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Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Theological Tale of Two Cities

A Reflection on God and Country

by Daniel Haynes

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” 

Charles Dickens began his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities by focusing on the socio-economic life situation of peasants living in France during the French Revolution. America had just gained its independence from England a decade prior, and the French were also striving for justice and autonomy from the absolute monarchs of their country. The revolutionary setting behind Dicken’s novel reveals the birth of the modern nation-state, separate from either monarchy or religious theocracy (where a religion controls the state). Once there was no secular, but now the world has a State based upon the will of the populace and human reason.

As we approach the celebration of the founding of America, I would like to share a theological reflection on God and country, or a cautionary critique of American “civic religion.” I will emphasize at the start, that this reflection has nothing to do with any one political party or system of politics. Nor am I arguing for some kind of theology-controlled government. However, it does have much to do with the theological problem of tearing apart the sacred and secular realms of existence, the private and public spheres of human life.

To begin this theological reflection, I will draw from the theological reflections of Saint Augustine on another set of two cities, the city of God (civitas Dei) and the earthly city (civitas terrena), from his important work The City of God Against the Pagans.

Augustine lived during the gradual fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Christianity was the religion of the State by this time, and most bishops of the church were also magistrates. As Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine wrestled between his duties of governing and his desire for solitude and doing theological writing. Despite this arrangement of God and country, Augustine does not present a theory of history or a philosophy of Church and State in The City of God. Instead of rooting the city of God and the earthly city in the physical institutions of the Church and the State (as later Medieval philosophy did), Augustine makes these two competing cities spiritual and hidden from sight. We will never fully know who belongs to each city in this life because this will not be revealed until the end of time:

While she is a pilgrim in this world, the City of God has with her, bound to her by the communion of the sacraments, some who will not be with her to share eternally in the bliss of the saints. Some of these are concealed. Some of them, however, join openly with our enemies, and do not hesitate to murmur against the God whose sacrament they hear. Sometimes they crowd into the theatres with our enemies, and sometimes into the churches. (I,35)

In this wicked world, and in these evil days…many reprobate are mingled in the Church with the good. Both are as it were collected in the net of the Gospel; and in this world, as in a sea, both swim together without separation, enclosed in the net until brought ashore. (XVIII,49)
Where did the division between these two spiritual cities arise? Augustine answers this with the division between two loves:

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self. The one, therefore, glories in itself, the other in the Lord; the one seeks glory from men, the other finds its highest glory in God, the witness of our conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” (XIV,28)

Humankind is either a part of the heavenly city or the earthly city based upon whether they love God or themselves. The center of much of Augustine’s theology is the competing orders of love either towards God or away from Him. He even famously argues that you can know who a people are by looking at the object of their love.

Because of original sin, where the sinful nature of Adam and Eve are passed down to their descents, human loves are disordered away from God. It is only by God’s grace that human beings can reorder their self-orientated love towards love of God. Augustine believes that humankind is not naturally a “political animal,” as Aristotle argued 600 years earlier. There would be no need of politics or the state if humanity had not fallen into sin. So, the role of the government or the state in Augustine’s theological vision of the two cities is to hold back the tides of original sin, and in some blessed cases work with the Church to lead people to the heavenly city.

Augustine does not, however, see particular rulers or empires as being a part of the “divine right to rule”. This does not mean that Augustine is completely negative against the state or the intellectual achievements of human culture; he thinks the state has a place to play in keeping the peace as far as this is possible. His theological point is that a Pagan state cannot in the truest sense of the word be a commonwealth, a moral community of citizens. Ultimate justice takes place in the kingdom of God, the heavenly city. Human kingdoms can only imitate or approximate the ultimate justice of the heavenly city:

If the kings of the earth and all nations, princes and all the judges of the earth, young men and maidens, old men and children, people of every age and each sex; if those to whom John the Baptist spoke, even the tax collectors and the soldiers: if all these together were to hear and embrace the Christian precepts of justice and moral virtue, then would the commonwealth adorn its lands with happiness in this present life and ascend to the summit of life eternal, there to reign in utmost blessedness. (II,19)

If for Augustine the Church participates in the heavenly city of God and offers the closest semblance of true justice, the true social and political order, then how should we contemporary Christians regard our own relationship to the State?

This, of course, is a difficult and delicate question to answer. Ultimately, it will be about participating in the journey more than arriving at an earthly destination. Simply put, the city of God is the destination of Christians, not an earthly city that resides in the physical State. This does not mean that Christians should be separated from the world. If the Church is called to be the ultimate and just society, with the fulfillment of this divine vocation in the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment before God, then we are to be a model for what the world should look like, an alternative society.

Contemporary theologian William Cavanaugh uses Augustine’s notion of the two cities to say that Christians need to be a little bit of anarchists. He does not mean literal revolutionary government-overthrowing anarchists, but alternative societies that resist the power claims of the modern nation-state. He argues the classic Christian idea being salt and light to the world. St. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to submit to the governing rulers because they are placed in those roles by God. At first, this sounds contradictory to Cavanaugh’s argument for Christian anarchism, but the two claims go together.

Due to the advent of sin, God established the institutions of government to hold back the disastrous effects of it. Government has a legitimate role to play in God’s plan for the world, and it even has the capacity to imitate and work with the Church as they both, through grace, strive to ascend to the heavenly city. Institutional Christianity is likewise not an end in itself because the ultimate love and destination of all creation is God. The Church, as much as the State, should strive to be the heavenly city as far as this is possible in this life. This means that we should really be the heavenly commonwealth, the true political animal; we should look different than the world despite being an integral part of it. Because Christ took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, so to can the Church put flesh onto heavenly justice and love in this life. Christians need to view themselves as a little bit of anarchists because we are called to be salt and light, the alternative community.

Notice how this theological foundation of the Church and State relationship is not really based in any one human political party or political system. A Christian vision of the world order is not conditioned on whether we have a king or a democracy. As I stated at the beginning of this reflection, I am not arguing for a Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Socialist, politics. Augustine presents us with a theological attitude and position towards the State, which can reside in the heavenly city or the earthly one.

Finally, we should pray for the State that it works to imitate the justice that can only come from God. What I love about the Episcopal tradition is that each week during the “prayers of the people” we pray and ask for mercy for the whole world:

The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble
The departed

Bishop Whitmore shared an excellent point at the teacher’s retreat the other day at St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany. He said that Anglicanism/Episcopalism is more of a ground-up kind of institution instead of a top-down one. This is because the Celtic history of our tradition was more organic and nomadic than institutional and power based. Despite the top-down Church and State relationship that exists in England today, each province of the Anglican Communion is self-governing. Our identity is rooted in how we worship God through our common prayer together, not on rigid doctrines or canons (this is not to say that doctrines and canons do not matter).

If the Church lives out the principles of true justice, ethics, and the love of God in every area of society, perhaps society and the State will be persuaded by power of grace that is working within us. We should continue to pray for the nation, and be grateful for the freedoms and peace that America does offer our lives. However, we should not equate the State with the rule of God as America often does in “civic religion.” You may have heard the term civic religion before. It comes from the writings of the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and it basically refers to practices of religion that bind together the various social orders, such as politics and economics; it wraps the state in religion. We can see this type of civic religion in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. The “court” prophets were making prophecies against Jeremiah’s message from God to the people concerning the coming destruction of Israel by the Babylonians. Jeremiah questions his own message because the court prophets say that Israel will not fall. God responds sharply:

And the Lord said to me, “The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart. Therefore thus says the Lordconcerning the prophets who prophesy in My name, whom I did not send, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not be in this land’—‘By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed! And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword; they will have no one to bury them—them nor their wives, their sons nor their daughters—for I will pour their wickedness on them.’ (Jeremiah 14: 14-16)

Jeremiah presents a cautionary tale of identifying the nation with God’s plan human history. The two realms of Church and State will always be in tension, never conflated with each other nor completely torn apart. This is because the heavenly and the earthly cities exist apart from both the Church and the State. As social and political creatures, humans living in the Church and State can only strive for the ultimate peace that resides in God’s kingdom.

Daniel Haynes, Ph.D.
July 2013

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