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Angela Tilby: Augustine knew history is incomplete

17 November 2023


A fresco depicting St Augustine in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, Italy

A fresco depicting St Augustine in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, Italy

ST AUGUSTINE’s The City of God — or, more correctly, The City of God against the Pagans — is one of the most influential works of Western philosophy. Augustine, facing the collapse of the Roman Empire, writes of two cities: the City of God, which God is building invisibly through time, and the doomed Earthly City, built of unchecked human desire, division, and conflict.

The City of God is worth turning to in these weeks between All Saints’ Day and Advent: the Kingdom season. First, because Augustine criticised any sacred ideology, whether pagan or Christian; second, because Augustine’s writing challenges the contemporary view that history is progressive.

It is because the focus of Christian life is heaven, not earth, that there is a need for secular politics. But they will always be the politics of imperfection, the art of the possible rather than the perfect.

Augustine would have had problems with the much quoted view of Martin Luther King, Jr, that “The arc of the moral universe . . . bends towards justice.” Much preaching about the Kingdom today assumes that this is true, and that the values of the Kingdom are discernible to any right-thinking (and, usually, Left-voting) person.

For Augustine, this is not so. What we experience on earth is a relentless conflict between good and evil — not only around us, but within us. Our best judgements are flawed by self-interest. God does not endorse our moral values, however noble they may seem to us, but calls us to radical repentance. Discerning what is of God, and what is of the evil one, is not straightforward. We should realise this from the Lord’s Prayer, which does not look for the Kingdom to come on earth, but for God’s will to be done on earth, as in heaven.

In my theology finals, I wrote an essay about The City of God. I was inspired by Robert Markus’s book Saeculum, which suggested that the two cities were like opposing threads running through history, and yet so closely wound together that they will be distinguished only when they are reeled in at the end of the world. This led me to the marvellous metaphor in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”:

Óur tale, O óur oracle! ’ Lét life,
     ah lét life wind

Off hér once skéined stained
   véined varíety ’ upon áll on twó
   spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó
   folds — black, white; ’ right,
  wrong; reckon but, reck but,

But thése two; wáre of a wórld
    where bút these ’ twó tell, each
    off the óther. . .

We are not in heaven yet. What contemporary Christianity often lacks is any real grappling with the tragic incompletion of human history. Instead, it is too easily assumed that tragedy is always someone’s fault, and can be ironed out by enough money, more bureaucracy, and better safeguarding. It is not true.

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