Augustine by the Rivers of an American Babylon

As the events of recent years have made clear, there is an ever-deepening divide in our nation. It is also clear that cynicism has played a large role in exacerbating this divide. That is to say, the belief that those who disagree with us also hate us and seek to destroy us has increasingly legitimated Machiavellian attitudes towards politics. As this cynical attitude has spread, an attitude that is not realistic for its failure to see the good where it exists, the already difficult task of working with those on the other side of the political aisle has become nearly impossible. With this problem in mind, I propose to think with Augustine about the problem of cynicism in a pluralist society, and what we might do about it.

In thinking with Augustine about this problem, I am particularly interested in considering what aspects of his thought might help us inhabit a properly Christian stance towards our own pluralist politics. More than ever, I find, Christians are wondering whether the terms set by liberalism are viable, or whether they have simply allowed the further de-Christianization of our nation. Tuning into the conversation between liberals and post-liberals, in particular, we find the dawning realization that there has never been a neutral public square, that political and cultural institutions are always invested in promoting a certain vision of the good life, thick or thin, and that what looked like neutrality was actually a thin consensus of Judeo-Christian origin, which has been replaced by an increasingly post-Christian alternative.

What makes this conversation so interesting to me, I think, is that it seems to be reckoning with the loss of Christianity’s cultural cache. This reminds me of Augustine’s own time, the lost promise of a tempora Christiana, and the backlash that Christians faced as a result of the sack of Rome. Today, just as then, shifting cultural circumstances have left Christians feeling persecuted, and so has exacerbated the temptation to cynicism. Let me explain what I mean with an example. In a recent First Things article, associate editor James Wood writes of his change in thinking on Tim Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor who emphasized a third way for Christian engagement in politics.

According to Wood, Keller’s third way was a commitment to staying above the fray, evenhandedly critiquing both parties in light of the Gospel, and adopting a congenial, rather than a confrontational attitude. While Wood remains deeply fond of Keller, he argues that the time for his vision has passed. Writing that this “apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited for the ‘neutral world,’” he goes on to argue that “the ‘negative world’ [of today] is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues. Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing.”

Two things are worth observing here. First, Wood thinks Keller’s third way amounts to being winsome, a term he uses throughout the article. This seems to be an affective proposition, as if being congenial is what it means to be as innocent as doves. Second, it seems like Wood was originally attracted to this comportment because he thought it guaranteed what he calls a “favorable hearing.” Realizing that this is not in fact the case, he now looks for a new way of proceeding: one that is not afraid to offend or to take sides. Has Wood succumbed to cynicism? In reality, I am not sure. The piece is short, and a great deal depends on what he means when he says that “offense is unavoidable;” if winsomeness previously precluded him from defending his principles, such that they are now even less intelligible to his secular interlocutors, then perhaps he has learned a valuable lesson. If, however, he is so stung by the hostility of these interlocutors that he judges it better to throw in the towel and simply treat them as enemies, then perhaps he has succumbed to that most human of tendencies, cynicism.

Now, Augustine, is hardly winsome, so how can thinking with him help us here? In the first place, I would argue that Augustine’s approach to rhetoric is helpful; though he is not afraid to engage or even to offend, he does take the time to make his arguments as persuasive to his opponents as possible; as we will see below, he is also sensitive to when it is unhelpful to engage. In addition, he places the utility of rhetoric within the larger scope of God’s providential design, helping us remember that, in the final analysis, it is not up to us to convince those who stand against us, though we must do our part, and may do our part unwittingly.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Augustine can help us grapple with the question of motivation. If we are honest, we have to admit that regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, it is always difficult to engage generously with those who speak ill of us or who seem to hate everything we stand for. How can we avoid resenting them or even hating them in turn? How can we work with them for the sake of earthly peace? Again, I think Augustine can be of some help.

As we all know, he began writing City of God at a time when many Romans were angry with Christians, viewing them as the cause of the recent sack of Rome and of the decline of the empire in general. Indeed, Augustine’s sermons from the time show that his parishioners were struggling to make sense of this animosity, particularly when they had been celebrating the dawn of a new Christian age so recently. Knowing that this false hope made the backlash they were facing even more difficult to bear, Augustine reminds his congregation that the Church has only ever been a pilgrim city exiled in Babylon. Thus, the fact that Augustine puts forth his doctrine of the two cities at a moment when the pagans resented Christians, mocked them, and blamed them, means that we should consider how it speaks to all Christians who find themselves in such a moment. For Christians who feel they are being treated as enemies in a hostile territory, I would suggest, Augustine offers words of chastisement and encouragement.

Why chastisement? I think Augustine realizes that he has to begin by calling Christians out for our failure, as pilgrims, to truly distinguish ourselves from Babylon, the city that settles. Whenever Augustine puts forth his vision of the two cities, he begins by reminding readers of how easy it is for us to grow comfortable with a Christianized version of the saeculum, and to mistake it for our true home. In emphasizing our pilgrim state, Augustine seeks to rouse us out of this slumber so that we can set our hearts on things that endure, on God. Thus, part of his message to Christians in the first book of City of God is that we are all complicit in the concupiscence we tend to associate only with the “godless and ungrateful,” whatever that means to us (ciu 1.8, 13).[1]

Reminding his Christian readers that “the patience of God still invites the wicked to penitence, just as God’s chastisements trains the good in patient endurance,” Augustine urges us to think about our response to the blessings and trials that come our way (ibid). Do we really treat temporal blessings as gifts that draw us towards the giver? Do we really treat trials as means by which our desires can be purified? If not, then we should feel the distance between ourselves and the “godless” diminish. This tonic, I would suggest, also primes us for Augustine’s second message: namely, that we simply do not know who will end up in the city of God triumphant.

Just as we cannot presume that our ostensible membership in the pilgrim city is sufficient, we cannot assume that our most vitriolic enemies are beyond hope. As Augustine famously writes, “We have less right to despair . . . when some predestined friends, as yet unknown even to themselves, are concealed among our most open enemies. In truth, those two cities are interwoven and intermixed in this age, and await separation at the last judgment” (ciu. 1.35). Indeed, rather than a right to despair, what we really have is an obligation to hope.

At this point, I would suggest that Augustine offers a very different solution to the Christian experiencing hostility than Wood seems to have conceived before or after his evolution on Keller. Augustine never imagines that being nice will bring others round to his way of thinking. Instead, he blurs the distinction between the good and the godless, emphasizing the importance of humility and eschatological hope. By reminding his readers that we are only part of the pilgrim city because Christ loved us while we were still enemies, he makes it impossible to participate in his love without loving our enemies in turn, or at least struggling to try. Importantly, this stance does not dissolve the category of enemies in a naïve way; it does not ask us to assume a happy-go-lucky attitude or to pretend that we have not been hurt by their hostility. Rather, it envelops whatever hurt we have experienced in the mercy of God; it calls us to put on Christ, to allow that Love which extends to us to extend through us.[2]

Thus far, I have been hovering around the beginning of City of God. Yet, there is another passage which has continually come to mind as I have followed contemporary debates about the ongoing viability of liberalism. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, is City of God 19.17, where Augustine famously writes that the pilgrim city “seeks a compromise between human wills in respect to the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety” (ciu. 19.17, 878). Reading post-liberal Christians, I have recalled readers of Augustine who have challenged Robert Markus’s take on this passage, which suggests the existence of a neutral public square in which the two cities meet.

Like them, I think Augustine provides us with a more complicated vision than Markus’s construal of the tertium quid allows.[3] As I have read the response of liberal Christians, or perhaps better put, Christians who support the liberal order and stress virtues like civility, I have again found myself thinking about this passage, and in particular, what it takes to hold the vision that Augustine puts forth together. How can Christians remain willing to work for earthly peace, whilst thinking of themselves as exiles, pilgrims, or even captives? Doesn’t viewing ourselves as captives, especially, entrench victim mentality and our tendency to view the members of the earthly city as the enemies against which we must fight?

I think Augustine gives his best answer to this question in his preached exposition of Psalm 137, which O’Daly dates to not long after the Sack of Rome. Please read the Psalm itself here, because I think what Augustine does with it is very interesting. Thus, we see, for as much as this Psalm is a yearning for Jerusalem, it is also the prayer of a people yearning for revenge. Derided and mocked by their captors, the Jewish people comfort themselves by not only hoping for homecoming, but also for Babylon’s comeuppance. What does Augustine make of this dual hope in his exegesis, particularly in a moment when his congregation might be inclined to both its aspects? As we will see, he prioritizes the pilgrim city’s hope for the heavenly Jerusalem, reminding his congregation that they are a people constituted by what they are for, not who they are against. He also spiritualizes the Psalm’s sentiments, turning his congregation’s ire away from their human captors, and towards the demonic.

Turning to the sermon itself, we see that Augustine begins by reminding his congregants that “we do not live in Babylon as though we were citizens of it, for we are only held here as captives,” and that “our job is not just to sing about this fact but to make it real to ourselves by the love in our hearts and our spiritual longing for our true, eternal city” (en. Psalm 136.2, 224).[4] We will see how Augustine develops this train of thought below. First, however, we must tarry with his preliminary description of the lovers of Babylon. Here is where it gets interesting. Given the tonality of the Psalm, one might expect Augustine to begin with the kind of description that we find in City of God 2.20: the lovers of Babylon are those who say,

So long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war . . . why should we worry? . . . if no one imposes disagreeable duties or forbids perverse delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions . . .

Instead, however, Augustine begins with the lovers of Babylon who “exert themselves to promote its temporal peace” (en. Psalm 136.1.2, 224) These are the patriots; those who give of themselves for the good of their political community. Rather, than presenting these lovers of Babylon in a spirit of disdain, moreover, he actually begins and ends his analysis of them with the striking promise that “God will not let [them] perish” (ibid). He also says a number of things about them that we might not expect, particularly given the tenor of the Psalm.

These are as follows. First, he suggests that to the degree that these lovers of Babylon shun self-promotion, fame, and ostentation, they already bear witness to the true faith. Second, he suggests that “God understands their captive status,” implying that we should too, and third, he suggests that, to the degree that they have good judgment about earthly things, and appreciate what makes the eternal city beautiful, God is already preparing to reveal “the true goal of their longing” to them (ibid).

These lovers of Babylon, in other words, already have a vision of peace rooted in justice, and are laboring under its inspiration; they have dreamt of a form of justice found only in the heavenly city, and have committed their lives to making their patria conform more fully to its image. To me, these claims are fascinating because they present a perspective that later gets de-emphasized due to Augustine’s efforts to counter Pelagianism. Here, these patriots have proto-virtues, fueled by a longing that points beyond its ostensible object right into the heart of the city of God. This is the claim that pagan virtues are not true virtues, inverted: the same claim viewed through the lens of hope.

Why this emphasis here? Given the sentiment of the Psalm, I think Augustine worries that it is too easy to believe that one is a member of the pilgrim city because one is being treated as an enemy of Babylon. A number of Augustine’s observations, designed to mitigate this tendency, hint at this. In putting forth the abovementioned lovers of Babylon first, for example, he complicates our attitude towards them; he invites us to notice their proto-virtues so that we cannot hate them, even as they are hostile towards us. Perhaps most surprising of all, he ends with the suggestion that it will one day be their particular duty to encourage their fellow Babylonians to strive towards the city of God, for, Augustine emphasizes, “their fellow-citizens are also fellow-pilgrims”: something that is even harder for us to see.

Having once been united with the other Babylonians in their love of Babylon, it will be their friendships, their bonds of affection, that spread the Gospel. Having been faithful in small matters, they will be faithful in great ones. Thus, in choosing to first highlight those lovers of Babylon whom we can imagine empathetically, Augustine engages in a kind of exercise that can help his congregation inhabit the captive state without defaulting to disdain of their captors. He also helps them see that the pilgrim people is not primarily against the Babylonians, but for the city of God.

Next, Augustine reminds his congregation how easy it is for us to get swept away by the rivers of Babylon. This move is reminiscent of what we found in book I of City of God. Here, he offers a series of vignettes designed to convict his audience. These include the farmer who invests all his energy in becoming rich, the military man who finds others’ fear of him thrilling, the advocate who delights in the power he draws from eloquence, and the seafarer who seeks profit, independence, and adventure. All these, Augustine argues, love things in this world that will eventually flow away from them. Do we?

Contrasting those who fall into the river of Babylon with the prudent who sit on the shores weeping, Augustine drives home the danger of priding oneself on not being a Babylonian. Calling attention to the fact that the Psalm describes those on the shores as sitting, he warns his congregation that no one can stand, jeering at those in the river, without falling in themselves. Those who sit weeping, he explains, only remain on the shore by “laying hold of the wood”—an image powerfully evocative of the wood of the Cross ( 136.1.4, 226). Paradoxically, then, Augustine suggests that it is only from the stance of seeing ourselves in the Babylonians that we remain on the shores of Babylon. The psalmist’s tears for the homeland his people has abandoned are commingled with tears for those who have been swept away. There is no room for spite in this vision.

Indeed, it is only after laying out this pattern of interpretation that Augustine turns to the lovers of Babylon whom we expected him to discuss at the outset, using very similar terms in fact to what we saw in City of God 2.20. These, he explains, are the willows to which the Psalm refers; people who “feed on pleasures from transient things,” and bear no fruit ( 136.2.6, 228). In the Psalm’s suggestion that we should hang up our harps in the face of their taunts, we see, the question of how pilgrims ought to engage with the hostile resurfaces. While, it seems, the patriotic pagans who malign the Christians for their ostensible lack of public spiritedness can be drawn into conversation because what they value points beyond itself, this is not the case with the willows. Instead, these are

So sterile that it is difficult to discern in them any starting-point from which they could be led toward true faith, or good works, or hope in the world to come, or any desire to be freed from the captivity of their mortal condition. We . . . turn away, despairing. “These people simply have no perception of such things,” we complain. “They cannot take anything in. Whatever we say to them, they will have some perverse, obstinate retort” (ibid).

While to be sure, Augustine describes such persons as “difficult to put up with” for all their spite, notice that he does not remark upon their intransigence in a spirit of animosity, but lamentation ( 136.2.6, 228). They are not, in the end, the Psalmist’s true enemy. They are, instead, people who have grown up in a climate of confusion, just as we have done, for “even before we learned to speak, [the confusion of this world] choked us with the futile opinions spawned by a host of errors” (en. Ps. 136.8.21, 219-20). Taking a cosmological stance towards the Psalm, Augustine stresses those who really led us into captivity are the same ones that have led these persons into captivity: namely, the demons. This being so, it is not the children of such persons whose heads must be dashed against the rocks, but those vices that sin has brought to birth in all of us. Ultimately, our detractors are to be pitied, not hated but loved.

Here, again, then, Augustine reworks the Psalm to highlight a Christian stance towards enmity. While the Psalm describes the Babylonians as Jerusalem’s captors and tormentors, demanding songs only to mock them, Augustine turns the exiles’ decision to hang up their harps into a judgment about pearls before swine. By recasting the Babylonians as the mere spokespersons of the demons, he shifts our resentment away from them, and towards those who have captured them, kindling our desire to free our captivated captors, if and when we can.

So, you might be wondering, how does this sermon help us discern a properly Christian stance towards pluralist politics? Augustine’s primary concern here, after all, is with evangelization—with a situation in which we have received a gift of truth that we are trying to pass on. Political discourse is admittedly very different.[5] Perhaps the best answer I have is that Augustine’s claim about the pilgrim church that seeks compromise in City of God 19.17 is the sermon’s political derivative. Let me offer one more quote from the sermon to show how this is so.

As long as you are living among people deaf to any song of Zion, hang up your harps there, in the center of Babylon, as I have advised you. Save up what you were going to say for a more opportune time, for the trees can change and begin to be fruitful and eventually yield a good crop. But when you find yourselves among those who shout you down with their arguments, or question you with dishonest intent, or resist the truth, bind yourselves by oath so that you will not try to align yourselves with their wishes, for fear you may forget Jerusalem (en. Ps. 136.5.15, 235).

In brief, if the difficulty that we face in our efforts to work with others for the sake of earthly peace is at least partially rooted in the experience of having them shout us down with their arguments or question us with dishonest intent, then the question is: How we can avoid responding in kind? Part of Augustine’s answer is that we must strive to see those who do this with the eyes of Christ. Yet, this is not to put on rose-colored glasses. It is to be stretched by love.

While much more deserves to be said, I think the sermon at least puts us in a position to understand why Augustine claims that the pilgrim city seeks a compromise about earthly peace and what it takes to seek such a compromise in the face of hostility. While Augustine is adamant that we remain stalwart in rejecting construals of earthly peace that do not harmonize with heavenly peace, this stance does not justify hostility towards the members of the earthly city, but instead encourages us to understand the passion behind their noblest impulses and to look for and their admire proto-virtues,[6] which may well exist where we have none. It reminds us to learn from those willing to work with us, and even those who are not. This is guaranteed to be a humbling exercise, as it is bound to reveal our own Babylonian proclivities—the earthly things to which we cling without knowing—but that is for the good, as it divests us of the illusion that we have already become the people into which we pray we will be made, all of us together.

[1] Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans. Translated by H. Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 2003.

[2] I am also interested in how this work is a locus of our own healing; it reminds us of our need for grace and increases our desire for that grace.

[3] I also think Augustine can help us understand why our public institutions have come to promote a secular vision of the human person and the common good, but that is a story for another day.

[4] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 121-150. Vol. III/20. Translation and notes by Maria Boulding, edited by Boniface Ramsey. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2004.

[5] I think this difference remains even if we admit that the mysterium fidei that we are trying to pass on is always beyond what we understand of it. 

[6] To be clear, I call these proto-virtues for the sake of consistency. I think a good case can be made as to the superiority of the Aristotelian conception of virtue to Augustine’s—a conception which would have room for pagan virtue. And yet, Augustine’s construal of true virtue as necessarily aiming at beatitude does have the benefit of showing what our actions, in the last analysis, are for.