Insights from Augustine’s The City of God for polarized, unstable times

Written by Daniel Dorman

As a Canadian with a young family attempting to put down roots in southern Ontario, I am a part of the demographic that will find it difficult or even impossible to buy a home. In the region I grew up in, the average home is more than ten times the average annual household income. Combining that with the recent string of interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada to rein in inflation means payments on even a starter home are out of reach.

I’ll probably need more for a down payment than my parents paid for the entirety of their first home a few decades ago. Even accounting for inflation, that’s pretty shocking.

Like most of my peers, I’m paying an untenable percentage of my total income to rent a space that is quickly becoming too small for my family. My kids probably won’t grow up with a backyard to play in. It’s easy to be bitter.

On top of the housing crisis, Canada’s standard of living is falling in real terms and relative to other nations which we used to match or even surpass. According to a prediction by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada’s growth of real GDP per capita will rank last of any developed nation for the next four decades (we’re nearly 40 per cent behind the United States average GDP per capita). We might be feeling just the tip of the iceberg in a cost-of-living crisis.

And this isn’t the only major problem Canada faces. Violent crime is increasing in much of the country after two decades of lower levels.  Socially, we’re fraying at the edges under the weight of identity-politics. Politically, we seem more polarized and less able to communicate than ever before. Credible reports of foreign interference undermining our democratic institutions seem to have barely raised eyebrows—perhaps we’re too pessimistic to think too long about such difficult things.

It’s easy to exist in a cycle of apathy and anger, defeatism, and bitterness.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes us as “growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.” That feels pretty accurate. In his book The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, Douthat defines decadence as “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”

Canada is an increasingly decadent society, but we’re not the first. The paradigmatic decadent society was ancient Rome. Their empire became increasingly decadent over 400 years until it finally collapsed internally, leaving it open to outside invasion.

One of the greatest works of public theology ever penned, Augustine’s The City of God, was addressed to a group of Christians struggling in the aftermath of Rome’s collapse.

Despite the increasing decadence, Christianity had become the empire’s official religion in AD 390. Many wondered aloud—If God is real, why would He have let a Christian empire fall? That fall included many Christians experiencing the horrors of war. Many were abused by the invading armies as Rome fell.

In his book, Augustine takes care to address and encourage women who had been raped during the invasion. Yet, even in addressing individuals who had faced such atrocities, he challenges the assumptions of those who believed they lost all they had.

“They lost all they had. Their faith? Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart, which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose these? For these are the wealth of Christians, to whom the wealthy apostle said, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’”

If Augustine could call the Roman Christians, crushed by invasion and now living under violent oppression, to think of their wealth in Christ and not their material losses or hardships, I should probably be able to let go of my frustration about the inflated price of butter and vegetables. Sarcastic as that sounds, it is easier said than done.

Elsewhere, Augustine says simply this:

“The whole family of God, most high and most true, has … a consolation of its own—a consolation which cannot deceive, and which has in it a surer hope than the tottering and falling affairs of the world can afford. [The family of God] will not refuse the discipline of this temporal life, in which they are schooled for the life eternal; nor will they lament the experience of it, for the good things of the earth they use as pilgrims who are not detained by them, and its ills either prove or improve them.”

In essence, Augustine rebukes those who put too much stock in the “earthly city,” too much weight in the fleeting things of the world. “Tottering and falling affairs of the world” seems an apt and evergreen description—surely a hope resting in any way on the results of the next election is a fickle hope, destined to birth bitterness.

Even more biting is Augustine’s indictment of motivations. He addresses the Romans: “Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury.” Those words stick with me as a lump in my throat and a weight on my chest.

Augustine claimed the Romans’ desire for a return to peace and prosperity wasn’t from any right desire to use “these blessings honestly” but to pervert wealth into an excuse to pursue selfish pleasure.

Maybe Augustine would say the same to me. Am I bitter at the state of the Canadian housing market because I desire to “use the blessings of a home honestly?” If I had more would I simply become complicit in an all-too-Canadian lifestyle of self-reliance and excess, of decadence? Am I already complicit?

Am I troubled by the loss of freedoms in Canada because I’m seeking a false liberty, the licence to live out some self-centered vision of the good life in air-conditioned, flat-screen-TV-filled suburbia?

These questions might sound trite or preachy, but I’m trying to ask them sincerely.

And where to now? Does allowing Augustine’s rebuke to reset my values away from “the earthly city” discredit my concern for the direction of Canada? I don’t think so, but it shifts my attitude towards engaging. I find Martin Luther’s On Secular Authority helpful here. Like Augustine, Luther minces no words in his instruction:

“For all life that is lived and sought after for one’s own benefit is cursed and damned: damned are all the works that do not come from love. And the works that spring from love are those that are not done for one’s own pleasure, benefit, honour, comfort and well-being, but rather those which are wholly aimed at the benefit, honour and well-being of others.”

If I’m honest, when I think of Canada’s housing crisis, I think of frustrated hours I’ve spent dwelling on the absurd prices on Zillow (a popular real-estate app). I think of a lifestyle I feel entitled too and I get angry thinking about shortsighted political leaders who have precipitated this crisis. I get bitter because it feels like something was stolen from me.

Yet I know of a young family trying to make their way in North York (just north of Toronto). They recently immigrated as refugees from a conflict- and poverty-afflicted part of the Middle East. The mom just gave birth to their second child and the dad is working two full-time jobs, day and night, so they can scrape together rent for a small apartment and have something left over for diapers.

Maybe one road out of self-absorbed bitterness is to remember my friends in North York and to engage on their behalf. It’s hard to be trapped in a victim mindset if our hearts are turned to someone else’s benefit. Engaging politically for the sake of our neighbours’ well-being sounds like a familiar truth worth pursuing and like the much-needed antidote to our decadence.

Daniel Dorman is the director of communications at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank. He holds a BA in biblical studies and theology from Tyndale University and a MA in English from the University of Ottawa.