Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The City of God is No City at All

In City of God, Augustine writes: “But the earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to that punishment which is its end, it will no longer be a city. But it has its good in this world, and it rejoices to partake of it with such joy as things of this kind can confer.” (638). According to Augustine, the earthly city is, like us, mortal, and it experiences only a brief and violent existence in this ephemeral world. Humans only reach the Heavenly City, the earthly city’s immortal counter-part, through the rightful worship of God. Perhaps this is why we, as human beings, believers or not, are so initially drawn to earthly cities; they exist in the same way we do, in the same time frame, satisfying our desire to live in the present and immerse ourselves in life’s joys and miseries within close proximity of all who share the human condition.

People build earthly cities to survive; together, human beings can make a living for themselves. I am not trying to champion fratricide, but when Romulus murdered Remus, a city was born. In this city, human beings helped one another make a life that would have otherwise been difficult if each individual had chosen a solitary existence. The City of God seems to be no city at all, no gathering of people. If an individual chooses to live in the City of God, he or she is living apart from human beings, following a unique path, isolated from temptation and sin.

Augustine compares the two orders of men to the two cities: “…one of which is predestined to reign in eternity with God, and the other of which will undergo eternal punishment with the devil.” (634). I am interested in Augustine’s language but confused by his metaphor. Because he uses the word “predestined” to describe one of the orders, Augustine does not convince me that this metaphor works. When I think of cities, I think of traveling and freedom, the arrivals and departures. To be predestined to reign in eternity with God should more closely resemble being born into a prison from which one can’t escape. To be born in one place and know freedom to move from city to city is much more appealing.