(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 410 c.e. Alaric and the Goths sacked Rome, shocking the Mediterranean world and raising charges by pagans, then chafing under the rule of Christian emperors, that Christianity was responsible for weakening the once powerful Roman Empire. Saint Augustine’s The City of God was a sophisticated answer to these charges, pointing out, contrary to the teaching of ancient philosophers, that no earthly political system could be relied upon for the satisfaction of the most important human needs, which are ultimately spiritual rather than material ones. The first ten of the twenty-two books expose the false teachings of the pagans as found in the writings of their poets, politicians, and philosophers, while recognizing the truth that can be observed in them. The second part of The City of God presents a Christian understanding of the origins, progress, and ultimate ends of the two cities: the earthly city of man, represented by Babylon, rooted in vice and sin, governed by selfish love, and destined to conflict, destruction, and eternal death; and the heavenly city, represented by Jerusalem, rooted in grace and virtue, governed by love of God, and destined for peace, salvation, and eternal life.

Augustine asserts that Rome’s problems were of its own making, not a result of Christian teaching. Rome’s own gods did not come to the city’s protection, and Roman pagans sought and found protection from the Goths only by fleeing to Christian churches, which the pagan hordes dared not enter or burn. The mythic gods of Romans actually degraded the civic and moral virtues that once characterized the Roman republic. No less a figure than Plato had banished the poets and their mythic gods from his ideal republic for these reasons. Pagan gods, then, failed to protect human souls, to prevent human evils, or to guarantee human happiness even in the possession of the goods of this life. Some pagans understood, more properly, that the gods should be worshiped for the sake of happiness in life after death. By God’s providence, civic virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage marked the early Romans, but even these early Romans were oriented toward fabulous and nonexistent gods—to the embarrassment of Roman philosophers such as Seneca, who observed pagan rituals but did not believe in the gods. Enlightened by degrees of wisdom, even the philosophers failed to see that human wisdom and virtue are gifts from God rather than strictly human efforts. Thus, while the natural...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)