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.