The Eternal City

Chapter 4 imageIn the modern world the image of the doomed city has recently assumed colossal proportions because of the advent of nuclear war. The prospect of the complete destruction of the global city has become frighteningly near. Yet the doom which hangs over us, as I tried to show in the last chapter, owes more to human ignorance, short-sightedness and narrowness of vision than it does to wilful wickedness. Doom is to be related to the dark side of the secular city rather than to the wicked city.

The secular city has much to be said for it. It has brought to the individual person greatly increased freedom and opportunity for fulfilment. But every increase in freedom carries with it an equal measure of responsibility. The secular city appears to have laid on our shoulders a degree of responsibility for which we are not yet ready. Our cleverness, our technological ingenuity, has outstripped our wisdom. One reason for this is in the rapid expansion of science and technology which has characterized the emergence of the secular city.

We have lost our vision. The secular city, as currently experienced, is often flat, uninspiring, cold and inhuman. The secular city lacks vision — that which has the power to stir the human imagination, motivate the human will, and inspire with hope. That is why we must turn now to the image of the eternal city.

There is actually one city in the world which has long regarded itself as the eternal city. It is the city of Rome. Why is this so? Most of us think of Rome, either as the capital of modern Italy, or as the even greater capital of the ancient Roman Empire. Why eternal city? Admittedly it is a very old city. It is much older than New York, London and Paris, and even older than Alexandria and Athens. It proudly traces its foundation to the legendary Romulus in 753 B.C. Old and magnificent — yes! But why eternal? After all, it too has known destruction. The reason for this epithet is chiefly to be found in what happened after it ceased to be the capital of a great empire and before it became the capital of Italy.

For a period of about 1000 years, it was the centre of an empire very different from the kingdoms of this world. After the fall of Rome some of the structures of the empire were inherited by the church and the mantle of the emperor was assumed by the Bishop of Rome. He even took to himself the title once proudly claimed by emperors, Pontifex Maximus, used by the Pope to this day in the form Chief Pontiff.

We may take Christmas Day 800 A.D. as a convenient starting point for the long period in which Rome was to be viewed as no ordinary city but as the eternal city. On that day the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of a new and Holy Empire. During the next 1000 years the Pope claimed a higher authority than that of all kings and princes of Christendom. From Rome he exercised power both temporal and spiritual. That period came to an end in 1870 when the Italian army entered Rome. The temporal power of the Pope was considerably reduced and is today confined to a few acres known as the Vatican City.

The fact that Rome was the eternal city for 1000 years is due in no small measure to the thoughts of one man — Augustine. When Rome fell to the Goths in 410 A.D. only a century after Constantine had elevated Christianity to be the state religion, many citizens of the old school blamed the decline of Roman power on the spread of the new faith.

Augustine, living in North Africa and the most influential Christian thinker of his day, set out to answer these charges. It resulted in a famous book, written and published in instalments over a period of 13 years. It became one of the great Christian classics and is known as The City of God. These circumstances of its appearance illustrate something mentioned in the last chapter. The doomed city may serve as the middle term between the wicked city and the eternal city. It was the experience of destruction on a grand scale which gave birth to the image of the eternal city. This book was destined to have wide influence on later thought in the West, both political and religious.

Augustine lived at one of the extremely critical periods in the history of the West. He saw the last days of Rome. And he himself was a product of the best which Roman culture had to offer. In some respects he was the last of the great Romans. Yet bleak as the future appeared to many of his fellows, he looked into it with great hope. That hope was expressed symbolically as the City of God — or the heavenly city. His simplest definition of it runs: "The heavenly city has truth for its King, love for its law and eternity for its measure".

To appreciate what Augustine was doing we must remember that he was living at a time when people of the ancient world thought in terms of the Civitas Romana — the Roman body-politic. That ‘city’, as it were, was for them the one and only possible society. To this end they had deified the emperor as its living incarnation. They had given a religious sanction to all its claims. As its framework was at that moment cracking into pieces, Augustine said in effect, "This is not the whole story! There is another and greater society — towards which the whole of creation is moving". He elaborated a gripping philosophy of human history which inspired new hope! He did this by drawing a sharp contrast between what he called the heavenly city (the city of God), and the earthly city (the terrestrial city).

The city of God was pervaded by relations of righteousness joining together all the righteous on earth, wherever they are, with God and his angels in heaven. This city was universal in extent, but it excluded the fallen angels and the unrighteous. This city was not visible to the naked eye. As he saw it, it did contain most church members but not all. The earthly city was also invisible to the naked eye. It contained the unrighteous — and that included some church members.

These two cities were chiefly characterized by two different kinds of love. In the earthly city was found love of self and contempt of God. Thus wherever people exert power for their own advantage, imperial, civic or economic power, we have the presence of the earthly city. In the heavenly city we have by contrast. the love of God and contempt of self. Wherever people are ready to sacrifice their own personal advantage in the interests of the common good (which is none other than for God himself) there we have the presence of the heavenly city.

It is a mistake to identify the earthly city with, say, the declining Roman Empire (or the civil state) and the heavenly city with the Church. Augustine specifically stated that "these two cities, based as they are on these two kinds of love, shall live side by side and even intermixed until the final separation shall take place at the end of time at the Last Judgement!"

This aspect of Augustine’s teaching is remarkably parallel to Jesus’ parable of the need to let the weeds grow up with the good grain until the harvest. However, Augustine’s teaching came to be misunderstood. As time went on the church did come to be equated with the City of God and all that was not in the church belonged to the terrestrial city. Later Christians looked expectantly to the ultimate dissolution of the earthly city, already symbolized in the historic fall of Ancient Rome. And they looked to the ultimate victory of the church as the one and only final society. This is how the new Christian Rome, arising out of the ashes of the old Rome, came to be seen as the manifestation of the eternal city.

Yet this was not all. What of those faithful who died before the consummation? The opening words of Augustine’s classic seemed to put it clearly:

That most glorious society and heavenly city of God’s faithful is partly to be found living a pilgrim life amidst the declining times of this wicked world. And it is partly to be found in that solid state of eternity — which the first part patiently awaits.

Thus Augustine divided the City of God into the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven.

In this way Augustine’s vision of hope for the city gave rise to that dualistic view of reality — which dominated the medieval mind and which has survived for some Christians right up to the present. In this view final human destiny was transferred from this world to ‘another world’. This world was to remain the doomed city and the only hope for mankind was to look for another non-physical world for the realisation of the eternal city.

Although this view of human destiny is less widely held today than formerly, its residue, where it is to be found, could well have disastrous consequences. This view is frequently found among fundamentalists of the ‘born again’ variety and among those who form the American Moral Majority. It leads them to say quite openly that they have no fear of a nuclear holocaust. If it comes, they have every confidence that they will be transported to the eternal city of God and only the wicked, who in their view includes all Communists, will be annihilated. Such people have little interest in the future of this planet for they, like the medievalists, have come to equate it with what must ultimately pass away. Thus should the decision to use nuclear warheads ever be in the hands of such people (and we are uncomfortably close to it in the American political scene) we would do well to tremble.

This dualistic view of reality has been rapidly declining in the last 1oo years and for very good reasons. Although Augustine can be indirectly blamed for it in part, it is a gross distortion of what he thought. Augustine was a very complex person. Besides the Christian commitment in his life there were two other great influences in his thought. First he was a Platonist in philosophy. Like Plato he believed the eternal realities were not physical things but ideas. The heavenly city and the earthly city were for him essentially ideas — powerful ideas, controlling ideals. That is why they could both be present at the same time in the everyday world.

Now along with Platonic philosophy there remained in Augustine a considerable deposit from his pre-Christian days when he was a Manichaeist. The religion of Manichaeism stretched right back to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroaster. These two influences, put very simplistically, are the ultimate source of the dualism we find in Augustine. Zoroaster taught that in human existence we are caught up in a cosmic war between the forces of God and the forces of evil. Translated into Augustinian and medieval terms that is the conflict between God and his angels on the one side and Satan with his fallen angels on the other. If people become dominated by Satan then they belong to the earthly city. If they respond in obedience to God, then they belong to the heavenly city.

The elements in Augustine’s vision of the eternal city which led to the dualistic world view of the Middle Ages owe much more to Platonism and Zoroastrianism than they do to the Biblical tradition. This was also, of course, an influence in Augustine. To this we now turn.

It is in the Bible that the term City of God first appears. Of course it appears as a term for Jerusalem, also known as the stronghold of Zion. The Psalmists celebrate the greatness of that city;

On the holy Mount stands the city founded by God 
the Lord loves the gates of Zion 
more than any other of the dwelling-places of Jacob. 
Glorious things are spoken of you 
O city of God.

It was largely because of all the holy associations which Jerusalem came to have for the Jew (from the time David captured that city about 5000 years ago), that the Israelite image of the city underwent a transformation. As was pointed out in Chapter 1, the earliest image of the city in the Bible is that of the wicked city. Those early traditions look at the city through the eyes of the nomad. But the city came to be accepted into Israelite tradition. The point was reached where they could speak of the city of Jerusalem in particular as the city of God, the holy dwelling-place of the most High.

Now it is true that Jerusalem is a very old city, perhaps 1000 years older than Rome, and it has remained in religious imagination a holy city — first for the Jew, then for the Christian, and finally for the Muslim also. But this does not mean that Jerusalem has by any means remained through history an impregnable fortress of peace and righteousness, impervious to the evil designs of men. In fact, Jerusalem has known destruction many times. It has been fought over by all the great Empires of the ancient world, by Muslim and Christian in the Crusades, by Muslim and Jew in this century.

Jerusalem can, no more than Rome, be identified in any final way with the eternal city. Both, in their respective ways, have been only signposts of a hope yet to be realised. And nowhere is this better expressed than in some words we find in the New Testament. They refer to Abraham. To appreciate them fully we must recall that the very earliest tradition about Abraham reflected the nomadic distrust of cities. It depicted Abraham turning his back on the ancient city or Ur and venturing out to a land as yet wholly unknown. In between that tradition and the New Testament reference lies the long history of how Abraham’s descendants dwelt in Israel, made Jerusalem their holy city, saw it destroyed and later returned to rebuild it. Once again it was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Some time after that, an unknown Christian wrote the book we call Hebrews. In recalling the ancient men of faith he singled out Abraham for special attention. He was a model of what it means to have faith for he obeyed when he was called. He went out "not knowing where he was to go". But "he looked for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God".

What is meant by that city? That city cannot be identified with Rome or with Jerusalem, or with Mecca, or with London, or with any city in God’s own country! But neither does it refer to some actual but unseen city in another world. That city exists only as a symbol of hope. The ‘eternal city’ is an image, a product of human hope and faith, created by the human imagination. We should not think any the less of it for that. The same applies to all the images we have been looking at.

How those images relate to reality depends upon us. The images of the wicked city and of the secular city refer more particularly to ways of seeing and understanding the present.

The doomed city and the eternal city refer more to how we see future possibilities. Each of these may possibly be realised. The image of the doomed city may well motivate us towards the eternal city — as it did for Abraham — as it did for Augustine. If we wish the eternal city to become the reality we must journey towards it in faith and hope. Even as we journey we can sense the reality of that city. The signs of its coming shine through from time to time, even with our experience of the secular global city. They are to be found wherever people act, not out of self—interest but out of concern for others — not just within their own family, not just within their own nation, but out of concern for all their fellow humans of whatever colour, class, creed or political persuasion. In the eternal city there are no such divisions.

Nationalism belongs to the earthly city. The eternal city knows no national boundaries. Let me take a simple example. If loyalty and concern for others can be fostered in our young people by the regular saluting of a flag (and about this I have real doubt), then it is not the national flag of New Zealand, but the United Nations flag to which we should be encouraging loyal devotion. The coming city of God is present in our cities only to the degree to which we citizens look beyond our own city limits, beyond our national limits, to the global city of mankind.

Some, of course, would like the eternal city to be much more substantial than an image, a symbol of what is yet to be realized. They would either like to be able to point to it in this world or else have it proved to them in Holy Writ that it already exists in another world. There are no such guarantees. The eternal city remains in the class of future possibilities. Whether we realise it or not it has become a matter of human responsibility. We humans tread a razor edge, between the doomed city and the eternal city. It can be seen only by faith. It can be reached only as we shoulder our human responsibilities and move steadily towards it in obedience and hope. We can visualize it with the eye of faith. We can sense its presence. But it remains intangible — a hope for the future.

It was this city of which Samuel Johnson wrote. He was not the Dr. Johnson of London fame, but an American of the same name from the last century (1800s). He was a man of quite radical theology for his day, a modest and deeply spiritual man but an active social reformer and vigorous anti-slavery protester. He was deeply learned in the religions of the East. He wrote a book on the oriental religions and how they too relate to the universal religion.

One should see all of that in his famous hymn:

City of God, how broad and far, 
Outspread thy walls sublime, 
The true thy chartered freemen are 
Of every age and clime. 
In vain the surge’s angry shock, 
In vain the drifting sands, 
Unharmed upon the eternal Rock, 
The eternal city stands.

With him and countless others who have joined the company of Abraham, we too are called to look ahead and move forward to the city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God. That is the city of which Augustine said, "It has truth for its King, love for its law and eternity for its measure".