This summer I have been reading through Augustine’s City of God (unabridged version—nearly 900 pages). It has been fascinating to see how deftly he moves from history to theology to philosophy to cultural analysis. And his insights and wisdom in each of these topical spheres is impressive (though, of course, he shows his fallibility on many issues along the way as well).
In the first few hundred pages of the book Augustine discusses various aspects of the collapse of the Roman Empire. And several times he mentions how Christians were blamed for this, specifically because of their critique and rejection of making sacrifices to the gods. Many people thought this failure to appease the gods angered them and that the problems throughout the empire were a consequence of the gods’ vengeance or spiteful refusal to provide assistance. So now the Roman Empire was crumbling, and it was all the Christians’ fault. We are tempted to smile at such a silly and misguided accusation, but of course it was no laughing matter, as many Christians were seriously persecuted as a result of this accusation.
The situation in 21st century American culture bears some similarities to that in Augustine’s time. All around us we see signs of cultural decay and social breakdown. And our political system, too, is vulnerable to eventual collapse. It is also interesting to note that Christians today, as in Augustine’s day, are often blamed for our social troubles, such as because of our pro-life advocacy and promotion of monogamy and traditional marriage (of course, not all Christians take these views, but most do). It is also interesting to note how our stance on these issues constitutes a certain refusal to sacrifice to one of the most prominent deities of American culture, namely the god of sexual autonomy. Americans make daily sacrifices to this deity in the form of promiscuity and the termination of unborn lives. And Christians who oppose these sacrifices are often vilified and blamed for opposing social goods, even undermining the American way of life.
This is just one of the ways in which Augustine’s 1500-year-old analysis of ancient Rome is still relevant today. While I hope our country doesn’t go the way of Rome any time soon (though, like all nations, it will eventually), the lessons we can glean from their history may be a source of cultural insight and practical wisdom.