simply revalue them as works of the demons, the fallen angels of whom scripture spoke. All this makes alien reading for us, but we should envy Augustine the polemical situation in which he found himself. He merely had to explain the mysterious supernatural events his opponents alleged; the skeptic is in the far more difficult position of having to deny the supernatural features of the events outright.

Whether we should give credence to the ancient tendency to see miracles everywhere is another question, not addressed by City of God. Augustine himself was for many years disinclined to accept the probability of Christian miracle in his own day (holding that it had been a special gift to the generation of the apostles), but later shifted his position and in the last book of City of God a whole dossier of contemporary miracle stories (almost entirely limited to cures of the sick) may be found (22.8). Augustine did not possess anything like the same conception of natural/supernatural that we bring to such stories; what was important for early Christians in miracle stories was not the event itself (which was merely one more surprise in a surprising world), but the meaning of the event. The New Testament speaks of miracles by Greek words that mean "signs and portents," and even the word "miracle" itself derives from a Latin word meaning "marvelous." In both languages the ancient focus was on the reaction of the observer, drawing from the event meaning for his own life. The deity manipulated human affairs in such a way as to bring about this communication. Seen objectively, the theology of miracle had something of the qualities of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a miracle was something that was meant to astonish and communicate a theological message (whatever the nature of the event itself), then all the miracles recorded by the early church were truly miraculous.

Thus Augustine could readily exploit the credulity of the pagan world from which Christianity arose to establish the polemical structure of the first ten books of City of God. In them he demonstrated the ruling power of God (Books 1 through 5) and the redeeming power of Christ (Books 6 through 10) as the only adequate hypothesis to explain the ways of the world. The world in which the pagans had lived, be it the material world of Rome or the spiritual world of the philosophers and demons, did not exist. It was a kingdom of fraud, built by fallen human minds attempting to make sense of the world around them. Augustine was not insensitive to the nobility and high intentions of the pagan sages, but he could not blind himself either to their failures. At the end of the first ten books of City of God, Augustine stood poised between pagan and Christian worlds, having shown the failure of the pagan world-view and intimated the necessity of the Christian. His business in the books that followed would be to turn away from the world that antiquity had made and show how Christianity proposed that men and women go about living in the real, fallen world.

The People of God

Christianity defies time and validates history. On the one hand, the eternal vision of God is the norm against which human notions of time are judged and found wanting; sacramental actions destroy the supremacy of time, while eternal happiness, outside the tunnel of transience, awaits the blessed. On the other hand, history has unique value. Christ died once for mankind's sins and need not repeat the sacrifice. Cyclical theories of history are ruled out and the whole pattern of human life is given a linear purpose.

Indeed, Christianity may be said to have invented history in the modern sense of the term. Before Christianity, ancient writers of what we call history were often little more than sententious purveyors of recent memories and old legends; at best, they chronicled the events of their own society in light of hindsight and their own philosophical preoccupations. Each generation lived isolated in time from all others, with only the traditions and institutions of the political realm--as the ancient religions faded--to offer escape from time into history. Christianity introduced the notion that the history of the world might have a single pattern. A beginning, a middle, and an end spring up around the whole of human existence. Instead of an endless succession of solipsisms, there is a single human community, united across time and space, to which the Christian belongs.

This is the vision of the human condition that Augustine unfolds in the last dozen books of City of God. His divisions are simple: beginning/middle/end, or rather past/ present/future. What we would recognize as history is all in the middle section, devoted to the world after the fall and before the last judgment, suspended in the material interim but revolving around the presence of Christ. The tasks Augustine set for himself in these books were to explain the fall of man and its implications; then to prescribe the Christian remedy for the ills of the present; and finally to explain the Christian hope for the world to come.

First, the fall. Augustine knew full well that the seven days of creation were a literary figure for a much more complex process whose temporal duration he did not care to speculate about (11.6-8). Similarly, he believed in the historicity of the story of Adam and Eve, but he did so in a world in which there was literally no reason why he should not believe the story. He would not have found it difficult to adjust his views to accord with the development of modern anthropology. Indeed, the Augustinian theory of original sin becomes much easier to defend when the mythic qualities of the Adam and Eve story are recognized. The result is that, in the terms we discussed concerning Christian Doctrine, Augustine cheerfully accepts the literal meaning of the Genesis story, but passes quickly on to what he knows is more important, the spiritual meaning. Until the story's ramifications are applied to the whole church and to each Christian, there is no point in lingering over its details.

"Two loves gave birth to two cities." (14.28) In this statement all the doctrine of City of God is summarized, and in it we see reflected the more abstract formulas of Christian Doctrine. The selfless love of God ("enjoyment") was replaced in Adam and Eve by love of self, manifest in the first instance as the pride that leads to disobedience.

Augustine always emphasizes the rebelliousness the first sin entailed. The precise command God gave was irrelevant. What mattered was that the serpent appealed to the selfish longings of the first couple, and that appeal found a willing response. Though repentance swiftly followed error, the pattern was instilled in the human race once for all. For Augustine, the fact of sin in the world around him, the fact that men and women enter the world in a state of separation from God, found corroboration in the biblical story of the first couple. He never found a satisfactory theory to explain the transmission of original sin, but of the fact of its presence he had no doubt at all.[4]

But City of God sets the human story of original sin in a wider context. The first error of Adam and Eve was not something innate in them, but the response to a suggestion that came from outside. Hence Augustine goes at great lengths into the origins of the two cities in the fall of the angels. Satan was the highest of creatures, so he fell the lowest. Pride again (the notion that the self is supremely loveable) was the seed of evil. This planted in the world of creation the possibility of evil for man. Humanity seems to be given the second chance offerred by Christianity because it was not itself the source of all the evil in creation. The fallen angels enjoy no such redemptive favor.

Thus from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell there are created two separate societies of angels and men, with a boundary between the two societies that runs right through the earthly world. Augustine calls those societies civitates, which we usually translate "cities," but which more precisely meant "communities," that is, cities in their human dimension. The reasons for Augustine's choice of this metaphor are deeply rooted in his theological writings. One obvious implication was that it enabled him to pick up again the theme of pilgrimage he had used in Christian Doctrine and elsewhere.[5]

The material world, then, is disputed territory, where the enemy holds sway for the moment. The followers of Christ, the citizens of the heavenly city, must live in this world as foreigners (peregrini, "pilgrims") do, using the laws of the city in which they find themselves to shelter themselves, but always planning and preparing to leave that city behind to return home. For those of the earthly city, the earth seems (wrongly) to be home and they treat it as such, abandoning their claim to citizenship above.

This theme looms all through these books. First, however, Augustine had to explain fallenness itself and what it entails, for it seemed he had painted himself into a logical corner. God created all things, and insofar as they were created by God, they were good; evil, then, is the mere absence of good, not--as the Manicheans claimed--an independent power in itself. How then came evil into the world?

Not as a material presence, Augustine would say. Natural disasters may trouble the hearts of men, but they are not truly evil. Evil resides only in the rational souls of fallen angels and men. Those souls are, for Augustine, tripartite: the human soul exists, knows, and loves.[6] The moral worth of the individual lies in the quality of the love, that is to say, the quality of the will, and evil results from a turning of the will's love away from the things it should seek (enjoyment of God, love of neighbor) to other things (usually self-love).

So how does the will, created good by a good God, turn to evil? Augustine does not know, nor can anyone know. "Seek not to find the efficient cause of an evil will. It is not a matter of efficiency, but of deficiency. ... To defect from the one who is the highest being to something that has less being, this is to begin to have an evil will. To seek the causes of such a defect--deficient causes, not efficient ones--is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence." (12.7) Evil is a nothing, and a turning to evil has no cause (all causation is divinely ordered and hence good) but is entirely self-generated. The most that can be said is that God created rational creatures with wills genuinely free so their worship of God would be a source of glory. The source of evil is, finally, a mystery, and a mystery that all of Augustine's later debates with the Pelagians never tempted him to pretend he had solved.

More than logical trickery underlies this evasive answer. If the turning of the soul towards evil were rational and comprehensible, there would be something good about it, since all reason is good. Everything in the world that is intelligible is intelligible by virtue of its reflection of God's creative power. When the will turns away from God it thus separates itself from the goodness of creation into a self-created darkness that is no longer intelligible. The real question was not so much how evil arose, but what it meant. The condition of fallen men and women preoccupies Augustine through Books 11-14. He concludes that the fall from grace led as well to a kind of fall from freedom. Human beings after the fall remained entirely responsible for their moral failings, which come about only as a result of their own free acts (on the hypothesis that original sin is justifiably imputed to each individual at birth). But fallen people are not, because of the chains forged by sin, capable of restoring themselves to God's favor by their own efforts. By choosing to assert their own power rather than submit to God's, they discover how powerless they are.

The most palpable manifestation of fallen human nature is concupiscence, the importunate nagging of the flesh's desires. In the fall, the natural order and harmony of the person was thrown into confusion. The will turned from God, knowledge was darkened with ignorance, and a debilitating derangement of the will resulted. Thus, the higher faculties of the person, were no longer in control as they were when the natural hierarchy of the soul was undisturbed. The ensuing disorder is most visible in the appetites of the flesh.

Augustine began with the observation of a pastor that it is in human sexuality that the confusion and disorder of sin is most visible. Treating sexuality as a biological question, he observed that human beings are scarcely masters of their own bodies, unable to subject the sexual organs to rational control. Treating sexuality as a psychological question, he saw the same recurring failure of control and discipline. From Paul he heard confirmation of what he saw: "I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin." (Rom. 7.23) The history of human relations is full of good intentions overthrown by powerful appetites, a plight that cannot be blamed only on repressive social conventions.

But sexuality remained for Augustine fundamentally, even supernaturally good. His (in many ways comical) depiction of what sex would have been like in the Garden of Eden if Adam and Eve had not fallen shows him earnestly (and perhaps even with conscious whimsy) attempting to give concrete form to his recognition of the fundamental values of sexuality (14.21-27). To what extent Augustine may be made the parent of later attitudes towards what now seem unduly negative is open to doubt; he did hold that virginity was superior to marriage, but emphasized repeatedly that both states of life were inherently good; he held that the purpose of sexual intercourse was procreation and that even in marriage it was otherwise culpable, but he was careful to minimize the burden of that fault. His contemporary Jerome had engaged in a famous battle of pamphlets with Jovinian, a monk who held views of sexuality that sound refreshingly modern; Jerome is far more negative than Augustine.[7]

But the implications of fallenness run far beyond the disorder of human sexuality. In sexuality, lack of control manifests itself at every level of society. But that lack of control stemming from confusion and selfishness is characteristic of human affairs of all sorts in all times and places. The disorder began with the fall of the angels and entered history with the fall of Adam. Indeed, it may be said that "history" in the limited sense we now use is the result of the conjunction of human beings with sin. The middle four books of the last part of City of God, Books 15- 18, recount the present condition of human society, between the first sin and the last judgment, while the two societies (heavenly and earthly) find themselves mingled together and doing battle with each other in the arena of human society.

Such is the world of fallen man: the good mixed with the bad, seemingly inextricable: "These two cities are intertwined here in this world and entangled with each other, until they are to be separated at the last judgment." (1.35) No vision here of the saintly few penned up temporarily among the mass of the damned, waiting for release; rather, the boundary between the two societies runs through the hearts of individual men and women. The two societies cannot be identified and distinguished in this world: that is an absolute condition of fallenness.

Powerful forces in Augustine's time sought to identify the heavenly society with one visible institution, with the Christian empire itself. Greek Christians in particular had concluded that even biblical prophecy spoke of the coming age of happiness under Christian emperors. They assumed that a special grace could be seen in the Roman empire that had now given itself over to Christ.[8] This attitude grew and developed in the middle ages, producing abundant imperial and papal misconceptions. Augustine himself was invoked as a patron of this ideology, in a way that merits notice.

Augustine opposed all such identification of earthly societies with the heavenly society of which the church is an earthly shadow. Even when he engaged in panegyric of a recent emperor,[9] he saw in such an emperor virtue only when he saw personal submission to the church of Christ. But Augustine made one crucial mistake in judgment that led to much later confusion. In the early 410s, a young priest from Spain named Orosius came to Africa seeking Augustine's advice on theological controversies in his homeland. While he was there, Augustine apparently delegated him (we have only Orosius's word on this) to compile a history of the calamities of the human race, to show pagans that the Christian reading of history was true. (In Book 3 of City of God, Augustine declined to outline his position in detail, fearing to become a "mere writer of history." [3.18]) Orosius, however, did not fully grasp Augustine's ideas, but his energy quickly produced seven books of universal history destined to have a wide readership in the middle ages.[10] Augustine never actually disowned Orosius, but it is clear from Books 15-18 of City of God that Orosius had gone astray. Orosius wrote as though church, empire, and heavenly city could be identified in one confused mishmash. The medieval audience was often readier to read Orosius's exciting (and gory) narrative than to plod through twenty-two books of City of God, thinking to find Augustine's doctrine in Orosius's pages. Given the extent of the medieval misrepresentation of Augustine that ensued,[11] it is worth examining his attitude towards earthly societies (including "Christian empires") in some detail. The first principle is paramount: that earthly societies contain, just as people do, an undistinguishable mixture of good and evil.

Only if that point is kept in mind can the redemptive power of Christ in Augustinian thought be fully appreciated. First, the coming of Christ gives sense to history. It places a fixed and final benchmark by which all other events are measured. But the heavenly city had been represented on earth before Christ's coming as well as after. Cain and Abel were the earthly founders of both cities, and throughout the Old Testament Augustine traces the pre-Christian history of redemption. The Old Testament patriarchs did not merit salvation by their own deeds, for the grace that saved them was the grace Christ brought. Though Christ came at a particular time, his grace pervades history.

Christianity and the church hold a central, but temporary place in the drama of salvation history. They embrace the imperfection of human existence in the fallen world, and like this world they will pass away. What is genuinely important for all men is the ultimate progress towards union with God. Those who are outwardly in God's good favor (as loyal members of the Christian church) but who are finally found wanting in divine judgment have never been part of the heavenly city, appearances notwithstanding. Similarly, those who have not been visible members of the church but who do experience the transforming reality of God's grace (in Augustine's explicit discussion these people are limited to the Old Testament figures, but nothing he says compels us to keep the limits there) win final union with God.

In all this drama, Christianity and the church are far from irrelevant. The paradox is that they are essential and yet dispensable. The message of grace could not have come into the world without them, and the church continues to bear the special marks of divine favor that make it a sure guide and a channel of grace. More than that, it is pointless to speculate. Faith and hope, not assurance, are the marks of a Christian believer.

So, paradoxically, history is entirely changed by the intervention of Christ--and nothing is changed. To the world of appearance, only appearances change. A new religion comes to compete with the others, a new clique of the self-proclaimed elect declares itself. But in reality, divine grace works unceasingly in the hidden recesses of the lives of all those who open themselves to it. Much mystery surrounds the encounter of grace and the will, and that mystery characterizes the church in the world. But for Augustine in City of God, the elucidation of the ambiguity is less important than the recognition of its main features.

Augustine's historical vision is far from narrow. The actions of Christ and his church have affected only a portion of the human race in the conventional view of history, but for Augustine it is the Christian revelation that gives all history its meaning. All history is salvation history. The meaning given to human life by Christ by a single intervention is true for all men and women everywhere. The message is sent forth to all nations, and all nations can be called to receive it. This is the finality of the Christian message. What remains is to be revealed, in the last days, will be revealed in accord with what is already known, and no less universally. Despite its recursions into various forms of exclusivity, Christianity gave the world the first vision of human history as a coherent and organized whole, not merely as a welter of mutually hostile exclusivities.

For Augustine's account of human history in Books 15- 18, the primary text is always scripture. This may appear to imply a kind of exclusivity in itself until we recall that according to the principles laid down in Christian Doctrine, the allegorical interpretation of that scripture is the medium by which the apparent exclusivity of the text is broken down and the pertinence of every page to every age of history is clarified. Thus, when Augustine expounds the spiritual, or allegorical, sense of scripture, he uses the limited text of scripture as a key to unlock a vision wider than the text.

In this comprehensive view of human history, so trivial and evanescent a thing as the Roman empire plays little part. Augustine had no wish to deny the achievements of that empire, for in the world Augustine knew the Roman empire was easily the most extensive and the longest-lasting exercise ever undertaken in creating a substitute for paradise. But the Augustine who had once proclaimed an emperor's praises could, with the guidance of the Christian message, tear himself away from the secular vision of Roman glory. Once he did so, it was easy to turn back to the Roman world and see it as no more ultimately meaningful than a modern scholar would.

By the time Augustine came to the end of Book 18, he was ready to recapitulate the results of his attempt to disentangle human affections from human creations. Book 19 contains his vision of human society seen sub specie aeternitatis.[12] The evocation of peace, true peace, the goal of human life even in fraudulent human societies created by sinful people is profoundly appealing.

The subject is approached in several ways. A long and whimsically pedantic analysis traces the 288 possible philosophical approaches to happiness that the Roman polymath Varro had outlined (19.1-4). All are reduced to one way, the Christian way. An old quarrel with Cicero, postponed from Book 2, is taken up to show where justice is absent true community cannot exist (19.21). In communities robbed of justice by original sin, the real peace of an ideal soci- ety cannot exist. (He had earlier asked, "What are kingdoms without justice? Mere bands of hoodlums." [4.4])

The Christian community lives on, loving the true peace of the heavenly Jerusalem, devoid of illusions about the transient world in which it finds itself. This illusionless existence gives the Christian church a detachment from the secular world that in practice it does not always maintain. While secular governments attempt to create lasting peace in a world destined to know only strife and struggle until the last days, there is a subversive quality about the life that Augustine imagines for the church in these circumstances. She is, he says, to "use the peace of Babylon," (19.26) that is to say, take advantage of all the limited and partial peace that human society can find for itself, without ever settling for that peace. She is to use, not enjoy, the peace of the earthly city, and always to keep her eyes focused on the ultimate goal. As citizens of the heavenly city, Christians are always to recall where their true allegiance lies.

What then of the warfare of the earthly city? Augustine is often invoked as a kind of patron saint of the Just War. The passage in City of God in which he expounds his theory in its greatest detail deserves quotation in full: "But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he remembers that he is a human being, he will much rather lament the need to wage even just wars. For if they were not just he would not have to fight them and there would be no wars for him. The injustice of the opposing side is what imposes the duty of waging wars." (19.7) For Augustine, the Christian's job is to resist, conceding the justice of a cause only with reluctance, always on the lookout for the moment justice deserts his own cause. The siege of his own Hippo in the last months of his life seemed to Augustine a conflict both just and wretched, a calamity for the people he had served lovingly for forty years.[13]

In earthly terms, the vision of human society City of God provides is unremittingly bleak, even if indisputable. Most human societies, enamored with the daydreams of politics, pretend the human condition is better than it is. Men forget history because they do not want to remember that others have gone down paths of prosperity and complacency before them. But in western Christianity since Augustine there has always been a prophetic voice to proclaim the ultimate weakness of human political societies. Christianity offers mankind a hope besides which the gloom of the human condition is as nothing. Christian theology after Augustine is always hopeful and, in the deepest sense optimistic. But for those who reject that theology, the vision of human society that is left is stark and terrifying. In this sense as well, all history is salvation history. The salvific quality of that history makes it possible to be realistically honest about the damnable qualities of life in the interim; there are no easy ways out for Augustine.

In the last three books of City of God, Augustine gives substance to his hope. At the close of human history in the present age, there come the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Eschatological thought animated the early church long after it became clear that the second coming would not occur in the lifetime of the apostles. The fathers are not being morbid and gloomy when they speak of last things at times of material and moral crisis in their society; eschatology is hope. We have lived too long in a society growing from Christian roots and have become overfamiliar with the most vivid and negative representations of eschatological themes to be able to see that hope fresh when we encounter those themes in the ancient writers.

Augustine is in fact as restrained as a modern liberal theologian in his depiction of what lies ahead. He knew the alluring dangers of too-explicit representations for popular piety and contented himself instead with insisting on the most abstract of outlines of future life. At one place he does list the principal scriptural manifestations that are prophesied to accompany the last days, but he promptly qualifies what he says by adding that he is sure all these things will happen, but he cannot be certain of the order in which they will occur, nor does he think that the list is in any way exhaustive. (20.30) He feels deeply the deceptive quality of metaphor in such description. Human language is always a broken instrument, and thus it labors under a double burden. Not only is the language itself suspect, but it draws its terms of reference entirely from a world that is suspect as well. The notion of life itself is only partial and inadequate in human experience and language. Whatever it is that the blessed will experience in their union with God--that is life, and what we now experience is metaphor, even though language tries to make it the other way around.

Augustine's discussion of the afterlife thus does not establish a clear picture of what awaits, but instills expectant hope, while nurturing the faith and trust that will enable the hopeful to accept what they find. The weakness of the human mind and its language are just too great in the face of the greatest of mysteries. Theology can only instill reverence and leave behind a residue of hope.

So far the purposes and so far the plan of City of God. Ten books outline the weaknesses of the secular vision of history embodied in Roman life and thought, then twelve books sketch the pattern of history, putting life here below in the middle panel of a triptych, with God the creator standing before and God the judge standing after. This vision of history draws authority entirely from outside the conventional limits of history, and hence can claim for the transient affairs of time-bound men and women a dimension of meaning no secular ideology can manage. We will debate to the end of time whether any vision such as Augustine's can be valid or not. Augustine himself would expect this, since the final revelation is by definition withheld until precisely the end of time. For the time being (which is, Augustine would point out, all we have) the rhetorical and polemical power of Augustine's vision in undermining the claims of Rome and supplanting them with the claims of his own community was dramatic.