Book XXI of the City of God is about Hell, and as a result isn’t very interesting. Now, you might reply that Dante certainly made Hell interesting — but, see, Dante didn’t write a poem about Hell. The Divine Comedy is an allegory, and the subjects of the three canticles are sin (Inferno), sanctification (Purgatorio), and blessedness (Paradiso). In the Inferno Dante isn’t trying to tell us what he thinks Hell is actually like, he’s trying to tell us what he thinks sin is actually like, how it works, its weird twisted logic. Hell itself isn’t interesting, for reasons noted by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

You will remember that in the parable, the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all [Matthew 25:34–41]. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.… We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity, and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is the “the darkness outside,” the outer rim, where being fades away into nonentity.

So, enough about Hell.

Now, the condition of the blessed is infinitely more interesting, but perhaps not totally relevant to the inquiry I have been pursuing. My self-appointed task has been to try to understand the relationship between the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, as it obtains here and now, as they are mixed together, like Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As I noted in the first post of this series, Augustine says at the outset of his great work,

I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.

In his final book, Augustine tries to describe the condition of the blessed, and his thoughts there are, or ought to be, fascinating for all Christians. Central to his concluding reflections is his claim that the blessed in heaven will possess true freedom, not because they can do anything they want, but because they cannot sin. They are free because they have been delivered from bondage to sin; their wills fully assent to the will of God; they are no longer divided selves. Dante expresses this very point at the end of Purgatorio XXVII, when Virgil, having guided Dante-the-pilgrim through his sanctification and deposited him back in the Garden of Eden (which stands at the top of the Mount of Purgatory), utters his final words:

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

That is: “Your will now is free, upright, and sound, and not to heed it would be wrong: Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you.” Dante-the-pilgrim is his own king, his own bishop; purged of sin, he is able to follow his own inclinations because those inclinations are perfectly sound. So Dante-the-poet here, and Augustine in Book XXII of the City of God, both depict the citizens of the City of God as they “stand in the security of [their City’s] everlasting seat.” Their wayfaring is over; they’re home to stay.

But that’s not where we are. We’re in the midst of our pilgrimage, living among — and often being friends with, often loving — neighbors whose citizenship is elsewhere and whose great city (figured in Scripture as Babylon) will, we believe, someday fall. They of course think that our City is imaginary, an illusion that will eventually dissipate. But in the meantime, here we are, all mixed up together, working in the same businesses, attending the same sporting events, voting in the same elections — for all the world looking like we’re citizens of a single city, which we are not.

In China Miéville’s fictional world, the citizens of Besźel and Ul Soma alike deal with the mysterious Cleavage in the same way: by ignoring one another, and when ignoring is impossible, unseeing. By and large, we in our world do not; instead, we practice a series of variable and ad hoc negotiations, often speaking of one another in ways that contradict our actions, often worrying — all of us — about the problem of divided loyalties. A hundred years ago many Americans found it axiomatic that a Roman Catholic could not be a true American because he owed loyalty to the Pope; today many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals declare that America is a Christian Nation down to its bones — thereby declaring the Cleavage null and void, and perceiving non-Christians as, in effect, stateless vagrants. It’s a mess.

I began this series with a suspicion: that what many Christian thinkers call the “theology of culture” is misnamed and therefore misconceived, and that we need instead a theology of the Two Cities. I now feel more strongly even than I did then that “What is the proper relationship between Christ and culture?” is a fruitless question, one doomed to lead nowhere (not least because, as I have noted, I can’t figure out what theologians mean when they talk about “culture”).  I am convinced that the much more fruitful questions, and ones more grounded in the biblical story and the Christian account of the world, are: How do we live charitably and justly with our neighbors whose citizenship is other than ours? What is the common good that we share with them? What are the instruments — the tactics, the tools, the arts, the practices, the dispositions — by which we might pursue that common good? And, finally, when and how must we make it clear that, while we are all neighbors and owe one another love, we do not belong to the same city?

As I’m continuing to think about these matters, I will certainly draw on Augustine, but I will also — no surprise here for those who know my work — draw on the poetry of W. H. Auden. Perhaps it is no accident that I am reflecting on these themes just as I am concluding my work on a critical edition of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, which contains his poetic sequence “Horae Canonicae” — one of the most profound exercises in political theology I know. So I will draw this series to a close for now, but continue to meditate on these matters, and when The Shield of Achilles comes out — sometime next year — that might be a very good opportunity to revisit these themes.

It’s possible, of course, that I will issue occasional interim reports; but for the time being, this is a wrap. Ciao!