Here’s the hypothesis I’m working with now: The problem with every theology of culture is that “culture” isn’t a biblical concept — isn’t clearly rooted in salvation history. And that is why I’m turning to Augustine. The idea of the two cities is deeply rooted in the biblical story and may be generative of certain important ideas that we can’t get through the use of a term like “culture.”
I think this is especially true because, as David Knowles points out, Augustine really isn’t interested in political theology, or for that matter in ecclesiology. In Book XV he says, “I classify the human race into two branches [generis]: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to God’s will. I also call these two classes the two cities, speaking allegorically [mystice]. By two cities I mean two societies of human beings [duas societates hominum].” Two societies — this is what we might call a sociological or an ethnographic inquiry, and that’s much of what we’re after, or anyway I’m after, in a theology of culture. But, as James Davison Hunter says, with an emphasis on the symbols by which a given society is constituted and sustained. This is also where — see my previous post — Augustine’s application of rhetorical strategies to salvation history is especially imaginative and potent. I find remarkable and stimulating the idea that God’s providential shaping of history is a rhetorical act. For one thing, it implies that cities are in a sense rhetorical acts, saturated with symbolic and even archetypal meaning.
Also: it’s somehow typical of Augustine that when he’s trying to think sociologically he looks first at the city that Cain founded and then at the City of God in Revelation 21, and hangs his whole inquiry on a line suspended between the two. What a peculiar and fascinating mind, and that’s why, I suppose, we keep returning to him.
P.S. I wrote a bit about why I’m pursuing this project here over at my Buy Me a Coffee page.