How Earthly was My City? A Tale of Two Augustines

The 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 and the killing of an American diplomat in Libya are again providing fodder for the secular chatterati to repeat the somewhat fatigued refrain of the need to ensure peace by keeping religion out of politics. Meanwhile, another emerging trend that goes unnoticed is the common effort by both neoconservative and progressive Christian voices to advocate a form of public religion that wants to give Christianity a public profile, but in a way that makes it simultaneously purely civic.
This rendering of a civic Christianity seems to be informed in some ways by a retrieval of the writings of Augustine of Hippo, which may not sound surprising, given Augustine’s seemingly positive attitude to secular governance. Key to this is the quintessentially Augustinian trope in City of God of every Christian being simultaneously a citizen of two cities. On the one hand, there is the City of Man, the earthly and temporary City. On the other hand, there is the City of God, the heavenly and thus eternal city.
Augustine has often been used as the clear stamp of authority of a particular mode of politics that renders Christianity a completely apolitical force. There is the impression that on matters political, Augustine’s thought can only have one clear trajectory. However, it must be pointed out that Augustine’s division of citizenships can be rendered in two very different ways, each of which has profound implications on how the Body of Christ moves whilst in the City of Man. Christians of all stripes have historically skipped between these two readings, often with elaborate and sometimes compelling justifications.
One possible reading, which Jean Perry points out in an article entitled “Locke’s Accidental Church” to be in the tradition of Martin Luther, regards the division of citizenships as a sort of political division of labour. The City of Man, according to this reading, is the city where the body of the Christian resides, whilst the City of God is one where the soul of the same Christian resides. In this reading of Augustine, each sphere comes with its own ultimate authority, with the Church put in charge of the soul, and the sovereign in charge of the body. The Church under this reading is a purely spiritual power, what the 20th century Thomist Jacques Maritain calls a “country of souls” with a “minimum of body” with no direct temporal manifestations. Under such a reading, a Christian’s should not mix his spiritual with his political life unless that political life intrudes into concerns that are purely spiritual.
Another possible reading of Augustine – one that is often put forward in this blog – is one where the division is not at the level of soul and body, but at the direction of one’s love and desire. It begins from the premise that we are fundamentally desiring beings, a premise that is gleaned from the famous beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. It also takes from his City of God that the two cities are fundamentally two assemblages of love, so we have on the one hand one city that loves God as the highest good and another that loves the self as the highest good. Both of these cities will have physical manifestations because loves and desires engage the whole person, soul and body. The political implication of this reading is that the City of God will have institutions that cut across those of the City of Man as the Body of Christ moves towards its fulfilment at the end of history.
In sum, one reading of Augustine would cede complete temporal authority to temporal powers, whilst another would challenge the temporal power’s monopoly in earthly affairs. More posts are necessary to explain why this blog favours the second reading. For now, it is sufficient to point out that a political reading of Augustine is anything but straightforward, and does not lead to a single decisive conclusion about the Church’s place in the political sphere.
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5 thoughts on “How Earthly was My City? A Tale of Two Augustines

  1. As a cradle role Baptist and one self-appointed heir to the radical reformation, I've always been suspicious of Augustine. I don't like my church or my state to hold nearly as much sway over me as it appears to me that Augustine would advocate. I want to find a way to reject both readings as ultimately idolatrous in that they each substitute a false authority for filial love and loyalty to community. “I beseech you by the mercies of God to present your selves as living sacrifices, etc.” When one's “absolute indefeasible and fundamental liberty of conscience before God” is bartered for citizenship in either city, then our birth right as children of God becomes meaningless and we find ourselves holding a fraudulent deed to nonexistent property.

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  2. I don't think you'd be alone in being suspicious of Augustine. His affirmation of civic government would give anyone pause to uncritically take his thought on. I'm sympathethic to your concerns as well, but I think the question turns on the anthropological importance of community. Those for whom community is fundamental to one's makeup might have an easier time wrestling with Augustine's poltiical thought (it must be said that Augustine's affirmation for civic government is qualified by somewhat by his recognition that it is after all a manifestation of one's lust for domination). A person who would have a much richer understanding of Augustine who may share some of your concerns is Ben Myers of the Faith and Theology Blog.

    Thank you for your feedback. Blessings

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  3. Thanks for the lead, Matthew, and thank you for engaging me around this. It occurs to me that, in my usual fashion I chose the middle child's role here by saying “a pox on both of his houses (cities), and that there may be real value in holding the tension– that is, after all, the reason the bodhisatvas purportedly refuse their final release, and ultimately the reason Christ gave up privilege and power to take on the form of a servant. Very kind of you. Blessings to you as well.

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  4. Mark, I do not see it as a matter of bartering one's liberty of conscience before God for citizenship of either city. To the contrary,it is in the finding of one's rest state in the Lord that activates the desire for full citizenship and its purposeful duties and responsibilities in both cities via the process of prayerful discernment. We move beyond being a passive, personal reward seeker, consuming dweller of each city. We engage in the path towards the final things.
    As I see it the key to engagement in service is that it flows from the God relationship in prayer, and not from a bourgeois sense of ownership and control of the situation. Cheers

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  5. Thank you Michael for the reply. Kristen Johnson in her book “Theology, Political Theory and Pluralism” argues in her chapter on Augustine makes a reference to something similar. Positing the love of God as the highest good should compel us to properly love things of this earth as well, including our civic belongings. The one qualifier is that we can only properly love these material things only insofar as these are placed in their proper order relative to our love of God, since the love of God is the only truly social love (contra the love shown in the city of man, which is marked by the love of self and thus an atomising force).

    Johnson and Graham Ward suggest that the challenge Christians face lies in the fact that the City of Man is always positing itself as the highest good, seeking to aggrandise itself at the expense of God. This is why we experience the disorder in political life as we do.

    Once again, thank you for your engagement with this post and giving me the excuse to put that point in…I've always been looking for the occasion to bring this point out. Peace.

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