Augustine of Hippo remains one of the most influential theologians in the history of the Church. One reason for his enduring significance: he responded creatively to difficult days.
He was born in 354 in Carthaginia. He was ordained a priest in 391 in the seaport of Hippo and became bishop of the churches there just four years later.
The difficulty of those days? The western Roman Empire was collapsing. In 410 the unimaginable occurred: the city of Rome itself was sacked for the first time in 800 years. A mere twenty years later, Germanian Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. During that siege, the 75-year-old Augustine died—perhaps of stress and starvation.
In The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor describes Augustine’s context in this way: “Augustine’s last twenty years were spent amid the disintegration of the Roman Empire…. Augustine lived in an era of dismay, pessimism, and confusion, at a time when it was necessary to evolve a philosophy that would allow the church to survive the empire—to maintain its mission and identity separate from the dissolving Roman world and from classical culture” (p. 75).
Roman Olympians blamed the sack of Rome on Christians. They claimed that the Olympian gods had allowed it as a punishment and a warning that people should abandon Jesus and return to them. Only then would they protect Rome as effectively as they had for 800 years.
Augustine replied to this accusation by writing and publishing his book, The City of God, in parts over the next 15 years. In it he basically states that Christ’s primary concern is with defending the City of God, the New Jerusalem, represented now by the Church, and not some Olympian city or its empire. He said that Olympian empires will come and go, only the Church would endure forever, and it was important for Christians to note the difference.
We live in a context similar in many ways to that of Augustine. Let us pray that we might respond as creatively to our challenges as he did to his!
Augustine worked to disentangle the Church from its Olympian context. He did this on three levels. One, he contrasted the Church as an organized social group with both the Roman government and Roman society. Two, he contrasted the Church’s point of view with the worldview of its Olympian cultural context. Three, he contrasted the Church’s understanding of human nature with the Olympian one.
In Augustine’s day, the Roman Empire was collapsing. In our day, the American empire is. In his day, Augustine saw the need to disentangle the Church from the Empire on three levels. Only in that way could the Church survive the Empire’s collapse. As prophetic witnesses to Jesus, we need to do the same and for the same reason.
Augustine spoke of disentangling Church and Empire on three levels: societal, cultural, and personal.
In societal terms, we need to disentangle our churches from our broader American Olympian society in two ways. First, we need to disestablish ourselves; that is, we need to wean ourselves from our financial dependence on the government. Second, we need to understand Church as a distinct alternative society rather than as just one more organized group in a broader Olympian society. Meeting these needs will be difficult.
In cultural terms, we need to disentangle the beliefs, values, norms, goals, and stories we share together as Christian witnesses from those of our broader Olympian culture. This is especially important during Sunday worship. We should, for example, follow the Church calendar rather than the Olympian one. Among other things, this would mean celebrating as holy days events in the life of Jesus like his birth, death, and resurrection, while ignoring Olympian holy days celebrating governments, wars, or even such apparently benign subjects as mothers and fathers.
Finally, in personal terms, we each need to distinguish more clearly our Olympian personality from our Christian personality. We need, for example, to draw a sharp distinction between being a good American and a good Christian.