Thursday, March 08, 2007

Schall on the two cities

Over at Ignatius Insight Fr. James Schall, S.J. has a very interesting post on his reading of the concept of the "two cities" as most famously written about by St. Augustine in his City of God. The post takes several turns and touches on several different topics, but if you have read Schall before that's neither surprising nor a derogatory statement. Two parts in particular jumped up and grabbed me. First, he does a nice job dealing with the question of how voluntary our salvation is. I'm not arguing for or against it, but bringing it up as a well-handled short reflection on the issue.

That there be these "two cities" was, however, part of the original consequences of the basic terms of a creation. Within creation was to be found a free creature endowed with reason but one who was finite, who is not God. Indeed, since these rational beings called men are not gods, there were evidently to be, down the ages, billions of them. Their "collective" meaning in history became itself a problem, especially if the collective meaning is seen as opposed to the divine purpose. At all times in history, no doubt, some thinkers maintain that, in fact, at the end of time, only a "city of God" will exist. No "city of man" will remain. In this optimistic view--if it is indeed optimistic--everyone will somehow be saved or redeemed by God's power or mercy no matter what they do or hold.

Such an apparently consoling view, when spelled out, implies a rather uninteresting and un-dramatic world in which little seems to be at stake. Nothing can be lost, so why worry? We will eventually be "saved" no matter what we do or think. We are not really very important. God knew all along that He would save us. We were given empty threats. Our worldly existence is a kind of game. If we lived in a world in which, to cite Tolkien's dictum, absolutely all of our deeds were "in vain" (a notion already found in Aristotle), little sense remains in existing at all. If, on the other hand, it is our deeds that exclusively, by our own powers, save us, then we are already gods. In this latter case, we must be content exclusively with what we can give ourselves. Not a few would call this latter condition "hell" itself.
So what he is saying, in short, is that the concept of an "empty Hell" which some theologians have speculated on holds no great promise to him. Indeed, if your only eschatological choices are between a heaven desired from early in life and the same heaven chosen for you at or after the end of your life, where does that put the very revered concept of free will which is at or near the core of our understanding of our being made in the image and likeness of God? He then continues:
More than one writer has noted that, in recent centuries, men have assimilated to themselves attributes that formerly were considered to be exclusively of the "city of God." In this world, we not only have a "right" to pursue "happiness," however defined, usually by us, but, more astonishingly, a right actually to be happy, as if it is something we can give ourselves.

Whole classes of people no longer appear on our streets because they have been selectively aborted. They are often eliminated on the grounds that they could not be "happy" either with their actual parents or with their less than perfect physical corpus. They do not make this decision to not exist for themselves. We make it for them.

We hear discussions of the "right" to a "perfect child," because otherwise we would unjustly bring into the world a less than perfect child who might look like our uncle or grandmother. We are working to sue those, even our parents, who let us be born deformed. Perfection has become the enemy of the normal. The normal no longer have control of the definition of who and what they are.
First, as an aside, I must make a statement of marvel at his ability to transparently move from the topic of eschatology to abortion - that, to me, is quite impressive. But even at that I think the last sentence quoted has more depth than allowed here. "The normal no longer have control of the definition of who and what they are" can mean more than just those who could lead normal even if in some way hampered lives and extends to our ability to define anything as either "normal" or "acceptable". When everything is "acceptable" the word and its counterpart lose their power. What a very dangerous world we live in when we forget to seek the City of God.

Do read the rest of the post - there is much there that I haven't touched on here. You're shocked I said that, aren't you?