One of the most influential books on theology ever written is The City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo (written between a.d. 412 and 426). Its theme concerns the existence of two societies, which Augustine calls “cities.” One is God’s society. The other is the society of this world. Augustine described them, saying, “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”
The reason I mention Augustine’s theology of history is that much of his discussion concerns the contrast between Babylon, which he sees as a spectacular embodiment of the earthly city, and earthly Jerusalem, which he sees as a symbol of the city of God. This is a proper emphasis, and it is important here because it reminds us that the struggle between Nebuchadnezzar and God, recorded in Daniel, is actually only one example of that greater struggle between the world’s way of doing things and God’s way of doing things, which has prevailed at all times and prevails today. It is this that makes Daniel a contemporary book.
The chief characteristic of Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s time was what we would call its radical secular humanism – Nebuchadnezzar states in Daniel four: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). This is a true statement in one sense. Nebuchadnezzar had built Babylon, and he had undoubtedly done it for his own glory. But in forgetting God, who had given him the opportunity to create such magnificence, Nebuchadnezzar was actually taking God’s glory to himself. Like all secular humanists, he was saying that all that exists is of man, by man, and for man’s glory. That is a true expression of the earthly city.
In twenty-first-century America secularism is noticeable in many ways, as people increasingly view reality as emerging from man and as existing for man and his glory. Let me give two examples.
First, there is the philosophy of evolution, which is the dominant reference for most persons’ thinking and which extends to almost everything. Why is evolution so popular, and why are our educators so insistent that it and only it must be taught in our schools? There are different reasons for evolution’s popularity, of course. For one thing, according to evolutionary theory, everything is knowable since everything stands in a direct causal relationship to everything else and may be traced backward or forward through those relationships. This has obvious appeal. Second, reality has only one explanation: The fittest survive, whether a biological mutation, a government, or an ideal. Third – and I think this is the chief reason – evolution eliminates God, precisely what Nebuchadnezzar was trying to do in his own way. If all things can be explained as the natural outworking or development of previous causes, then God may be safely banished to an otherworldly kingdom or even be eliminated altogether, as many, even so-called theologians, have done. Evolution allows man to be the center of the universe.
The second example of today’s secularism is our current doctrine of the separation of Church and state, which comes into a study of Daniel if for no other reason than that the struggle of Nebuchadnezzar, who represents the state, against God is so prominent. The doctrine of the separation of Church and state used to mean that each functioned separately, kings or presidents not being allowed to appoint clerical authorities or run the church, and clerical authorities not being allowed to appoint kings or presidents. Nevertheless, it was always understood that both Church and state were responsible to God, in whose wisdom each had been established. They were two independent servants of one master. Although neither was permitted to rule the other, each was to remind the other of its God-appointed duties and recall it to upright, godly conduct if it should stray.
Today, however, the doctrine of the separation of Church and state is taken, often by Church people, to mean that the Church is irrelevant to the state – though the state increasingly brings its secular philosophy to bear on the Church. Thus Christians withdraw from politics and neglect even to inform themselves of national or international issues. As a result, the articulation of spiritual and moral principles is eliminated from debates. The state becomes its own god with its chief operating principle being paganism. For its part, the state deliberately tries to keep religious values out of politics, promising to protect the right to worship so long as those wanting to worship do so on the reservation. The one thing Christians and other religious people must not do is attempt to bring their convictions out of this isolation ward into the real world.
Modern secularism is expressed well in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Hymn of Man.”
But God, if a God there be, is the
Substance of men which is Man.
Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten;
Thy death is upon thee, O Lord.
And the love-song of earth as thou diest
Resounds through the wind of her wings—
Glory to Man in the highest!
For man is the master of things.
This is the way the world’s city always thinks. Nebuchadnezzar considered himself master because he was able to take gold and silver out of the Jerusalem treasury and carry them to Babylon. Cain, which is where the secular city began, considered himself master because he had the strength and cunning to kill Abel. Rome considered itself master because its legions were able to march unhindered across the ancient world.
But the world is not master. God is master. God is sovereign, and he is able to bring the secular city down. Live for the City of God.