Thriving in Babylon with Augustine
Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a talk delivered at Colorado Christian University on September 20, 2021.
Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening. I have long admired Colorado Christian University, the work of your faculty, and the visionary leadership of your President, Don Sweeting. May your tribe and President Sweeting’s tribe increase.
When I look across the nation at those centers of learning which are truly serious about the Lordship of Christ, I am not particularly encouraged. There are a number of them, and I hope they continue to press on, and I hope additional centers of learning join their rank. Colorado Christian University is one of those places which is serious about the lordship of Christ in relationship to the educational endeavor.
Now, I do not want to depress us when we have an embarrassment of riches—the insights of Augustine—to explore. But it is nonetheless worth recognizing that we live in perilous times, and that therefore exploring the insights of someone like Augustine is all the more important.
Professor Clary has already shared the classic quotation from page 1 of Confessions: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”1
It is hard to overestimate how significant this insight from Augustine has been in Western culture—and especially in Christian theology. Augustine’s basic point was that God makes us as creatures who can only be satisfied when we are finding our ultimate joy and happiness and satisfaction in God. Augustine’s point has been essentially affirmed by the universal Christian church.
So, Christians have taken this insight and spent the last 1600+ years praising the God of Scripture, for this God creates us by grace, and creates us in such a way that we really find ultimate joy, happiness, and satisfaction.
One of the truest tragedies of human existence is that while we live in a world where we creatures truly can experience ultimate joy and fulfillment, we willingly choose to not find our joy and fulfillment in God—the only one who can provide such joy and fulfillment.
But Augustine’s maxim—”you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”—gets worked out, or applied, in a certain way in City of God. In that work, we learn that Augustine’s notion of the heart and of the heart’s loves is—on Augustine’s view—at the center of world history.
City of God is one of the works for which he is most well-known. In this work, Augustine was—at least in part—offering an apology for or defense of the faith. Rome had fallen to the Visigoths in A.D. 410. Some detractors of the faith had argued that Rome had fallen because Rome had abandoned their traditional gods, and had embraced the Christian God. Augustine’s City of God responded to this criticism.
Augustine summarizes his understanding of the two cities—the city of God and the city of man—in Book IV of City of God. He writes:
Two loves, then, have made two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city, and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city. Thus the former [the love of self] glories in itself, and the latter [the love of God] glories in the Lord. The former [love of self] seeks its glory from men, but the latter [love of God] finds its highest glory in God, the witness of our conscience. The former [love of self] lifts up its head in its own glory; the latter [love of God] says to its God, “My glory, and the one who lifts up my head” (Ps. 3:3). In the former [love of self] the lust for domination dominates both its princes and that nation that it subjugates; in the latter [love of God] both leaders and followers serve one another in love, the leaders by their counsel, the followers by their obedience. The former [the love of self] loves its own strength, displayed in the power of men; the latter [love of God] says to its God, “I love you, O Lord, my strength” (Ps. 18:1).”2
The longer I have read Augustine, the more I am struck by the radical nature of what he is saying here. Augustine is saying that the present world is constituted by two cities—the city of God and the city of man. Augustine equivocates a bit here and there when defining the two cities, but at one level the cities are:
- The city of God (those persons who know and love God)
- The city of man (unbelievers, those persons who will never come to Christ)
At other times the two cities are:
- The city of God: those things exclusively dealing with spiritual/eternal things
- The city of man: those things relating to our everyday, earthly existence
The main point is that Augustine sees all of world history as the history of these two cities, including their interplay and their intermingling. But also—and this is key to our discussion at this symposium—at the center of those two cities, and hence at the center of world history, is the human heart.
That is, the two cities lay at the heart of history. Indeed, the history of the two cities is the heart of world history. And the heart and its loves lies right at the center of all this. A heart which loves God constitutes the person who is a member of the city of God. A heart which loves itself—in the narcissistic sense—constitutes the person who is a member of the city of man.
Augustine goes on in this same section to write of the two cities:
In the former, then [the city of man], its wise men, who live according to man, have pursued the goods either of the body or of their own mind or of both together; or, at best, any who were able to know God ‘did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise’—that is exalting themselves in their own wisdom, under the domination of pride—’they became fools; and they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of a corruptible man or of birds or of four-footed beasts or of serpents’—for in adoring idols of this kind they were either leaders or followers of the people—‘and worship and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever.’ (Rom. 1:21-23. 25). In the latter [the city of God], in contrast, there is no human wisdom except the piety which rightly worships the true God and which looks for its reward in the company of the saints, that is, in the company of both holy men and holy angels, in order ‘that God may be all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.28).
I suspect we all recognize the main biblical passage Augustine is quoting in this passage. Augustine is quoting from Romans 1—one to which Augustine often turns.
It is completely appropriate for Augustine to turn to Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 here. For Paul’s point—at least in part—is along the following lines. God has created the world. God proceeds to reveal Himself through the created order, and reveals Himself to all persons. But—and this is key—people suppress the knowledge of God. That is, people suppress, hold down, squash the knowledge of God. And because of the suppression of the knowledge of God, God’s wrath is being revealed against such persons. For Scriptures considers such persons guilty. And as a consequence of such suppression, Scripture says that these persons “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom. 1:22). These persons also became idolaters: they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23).
Paul goes on to argue that as a result of suppressing the knowledge of God, God gives people up the “lusts of their hearts” and to both lesbianism and male homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27).
Paul’s point in Romans 1, echoed by Augustine, is quite clear. People either love God, or they suppress the knowledge of God and their foolish hearts become darkened. Or put another way, there are only two human paths:
- Loving God
- Loving God
- Being given up to the lusts of one’s hearts
- Loving God
- Being given over to homosexuality
In short, having one’s heart right is key. Indeed, the human heart—if Augustine is right—is at the center of world history. It is also the case, as Paul sees it, that if one does not love God as one ought, there are serious consequences indeed. Indeed, there is an unmistakable and intractable moral component to loving God fully with one’s heart. This is important to keep before us. Central to the Pauline/Augustinian notion of the heart is the truth that how we manage or shepherd or direct our hearts is fundamentally a moral reality. And that a failure to manage or shepherd or direct our hearts as we ought can result in horrific consequences, the most significant of which is the judgement of God itself.
Perhaps one of the ways of grasping and understanding our current cultural moment is by thinking about own cultural moment as what happens to a culture when this Augustinian or Pauline understanding of man or the heart is disregarded or distorted. For Augustine all of history is to be understood as the origin, growth, and end of the two cities—the city of God and the city of man. And these two cities flow from the heart, from what each person loves. But for Augustine to think in this way means he had a certain anthropology at the back of his thinking. He is thinking of all persons as descended from Adam, and he is thinking of each person as a true moral agent. That is, each person is responsible for what he or she loves, and the real personal agency of each person actually matters. But this means that for Augustine there is a kind of common humanity that all persons share—by being created in the image of God, and by being sons and daughters of the first couple—Adam and Eve.
In our current cultural crisis, things are seen quite differently. The problem might be seen in being a certain race, or being of a certain political stripe, etc. At the risk of being inflammatory, I want to bring Augustine into conversation with one of the most contentious issues of our day—the question of race. And I choose as my main conversation partner Robin DiAngelo, and her best-selling book White Fragility. I cannot guarantee it will be an enjoyable read, but it will be an illuminating read, and will give one insight into our current cultural moment. And in one sense I do not want to give all that much attention to DeAngelo and the various race theories that are currently percolating through our culture. For as I hope to show, DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates are just the latest round of ideologies which develop when a Christian understanding of God, man, and the world are being forsaken.
But briefly on DiAngelo. For DiAngelo if one is white, one is in a real bind. A white person—on the basis of one’s skin color—is virtually irreparably and irretrievably racist and indeed intractably bound up with white supremacy. That is, because of the long history of “whiteness” and its consequences, white persons are in a sense trapped in their own skin, and cannot really escape being racist and being something of at least a closet advocate of white supremacy. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this vision of the world is that there is no hope of redemption or transformation. There is no way out of what is essentially a tragic view of the world.
But in Augustine’s view of the world things are quite different. The problem is not skin color or anything similar to this. For Augustine—as for any traditional Christian, really, there is again a common humanity which all persons share by being created in the image of God, by descending from the first pair—Adam and Eve. Things can—and did—go wrong at a much deeper level than skin color. Things go wrong as the human heart turns in on itself in a kind of narcissistic, self-serving, and even self-worshipping way. Persons can become turned in on one’s self in what is not only narcissistic, but a kind of narcissism which is even self-destructive. Indeed, 20th ct. thinkers like Richard Weaver and Malcolm Muggeridge—the latter a confessing Christian—could speak of modern man’s “suicidal impulse,” and indeed of “self-hatred.”
In an Augustinian view of the world, the various ideologies which have arisen in the modern world, and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries should be no surprise. Whether it is the various forms of statism or socialism or Nazism or communism or fascism, the emergence of these ideologies should not surprise the Christian. All of them were seeking—ostensibly—”justice,” or the like. At least that is how they talked about their own systems. If one wants proof of this I would recommend an older book by Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims. In this classic work, Hollander recounts the various trips that western intellectuals took to communist countries—whether the former Soviet Union, Cuba, or China. A common theme runs through these various visits. In all of these cases, the communist countries put on a good show, swept the starving persons out of sight, and convinced (rather naïve) visitors that a great vision of justice was coming into being in these communist dictatorships. It is sad and tragic to look back at the reports of these western intellectuals and journalists. They often speak in glowing terms of Josef Stalin, the cultural revolution in China, and (ostensibly) the great improvement in literacy in Cuba. And these western intellectuals and journalists very often used Christian theological language of the “kingdom of God” and the like. These western intellectuals and journalists were thrilled to see—they thought—the “kingdom of God” emerging in countries which, in reality, on closer inspection, could only be called dictatorships.
But what does that have to do with our theme, and with the great insights of Augustine? Just this, Augustine recognized that persons—including political leaders, various ideologues and activists—were virtually always driven by what he called the libido dominandi—the desire of dominating or controlling others. That is, even when political leaders talked about justice, or even when confused visitors to communist countries in the 20th century praised the “justice” being brought about in totalitarian countries, what was really at work was a kind of narcissistic desire to control others—the libido dominandi. And the libido dominandi is simply one of the behaviors which flows from the person who is choosing to love one’s self—in the narcissistic and destructive sense, instead of loving God. That is: we might say that what lies behind dangerous ideologies—of whatever century—ultimately flows from the heart, having a heart turned in one’s self in the destructive and narcissistic sense.
Over against DiAngelo’s view of the world, in Augustine’s understanding, the problem is much deeper—the human heart is the problem. And that is a profound and deep problem. Who can change a human heart? But the solution is much more radical—we can be given new hearts. To describe this new heart, Augustine was very fond of a central Old Testament passage, Ezekiel 36:26–27, which in part reads:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
DiAngelo, for her part, offers no meaningful solution to the human dilemma at all. So, the problem is, in DiAngelo’s view—pardon the pun—really only skin deep. In short, DiAngelo has a pessimistic view of the world with no gospel answer at all, and with no hope of redemption whatsoever. And here is where our current cultural situation is so acute, and such a potential disaster. When a problem is posed—for DiAngelo the key issue is race or skin color, but no real solution is offered, we have a recipe for cultural disaster and chaos. It is—in a sense—bad news with no good news whatsoever. Even through DiAngelo’s understanding of the problem is not as deep as Augustine’s, there is no meaningful solution whatsoever.
But when we look at Augustine’s understanding of reality everything changes. We see that the human dilemma is simultaneously deeper and more seemingly intractable than the watching world realizes, for the problem lies deep in the human heart, where persons have turned in on themselves, and as Paul teaches in Romans 1, persons refuse to own up to God’s revelation to them available all throughout the created order. But Augustine’s solution is also much more profound and radical than anything offered by the watching world. For as Augustine sees it—and here is he is simply a good reader of Holy Scripture—the answer lies in the fact that God can and does give us new hearts (again, Ezekiel 36).
Augustine’s and the Bible’s vision of things is probably much more radical than we sometimes realize. For what happens when God gives someone a new heart? As Paul sees it, before someone comes to faith, he can call such a person an “enemy” of God (Romans 5:10). That is, the unrepentant and unregenerate rebel is hostile to the things of God, and has made himself or herself an enemy of God. But through faith, through which we have been justified, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). In short, the human person transitions from being an enemy of God to being a friend of God. But what flows from that? What happens when be become friends of God? We can also begin to be friends with all sorts of people who otherwise would never be likely candidates to be our friends.
In other words, when two people—formerly rebels of God and enemies of God—come to faith in Christ, are justified, and now have peace with God, those two persons can become friends with each other as well. Indeed, they must be friends and are friends with each other, for they are brothers and sisters in Christ.
You might think of your least favorite person in the world at present . . . . Don’t think on that too much. That may not be good for you spiritually.
Perhaps this is your ideological, political opponent. Now, to set up the thought experiment, let’s assume you in this audience are a Christian, and your “opponent” is not a Christian. Now, what happens if you meet this person and begin to talk. What if this person says, “What must I do to be saved?” and you introduce them to the Lord Jesus, and this person comes to faith? Something radical and supernatural has happened in that moment. There may be and likely will be any number of points of disagreement between you and this person. But something would have changed. A human heart has been changed (and will continue to be changed) by the grace of God.
But the kind of worldview exhibited by someone like Robin DiAngelo will have begun to melt away. For, once you take the biblical view of sin seriously and the biblical view of grace seriously, and the biblical view of forgiveness seriously, and the true biblical view of reconciliation seriously—former enemies are made friends—one can no longer take seriously any vision of the world which posits our fundamental problem as skin color. When the Augustinian—and simply biblical—vision of the world comes more and more into focus, one sees more and more that our fundamental problem is so serious—a twisted human heart of stone; but also the fundamental solution is much more radical: new hearts given by God Himself.
Without doing so with rancor or meanness, the Christian must simply laugh (or cry?) at the vision of the world offered by persons like DiAngelo. The Augustinian vision of the world is much more tragic (there is indeed bad news) and much more comic (comic in the sense that there really is good news).
I am reminded by how C.S. Lewis ends his classic book Mere Christianity. I still remember as a college student (a freshman I believe), when I finished this book. I was on the third floor of the college library, and I was stunned as I finished the book. Lewis concludes Mere Christianity by writing that what God is really doing in the world is not simply making more moral or more nice creatures. What God is actually doing is making “new men.” That is, God is making “new men”—modeled after Jesus himself. As I dug into the Bible I discovered verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17, where if we are in Christ we are new “new creatures” or a “new creation.” I realized that Lewis was fundamentally correct. What God is doing in history is making “new men,” new creatures. He is turning enemies into friends. He is the kind of God who could actually change the hearts of Brad Green and Robin DiAngelo, such that they could be friends. If in the new heavens and new earth God can make the lion to lay down with the lamb, certainly that same God can make Brad Green and Robin DiAngelo friends. They could sit down, have a cup of coffee, and laugh at their foolish mistakes over the years, and rejoice that God has had mercy on both of them. There could be tears too, as the shame of one’s foolishness might sneak up and nip a bit.
But this kind of potential future encounter could only happen if the human heart is changed, if Augustine and Paul and Ezekiel are correct. If the Biblical solution to our dilemma—God giving us new hearts, is indeed true. At 56 I hope to make a lot more friends in the course of my life. The God of Scripture is about the business of turning enemies into friends. Because of radically changed hearts people who were enemies of God and enemies of each, can be friends with God and can be friends with each other. I look forward to seeing what friends God brings my way.
Thank you very much, and may God rule in all of our hearts—both for the good of each other and for the glory of God. Good evening.
*Image Credit: Pexels
Editor’s Postscript: Colorado Christian University has recently published a helpful statement on the errors of Critical Race Theory that nicely dovetails with the contents of Dr. Green’s talk.