Sunday, August 9, 2009

Augustine's Joy in Truth--Ideal or Real?

The last post described Augustine's answer to the deceptively simple question: "What, then, do I love when I love you [God]?" (CONFESSIONS, tr. Warner, p. 216--10/7.)

The short outline of how Augustine answered the question was:

a) "...we all want to be happy." ((p. 230--10/21.)

b) We all desire to know the truth. (Condensed from p. 233--10/23.)

c) Therefore, "...certainly the happy life is joy in truth..." (p. 233--10/23.)

d) "...that means joy in you, who are truth, God..." (p. 233--10/23.)

This line of thought brings up two divergent questions, only one of which we looked at last time. Let's review that one before going on to the second one. The first question is whether Augustine's identification of God and Truth is true/convincing.

"Truth" works as an answer to Augustine's question, " I love when I love [God]?" because it transcends any particular object (accommodating the prohibition on God being an object), because it represents an ideal (accommodating the need to see God as the highest good), and because it can be known (in the sense that we seek to know it better--and can usually do so to some extent). We quickly reviewed Peirce's "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" as a means of appreciating that Augustine's thoughts may not be as antique as they first sound to our ears.

(In fact you may recall that in a post from last winter I suggested that Peirce's argument would turn the Templeton "Big Question," "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?" on its head. So, to the extent that Augustine's point of view agrees with Peirce's, his approach seems particularly apt to address our secular age. The following quote can be found here: "[Peirce] wondered why human beings have any knowledge at all; and in particular, he wanted to understand how people manage to increase the accuracy of their ideas. He wrote, 'in my own mind all of my work has been exclusively the study of how to find the truth..." (William A. Stanley in an online article.) It seems that Augustine makes the same point about himself here: "When have you not walked with me, O Truth, teaching me what to beware of and what to seek after...? With my outward senses I surveyed, to the best of my ability, the world, and I observed both the life which my body has from me and these senses themselves. From these I entered into the recesses of my memory, space folded upon huge space and all miraculously full of innumerable abundance, and I considered it and was amazed..." (CONFESSIONS, p. 253--10/40.) There are few human beings for whom such a description would be credible, but in the cases of Augustine and Peirce it seems altogether apt.)

But there is a second question that is likely to trouble a reader of Augustine's exposition: Is his identification of happiness and truth together as what all people desire credible? Augustine does address the problem in this way: "[People] love the light of truth, but hate it when it shows them up as wrong." (p. 233--10/23.) It is a flaw in human nature that makes it possible for us to turn against the truth when it doesn't tell us what we want to hear.

It is here, then, that the re-reading of the CONFESSIONS dovetails with the project I am working on: Humanity's double-mindedness about truth because of sin was described this way, in a quote used in an earlier post, "So my two wills, one old, one new...were in conflict, and they wasted my soul by their discord." (p. 168--8/5.)

As you will recall, the project is to transpose the biblical narrative onto an evolutionary framework to show that the biblical perspective answers a question that biological history cannot: Will we act like creatures who expand their sphere of interest within the environment as determined by self-interest, or from the perspective of the best choice for the environment itself (social/cultural/biological/geological/etc.)? Will we take the view of a creature looking out for itself or a creator looking out for its creation? I will argue that the biblical creation story poses just that dilemma, and that just that dilemma marks off the need for humanity to transcend its evolutionary history, and that the gospel narrative presents the Creator doing just that. In short, Christian theology contains the answer to the core dilemma posed by our place in the evolutionary line: will we behave like creatures or creators; like Jesus or ourselves? I know that it sounds incredible, but I am pretty sure that a very good case can be made for this assimilation of theology to evolutionary narrative and vice versa. It will be fun.

However, I have family trips to take over the next couple of weeks, and must stay in training for the Death Row Regatta next month, so something's got to go--and I'm afraid that it's the blog for a little while. For anyone who's hanging in there with me, many thanks! I'll be back in a couple weeks.


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