I have been reading the works of Augustine lately, and when I was reading a passage in his Confessions a couple of months ago where he is going off about the origin of time, I couldn't help but think of that line in The Princess Bride where Wesley, disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts, tells Vizzini "You truly have a dizzying intellect."
So, why is an atheist reading Augustine? Well, part of it is just to read the case put forth for Christianity by an intelligent and well educated man who lived during the period when paganism was being eclipsed by the Christian faith in the late fourth to early fifth centuries in the Western half of the Roman Empire. But on another level, reading his works, particularly his City of God, which I am in the middle of right now, allows the reader to immerse oneself in the mental universe of an intellectual who lived some 1,600 years ago. To read him is to know what he knew about the world he lived in and how he interpreted and explained it, while knowing the future that he did not.
Augustine wrote City of God as a response to pagans who alleged that the sack of Rome by the Goths in the year 410 was a consequence of the Christianization of the empire and the abandonment of the pagan gods. While I agree with Augustine that Christianity was not to blame for the decline and fall of the empire in the West (after all, why did the Christian Empire in the East continue to endure for centuries longer?), could Augustine have anticipated that his dying days would witness barbarian tribes laying siege to his home city of Hippo in North Africa? Even more, while confidently asserting the inevitable spread and triumph of Christianity, I doubt Augustine could ever have imagined that little more than two centuries after his death, a new religion would burst forth from the deserts of Arabia to spread to his homeland, where it retains its grip to this very day.
I hope to write some more posts in the coming days on City of God as I continue to read it (and assuming I can get another extension from my local library!) as Augustine covers a range of topics and even addresses a lot of questions I have had about Biblical interpretation. I am about halfway through the 550 page paperback copy I have on loan from the library. And to think that at 550 pages, this is just an abridged version! While Augustine is an accessible and readable writer, he is not the sort whose works one can just breeze through. I often find myself reading about 5 or 10 pages at a time, usually while on the train ride to and from work, before I pause to contemplate and digest what I have read. Knowing me, I will probably just end up buying my own copy from the book store to add to my personal library.