Last year, to fill my commute, I listened to Calvin’s Institutes (well, heard may be a better description for much of it), as podcasted by Princeton Seminary’s Year With the Institutes project. This year, I’m listening to Augustine’s City of God.
The primary occasion for Augustine’s writing the book, was to defend Christianity against accusations that the then-recent Sack of Rome was a consequence of the slightly-less-recent Constantinian abandonment of the pantheon of Roman gods. Having listened to the first three books so far (of 22), I can report that Augustine does a bang-up job of running through the history of Bad Things happening in Rome, and repeatedly asking the question:
which of these disasters, suppose they happened now, would not be attributed to the Christian religion by those who thus thoughtlessly accuse us, and whom we are compelled to answer? And yet to their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of escaping lesser calamities of the same kind, and do not reflect that they who formerly worshipped them were not preserved from these serious disasters.
This Goose/Gander argument is all well and good, but what confuses me is why, even before Augustine so heavy-handedly nails this argument into the floor, he begins to undercut his own argument by grounding it in a peculiarity of The Sack:
All the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity—all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery—was the result of the custom of war. But what was novel, was that savage barbarians showed themselves in so gentle a guise, that the largest churches were chosen and set apart for the purpose of being filled with the people to whom quarter was given, and that in them none were slain, from them none forcibly dragged; that into them many were led by their relenting enemies to be set at liberty, and that from them none were led into slavery by merciless foes. Whoever does not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper, is blind; whoever sees this, and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it, is mad. Far be it from any prudent man to impute this clemency to the barbarians. Their fierce and bloody minds were awed, and bridled, and marvellously tempered by Him who so long before said by His prophet, “I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes; nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from them.”
So Christianity cannot be debited with evil, but it can be credited with good? If this argument is logically sound, then Christianity could be judged as false if it did not benefit the state of Rome. Or if some other invading state ever refrained from desecrating the temples of a victim state, then the religion of the victim state must be true. Following that logic, since the U.S. does not have a practice of destroying mosques in Iraq, then Islam must be true.