By Charles L. Harrell
Sometimes whole years float by placidly, like a lazy summer river, but then clouds emerge, a lazy river becomes rapids, the one certainty is uncertainty, and anxiety can surround us like a dark cloud. How do Christians respond in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety? How do we maintain hope and a vibrant witness? How do we make sense of the world in light of believing in a just and loving God who is Lord of history?
For such times, thankfully, we have the experience of Christ-followers before us who navigated the rapids of uncertainty, the dark clouds of anxiety, and by grace emerged safe, and wiser, from the storm. One such Christ-follower was Augustine (354-430), who lived in North Africa during the closing years of the Roman Empire in the West. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius in today’s Algeria and one of the Church’s greatest thinkers, and he was amazingly prolific. He left behind works on subjects ranging from philosophical theology to the practical and often perplexing questions faced by ordinary followers of Jesus.
And a good thing, too: for Augustine lived in a dangerous, disaster-fraught time. In 410, Rome had been sacked for three days by a “barbarian” tribe known as the Goths. This was an epic shock: it had been 800 years since Rome’s last capture, many thought it unconquerable. No longer the empire’s actual capital, Rome was still unique, the “Eternal City,” boasting more residents than any other city in Europe, and probably the world. Already the center-point for western Christianity, it was a hub of art, culture, trade, and knowledge. And now, it was wrecked: civilization’s brightest light had been snuffed out in a moment. As another saint, Jerome, wrote from his monastery at Bethlehem, “The city which took the whole world has itself been taken.”
Worse yet, it had been avoidable. Three times Alaric, the leader of the Goths, had negotiated terms with the Romans only to be double-crossed by them, so he finally decided talking was pointless. Yet even in victory, Alaric – who professed a kind of Christianity – strictly charged his troops that no one who fled into a church building should be harmed. We know, too, that those orders were followed.
Afterward, there were questions. They were not aimed primarily at the brutality of the Goths, or the perfidy and incompetence of Rome’s leaders. Not political questions, but theological ones. “Where was God?” people wanted to know. By now Rome had long been a mainly Christian city in an officially Christian empire; how could this happen? More biting still were the criticisms of pagan Romans, charging this had happened because Rome’s ancient gods were ignored and dishonored. In their anger, these people said, the old deities had caused this to happen. Their solution? Throw over the “new” Christian God and return to the religion of Rome’s glory days. Pagan Romans insisted the way of the future was to focus on the here-and-now, by which they meant placating the old gods and thereby strengthening the martial virtues and political power of the state.
Augustine responded in a book called The City of God, a masterpiece both of Christian thought and of Western civilization. In it, he makes many points, among which he defends against the charges of the pagans, pointing out for instance that everyone who fled into the churches found refuge. Whenever in history, Augustine wants to know, did the victors’ gods ever protect the vanquished, even in their temples? Yet Christ’s protection extended to any who fled to His house. Against the charge that the physical, temporal well-being of the Romans lacked protection from the Christian God, he points out how often the Romans experienced disasters when they were all still serving their old gods, for no one is immune from suffering in this life.
Yet Augustine’s greatest contribution is not in answering pagan critics with his own talking points, brilliant as they are, nor does he lack sensitivity toward those who suffered during that terrible time. He sets the whole of human history in a larger context, as a great contest between two societies, or “cities,” which are based on different principles and at odds with each other:
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord….
Consequently, in the earthly city its wise men who live by men’s standards have pursued the goods of the body or of their own mind, or of both…. In the Heavenly City, on the other hand, man’s only wisdom is the devotion which rightly worships the true God… “so that God may be all in all” (Book XIV, Chapter 28).
All of us, he says, ultimately belong to one city or the other: our destiny depends on where our true citizenship lies. In this life, what we call “blessings” and “sufferings” can alike lead us toward God or away from God. While this life has many good things to offer us, our aim must always be to attain the Heavenly City. Here the good is truest and most permanent:
How great will be that felicity, where there will be no evil, where no good will be withheld, where there will be leisure for the praises of God, who will be all in all (Book XXII, Chapter 30)!
Augustine’s message offers encouragement for our time, as it did for Romans in antiquity. Our age also feels dangerously off-kilter. Climate change, political polarization, global migration, even microscopic organisms leave people feeling under siege, with questions about where God is amid the turbulence. Social pressure mounts for us, as for them, to turn away from what God has revealed in Scripture, capitulating to what is deemed acceptable in the immediate present. The siren song of “relevance” – or its new avatar, “context” – bids us try to remake God and God’s word after our liking, as the ancients felt the temptation to fashion their own ready-made gods to placate forces which they experienced as overwhelming. Here Augustine’s counsel reminds us of our eternal ends. These ends we realize in the present, not by trying to mold God to our context, but by offering-up our context to Christ who “makes all things new,” as we die to sin and self and are raised up as “new creature[s].”
For there are still two cities: an earthly one based on love of self, and a Heavenly one founded in the love of God. For all its seductive allure, the earthly city is passing away. The real future is with the Heavenly City, the City of God. When all feels well, it is this allegiance we must always remember. When all feels threatened, it is to His temple – His cross – that we must flee.
Augustine died in the summer of 430. The Vandals, another tribe cutting a swath of destruction across the Mediterranean world (whence our term “vandalism”), were laying siege to Hippo Regius when the bishop died. They captured the city and burned it – except for Augustine’s church and library, which were undamaged. This was taken as one more sign of the late bishop’s favor with God. Today, his remains rest – some, at least – beneath a memorial church in Algeria.
But a far more important monument is his City of God: a consolation to Christians in distress, a framework for a theology of history, and a word for our time to steady us amid the storms of our day. It says in essence, in the teeth of life’s anxieties and uncertainties: “God’s got this.” It helps us to see that there is a justice at work and a meaning in play beyond and larger than all that we can see or understand.
The great beauty of true classics is that they are forever fresh and applicable to new contexts. Augustine’s City of God is one such book: worth a read, whether quickly or slowly. You will find it a great guide, whatever bends life’s river brings, and whatever rapids appear. And it will recall you to the love of Him who “makes all things new.”
The Rev. Charles L. Harrell is a retired elder in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He lives in Prince Frederick, Maryland.