St. Augustine's Playful Moments
by Bill Noggle ©1994
In gathering material for my paper (King James goes to the Theater), I had numerous opportunities and temptations to digress into byways related to my subject but not materially germane. The most rewarding of these digressions was St. Augustine's, "City of God".
Heretofore, my exposure to Augustine had been largely through references to theological terms such as sin, election, grace, faith, etc. I was not unaware that he was the major voice in the church contending with heresy as well as defending Christianity against Pagan attacks. With this in mind, I was hopeful that Augustine had something to say relevant to my topic. In short order, book VI of his "City of God" came to the fore. The title, "Eternal Life and the Inadequacy of Polytheism", did not sound promising, but as I had hoped, the good saint managed to connect immortality and the theater with his usual clarity and eloquence.
He begins with the observation that neither of the five books were sufficient to overcome the obstinacy and folly of some men's vainglorious adherence to untruth. It is a disease that doctors cannot cure, not for lack of skill, but because the patient is incurable. Christians were being blamed for the collapse of civilization, not by reason and right thinking, but by reckless and malicious animosity, yielding to irrational hate, and deliberately encouraging bigotry. Today's social climate is not all that much different.
The Pagan gods were quickly dealt with. They were dismissed with the observation that each god was the dispenser of some earthly gift: Bacchus was the giver of wine, Ceres gave bread, etc. No god claimed to give eternal life. This was just a prelude to an assault on the Roman historian and culture guru, Marcus Varro.
Augustine notes that Varro's Antiquities, consisting of forty-one books on matters divine and human, contained no reference to eternal life. The assumption was that religion was a creation of man. Varro wrote factually of the history of man matters, but in those divine, he resorted to feelings and fancies. His three divisions of theology gave Augustine the opportunity to attack the theater. I welcomed the support from so august an authority.
Varro's three theological divisions are: the mythical of the poets suitable to the theater, the physical of the philosophers for the world, and the political of common people for the city. He favors philosophy with its controversies, but restricts it to the academy, away from ordinary people. Poets indulge in fictions unworthy of immortal gods. In the political theology it is for the priests to instruct the public in the proper ways of worship and acceptable rites and sacrifices. Augustine then links the poetic of interaction, the theater.
The city and the theater go together; the theater cannot exist apart from the city. It was the city that started the theater, the only purpose of which was the representation of plays on the stage. In these plays, gods were portrayed as ordinary men with all their faults. As Augustine put it, "they were not merely men but cads". The poets and players believed that these offerings would placate the gods. Varro is taken to task in his confusion of the gods of man's creation: theaters and cities, and the natural gods of the world. The gods adored in the temple are derided on the stage. How, Augustine asks, can one hope for eternal life from the mythical gods on the stage? Here it should be noted that the drama originated in religious celebrations.
The moral underpinning of the classic Greek tragedies had degraded hand in hand with the Pagan civilization as the gods were brought down from heaven and displayed upon the stage for men's amusement. Augustine's terse comment on this state of affairs was that the theatrical theology taught turpitude to the public, and the popular theology wore it like a crown. Contrary to Edward Gibbon, Rome was disintegrating, not because of the Christians or the barbarian invasions, but from centuries of increasing attention to the superstitious worship of immoral gods and the diminished pursuit of truth and scientific inquiry.
Today's society is not unlike that of Augustine's time. It is decadent, as evidenced by the entertainment media mocking God's church, and by her people in catering to the "Me Generation". Varro's theology of the philosophic or nature is now ascendant. The arts and the media vie with the social sciences as culture gurus. The church is under increasing censure from a hostile world and from self centered theologies within. In the fifth century, the Barbarians were engulfing the Roman world, and today the third world and the Orient are ominous threats to our Western civilization. The battle is on, and milk-fed Christians march against Ai.
So the Roman empire fell. The City of God, though a monumental work with no human equal, was not able to stay the fall. This work is of value today. It is useful along with the many modern books critical of our society and culture, and it is not certain these current works will have success against today's Paganism. Perhaps we should, as did Augustine, attend first to the struggle within the church.
As is generally acknowledged, Augustine set the course of the Western church in his works, prominent of which are those contending with Gnostic heretics. He fought the heavy-weight "isms": Arianism, Donatism, Manichaeism, Pelagianism. Doctrine came first and society second. The soundness of this strategy was borne out in the succeeding centuries. The Eastern church with its softer theology fell under the sway of secular rulers. The Western church, after the fall of Rome, turned to conversion of the Heathen tribes of northern and western Europe and towards maintaining an independent papacy. The test came centuries after Augustine. The Islam ascendancy first compromised, and then occupied the Eastern Empire. Rome, though under severe military pressure, withstood the Muslim hordes. The Western church with all its faults, did foster a stronger polity, and the doctrine taught and aspired to was the stiffened spine upon which Western civilization was built.
Augustine defined orthodoxy; the church nurtured it with its doctrine. It has been the church that has carried this doctrine from the beginning. If the church falters in this duty, all other endeavors will necessarily fail. It is the church: not the educators, not the social engineers, not the politicians, not the professions, not the merchants, not the artists, that were the lone vessels carrying true doctrine on to our posterity. It will be our mark of success when our children say to their children as Hilkiah said to Shaphan, "I have found the book of the law of the Lord...in the house of the Lord" (II Chronicles 34:14-15).