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When Augustine of Hippo, the venerable philosopher and bishop, first used religio Christiana in his legendary opus The City of God, he was unhappy with the phrase. It didn’t quite seem to fit. He was made uneasy by its ambiguity, the fact that it might refer both to the worship of God and to “human relationships, affinities and friendships of every kind”—that is, to the kinds of social pieties that structured Roman life. He was right to sense a tension between those relational obligations and the ethical demands of Christianity.

The dawn of the fourth century had just broken over the twilight of the Roman Empire. Augustine, a well-educated rhetorician born in Roman Africa, found himself burdened with the task of comprehending the fall of Rome—for the sake of his Christian flock, and all of posterity. His response to this challenge was decisive in allowing the Roman imagination to recede and a Christian one to arise in its place. Ancient modes of thinking about society and family, temporality and eternity, and justice and wealth were rapidly being overturned by emergent Christian alternatives.

Augustine’s role in this process was something he would pay for dearly in the assessments of modern critics. Since roughly the Enlightenment, the Rome of our fantasies—white-columned, high-minded and noble—has come to occlude the Rome of history, casting the so-called “Middle Ages” as savage and superstitious by contrast. Augustine is often thought of as the last classical and first medieval man; more often than not, he is credited with the demise of much that was good in the ancient world, and the arrival of much that was purportedly dogmatic and grotesque in what followed. “A great deal of what is most ferocious in the medieval church,” Bertrand Russell once wrote, “is traceable to [Augustine’s] gloomy sense of universal guilt.”

This dismal narrative has often obscured Augustine’s contribution to radical changes in the social organization of late antiquity: with the spread of his ideas (along with those of his predecessors and contemporaries) and the rise of the church came novel ways of thinking about money, property and charity. We know this largely thanks to the historian Peter Brown, who has done much to rescue the Christian wisdom regarding wealth and justice that solidified during Augustine’s era. In Brown’s hands, “the fall of Rome” is reimagined as an era not only of turmoil but also of great possibility, a vibrant and exciting transition from one set of norms and institutions to another. Christianity too changed dramatically during this period, evolving from a millenarian doctrine in which the affairs of the world were marginal to an institutionalized religion with a social ethos. Brown’s great achievement has been to recover and tease out the relationship between these two historical developments. Through the Eye of a Needle, Brown’s longest book to date, details the shifting role and theory of wealth in the Latin West during this period of change; The Ransom of the Soul takes up the same questions, but in the realm of theology and spiritual practice, tracing the outlines of the new moral conscience the burgeoning church helped create—in all its surprising radicalism.

Where Rome’s wealthy had once imagined their obligations to others strictly along civic lines—a habit of imagination called “civic euergetism,” in which the wealthy of a society are expected only to furnish works and entertainment for the public understood as fellow citizens, not as people in need—Christianity would invent a new, global class consciousness. No longer would wealthy patronage of public spectacles (like circuses and games) be considered as the fulfillment of the obligation of the wealthy to the remainder; instead, that remainder would be seen as disinherited children of God with their own unmet but valid claims to the bounty of creation. Where the Roman state had dominated the psyche of its people, shaping their methods of acquiring and using wealth, the church would come to play a similarly singular role in informing economic practice, creating new procedures and expectations for charitable giving.

Reading Brown in America today, one can justifiably feel that we have abandoned this radically charitable worldview and have instead returned to a quasi-Roman ethos of prideful philanthropy, where we have lost any moral compunction surrounding the amassing and use of wealth. To think about how a genuinely Christian economic ethic could form in the 21st century, it is worth tracing how one emerged in the first place.

To get a sense of what Christians of late antiquity like Augustine bequeathed us, it helps to know what they were up against. Sometime between 54 and 51 bce, the orator and politician Cicero wrote Somnium Scipionis, a sweeping account of a cosmic dream born in the slumber of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. In his vision, Scipio’s ancestors instruct him on the machinations of destiny and the celestial bodies from a “place on high, full of stars, and bright and shining.” Overtaken by his own insignificance and the beauty of this heavenly respite, Scipio briefly wonders why he must go on living. His father assures him that, if he continues to live virtuously and nobly, he will, like his father and grandfather—“who have soared away from the bonds of the body, as from a prison-house”—come to dwell in their company in the “place you mortals, as you have learned from the Greeks, call the Milky Way.”

For Romans, it was almost a matter of physics that the souls of the glorious worthies would one day ascend to the stars. “The souls of the blessed arrived at the Milky Way,” Brown writes, and “in this manner, the moral structure of the other world coincided exactly with its physical structure.” But the souls of ordinary people were not destined for the white river of stars overhead: “Its heavy clusters validated the fame achieved on earth by acclaimed leaders of society.” This meant that esteem in the next life—a home in a vast, sparkling place overlooking the earth—was the destiny of those who had been notable here on earth, aristocrats like Scipio and his family.

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That the great and famous ended up visible in the night sky while the masses faded into obscurity made perfect sense in the Roman mind. “Nothing reveals more harshly the stratified nature of ancient societies than the utter silence of the vast majority of the dead,” Brown argues, noting that—despite a heavy cultural emphasis on commemoration—only 27,688 out of 875,000 graves in the Roman catacombs have named plaques, and all of them belonged to the well-to-do. In death, the poor were invisible.

In life, conditions were scarcely better. While a new elite class of Romans displayed their wealth in dress, jewelry, public games and theater in the fourth century, the poor masses of peasants, tradesmen and slaves who toiled at the base of society were seldom a subject of civic concern. “Poverty, in itself, gave no entitlement,” either to the charity of the rich or the attention of society in general. If Christians, newly ascendant to power in light of the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the drift of aristocrats into their ranks, wanted to change their society’s response to poverty, they would have to upend centuries of conventional wisdom and ingrained practice.

Consider the example of Flora, a devout noblewoman who, upon the passing of her son Cynegius, implored her bishop Paulinus to entomb the young man beside the resting place of Saint Felix, in hopes that the saint’s holiness would ease his trials during the final judgment of humanity. But Augustine, according to Brown, “would have none of this.” On the contrary, “prayer, almsgiving and offering at the Eucharist”—all relatively inexpensive outlays that could be made by even persons of humble status—alone had the ability to alter the fate of the dead. Pricey tombs and burial plots couldn’t do the work of ritual, and widely accessible, religious practice. The dead, even those who had died poor with poor families, would be on equal footing with the rich in the kingdom of God.

Cold comfort, one might say. But attention given to the poor in death had deeper theological significance for the living than it might initially appear. “Almsgiving to the poor became an irremovable part of the celebration of Christian funerals,” Brown explains, “because the state of the physically dead echoed with chill precision the state of the socially dead.” After Augustine, Christians took these heretofore unremarkable cleavages seriously, and where they could, set about closing them.

Almsgiving became a matter of major concern in the church. Controversy arose around how, exactly, it ought to be done: either all at once, in a single, dramatic renunciation of wealth, or little by little, in a steady stream of regular giving. There was no obvious answer in the Gospels—Christianity, as a set of specific practices, was still being developed. As Augustine observed in The City of God, Christianity had not arrived with a clearly defined how-to guide in hand. It had come instead in the form of a seemingly ordinary man who, having preached for only about three years and written nothing down, was tortured and executed and rose from death. All of the essentials of Christian practice were summed up in Christ’s incarnation, and the earliest Christians lived appropriately radical lives. But by the time he reigned as bishop in North Africa, then the center of Roman economic power, Augustine realized that the Christian religion would not belong to those sainted few, but to the millions of nameless sinners who would follow them through the centuries. Theirs would be the Christian religion—not the essential truth embodied in Christ, but the thick accretion of propositions, traditions, institutions and practices of a church that would shepherd their wandering souls.

In the early years of the fifth century, a wealthy Roman noblewoman, Melania the Younger, arrived in North Africa as a refugee. Barbarian sacks and sieges had broken the spirit of the eternal city. Its aristocrats fled to safer shores—and increasingly radical spiritual sects. Melania, a Christian, had fallen in with Pelagius, a heretic from the British Isles who taught that moral perfection could be attained through the free exercise of one’s own will, and, relatedly, advocated the renunciation of wealth. Melania was taken with his message, and committed vast portions of her enormous fortune to the church for the construction of monasteries, cloisters and houses of worship.

Some clerics in North Africa were thrilled with Melania’s generous patronage, but “Augustine and his colleagues approached Melania to tell her, in effect, to cool it,” Brown writes. There were practical reasons: in their haste to rid themselves of their burdensome wealth—a practice most exalted by Pelagians, who held that one could attain moral perfection and salvation through rigorous self-discipline, and asceticism in particular—they were initiating projects for which there was no long-term endowment.

But there were also spiritual reasons why Augustine advocated a more modest method of almsgiving. Augustine argued that the grace of God is always necessary for human betterment. No person has the resources to perfect him or herself. Rather, we all live lives of ongoing sin for which ongoing repentance is necessary; the steady, penitential giving of alms provided “a steady flow of funds to the poor and to the church through the insistent schooling of all members of the congregation … in the proper, Christian use of wealth.” The practice of continuous almsgiving was therefore educational, instructing congregants of all classes what wealth was for (to support of all human life and all human flourishing, as God originally intended), as well as reminding them that their own need for repentance would never end.

Augustine understood that people were, by and large, ordinary: morally weak and struggling. Accordingly, Augustine’s church would not be home strictly to the well-to-do or the spiritually heroic. He was intent on building a church for the non valde boni—the “not altogether good,” people who were neither hardened sinners nor clearly saints, people who gave steadily to the poor even if they never founded a single monastery, people whose graves would never be marked by brilliant frescoes or poetic epitaphs, people like you and me.

To say Augustine’s campaign worked would be an understatement. Vested with the wisdom of the Christians who had come before him, like Ambrose and Tertullian, Augustine’s efforts to endow the church with a firm foundation of thought and practice regarding wealth were a wild success. By the twelfth century, Christian pastors were energetically exhorting almsgiving among their parishioners, citing the teaching of Augustine that alms were “very holy work.” Civic euergetism had given way to a world of charity, and the social pieties Augustine had once worried might taint the word religio had been replaced by a new schema of bonds binding together the body of Christ.

The modern church has certainly inherited Augustine’s global presumption of sin, but it is all too easy to find contemporary churches where the condition and needs of the poor are little discussed, or treated merely as matters of charity (rather than matters of justice, as Ambrose insisted)—or considered as evidence of moral failure on the part of the impoverished. A recent survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to consider poverty to be the result of individual shortcomings. Augustine was far from the most radical preacher on poverty in late antiquity. But he would still have trouble recognizing churches who dismiss the suffering of the poor as authentically Christian.

Augustine may well have identified more than a shred of Roman sentiment in today’s American discourse, where citizenship is the defining question in so many cases of human need, and the prerogatives of the rich are treated more credibly than the demands of the poor.

It is not only in the church that we are prone, today, to the fetishism of wealth and ownership: our unlimited rights to property and subsequent capacity to store up unthinkable masses of wealth are closely correlated with our freedoms as Americans, with our very Americanness. It’s under this odd, quasi-spiritual penumbra that we treat commodities with an idolatrous reverence, and see in the acquisition of immense lucre the possibility of elevating ourselves into a kind of perfection. Our world isn’t exactly disenchanted, as the usual story about modernity tends to go; it’s rather that the spirit that enchants our age is malevolent.

Christians might do well to reconsider Augustine’s patient certitude that God made the world for the flourishing of humankind, meaning that hoarding it from the many is not only a misuse, but a rejection of God’s will, a sin. Christian or not, our culture could do much worse than to take heed of Augustine’s observation that the way we use our wealth—either in haughty shows of philanthropy or more modest and regular giving—is a matter of habit, meaning that it can be formed for our betterment or our worsening. Nothing I can see in American culture today frames the use of wealth as an arena for the education of the soul, which suggests that Augustine’s radicalism would be worth our investment. Now as then, lives depend on it.

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This essay appears in issue 15 of The Point,
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