St. Augustine’s City of God is my white whale. I have tried and tried and tried to finish this book, which I love and which I happily declare a masterpiece. But. It’s. So. Long. Every few months to a year I pick it up again and have to go back to the beginning to get back into it because I completely forget where I have left off. I think I’ve read Book I maybe 12-15 times now. I’ve read a lot of books of not-inconsequential length before, but this one somehow just slays me every time.
One of my enduring delights about City of God–despite being trapped in it like Groundhog Day–is St. Augustine’s ambivalent approach to the Roman gods. It’s an ambivalence that I’ve shared for a long time, primarily thanks to reading a lot of fantasy literature as a kid. Reading classics and especially medieval stuff like Ariosto has strongly reinforced it. We may summarize the whole problem by taking a sharp left turn and considering a dinner-table conversation in my house.
“Dad,” sayeth the heir. “Are the Greek gods real?”
Respondit the father, “Uh….”
St. Augustine has two parallel takes on how the pagan gods work. The Romans shouldn’t rely on them because they are fallen angels that have only ever led them astray…and besides, they are probably not real anyway. Either way, it’s crazy to say that Rome fell because Romans stopped worshiping them. So my honest answer to Gregory’s question at the dinner table is, “I am not sure. I kind of hope so. It would be cool if they were.”
I’ve been fascinated by this problem for as long as I can remember. There is no theoretical obstacle to working up an Ariosto-style megaverse of gods who fit within a hierarchy of celestial beings waging war for the fate of humanity. It’s not like Constantine came up with the idea…it’s the communion of saints! If it has an exotic, alien pull on modern Americana, that’s just another sign that we are Presbyterian to the core.
It’s an interesting ecumenical question, too. Would fallen angels be an elegant solution to the proliferation of religions throughout our history? Sure. Could you get the same result with a combination of our natural impulse to beatitude and Original Sin? Sure, I think so. How would you decide which solution is right? Uhruhuh (that’s a shrug).
The parallelism is elegant because the two answers are not mutually exclusive. Some gods or religions can be one, some are the other. St. Augustine is staking out pretty safe ground here: he doesn’t have to take a restrictive position on the reality of miracles in other religions, on their relative merits or truthfulness, or their relation to Christianity.
For St. Augustine’s immediate point in the book, the only thing that matters is that they are not going to help Rome–only being true to the true God will. It’s got a Chesterton Flair to it, an embrace of the supernatural that doesn’t worry about sorting fairy tale from fact. But like everything else in St. Augustine, it fits in beautifully with his entire Catholic-Platonic world. Because in the context of living and dying and getting to heaven, it doesn’t much matter how the other religions came into being either. All that matters is their elements of truth point to the true faith of the Incarnation, apart from Whose name there is none saved.