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17 July 2023

St. Augustine’s big tome, The City of God, a project spanning fifteen years, was spurred by accusations that the city of Rome fell to invading barbarians because Christianity undermined the moral fiber of the Empire. In response, Augustine goes beyond giving a straightforward reply and instead, constructed a comprehensive Christian social philosophy which would demonstrate the intellectual vigor of Christianity. To achieve this ambitious project, Augustine utilized all the tools of classical learning and pressed them into service of Christian scholarship. He displayed familiarity with the intellectual classics of mythology, history, theology and philosophy as he mounted acute polemics against pagan religions and philosophies. However, he always maintained his independent Christian perspective. The sheer comprehensiveness of his project displays his confidence that Christianity alone gives a superior account for all aspects of life. All in all, The City of God is a manifesto on how to be an other-worldly but responsible citizen in the world.

Augustine rejects the pretensions of Pax Romana idealized by classical writers. He identifies the driving forces behind the Roman Empire to be greed and the ‘lust for domination’ (libido dominandi). Empires are but ‘robber bands’ on a large scale. Sometimes good rulers bring benefits to their subjects, but the Roman Empire grew through wars and conquests. Historians were proud to glorify Rome’s gifts to the world, especially its legal system, but in real life the common man experienced more brutality and oppression than justice and equality. Even Christians were not spared from being afflicted by the darker forces of Pax Romana. In reality, Rome was possessed by the lust for domination. Her greatness was gained through deception, war and destruction.

Nevertheless, Augustine insists that the rise and fall of Rome was due to intelligible causes, including a combination of free human choices and the sovereign providence of God. “God knows all things before they happen; yet, we act by choice in all those things where we feel and know that we cannot act otherwise than willingly…our main point is that, from the fact that to God the order of all causes is certain, there is no logical deduction that there is no power in the choice of our will. The fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes which is known for certain to God and is contained in His foreknowledge – for, human choices are the causes of human acts” (City of God, 5.9).

Augustine does not explain how human action harmonizes with divine providence at this point. Neither does he claim to have completely fathomed the depths of divine counsel behind the rise of Rome. He affirms that the greatness of a city is not evidence of its virtues. The Romans rightly affirmed and desired virtue and peace, but they were mistaken to believe that their city embodied the virtues they proclaimed because they lacked the true piety that flows from worship of the true God. True virtues are not the achievements of human nature, still less of the flesh; they are fruits of the will that is sanctified and empowered by God. “The virtues on which the mind preens itself as giving control over the body and its urges, and which aim at any other purpose or possession than God, are in point of fact vices rather than virtues…Just as our flesh does not live by its own power but by a power above it, so what gives to a man the life of blessedness derives not from himself, but from a power above him” (City of God, 19.25). In reality it is the Christian God and not ‘eternal Rome’ who provides the power to attain the moral virtues acclaimed by the Romans.

While Augustine rejects the metaphysical dualism of the Manichaeans, he maintains that human history unfolds as a blend of two intertwined cities, one comprising men who are of good nature and will, and the other comprising men who are evil. In his words, the two cities are formed by two loves – one, a “selfish love which dared to despise even God” and the other, “the love of God that is ready to trample on self” (City of God, 14.28). Citizens of the earthly city serve false gods who demand service and sacrifices; those of the heavenly city journey as strangers and pilgrims on earth and serve no God other than the true God. The earthly city is based on the love of self and the lust for domination and self-aggrandizement.

In contrast to the earthly city which lusts for power and domination, the heavenly city trusts and honours God in all ways. The result is the blessing of peace and harmony in all the parts of the civic body. Augustine summarizes his vision of the heavenly City in Book 19. Drawing from the platonic tradition, he writes that the peace of the irrational soul is the balanced adjustment of its appetites or desires, while the peace of the reasoning soul is the harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction. As the foundation for order and health of the living being is the ordered equilibrium of all its parts, likewise the peace of a home is ordered harmony of authority and obedience between the members of the family. The peace of the political community is the ordered harmony of its citizens and finally, the peace of the heavenly City is the perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship based on faith, hope and love. “Order is an arrangement of like and unlike things whereby each of them is disposed in its proper place” (City of God, 19.13).

Augustine does not draw a clear boundary between the earthly city and the heavenly city, that is to say, the two cities are not neatly divided between the church and civil society since both wheat and the tares are found in each of the two spheres and the two cities are inter-mixed, sharing a history which unfolds from beginning to the end. Both cities will alike enjoy temporal goods and suffer temporal ills. In this respect, the saeculum does not only refer to the time between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming, but it also refers to a time of ambiguity when the wheat and tares intermingle.

There is no such thing as a totally evil society or a totally good society. Goodness is perverted by sin, but sin is restrained by God’s providence. Augustine is mindful of the parable which teaches that the wheat and tares will coexist until the final judgment when they will finally be separated. Only God knows precisely who the citizens of each city are and this will become clear on judgment day. Nevertheless, human history is neither cyclical nor dualistic. God is sovereign over both sacred and secular history. Just as the brightness of light is enhanced when contrasted with darkness, sacred history and the beauty of the City of God is fully perceived when contrasted with the secular history of the City of Man. Ultimately, the so-called secular history is nothing but sacred history. God in his sovereignty inexorably propels both sacred and secular history to an eschatological goal.

It is therefore wrong to conclude that the doctrine of the two cities requires Augustine to advocate that the church adopts a separatist mindset and that Christians should withdraw from the world with its corrupting influence. However, while Augustine bears witness to the transcendent experience and eternal destiny of Christians, he does not advocate that Christians should abandon temporal life. Instead, they have a responsibility to utilize the resources from creation and apply their gifts and talents to the building of God’s City.

The two cities are not defined according to institutions of temporal societies but according to priority of love. Love of God places oneself into the City of God, but love of self leads to an estranged heart with all its disordered desires and misery and puts oneself into the City of Man. Christians as pilgrim citizens must be able to keep an ironic distance and maintain independent thinking and action. Their identity is not preserved by withdrawal from wider society but by living according to a higher love. The temporary resident accepts his inter-dependence with fellow men in their common responsibility to create relative and external peace in the community. He helps to make life in this world more tolerable and is grateful for social life as a gift of God. In short, the temporal mission of the church in the saeculum is to resist any sense of hopelessness in the midst of human brokenness and to promote peace, albeit with modest expectation given the fallennes of humanity.

The church’s spiritual vocation entails a temporal mission, that is, to share God’s love and blessings. This requires Christians to be socially engaged with society, whether in the area of politics, economics, education, and the arts. But Christian pilgrims should keep in mind that the ultimate blessing of God is “heavenly peace which is to be unshakeable and unending. There, all of our natural endowments…will be both good and everlasting…This is what is meant by that consummate beatitude, that limitless perfection, that end that never ends” (City of God, 19.10). The City of God promises its members that they will ultimately enjoy the beatific vision of God which grants them rest from their earthly labor and satisfies all their longings.

Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.