Book 16 feels like work from a different world. Up until this book, Augustine has mostly felt like a well-educated local – smart, well-read, with a different perspective on the world, but speaking in a language and with cultural metaphors that I can understand. The first 9 chapters of this book, however, feel like the moment when the alien shows himself to be an alien, when the vernacular breaks down and nothing seems to be making sense anymore. All of a sudden, at least for me, Modernity feels like this huge gap that has come between myself and Augustine. The science has certainly changed from his day to ours, and perhaps his writing breaks down at a few points in a way that alienates this reader. In any case, we soldier on with hopes that we will reconnect.
Augustine starts the book with an allegorical reading of Noah’s family. Fine. I like looking at ways to see Christ in Noah’s lineage. Shem and Japheth are the Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. Ham is the line of the earthly city. And then the story of Babel. Fine, I guess. He is unconvincing at points with his allegorical reading of the tower and the confusion of language. He seems to suggest rethinking the historical reading of parts of the tower passage – inserting things into the Latin text, interpreting words from Latin into Hebrew, making what feel like convoluted arguments about the nature of God’s speech. This is a potential danger of allegorical readings, and we know that some of Augustine’s allegories led to wrong and even dangerous understandings of Scripture. For me, this is a caution to work to understand the historical reading of a text before or as I work toward the allegorical. We cannot divorce them, just like we cannot divorce the divine and human natures of the Incarnate Christ.
Ok. And then Augustine, for no reason that I find compelling, decides to start commenting on things that have very little relation to the Genesis narrative he is working from. He talks about monstrous races of humans (he seems to believe in a race of cyclopses and others) and about the possibility of the world being a sphere (he seems not to believe it, and more central to his point, he certainly doesn’t believe that there could be people living on the other side of the earth, whether the earth is spherical or flat). And here I lose him entirely. I do not understand why he even gets into the argument, and then there is a huge gap between what we now know to be true and what Augustine feels like he can argue. I understand that science has changed in the last 1600 years, but I don’t understand what purpose he has in talking about the science at this point in the narrative. Oh well.
I recognize, too, that Augustine was not writing to connect with me, 1600 years later. It strikes me that the fact that I am frustrated and alienated by this particular piece of this 22 book work testifies to Augustine’s relevance and accessibility to us today. It is much stranger that he is so readable and useful after so much time than that there are parts of The City of God which I find difficult.