Guest Contributor: Pilgrim
You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Matthew 24:6-8)
The world seems to be a very dangerous place just now – environmentally, politically, socially, and economically. We are witnessing the decay of Western culture based on Christian virtues and values. How should we react? Is this decay an indication that the end of history is at hand? Well, maybe, or, maybe not.
Augustine, in The City of Man and the City of God teaches us that “the end is nigh’ thinking is erroneous. All empires pass away and ours is no different. Christians are a pilgrim people and no matter what may befall our land and our institutions, these earthly societies are not God’s abiding Kingdom.
The City of Man and the City of God
Augustine provides a key for a proper perspective on human events. Along with a theology of history, he puts together a Christian philosophy of society. He states that Scriptures alone can instruct human beings about the highest good and the highest evil. Without this guidance, human endeavour has no purpose. History is a great drama between two cities: the “City of Man” and the “City of God”. The former is founded on self-love, with pride, ambition, greed, and expediency reigning supreme. The City of God is founded on selflessness, love of God and love of neighbour, where humility, sacrifice, and obedience are paramount.
Human history is a conflict between these two “cities”. A conflict destined to end in victory for the latter when Christ returns. The City of God is marked by people who dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God revealed in the Christian faith. The Earthly City consists of people who immerse themselves in the cares and pleasures of this present world. History is the unfolding of God’s plan which involves fostering the City of God and filling it with citizens destined for eternal life with God – this being the purpose of creation.
Four Essential Elements in the Struggle Between Good and Evil
Augustine presents the four essential elements in this universal struggle between good and evil. The visible institutions of the Church and State, and the invisible City of God and City of Man. The Church is divinely established to lead us to eternal goodness. The State is intended by God to hold back evil, to promote virtue and foster a political community that seeks human good and human welfare. The visible societies are to aim at justice and the physical and spiritual welfare of citizens. Mirroring these and interacting with them, are the two invisible societies. To achieve a harmony between the Church and the State, to achieve order and justice, mankind must strive to enter the City of God. Human society and individuals must choose which of the two invisible “cities” to join.
Whilst these “cities” are distinct, they comingle. Everyone within the State and in the Church struggles between these cities. At times, men find themselves immersed in the City of Man and at other times in the City of God, but, often, bestriding the two. Augustine writes: “So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band.”
The Meaning of History
Augustine illustrates that the “meaning of history lies not in the flux of outward events, but in the hidden drama of sin and redemption.” At creation angels and humans received the gift of freedom. They were made to be permanent residents in the City of God by a free decision to love God. Adam was created to dwell in paradise – a type of heaven on earth. Man was created with free will to love and obey God or to rebel. The first humans were tempted by pride and chose to turn from God. The temptation was the conviction that they could make Eden even better if they were in charge. The sin that characterises the City of Man is the same sin that characterised this first sin – the lust to dominate the world and to seek the power to decide right from wrong.
God in His omniscient foreknowledge is aware of the direction man takes and remains sovereign over history. Adam’s fall was the beginning of a life of pain and separation from God. It affected the spiritual condition of us all; we are born with a tendency to sin and to disobey God. From birth, we are citizens of the City of Man. Adam and Eve’s rebellion resulted in the disordering of our passions and the distortion of our knowledge of good and evil.
Characteristics of the City of Man
Augustine provides a vivid description of the earthly city and its characteristics. The citizens of the earthly city are “those who wish to live after the flesh,” choosing to live for self and rejecting the ways of God. Augustine further describes this self-focus:
the earthly city [is formed] by the love of self, even to the contempt of God . . . glorifies itself . . . seeks glory from men . . . lifts up its head to its own glory . . . delights in his own strength.
The result of these selfish tendencies is that society experiences a breakdown where: “litigations, wars, [and] quarrels’ are common and the powerful oppress the weak.” Augustine adds: “the strongest oppress the others, because all follow after their own interests and lusts.’
Characteristics of the City of God
The City of God’s members “wish to live after the spirit.” Their city has been formed by: “the love of God, even to the contempt of self . . . the glory of the [city of God] is God.” He adds,
there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men ‘that God may be all in all.
Unlike the earthly city, the members of the heavenly city, in society and government, work together harmoniously, as: “the princes and subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former takes thought for all.”
The City of God and the Earthly City are then: ‘Two states … intimately connected and promiscuously blended with one another in this life until they are separated by the final judgement.” In effect, this is a challenge to human society to choose which city it wishes to be a part of and Augustine sees his task as clearly marking out the parameters of each choice.
Given the intermingling of the visible Church and visible State with the invisible cities of God and Man, this warning applies to all of us whenever we were born and whatever our status in this life.
Pilgrims in Exile
Members of the City of God who presently reside on earth are pilgrims living in exile. These pilgrims will be “salt and light,” exercising a redeeming influence on the Earthly City by loving God and loving their neighbour. The pilgrim should be a good citizen and obey the laws of the Earthly City whilst praying for its leaders.
Augustine’s “integralist” views were a key influence on the development of Catholic teaching on the relation between spiritual and temporal power in medieval times. Popes and theologians often referred to him as Western ‘Christendom’ took shape. Like previous societies before it, ‘Christendom’ came under attack in the late medieval period. Christians fought amongst themselves. The Church fissured and fractured. Secular authorities clashed with ecclesial leadership over control of wealth, land, and political and spiritual authority. As religious enemies, internal and external, threatened, Christianity was thrown into competing camps.
Then, as now, various solutions to these problems were offered. The Franciscan Roger Bacon (1220–1292) suggested synthesizing the City of Man and City of God, to coerce all peoples into submission to the true Church. Dante (1265–1321) proposed a universal monarchy that would function as a copy of the Church, acting as a surrogate for the City of God. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) recommended Christianising the world by accommodating all ideas to Christianity. Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) suggested transforming the Church into the City of Man to make it more palatable to the world via “reason.”
There really is “nothing new under the Sun.” These and similar suggestions today create as many problems as they seek to solve. The Second Vatican Council and Church teaching since, has been wrestling with how to evangelise in an increasingly post-Christian, secular, and hostile culture. The City of Man and the City of God cannot be collapsed into one another without compromising the Christian mission. Coercing the world into the Christian faith contradicts our free response to grace. Accommodating the City of God to secular beliefs, contradicts Christian doctrine. And claiming that reason and faith are identical, undermines Christian revelation.
The Modern Reality
It seems then we must reject all universal socio-political visions as unworkable given modernity’s current inability to accept the Christian faith or the necessity of selflessness and common love as the basis of social, political, economic, and individual life. The world today just does not appreciate there is a transcendent foundation – a telos – to life and to human affairs.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. (CCC 676)
It is one of the great heresies of our day that man can perfect himself and can save the world himself. Salvation does not come through human works, but through the grace and the power of Jesus Christ
The Great Deception
Scripture and the Church tells us the forgetfulness of God is the principal deception of the Antichrist. Satan’s ancient temptation will be renewed in the final days and he will try to deceive man into thinking that he can save himself. He will tell us that we can construct the City of God here on earth.
At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:6-13)
The Kingdom will not come through the power or the virtues of man. The Lord will return not when the Church is at her strongest, but when she is at her weakest, when she is most in need of her Saviour.
The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. (CCC 677)
Indeed, the parousia is the antithesis of human progress.
The Power Belongs to God
As Augustine reminds us that all power in this world and the next comes from God. He is in control of history. God can grant that power to whomever He chooses. But whether He grants that power to good rulers or bad rulers, to good shepherds or bad shepherds, He always does so for our good. If God is allowing Western society to fail and for the Church to shrink, we have no right to complain or no need to be troubled.
This perspective gives a calm hope in our times.
A Future Pope’s Prediction
In a 1969 German radio broadcast, Father Joseph Ratzinger offered his considered thoughts on this. He predicted a shrinking Church, yet offered true hope. Here are some excerpts:
The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.
But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.
But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
We would do well to keep this in mind.
One final thought from C. S. Lewis:
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.
Read The Latin Right’s other writing here.
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