I took a reading detour during the 4th Quarter. I did finish a couple of books I intended to read, but rather than sticking to my list, I decided to finish a book I had started in early 2018. The book may be familiar to many (or at least some) who read this, but I had not taken the time to read it before now. The book is titled, The City of God, by Augustine.
As I have said many times before, when you are a student, much of your reading is assigned. Being on the other side of the desk, so to speak, I can now choose my reading, although I must read some titles as it relates to keeping up with trends and/or selecting books for the courses I teach. But in addition to the (potential) textbooks, I also like to read other material. That was the intent this past quarter; however, I changed my focus in order to tackle one of the long-time Christian classics.
Before I write a brief review of the book, I want to say that I have wanted to read this book for some time. In 2017, as much of the world was reminded of (and celebrated) the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I led our church through various readings of some Christian classics. We read books from centuries past such as Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation and Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as more modern classics such as Orthodoxy (Chesterton) and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Although only a few participated in the reading and discussions, it was a means of introducing people to some of the classic writings of the faith during that year.
The City of God was one option on the list for that year, but its length is prohibitive, which is part of the reason I had not yet read it. But having read many other long books over the past few years, and having only mildly begun to read this classic on my own, I thought now would be the best time.
My intention with this brief review is not to review the book, so much as it is to provide a reflection. Any book I list on this site likely will usually have several credible reviews. This book is no exception (e.g. http://www.wordandspirit.co.uk/blog/2011/01/01/book-reviewcity-of-god-st-augustine/).
Therefore, I will keep my remaining thoughts relatively brief as I provide three reflections: one on the work itself, a second on its author, and a third idea on one particular implication the book makes quite clear.
The City of God Is A Worthy Read
Many books today are not worth the price of the paper on which they are printed. And thus, we have eBooks, which may not cost as much to produce. Still, some are not worth the digital ink. Some may say the same about The City of God, but that is because they disagree with the point being made. I am not talking about the premise of the book itself, I am talking about the quality of thought. Augustine does not merely present a case for Christianity, he presents his argument by presenting the thoughts of leading scholars of his day and prior (such as Plato).
In our culture today, the winner of an argument is not necessarily the one who knows the most (or even knows anything), it is the one who can yell the loudest and/or the longest. Augustine’s work is over 1000 pages because it is thorough. His writing shows his depth of understanding (see the next point below) and his ability to logically and systematically defend his thesis. I am not suggesting that we are incapable of this practice today, but I am suggesting that a book like this one deserves to be read because it showcases the process so well. The book is considered a classic for a reason – it was definitely worth the read.
Augustine Was Brilliant
I am not a church historian. Certainly, I know of Augustine, and a little about him. I also recall statements from my education stating that the Church must ensure we look at the Bible from a 1st Century perspective (the time of Jesus) rather than from a 5th Century perspective (during Augustine’s life). Augustine did influence Christianity for centuries (actually, he still does). Few people in the history of Christendom have left their mark like Augustine. And, after reading this book, it is obvious why – the man was brilliant.
In a world where we use Google to get the latest information, Augustine knew so much more than most any human alive without access to the internet or any modern convenience. Augustine obviously had a vast library at his disposal, and his writings are far more than a reflection on the Bible (although he does cover the Bible in the latter part of the book). He speaks with incredible clarity on philosophy and has great knowledge of the gods of Rome and their place in the culture. (The reason for this book was to counter the idea that Rome was defeated because Christians would not worship pagan gods.) Augustine proves that he has a great theological mind in the latter part of the book, but he shows the breadth of his knowledge throughout the book. I have read a few books by people I call brilliant, and they are all difficult to read for one reason or another. But in an age when most people are so myopic that they believe that s/he is all that matters or that people now are smarter than ever, Augustine provides a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Was Augustine the greatest mind ever? Probably not. But a reason does exist why his name and writings are still being read one-and-a-half millennia later.
Politics and Religion Do, and Must, Co-Exist
Ok, I know that the United States was founded on the idea that the state could not establish a particular religion (which is far different, by the way, than the propagated notion of separation of church and state). But the reality is that religion and politics are completely intertwined for nearly everyone. Now, I know that many people separate their faith from the rest of their life, but the idea that we do what we believe means that if we create a separation, we must question what we say we believe.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the book was written to confront the assault against Christians whom many blamed for the recent defeat of Rome (which was the beginning of the end for the western empire, and led to the Dark Ages). Thus, the Romans, whose religious beliefs meant the worship of many gods, allowed their religion to control their thinking towards why Rome had fallen and blamed those with a different religion (i.e. Christianity, which only believes in one God) for the defeat.
Likewise, throughout history, many wars have been fought under the umbrella of religious differences. The Crusades are an example. And even in our day, when many may claim not to have a religion, the same idea is true. For we all worship something, whether it is ourselves, humanity in general, money (i.e. stuff), or a God or gods. What we worship will influence how we think and live, and how we think and live will influence our politics. Thus, I would argue it is impossible to separate belief (i.e. religion) and politics. And, if it is impossible for them to be separated, they must learn to co-exist. Augustine proved that idea in his book by tying everything to one of two cities – the City of God or the City of Man. We will choose to live in, and for, one or the other. And that choice is made by what we truly believe.
Augustine was not perfect, but his mind was brilliant. I do not agree with every part of the book, but he would likely not agree with much of what I write either. I am glad I took the time to finally read this classic work. It is a long book, but I do plan to read it again in the future. However, having finished that book, in 2020, it is time for me to read another of his famous books, Confessions. I do not know when I will read it yet (perhaps Summer), but I will be sure to include a review of that book as well.