How to be worldly…
“God is not only interested in saving souls from the [earthly] city but desires to see the flourishing of the city.” As Christians, we are citizens of the earthly city and at the same time citizens of the heavenly city. And we have obligations to both.
An early Christian who wrestled with how the Church should live faithfully in these two realms was Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Although he wrote The City of God some 1600 years ago, it provides wisdom and valuable theological insights that can help with the challenges we face in today’s uncertain times.
Unfortunately, many of us are unfamiliar with Augustine. In this respect, James K. A. Smith has done us a favor by providing an excellent, short summary of Augustine’s theology in “How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the ‘Earthly City’.”
The invocation and affirmation of “the earthly city” is meant to reflect Scripture’s robust theology of creation and affirm our embodied, material, social, and cultural life. This is sound, biblical theology—and a much needed corrective to our otherworldly ways. However, because the history of the term means something different, talking about “the earthly city” in this way can be confusing.
The phrase “earthly city” is an ancient one, but you won’t find it in Scripture. (That’s not a problem in itself; the word Trinity isn’t in Scripture either.) The phrase comes down to us from Augustine’s magisterial work of cultural criticism, The City of God (civitas Dei, completed around 427 A.D.). In this work, Augustine distinguishes the “City of God” from what he variously describes as “the city of this world,” the “earthly city,” and the City of Man. These two cities or societies or “peoples” are marked by the standards by which they live: the earthly city lives by the standard of the flesh, whereas the City of God lives by the Spirit (14.1-4). What ultimately distinguishes the two are their loves: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.” (14.28).
For Augustine, then, the earthly city begins with the Fall, not with creation. The earthly city is not coincident with creation; it originates with sin. This is why Augustine sets the City of God in opposition to the earthly city: they are defined and animated by fundamentally different loves. So the earthly city should not be confused with the merely “temporal” city or the material world. It is not identical to the territory of creation; rather, for Augustine, the earthly city is a systemic—and disordered—configuration of creaturely life. However, this does not mean that Augustine cedes material, cultural, creaturely life entirely to the evil one. The City of God is not just otherworldly: the City of God is that “society” of people—that civitas—who are called to embody a foretaste of the social and cultural life that God desires for this world.
Augustine doesn’t invoke the earthly city in order to motivate Christians to care about this-worldly cultural life. His theology of creation already does that. The analysis of the earthly city is instead cautionary, pressing Christians to recognize that cultural systems are often fundamentally dis-ordered, in need of both resistance and reordering by Christian labor in all streams of culture. And as we can see from his letters, Augustine involved himself in such work. There you’ll find the bishop invested in the concrete realities of politics and civic life.
Augustine doesn’t use the term “earthly city” to carve up reality into a “heavenly” second story and an “earthly” first floor. No, both the earthly city and the City of God are rival visions of heaven and earth. So the “earthly city” is more like Babylon than the Garden. But even this fundamental antithesis doesn’t give us permission to retreat into holy huddles or simply castigate the earthly city.
No, as Jeremiah counsels, citizens of the City of God who find ourselves exiled in the earthly city (in Augustine’s technical sense) are called to “seek the welfare of the city” precisely because we are called to cultivate creation. We will seek the welfare of the earthly city by seeking to annex it to the City of God, thereby reordering creaturely life to shalom.
“How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the ‘Earthly City’” is available here.
James K. A. Smith is a cultural critic and a professor of philosophy who teaches at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of several books, including Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (2013).