Two Cities – Part 3 – Simply Wrong

The wrong-believing pagans of Rome, who were laying the blame on Christianity for the fall of the Eternal City in 411 AD, demonstrated one truth at least: When it comes to unbelief, there simply is no such thing. They may well have been “unbelievers” with respect to Christianity. But by coming to the defense of the ancient deities of Rome, they proved that they were true, sincere, and fervent believers.

Only they were wrong, and their wrong belief was rampant, foolish, absurd, and deadly.

Augustine’s tack was rather like that which Jesus took when he was accosted by some Sadducees about an ethical and theological matter that had to do with life in the hereafter. Of course, the Sadducees did not believe in the hereafter or in any kind of spiritual reality. They posed their knotty question in the hopes of embarrassing Jesus by demonstrating the irrational nature of His talk about heaven and eternal life.

Jesus listened politely. Then He responded by saying, “You are wrong, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22.29).

“Wrong?” That’s a brazen charge to lay at the feet of those most people considered to be the theological authorities of their day. But no matter how revered your status, venerable your traditions, or cock-sure your attitude, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And it’s only kind and just to point that out.

Which is what Augustine did in City of God. First he showed, citing respected pagan writers, ancient and contemporary, that the gods of Greece and Rome had all been made up as embodiments of the most admirable human traits and achievements. They were then projected into a realm where vanity, licentiousness, power-grabbing, pugnacity, and dirty tricks were de rigueur. It was always, Augustine pointed out, in the best interests of the ruling classes to promote and honor the gods—with cults, kiosks, and crude stage plays—because this justified their own immoral behavior and kept the masses either amused or fearful.

Augustine next pointed out the irrationality of having one supreme god—Jupiter or Jove—who required an assistant to do his work—the goddess Felicity. And underneath these two were scores and hundreds of lesser deities who were responsible for everything from the hairs on one’s chin to the hinges on one’s doors, and who were to be placated with petty offerings as occasion required. Augustine pointed out that this meant the supreme god really had only limited power and so was not supreme at all. And the lesser gods were typically unreachable, uncaring, or unlikely to answer prayers.

Everyone knew this, Augustine pointed out; and he explained that the only reason life in Roman society made any sense at all, or could accomplish anything useful or lasting, was not because of these fickle, feckless deities but because of the grace of God. Only the Christian God, Augustine pointed out, could account for any of the beauty, goodness, or truth that managed to appear in the Roman Empire.

So to argue that the powerless and unreal gods of Rome had caused the downfall of the City that created and coddled them was simply absurd. But such arguing is typical among the thinkers of the City of Man, who can make anyone believe anything by dangling a bit of entertainment or diversion before them. Here’s the peroration of Augustine’s argument: “Cashier this rabble of innumerable and unnecessary gods, nay devils: let not that god suffice the worshipper, whose gift is not sufficient: hold not (I say) that god for a sufficient giver of felicity whose felicity is wholly insufficient” (p. 134).

Put another way, Augustine said to those who vilified Christianity and Christ, “You’re wrong, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

What goes around comes around. In our day voices are clamoring on all sides to warn of the dangers of Christian faith. Christianity is racist! Christianity oppresses women! Christians are hypocrites! Christianity keeps us from true freedom! And the litany goes on.

Instead, our contemporary naysayers call us to celebrate the god of self and his consort, happiness, and to turn to any number of lesser deities—power, wealth, pleasure, ease, success, and more—to discover our best life here and now. In today’s City of Man, the independent, autonomous human being is the only god that matters, and each one is free to define happiness on their own terms and pursue it by whatever means they will. As Carl Trueman put it in his indispensable volume, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, our world is one “in which transcendent purpose collapses into the immanent and…given purpose collapses into any purpose I choose to create or decide for myself. Human nature…becomes something individuals or societies invent for themselves” (p. 42). Trueman continues by observing that today, the “onus for meaning” lies not in fixed standards and reliable traditions but “with the human self as constructive agent” (p. 71). The idea of “self-creation, that we can shape our essences by acts of will,” Trueman writes, “is deeply embedded in the way we now think” (p. 165).

In today’s City of Man, “the self” is god, “happiness” is his concierge, and “anything goes” fills out the pantheon of indulgence and whim. This is the essence of the wrong belief that is shaping our world and future today.

See for yourself
Who dares to say to our modern pagans that they’re just wrong? That the truth is in God, His Word, and His salvation? Today, ask a co-worker or fellow student what they believe. Try to find out as much as you can in terms of what they think about themselves, their ultimate values, highest aspirations, and most reliable ethical standards. Then ask how they can be so sure this is true. If you’re not talking to a fellow Christian, you’ll be talking to someone not unlike those whose wrong worldview Augustine reduced to ashes in City of God.

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