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Augustine’s Great Comeback

How this fifth-century African bishop helps us think theologically about today’s world

Even as a resurgence of atheism fascinates the mass media, a new theological engagement with public life is taking shape.

Gone are the days of theology’s false modesty, apologizing for daring to leave its safe repose in private space to speak a public word. Just as biblical scholars are recovering the New Testament’s criticism of empire at its peak, so theologians are renewing interest in an ancient bishop who ministered in North Africa during the decline of that empire. The explosion of interest in Augustine’s political thought is one of the more remarkable trends in contemporary theology.

Reformed people know Augustine for his development of the doctrines of original sin and predestination, and he’s valued by Roman Catholics for his sacramental theology. But the Augustine we meet in contemporary theology goes beyond these parochial divides and subjects.

Fantasist? Ignoramus?

British journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, once described Augustine as a “self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus.” But much of the secularist stereotyping of Christians as sexually repressed comes from a misreading of Augustine, especially of the Confessions. Christian theologians have made similar claims about Augustine, sometimes treating him as the founding father of Western dualism, the idea that sets the (good) soul over against the (evil) body.

Augustine has also been criticized as the first “theologian of empire,” the one whose massive City of God gives Rome a key role in restraining human sin. He is known as the developer of the tradition of “just war”—a phrase contemporary leaders in our time use freely to justify invasions, even without giving evidence of having read Augustine.

These views of Augustine, as well as the idea of him as a dogmatician, are being rethought by theologians. It’s something of an understatement to say that Augustine has never been a favorite of feminist theologians. However, as a theologian of the formation, malformation, and reformation of desire, he’s garnering some interest from them too.

It’s in political theology, however, that some of the most interesting work on Augustine is being done. For Oliver O’Donovan, Augustine’s genius was that he used his experiences and observations within the church to build “a Christian social theory.” That social theory, according John Milbank, co-founder of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement, paves the way to a “post-secular” theology that boldly engages our culture with the claims of the gospel. And despite his association with the “just war” idea, pacifists too are taking a new interest in Augustine’s understanding of the roots of human social and political conflict.

Augustine on Human Conflict

For Augustine, violence is rooted in fallen humanity’s attempts to create peace through “wars to end all war.” We were created to be in relation to God as well as to others. However, when we exchange the true God for another “god” or “value”—which Scripture calls “idolatry”—we lose our basis for being secure and at peace in the world. We start a restless quest to control our social environment. Others become a problem, a threat we must keep at bay.

Ironically, secularist liberal philosophies of “live and let live” work on this very basis. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Public political life becomes a demilitarized zone where we dare not bring our deepest commitments to it, lest a “war of all against all” break out. Created to be a symphony playing in harmony under the divine conductor, the world becomes an assemblage of soloists playing their own tunes. Justice means keeping others from interfering. In the words of another new Augustinian, Charles Mathewes, the world is imagined as “a collection of solitudes.” It’s no wonder we’re so afraid.

It wouldn’t be far off to say that, for Augustine, “we are what we love.” And worship generates societies of people, gathered around “common objects of love.” However, the church is different from other societies because it worships the Creator of those objects. The church, when it truly worships the Creator, forms the counter-community to the empire. What binds the church together is love, represented most profoundly by the sharing of bread and wine—which is at the same time a sharing of God’s very life—in communion. What binds “the empire” together is force—force that secures its borders and guarantees the satiation of its elite.

So an Augustinian reading of the problem of conflict in human society tells us that when our loves are not properly ordered to their true source, we live in a world of chaos and violence.

This same idea also suggests a diagnosis of consumerism: we seek to quiet our restless hearts by possessing goods. Augustinians such as Rowan Williams claim that the problem of modern capitalism is not simply greed, but idolatry. We go to the sacred space of the mall looking for God, but we can never find God there among the go[o]ds on offer, not merely because God can’t be bought, but because God is not a thing like other things. (This also means that we don’t have to choose between God and the good things of creation. Rather, we steward and share the good things of creation in order to glorify God.)

In short, we love either the Creator, and the creation in him, or creatures instead of the Creator. There is no other choice.

Augustine says this another way: “Two cities are created by [these] two loves.” It is in the community called “church” that   

we catch a glimpse of the city Scripture calls “the kingdom of God.” But does this mean we leave the public sphere to bureaucratic politicians who seek to manage human behavior? Is “public” space “secular” space? How are the two cities related?

Augustine on Public Life

It was Augustine, ironically, who gave us the idea of “the secular.” However, he saw the secular not as a space (from which religion must be banned), but as a time: that time between the ascension of Christ and Christ’s return.

We live, says Mathewes, not “in” but “during” the world. And during the world, we seek to live faithful to that story whose end is not violence, but peace. This time is to be spent training for life in the New Jerusalem, which means occupying public space—including politics—in a way that seeks the City of God through, rather than in spite of, our differences. At the same time, this “occupying until he comes” works against any ideas that the New Jerusalem, which comes as a gift from God, could ever be fully realized through politics. It can only be anticipated.

But it can be anticipated.

Countering the general cynicism about public life in our time, Mathewes claims Christians should see politics as a good signpost to fulfilled political life in the world to come. The restlessness of public life, even in a declining global empire, should be nurtured, rather than resolved or overcome. Perhaps this idea is best captured in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s idea of “restless shalom.” Shalom without restlessness fails to take the brokenness of the world seriously; restlessness without shalom leads to desperation and violence.

William Cavanaugh imagines things somewhat differently from Mathewes. He suggests thinking of the two cities as “performances” of radically different stories. The city of this world is a performance of a tragedy in which violence is inevitable, vice is virtuous, and satisfactory resolution impossible. The City of God, by contrast, is a performance of a comedy in which peace prevails, goods are shared, and harmony is found at the end. But here’s the catch: both performances happen on the same stage and at the same time. Both performances are “during the world.” Both performances use the same objects or props, and the actors from each seek to influence the other. The Christian mission during the world is to find ways of interrupting the tragedy and co-opting its actors into the comedy.

Cavanaugh, who once described his politics as “eucharistic anarchism,” points to the practices of Voices in the Wilderness, an organization that violated sanctions against Iraq imposed by the “nation-state” (representing the tragic story) by dropping parcels of food immediately prior to the 2003 invasion. In doing so, it challenged the idea that humans could be divided into nation-states at war with each other and imagined a common humanity across borders and promised redemption in Christ.

Augustine and Reformed Theology

Those two creative uses of Augustine’s thought, one by an Episcopalian (Mathewes) and the other by a Roman Catholic (Cavanaugh), demonstrate the fruitfulness of this ancient African bishop for helping us think theologically about today’s world. But their insights should not be entirely new to Reformed people. After all, the understanding of creation as good-but-fallen is deeply embedded in our confessions (perhaps most profoundly in our Contemporary Testimony)—as is the idea that fallenness neither condemns the world as an evil to be escaped, nor separates the things of the world into good (redeemable) and bad (irredeemable).

What might be unusual is an emphasis on the church as that place where Christian desire is formed and we are called to visibly demonstrate what the City of God looks like in its practices. Indeed, both these ideas are becoming more important within contemporary theology in general.

One Reformed philosopher-theologian working along these lines is James K.A. Smith. His upcoming book Desiring the Kingdom takes note of the way that cultural gatherings around “common objects of love”—in shopping malls, sports arenas, and lecture halls—serve to form us in ways counter to the kingdom. We need, he says, to recover a “robust” sense of the Christian institution as a place of counter-formation, where we are trained to desire God rightly. Smith also claims Augustine as mentor in this, seeing profound possibility in reintroducing the classical Augustine to the culturally transformative Kuyperian churches and colleges—and in so doing building bridges to the great tradition of Christian theology and practice that is our common heritage.

The City on a Hill

In our time we have seen the vulnerability of the West revealed politically, militarily, and economically. So it’s no coincidence that a new appropriation of Augustine is happening in our day. Augustine knew how the unraveling of empire unleashed violence at its edges, even as “the desire to acquire” left lives fragmented and uncertain within its gates.

But the certainty and security promised by modernity are illusions. Theologians who follow Augustine’s thought in our time know, as he did, that “the city on a hill” can ever be equated with an earthly city or nation. “Empires,” notes Anthony Chvala-Smith, “thrive on the myth of their own permanence.” That Augustine saw this clearly, and the way that myth supported the domination of the many by the few, “remains Augustine’s living legacy to the postmodern world.” But more than this, Augustine shows how to form citizens of the New Jerusalem to perform God’s story in the midst of a tragic world.

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