Reimagining the Past

Augustine’s litany of woe near the end of his endless masterpiece has a careful purpose — it’s the City of Man opposed to his City of God. All those poisons and hailstorms and treachery and legal issues he lists that beset us in life are not simply an invitation to suicide: they’re solid marketing for something else:

“From this hell upon earth [i.e., our lives!] there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord.” (XXI: Ch 22)

Early Christians were in the odd position of having to make actual life seem worse than a disease because what they were preaching was better than a cure. Once Easter happened (or was thought to have happened), everything had to be filtered through it.

Early Christians were something like a wife who suddenly suspects her husband is having an affair … frantically sifting through a shared past, reinterpreting formerly idle events (weight loss, new haircut, smile) as sinister proof of a crime. For the early believers to think God himself came down to Earth to fix things then — ergo, case closed, doh! — things down here must be a lot worse than we thought!

Augustine’s City of God is the spouse’s witch hunt. Again and again, in a devastating, systematic way, he piles fact upon fact into a carapace of undeniable power with a single apologetic aim: to demonstrate not just the superiority but the absolute existential necessity for dying in Christ to be raised up again in the Kingdom of God.

A couple examples:

  • Original Sin — Jews didn’t make a big deal out of Adam and Eve. Genesis was a story of origins, from which we move on. To justify Christ’s coming to save us, Augustine had to reinterpret Genesis as an absolutely fatal diagnosis.
  • Jewish Law — A lot of the Hebrew Bible, of course, is concerned with the Law, and Jewish theology is Law-based, from Mishna to Talmud. What is Law? A set of rules about how to live in this world now, right? Early Christians were not so concerned about now as they were with later (post-Salvation). So they ejected most of the Law.
  • Platonism — Augustine was a Platonist, which is to Apocalypticism as a marathon is to a sprint. Platonists aren’t dualists: they respect this world as basically okay. But it’s nothing nearly so perfect as the ideal, supernatural realm — i.e., the City of God.

The theme here is:

Life in the Kingdom of God = Good

Life on Earth = Bad

Christians are notoriously challenged by three things: sex, getting along with one another, and feeling guilt-free.

Thanks to Augustine, we’re never entirely comfortable right here, right now.


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