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City of God Kindle Edition
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The reason I give 4 stars out of 5 is because of the amazing difficulty that comes with reading this book. This is a VERY VERY heavy read, and one should be familiar with the prevailing Roman philosophies of the day, as well as Roman history.
Augustine talks of Plato, Cicero, Virgil and others frequently through the book. He also talks of the history of Rome, and these factors play a heavy note in his book. An few survey classes of Philosophy, and a World Civics class as well as a decent understanding of Christian history at this time, and theology is also a must. You should be familiar with the scriptures. Because of all these factors, you cannot just pickup and read this book. You'll have to know what Augustine is talking about to some level before you read this.
Other than that, this book is brilliance, and while some parts will be a little dry, it is very inspiring. You see Augustine write, sign, and stamp the doctrine of Original Sin, Amillinialism, and doctrines concerning Grace, the Trinity, and various "problems" concerning the Canon of Scripture.
He setup Christianity for the next 1000 years, and is still felt strongly today in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox circles.
The City of God would probably not be considered light reading by most, but if one can complete it while trying to digest as much as they can, it is certainly worth it. This is one of those works which is probably understood a little differently each time it is read. One helpful disclaimer offered by Thomas Merton is that if one is unfamiliar with Augustine and his writing, they would be best served to first read Augustine's Confessions (Penguin Classics) prior to tackling The City of God. It really is good advice.
And yet I am a little sad to have finished it, for no matter what was going on in my life, like Scripture, the City of God had relevance. How to summarize such a monumental work?
First of all, I do not concur with the dimishment of the early parts of the work. While Books 1 through X are indeed more clearly tied to the dissolving Roman world, it is extremely helpful for us to get our minds into a time when pagans were more than countercultural "post-Christian" teenage losers. Augustine's vivid arguments against the pagan "theology" are incisive. More notably, they bring into focus a world that was both ultra-rational in the Platonic/Aristotilean tradition, and "superstitious" in its belief in household gods, demons, curses, and magic. That both a very advanced science and such beliefs could coexist is a lesson to us in our secularized, smug modern world.
The temporal proximity of Augustine to Christ and the Apostles brings another level of clarity. While Augustine emphasized that "none shall know the day nor hour," it is clear that there is an apocolyptic undercurrent in the Christian society he inhabits. The urgency of Christian life seems to me to have diminished.
Particularly striking are Augustine's arguments against those "tender-hearted Christians" who hold various levels of Salvation for even the most depraved. In our world of ecumenical outreach, guitar-Mass hippy communalism, Augustine's defense of the limited Salvation is a necessary wake-up call.
Certainly there are moments of "how many angels on the head of a pin," which I suppose Augustine inspired in latter theologians. The various discussions of the form, age, and physical condition of post-Resurrected faithful seems unworthy of discussion. And yet he was writing in direct argument against contemporaries. This, at least, is fascinating; that anti-Christians of Augustine's day tried to build a rational case against particular aspects of Christian doctrine, rather than against the underlying thesis of Christ.
The more history you know, the more mythology you have read, and the better acquainted with Scripture you are, the more you will get out of The City of God. But such things are not necessary. Augustine is a patient writer (as exemplified by the vast scope of this and other works). He walks his readers painstakingly through each subject.
I must agree with other reviewers that the last two Books are worthy to stand alone, treating of hell, purgatory, and heaven. As vivid and daunting as the discussion of hell is, so is the beatific vision inspiring and easing. Augustine above all knows the value of true peace - the peace of Christ. And he knows too well the limits of the City of Man in attaining this peace. That he has indeed "tasted and seen" is wonderfully clear, and he inspires and encourages his readers to share in that faith and hope which motivate his life.
There are so many details of note: from the Christ-prophetic visions of Greek sybils to the independent trinitarian philosophy of Plato. Such details are commonplace to Augustine, but we have forgotten them. Truly, The City of God must be reckoned among the necessities of catechismic formation, mostly for Roman Catholics, but if certain later prejudices can be ignored, for all Christians as well. I would caution Jewish readers that Augustine makes no bones about the deicide and subsequent temporal punishment that he believes the Jews endure, until their conversion with the Last Judgement. As to pagans and heretics of all stripes, you've met your match in Augustine... he outwitted you 1500 years ago.
Lest I be as prolix as Augustine himself, I will conclude by referencing the great spiritual help that this book provides. Particularly in modern times, though American Christians (and even American Catholics) are notably free from persecution, the City of Man calls us ever more away from Truth. Augustine's book helps us walk, not on the path of our own disordered priorities, but toward that greater and infinite blessedness we have been promised in Christ.
The first few hundred pages of "The City of God" may be very slow and difficult for the average modern, Western, reader. Augustine is speaking directly to the average Roman citizens of the time (413 AD), so the first several chapters of "The City of God" are spent debunking the Romans' beliefs in polytheism, a mindset long since abandoned by most in the civilized Western world (thanks mostly to... Augustine). But the difficulty of these first few chapters should only make one appreciate Augustine all the more for having helped dismiss such a convoluted belief system. Once Augustine has broken down the problems with Zeus and friends, he moves on to discussing Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers. Augustine discusses why these founders of Western culture came close to understanding the idea of the Judeo-Christian God, but he shows where they too eventually fell short of total comprehension of Him.
After Augustine has dealt with these religions and philosophies of the Romans, he begins to address the Bible and how it concerns the City of God and the earthly city (Rome, which had been sacked by Alaric in 410, was the best example of the latter). Augustine outlines the differences in the beliefs and actions of believers and non-believers, or in other words, the citizenries of the two cities in question. In doing this, Augustine discusses numerous debates and questions, including figurative vs. literal interpretations of Old Testament stories, how the Old Testament prophets pointed towards Jesus Christ and how Christ fulfilled their prophesies, as well as many other questions that are still discussed every day, nearly 16 centuries later. Ultimately, Augustine gives us the beautiful picture of life graced by Christ through the faith he gives to the citizens he elects to join his city. Augustine shows us how Christ's grace removes his predestinated citizens from the worries of the earthly city, while (paradoxically) energizing them to care that much more for the inhabitants of this city (as the Christians in Rome did for non-believers they sheltered from Alaric's invaders).
One note of recent relevance: The City of God is often referenced today for Augustine's discussion of "just war" theory. While Augustine definitely believed that war can at times be just, and therefore morally obligatory, he does not really go into great detail about "just war" theory in "The City of God." In nearly 900 pages (in the Modern Library edition), he writes about war for no more than 1-2 pages.
I highly recommend "The City of God" to everyone, Christian or not. Just for the history of it, this book is fascinating, but the theology makes it one of the greatest works ever written.