The twists and turns of life are often amusing. One such twist proceeds as follows: I recall sitting in the first of many undergraduate philosophy courses. It was during this particular course that I was first exposed in any substantial way to Plato’s Cave, and later to St. Aquinas’ Five Proofs of God, both of which have become cornerstones of my professional and spiritual development, respectively. Equally vivid was the survey of St. Augustine’s work, City of God. I cannot remember the specific book we studied, most likely Book 19, but what I do remember is the remark my professor made in response to a less philosophically enthusiastic student who was compelled by some unseen force to make known how laborious were the readings, to which my professor responded, “Count your blessings. In graduate school, they make you read all 1,100 pages of this thing.”
Former professor mine, it would appear that the joke is on you.
Like so many others, I participated in the “#CivDei” course (short for De ciuitate Dei, which is itself short for De ciuitate Dei contra paganos) offered on Twitter by Catholic University of America professor Chad Pecknold. Perhaps you have read about it in one of the many outlets that have featured stories on this event, or perhaps you participated in it yourself. Regardless, #CivDei, the hashtag used to participate in the wider conversation that went on to become something of a communal source of pride and solidarity, was something truly unique. In a time when our modern culture’s myriad dysfunctions are displayed in their perfect form on social media, #CivDei was something that worked.
For two hours every Thursday night countless men and women from countless locations logged on faithfully to participate in what Pecknold described as a high level book club. One thing became very quickly evident even to the casual observer; something very strange and unique was happening. In discussing both with Professor Pecknold, as well as fellow citizens, the details of this dusty 1,100 page work, it was plain to see that everyone was truly immersed in the often times prohibitively dense material. Yet, this was not surface level engagement. It was university-level studiousness. We not only discussed what the professor told us, but we picked it apart amongst ourselves, because we actually did the readings – a rarity among all but the most dedicated student in traditional academic settings. What inspired such a faithful and determined following?
The People Have Spoken
In speaking with fellow citizens, patterns began to emerge demonstrating the value, no, more than that – the providential spectacle, and the pleasure of the #CivDei experience. One aspect that stands out involved the sense of community among participants fostered by the course. Amy Thompson, participating from Aiken, South Carolina, told me, “During the course of a Thursday evening, book discussion was the main, but side conversations prompted by the content of the evening fostered development of relationships. This has resulted in a sense of connection throughout the week with my fellow course-mates.” James from Atlanta wrote to me saying, “It [any given class] was jovial, everyone was polite and kind (even during some hot-button Christian theology disagreement areas). I might have been able to get through the book on my own, but having the community there was a huge motivation. People would bring in other related bible verses, references from history, art and music that related, and all kinds of other reading references.” One more, from Lee of Birmingham, Alabama, who writes, “When I felt too tired to read and sometimes too tired or ill to attend the live sessions, I couldn’t pass up the interaction with the other participants. Didn’t take long for the whole group to begin to feel like family to me and I didn’t want to miss anything that anyone said.” How many of us skipped a class in undergrad because we slightly overslept?
This was not the sense of community one feels when sharing carefully curated pictures on other forms of social media; #CivDei aimed to go deep, and all participating citizens happily obliged. James cited St. Augustine’s argumentation as a particularly interesting aspect. Said James, “He [St. Augustine] is fair to his opponents, but unyielding and meticulous in his critique. He makes some things seem so plain that you wonder how you never thought of it.” Amy echoed a similar appreciation, which I will quote in full:
“Augustine did not just write a book to bemoan the downfall of man and culture, but rather to identify the problems and to offer the solution; he didn’t pull any punches about false beliefs, but clearly loved the people who were enslaved by them. Again, the application to present-day engagement of the culture is clear: We are not meant to compromise our belief in Truth, and yet we are meant to love those with whom we share this world. The fact that he does this in such a rational, cogent, unassailable way provides us as modern readers material to approach the broken culture in which we live with a reasoned defense of our faith.”
And yet, the value for the participants goes deeper still. Ellen from Ohio said that after reading and participating in #CivDei, her ideal Catholic lifetime reading plan is: “Bible, Catechism, City of God…You could throw out half the manuals and courses and just tell everyone to read City of God. It is all there: Biblical exegesis, theology, doctrine, apologetics, history.” That is high praise, indeed. James contributes to this sentiment: “I’m more familiar with Aquinas-style arguments, but Augustine brought in history, scripture, and other forms of evidence for his points which gave a wonderful breadth to the work. I know I gained a lot just from his exegesis.”
Perhaps the most interesting pattern to evolve is, for lack of a better phrase, the most anti-modern of the lot. What I mean to say is that those I spoke to often cited the value that comes of reading such an old volume. Says Amy, “I think it is encouraging to read about the faith of those who have gone before us, and to realize that we stand (or ought to) on the shoulders of giants who enable us to study what they have written and carry it forward into our lives.” James appreciated the deep dive into beauty offered by Augustine. To wit, “I found myself sometimes liking the art and prose more than the purely rational. That’s not usually how I am, but City of God throws everything at you. It helped me see the value in those other areas and how they elevate beyond just a purely rational take.”
One final take from a fellow student that I enjoyed too much to neglect or edit in any way. This, from Lee:
“Augustine identified the will to power, more specifically, the will to dominate, as the libido dominandi: the lust to dominate which becomes the lust that dominates; the will to enslave others which, ultimately, enslaves the enslaver. The first thing I thought of when I read this was Tolkien’s Ring of Power. No one can use the Ring without in turn being used by it. I also heard echoes of Romans wherein Paul talks about how rebellious men knew God, yet “they did not honor him as God…but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened…” This was brought up in the very first session and it stuck with me all the way through the course. The people I hear screaming the loudest these days about freedom (and, often, their freedom from religion, from truth and reality) are the very ones who seem most enslaved by their overpowering lust to intimidate, dominate, and even eliminate everyone and everything around them. May their hearts turn toward the Lord that they may have life and that abundantly. Blessed Mother, pray for us. Saint Augustine, pray for us. Amen.”
I share the sentiments expressed above fully. Everything said above is absolutely accurate and true. I would, however, be remiss if I did not express my personal observations as a compliment to those expressed by my fellow citizens. For the sake of brevity I will only write to one, namely the sense of not just community, but faithful Christian unity that #CivDei inspired among we who participated.
Reading the responses above shines a light on the unity of thought and appreciation toward the faith and thought of this great Father and Doctor of the Catholic Church, this most highly revered of saints; yet half of the students I spoke to are not Catholic, but in fact are Protestant. One might not expect such rich and enthusiastic study of so thoroughly Catholic a figure by citizens of Wittenberg and Geneva. There are even those of a more fundamental bent of Evangelicalism who would suggest that such shameful intermingling with citizens of Rome should be repented of, for how could anything good come from Rome? This Dark Age thinking was thoroughly discredited by #CivDei. There were times when discussion might get distracted by a certain point of theological understanding, but any hint of contention was quite clearly of a purely academic nature.
#CivDei showed that men and women of God, in spite of doctrinal differences, can find common ground on which to stand, and from that ground may begin to work towards a common and edifying good. #CivDei highlighted what I have long suggested to my fundamentalist friends – that the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism need not be so great as to prohibit our celebrating and building upon what we have in common, which is our belief in the infallible omnipotence of the Father, the redemptive mission of the Son, and the instructive power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and the sharing of all among all within the Triune God. It is easy to focus on division. It provides a sinful sense of spiritual superiority – thank you, God, that I am not like them – but to what end?
If the Godhead is Triune, if He is three-in-one (John 10.30, 14.16-17); and if Christ prays for our unity (John 17.23); and if the Church is one body with many members (1 Cor. 12.12-14); and if the body is wounded by the loss of even a single member (1 Cor. 12.15-27); and if there are to be no divisions amongst us (1 Cor. 1.10); and all of this in order to attain the whole measure of fullness in Christ (Eph. 4.11-13); then is it not the Christian imperative to seek what unity we may, rather that perpetuating division? Raymond, a PC (USA) ordained minister of word and sacrament in Philadelphia, put it this way:
“I delighted how there were professors, priests, nuns, catholic laity, Lutheran / Reformed (and Presbyterian) clergy and laity, and non-denominational protestant participants. All traditions rightly claim Augustine, and it was a delight to discuss him ecumenically.”
Quite so, and in this 500th year of the Reformation, that is something to consider deeply.
#CivDei worked. It used an otherwise contentious medium to bring peace and wisdom to a sizable sample of Christendom. It brought St. Augustine to many who claimed that were it not for the course, they would not have read City of God at all. It demonstrated that Christianity is at its best when it works together.