The project of Christian political engagement…cannot be to prematurely sift the wheat from the chaff, but to work for earthly peace in humility, and to confess the city of God in love. Only in this way can our attempts to counteract the injustices of the earthly city be truly fruitful; only in this way can they bear witness to the limits of the earthly city’s political imagination.
Augustine’s message about the two cities in City of God has important implications for Christian political engagement today. By resisting a facile sorting of the good from the bad, he reminds his Christian readers that their own transformation is far from complete and so helps them work for earthly peace in a spirit of humility.
“Most glorious is the City of God: whether in this passing age, where she dwells by faith as pilgrims among the ungodly, or in the security of that eternal home which she now patiently awaits until ‘righteousness shall return into judgment’ . . .” It is with these words that Augustine famously begins the City of God. And yet what are we to make of them? What exactly is he glorifying, and why? And what political wisdom do they contain for us today?
Given Augustine’s reputation for polemics, it would be unsurprising if his readers interpreted these lines as a celebration of his city’s impending victory over its enemies, and in some ways, it is. Yet, not in the way that we would expect. Instead, Augustine’s opening lines subvert tribal triumphalism. To put this more plainly, Augustine glorifies the city of God as God’s city, and not as the Romans glory in theirs, which of course, is as theirs. Rather than glorying in a Rome that has conquered all, Augustine glories in the city of God as a gift offered to all, and extends the invitation as far as he can.
This message about the city of God, compacted as it is in the tome’s opening lines, also has important implications for Christian political engagement today. In brief, it shows us the ways we must be transformed in order to properly engage in politics. While the best way to make this case would be to embark on a thoroughgoing analysis of the entire City of God, as I try to do in Politics and the Earthly City in Augustine’s City of God, perhaps it is sufficient to look at the aforementioned lines in light of the argument that unfolds in Book One.
Amor Dei and Humility
Doing so, we find that Augustine’s project in City of God is to show his readers that the distinction between self-love and love of God is a distinction with a difference. Thus, rather than another form of veiled self-praise, the book’s opening lines are meant as an exclamation of praise rooted in gratitude—a gratitude into which all readers are invited. As I argue more extensively in my book, Augustine presents this gratitude as the fruit of our participation in the very love of God that binds the city of God together.
Importantly, for Augustine, love of God is not simply our love for God—which is always imperfect—but God’s love for us, which we receive and return in (hopefully) ever greater degrees. By locating the glory of God’s city in this love, Augustine undercuts our ability to boast in ourselves, since this love is not originally ours, but God’s. We participate in it only insofar as it is given to us, despite our sinfulness. This to say, because Augustine presents love of God as something originating in God, he reveals the contradiction within all our efforts to present our membership in the city of God as something that we earned or as proof that we are already good. Worried that we easily forget this, Augustine repeatedly characterizes the city of God on pilgrimage as a mixed body—mixed not just in the sense of having good and bad members, but also in the sense of there being good and bad motives in each member’s heart. For Augustine, in other words, we must constantly be reminded that the pilgrim city is marked not by its moral perfection, but by its willingness to receive and return to God. Such a city leaves little room for triumphalism.