Saturday, November 21, 2009

Augustine's Lesson for Our Time

It's a familiar story. There are discrepancies between scripture and science; religious authorities claim scripture is true; scientific authorities claim science is true; and people who take the time to see which point of view squares with the best evidence side with science. It's the subtraction story.1

It's a story that has played a big part in my life, derailing my plans for seminary. We think of it as a story that began with the rise of science in Modernity. But in fact, it is not. It played out in the life of perhaps the most important post-canonical Christian thinker, Augustine. And it is chronicled in his most famous work, The Confessions of St. Augustine. How the much-needed lesson from Augustine's life for our time has been overlooked, I could only guess, and I'd rather look to the lesson directly.

If you've read the Confessions you know that Augustine had been a Manichaean. Comparing their writings with "true things which the philosophers have said about this created world," Augustine "could see the reason for what [science] said in calculation, in the order of time, and in the visible evidence..."2 In short, he took the time to see which view sided with the best evidence, and science won: the subtraction story.

An extended quote will be useful:

"What then was the point of this Manes writing on these subjects, which are not necessary for the learning of goodness and piety? ...all he achieved by his numerous statements on these matters was this: he was shown up by people who had an acccurate knowledge of them, and it was thus made perfectly plain how much reliance could be placed on his understanding... He certainly did not wish to be thought little of; for he made it his business to persuade people that the Holy Ghost..was personally and with plenary authority resident in himself. And so when he was caught out making false statements about the heavens and the stars and the movements of the sun and moon, even though these things are not an integral part of religious doctrine, yet it was clear enough that his presumption was sacrilegious: he was talking about things he did not know..."3

This directly prompted Augustine's decision to leave the Manichees. Yet it just as clearly applies to a large portion of the Church today, and it applied to some in the Church in Augustine's day. He continued:

"Now whenever I come across any Christian brother, whoever it may be, who is ignorant of these sciences and has mistaken views on them, I can listen to him patiently enough as he delivers his opinions. ...I cannot see that it does him any harm if he is ignorant about the situation or conditions of material objects [of no practical importance to him]. But it does do him harm if he imagines that this scientific knowledge is an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety, and then has the audacity to make overconfident assertions on subjects of which he knows nothing."4

In short, Augustine knew Christians who were doing the same foolish thing which drove him from Manichaeanism. The obvious question arises, why didn't he find it necessary to leave Christianity too? A portion of the quote above says it precisely: "...scientific knowledge [is not] an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety," in the case of Christian faith.

On first pass that seems right, and there's a simple way to show why. Believing as a Christian means believing in Christ, as portrayed in and understood through the gospels. But there is no science, modern or ancient, which is "integral" to the gospel narrative. On that "common sense" view, the subtraction story as the narrative of what modern science has made incredible about Christian belief has no traction--it is not integral to faith. Nothing needed can be subtracted by science. That was the gist of my insistence that a "worldview" cannot be Christian. If anything, being Christian means believing that worldviews are all broken.

But that will seem fascile to many. What about what history and philosophy have made incredible? To respond, there needs to be a deep rationale for the inconsistency of trying to subsume the gospel narrative to ANY temporally-mediated point of view.

I believe that giving us that deep insight was precisely what Augustine turned to at the end of the Confessions. He did not just draw the foolishness of trying to turn scripture into science to his reader's attention, he provided the deep rationale for why it is not just foolish, but impossible--for any right-thinking person.

That deep rationale is crucial for everyone whose understanding of Christian faith turns on the assumption that makes the subtraction story possible--which is to say, every Christian I know and all the critics of Christianity that I know of...

What Was God Doing?!

My guess is that second to the famous opening prayer of the Confession that the ancient joke Augustine tells in it is cited most often. "And now I have an answer to the man who says: 'What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?' Someone once, evading the force of this question, is said to have made the jesting reply: 'God was making hells for people who look too deeply into things.'"5 Of course, Augustine--and we along with him--would be the butts of that joke.

But I fear that the crucial point he sets up with it is usually missed:

"...if by 'heaven and earth' we mean 'every [being that is not eternal],' I boldly declare that: 'Before God made heaven and earth, He did not make anything.' For if He did, it could have been nothing else except [something not eternal]. And I wish I knew all those good and useful things which I want to know as clearly as I know this, that before there was any [being that is not eternal] there was no [being that is not eternal]."6 (Bracketed phrases replace "creature.")

Augustine's point is simple, but it's importance for theology and scriptural interpretation cannot be overstated: Since God is eternal, literally nothing that is "tensed" can apply to God. To make the most crucial and obvious connection, the "days" of God's creation cannot be literal days, in which case God would have acted in time and would not be eternal.

How do I know this for sure? Three compelling reasons:

1. Augustine said it: "...You call us to understand the Word who is God...the Word which is spoken eternally and by which all things are spoken eternally. For here it is not the case of first one thing being said and finished, then another thing so that all can be said: no, allo things are said together and eternally. Otherwise there would be already time and change, and not a true eternity..."7

2. Augustine both poked fun at and worried about those who disagree: "Some people, for example, when they read or hear the world which we are discussing ["God created"] think of God as though He were a kind of man or else some great force associated with an enormous mass, and they imagine that by some new and sudden decision He made heaven abnd earth... Such people are...feeble little creatures... ...[who stretch out] beyond the limits of the nest where you are nourishing [them], ...I fear that this poor creature will have a bad fall, and I pray, Lord God, that you will have pity and will not allow the passers-by to tread upon that unfledged nestling..."8 I quoted more than needed to make the point, so that it can sink in that anyone in the grips of the subtraction story will fit the description of Augustine's "poor creature," in that scientific/philosophical/historic accounts of "creation" can only threaten theological accounts when the work of God is conceived of temporally. It is clear that Augustine saw, and provided for a solution for, the present crisis 1,600 years ago. The prescience of his thought can also be seen in statements making it clear that there could be no space or time before God created them.

And 3. Augustine sets up the last three "Books" of the Confessions with the argument that was presented in the previous three posts--an argument demonstrating our dependence on eternity to understand time--and proceeded to an analysis of the first verse of the Bible in the last three chapters.

Some Final Comments

I am not sure that I would like Augustine, if I had been priviledged to meet him. He comes off as arrogant in the same way that Dawkins, for example, does. And the story he tells in the Confessions, if you have read it, is not flattering--and I am not referring to stealing apples from a neighbor. Worst of all to my sensibilities, his prayers are obsequious, whereas I cannot imagine an honest prayer that doesn't include a fair element of Job's "attitude." To my mind faith includes existential honesty, or it is absolutely false--that's my inner Sartre coming out.

That said, perhaps no one loved discovering the truth more that Augustine, and in that he is a wonderful model: We can only be happy "when, with no distractions to interpose themselves, [we] will find in that only truth by which things are true."8 For Augustine the beatific vision was the consumation of the love of truth. (And his prescience even here is amazing, if we take his solution to where "truth" is found to be, "in God": What was Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature if not an exhaustive search, ending in failure, for how to cash in the meaning of how the human mind "mirrors" nature? And what was Augustine's point, if not that human understanding cannot "cash out" the meaning of "God,"; ergo... "When we see these is you who see in us."10)

The besetting sin of those of us who value truth on par with love is a tendency to be a jerk when dealing with--and Augustine's tendency comes out here--"feeble little creatures." But, in fairness, it appears that we--the Church--have played the part, intellectually. We need Augustine, and that seems plain, to extract ourselves form the subtraction story. More importantly, we need Augustine to correct our thinking about God.

I will stop here, though the entailments of Augustine's starting point for theology are exceedingly great. "See, Lord my God, how much I have written on these few words ["In the beginning God created..."]! Really how much! What strength of ours...would be enough to comment in this way on all your Scriptures!"11 I will stop here not only because I am no Augustine, but because I want to avoid obscuring the crucial starting point which Augustine set up for the Church. People who are not disposed to abstraction can be counted on to ask, "But what does that mean?" after having been given a starting point for subsequent thought. Augustine's point, his gift to us in our need today, is to have given us a solution to our present difficulty from which everything else follows. In short, it is a big gift. The Church would be foolish in the extreme not to take it.

1. Charles Taylor, from whom I borrowed the phrase, actually argues against "subtraction stories" in the sense I use it here. (A Secular Age (The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2007) 22.) Taylor's project is to explain how ancient ways of experiencing life are replaced with modern, and he focuses on how new ways of understanding and living have changed human experience. In his view, simply put, to focus on the past is to mistakenly think that educated people today--allowing for exceptions--feel the change as loss. Surely Taylor is right to point out that a historical perspective that has moved away from earlier perspectives will not, by the very fact of having moved on, experience the past as "lost," since what is past is not present. (Yes, I take pleasure in reducing subtle points to simple truisms, but in my experience that can usually be done: hence, my "metaponderings.") But for institutions that cling to ancient perspectives--and people whose lives are dominated by them--Taylor's argument does not apply, while his phrase does, and aptly.
2. Confessions [Book 5, Chapter 3], tr. Warner (Mentor, New York, 1963) 93-4.
3. Ibid., 94-5 [Book 5, Chapter 5].
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 265-6 [Book XI, Chapter 12].
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 262 [Book XI, Chapter 7].
8. Ibid., 308 [Book X!!, Chapter 27].
9. Ibid., 234 [Book X, Chapter 23].
10. Ibid., 345 [Book XIII, Chapter 31].
11. Ibid., 314 [Book XII, Chapter 32].

1 comment:

Tracy Witham said...

A couple quick notes. First, I taught this to my some and a friend who slept over last night, and for bright sophmores this is not too difficult. Kids on a professional track in school will confront thoughts as difficult as these in math and science and history continually. Why do we think we should treat them like Augustine's "feeble little creatures"? We shouldn't!

Second, I won't be able to blog for a couple of months--it's not just the holidays and traveling, it's year-end paperwork for my business, the need to carefull tweek a design for manufacturing, a need to update a business plan for a loan app., etc. Amd here's the real problem, if left to what I want to do, it will be philosophical theology, which means I will not be responsible--the old too heavenly--or theologically or philosophically--minded to be of earthly good.

At any rate, this is a good place to stop for a while, since it deserves some extended thought.

Thanks for reading!