Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Augustine, science, and truth

It seems that "St. Augustine" has been a popular name to drop lately in the never-ending discussions of religion and science--particularly of Genesis and Darwin. 
Francis S. Collins dropped this name in his The Language of God, using Augustine as a voice of reason to call the American church back from this idea that we must interpret Genesis's creation account a certain way (that way being of course the completely literal interpretation).
Kenneth R. Miller does the same in his new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. I've not read the whole of this book, but I did recently sit down and read the brief section that Miller devotes to his manner of reconciling Genesis's account to the dominant scientific speculation of today. (The rest of this work seems to have two aims: 1) to debunk the I.D. movement; 2) to examine the decline in scientific reasoning that the masses in America seem to be undergoing, and that the popularity of I.D. represents.) Miller, a devout Catholic, turns to Augustine for much the same reason as Collins: 'wait, wait, wait, there could be another way.' Miller went so far as to mention Augustine in a recent interview concerning his book on The Colbert Report. Huh.

It's unusual to me to see St. Augustine's name popping up again and again in these more popular works. It's also especially interesting to me that Augustine is used, and to great effect, I think, against the conservative-Evangelical arguments on the issue. I can almost hear the Fundamentalist reacting to this: "You're only quoting Augustine here because you saw Miller and Collins do it. You were looking for something to support your ridiculous, liberal stance and now you think you've found it." Well, I am quoting Augustine now thanks to Collins and Miller, but that doesn't weaken the Saint's points at all; rather it only shows our own particular weakness in not having read enough of him. 

And who, reading Augustine, would have stumbled onto this? Collins does reference City of God at one point, but most of the quotes from Augustine these men are using come from a text that I'd never even heard of before two months ago: On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. Origen's decrying of the literal reading of Genesis's early accounts I have been familiar with for some time, but that Augustine said anything on the topic at all was news to me. 
So just what is it that Augustine said?

In his On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine wrote: 
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

Later, when discussing the creation of light in Genesis 1:3 and what exactly the author meant there by "light", he continued:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.  
 
(The italicized portion is from 1 Tm 1:7.) His point is clear enough. Augustine actually supports the literal reading of Genesis in this work, but his warning to anyone who would expound on scripture seems prophetic today, and undoubtedly the Saint would be wise enough to take his own advise.
As I alluded to above, Origen has much to say on this topic while discussing the interpretation of scripture in his On Principle Things, though his mind is much more set than Augustine's would be some 200 years later: "I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally."  
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish thinker contemporary with the Apostle Paul, addresses the matter a bit as well, intimating that the "days" of creation could not possibly be actual 24-hour periods. This was in the first century. Here the irony begins to shine through the conservative complaints of all of the "liberal" interpretations that are "acquiescing" to modern scientific suggestions. Allegorical interpretations of the creation account in Genesis has been around for millennia--it is actually the strict literal reading of today which seems to be the response to Darwin.

So what are the ramifications of Augustine's suggestion? Well, let's consider another question first.

What is truth?
It was a good question then, it's a good one now. We use the words "true" and "truth" to describe a number of things.
If my roommate were to tell his fiance' "I love you", we would affirm this statement as true, even though it is communicating such a subjective idea, without any sort of material, empirical evidence to support it.
On the other hand we could talk about the process beyond the phenomenon of fossilization, a process whose description is based on observation and scientific evidence acquired through hypothesizing and testing. This we would also call true.
There are sort of necessary truths, made so by rules that govern their existences, like the rules of mathematics--as they say, we did not invent "2 + 2 = 4", we discovered it there. 
Simple facts we call true. My name is William Nance Hixon; true. It's not necessary, or subjective, or scientifically verifiable really, it's just a fact.
We describe people and call the descriptions "true". My co-worker Nick is weird. True... but still different, and perhaps not universally agreed upon, given different definitions of "weird". 
"God is love" is a good example of two other kinds of truths--ontological truths, insofar as we are saying something about God's being or even love's being in this statement; also it is a truth that is affirmed without the use of reason--it is a tenant of faith, read in the scriptures and trusted to be true.
Another odd kind of truth to think about is that which would lead us to watch a fictional movie (read a fictional book) and say "that's so true." In Jurassic Park we get some interesting truths about human ambition and responsibility, but it's still Jurassic Park. Allegory seems to be really similar to this kind of truth, and hyperbole may even be related to all this. After all, when we exaggerate, we are purposefully putting forth false accounts of a thing to express some truth about it.

And after all of this we even affirm that Jesus is Truth. We don't associate all of these truths with Jesus, but we do say that somehow He is truth.

Truth is just a hairy concept, and I hesitate to try and define it. I'm tempted to say "truth is that which reflects reality", but, while Dallas Willard complained that "agreeable" was not a worthy standard for truth,  I don't believe that reality is quite fixed enough to be the standard either. If, as St. Athanasius suggested, movement away from God and away from the nature He endowed creation with is movement away from existence. . . truth must be rooted in something other. Perhaps all we can say is that truth is that which reflects God. . .  whatever exactly that means. St. Augustine, I think, understood this all much better than I do.

So: do I believe that the creation account in Genesis is true? Absolutely. It is God-breathed, true. Do I believe that the creation account in Genesis is factual? No, though I will not discount the possibility. I believe that the creation narrative tells us much that is invaluable about God and about the nature and purpose of all Creation. I believe that it reflects God. I don't believe that it is an accurate account of something that happened approximately 6000 years ago, or at any other time. That's an interpretation that strikes me as unnecessary and as a fine example of a position 'justly undermined by the further progress in the search for truth.'
Our God is certainly the Creator. "Without Him nothing was made that was made." "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth." True, true, true.
He is still creating: His reconciling of fallen Creation back to Himself is a new act of creation, giving goodness and being back to things that have drifted from Him in Whom we 'live and move and have our being'. 
But, and especially in a world where science and religion are so often somehow pitted against each other, we shouldn't feel as though we must equate fact with truth, truth with fact, or as though we must force the truths of God to be certain kinds of truths. While actual history is critical to Christianity--as Johannes Climacus said it, "the historical fact that God has existed in human form is the essence of the matter"--I don't have to affirm any "historical" or "scientific" ideas to affirm Creation, or the narrative's truths about God and about existence. . . which may ultimately be the only truths from Genesis 1-2 that matter anyways. We must remember that "In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight


Three years ago Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale re-invented Batman movies for the world, and this was a good thing. No more Hockey player henchmen and bad jokes, no more molded Bat-nipples. They offered us a Batman universe that was as dark as anything Tim Burton had ever imagined, and was much more complex. We had a hero who struggled not only with villains, but also with how we understand justice. Our hero had to save a corrupt city from destroying itself, all the while facing who he was and was not. Batman Begins is a great movie.

This past weekend Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale brought us The Dark Knight. This movie has been the center of more expectation and hype than anything in recent memory with the possible except of the awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's been hype because Begins was so good. There's been hype because of the audacity of revisiting a character that Jack Nicholson masterfully realized and Heath Ledger's lauded, final performance in it. I went into this film right off of viewing its predecessor, I went in without eschewing the hype, and on the other side of that unprecedentedly crowded midnight showing, I can confidently say that The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made.

As an ambitious an undertaking as this film was, the cast carries it through. Maggie Gyllenhaal made Rachel Dawes fit into this Bat-verse in a way the Katie Holmes, I'm afraid, simply couldn't have ever done. Gary Oldman received much more screen time than in the first film, and showed that he was up to the challenge--his and Bale's relationship in TDK is easily the best Gordon-Batman relationship outside of Batman the Animated Series. Aaron Eckhart was a pleasant surprise to me. I appreciated him in Thank You for Smoking, but he really just nailed Harvey Dent. Heath Ledger is going to get an Oscar nomination--and maybe a win.
The only disappointment to me was Bale, though this isn't entirely his fault. Though Batman is really well done in this movie--we see him on international quests, playing the detective, and just really reflecting the Batman of the comics--I'm still not sold on Bale as Batman. His Wayne is fine, but his Bat-voice kills me. (I think the Animated Series spoiled me there, and now any man who doesn't sound like Kevin Conroy is paying the price.) But more than that, Batman simply doesn't get the development in this film that you expect. Batman Begins spent so much time on Bruce's internal struggles that once you arrive at TDK, with Gordon, Dent, and Joker receiving so much attention, you feel short-changed. Christian Bale can do so much if he's given the chance. The foundation for exploration is definitely laid, as Batman is forced to become darker and darker with the Joker's chaos spreading so quickly, but I think this conflict ultimately plays out better in Harvey Dent than in Batman, and the film-makers simply give themselves no time to do it any other way.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both do well, though Caine's Alfred sees less screen time the second time around, and much of Freeman's seems forced. The former I can't complain about, as there's only so much Alfred can do while Batman devotes himself to stopping the Joker, but I could have done for less of Lucius Fox. We don't need more of him just because it's Morgan Freeman. Let him be Lucius Fox, not Alfred, or Robin even.

I could go on for some time about the production of the film. It's well-made. But what about the story? the message we are left with? I've been asking myself about this since the credits finished rolling and that impressive film score came to an end.
This is a dark film. The darkness brings Scorsese to mind, except that Scorsese's work relies not only on violence, but on graphic violence; he takes advantage of his R ratings. Also, Scorsese is dealing with men, and, as Batman Begins belabored, Nolan with Batman is not dealing with a man, but a symbol. Batman Begins closed with the sad acknowledgement that 'Bruce Wayne' is only a mask, that Batman is who he is. In Dark Knight the Joker is no man either, but is something like sheer chaotic desire. He's just the bandit in Alfred's story or, as Dent put it, a mad dog. He doesn't even have a real history like Batman--every time he tells you about his scars it's another tale.
So what does Nolan do with these two powerful symbols?
He pits them against each other, and offers them both to the people of Gotham and to us.
We're offered on the right the darkness of Batman, darkness that precedes the dawn, and on the left the Joker's dark 'plans', where we won't panic, but we have to act without consideration to survive. Batman's tempted by Joker's darkness, so is Dent, so are all of the citizens of Gotham. Batman's alternative is offered to all as well--the citizens, the police, Dent, Joker even, though he's oblivious to such offers. As we make our choice, we're reminded that it is a social decision. We can't 'make our own luck', life's not fair, and every choice we make will affect others somehow. We must decide whether we'll be the person the Joker expects us to be, or the person that Batman determined to be in the first film.
Not everyone decides the same way, and the film's end shows you how affected everyone is, how unfair the results can be.

The Scorsese films that I've seen never have a "happy ending". You might be content--maybe your favorite character survives (-gasp!-). But you're never happy, things are never settled. That's because the films are brutally honest. The Dark Knight is no different. It doesn't pull punches, and it sacrifices some potential to make the point. The Joker's funny until you come to yourself and realize what it is that you're laughing at. His violence is repulsive, but he'll scare you until you buy into it. Batman doesn't have an attractive alternative, but it is decent, good. And really, no matter what you choose, you lose. That's The Dark Knight.

Last summer Spider-Man 3 hit theaters; it had been heralded by the greatest film trailer I've ever seen. Unfortunately the film itself was terrible--I nearly walked out, and can honestly say now that I wouldn't have reason to regret it had I. I saw the trailer again after seeing the movie, and was captivated. "This looks like the greatest movie ever made!" I thought. Then I recalled that I had seen it... and it wasn't. The Dark Knight is the super-hero film that Spidey 3 ought to have been. We have to look long and hard into the darkness--a darkness which hides no emos--and then we must make our choice: who are we? 'Why hide who I am?' Dent asks Gordon at one point in the film. How will we let the darkness of life shape who we are?
It's true that any number of films can show you the true, frightening nature of evil, but that doesn't automatically put this on the same level as some slasher flick. People going to see Saw 18 get what they pay for... and what they pay for it disgusting. People going to see The Dark Knight may be disgusted, but that's what well-portayed evil ought to do. Go watch Silence of the Lambs again.
If you love superheroes, see this film. If you love Batman, though I don't need to say it at this point, you must see this film. If you love good movies, see it. The Dark Knight is what it is, and we just have to trust Dent that "the dawn is coming."

Brant at Kamp Krusty didn't like the movie much.
Jeffery Overstreet did, and he defended it from some criticism.
Christianity Today's review

Thursday, July 10, 2008

a quote

Evangelicals have connected discipleship and buying stuff in a way that is completely alien to the New Testament.

Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk), in a discussion on Bible translations

Friday, July 04, 2008

a quick lesson in Constitutional law

This silly editorial from the New York Times has inspired my 4th of July American post-extravaganza. 

The editorial, for all of it's whining, did not seem quite silly until this came up:
The Barack Obama of the primary season used to brag that he would stand before special interest groups and tell them tough truths. The new Mr. Obama tells evangelical Christians that he wants to expand President Bush's policy of funneling public money for social spending to religious-based organizations - a policy that violates the separation of church and state and turns a government function into a charitable donation. 

Several thoughts come to mind on reading this lamentation. These religious-based organizations aren't receiving funds because they are religious-based, they're receiving funds because they are social organizations; AA is a good example of a religious based social organization which primarily serves an important secular purpose. The last comment about "charitable donation" leaves me a little perplexed. Would not the purely secular social organizations given government funding also be relying on "charitable donation"?

The part that gets me the most is of course the use of the phrase "separation of church and state". 
SO, here's a quick lesson in the United States' Constitution for everyone; the following are the whole of the references to 'religion' in our nation's Constitution and Bill of Rights:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support his Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

from Article VI of the Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights

That's it. 
Note the lack of "separation of church and state". The concept, or something roughly equivalent to it, is there, but this phrase cannot be violated as it is not in the law. Instead this phrase originates in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. There he writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

Jefferson's concern is apparently with a government's influencing religious observances; "none other" than "man & his god" ought to be responsible for a man's faith and worship. A government in this role would be forcing "opinions" on its citizenry, which is outside of its proper jurisdiction to do. You can read the entire letter here, if you like.

Before you start accusing politicians of 'violating' this or that, know what you're talking about. I'm fairly sure that the Founding Fathers would find many of the issues of debate concerning church and state today ridiculous--they were concerned with separation on a much larger scale. However the documents are what they are, and as ideologies change, interpretations will as well, and here we are.

Also on the patriotic blog-post front, here's an interesting quote from G. K. Chesterton on our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Happy ID4

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

don't forget fiction

This post on the buildingchurchleaders.com blog was refreshing: Fiction for Formation.

The author briefly laments of the apparent dearth of fiction literature in the average pastor's book-diet, and then proceeds to recommend of few 'must-reads'. His recommendations include two works by the American Jew Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen, Japanese Catholic Shushaku Endo's Silence, and, the surprise pick, to me at least, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
I'd never heard of Endo or Potok before this list; Gray I was familiar with, but it is surprisingly the only 'acknowledged classic' (whatever exactly that means) in the four. I guess a name like Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor would have come as less of a surprise to round out the group than the irreligious Wilde--not that I'm disappointed.

I've long agreed with the blogger's encouragement of fiction reading; I think his claim that "good fiction (an entirely subjective category, I admit) can help a minister better understand the people to whom he or she is ministering" is absolutely true. Good fiction can also help you better understand yourself.

While these aren't books that I suppose 'everyone ought to read', they've certainly proved themselves illuminating and edifying to me; if I were going to recommend a few works of fiction, these three (or four) are the first things that come to mind:

The Screwtape Letters. I've read quite a bit of Lewis--much, much more than of any other author--and this may be his best work. The observations that Screwtape makes of humanity are astounding at times. He forces us to redefine temptation and sin as he illustrates for all of the real 'patients' of the world (no doubt a frustrating discovery for Screwtape, once he knew his letters to have been published) just how deep our self-serving agendas run and how stealthily they masquerade themselves.

Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams. I tried to review this novel on wardrobe after I finished it, but it really well defies description. Much of the action in the story is... ontological. Williams shows you what man becomes as he gives himself to himself and has he descends right out of existence into Hell. 
This is also a terribly difficult book to read; I did so only poorly and with much-appreciated tutelage from a seasoned Williams-reader. Another novel of his, All Hallows' Eve is much easier (though not easy), and also shows a great deal about reality and the unreality of sin. 

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. This novel will show you what we worship, and it's imagery is absolutely terrifying. Besides that, the story is just great fun and the allusions, while blatant, are delightful--especially if you're the sort of nerd that I am (i.e., a religious studies major who grew up reading Thor comics).




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These are only the first few books that come to mind, and there are innumerable great reads out there. Milton, Shakespeare, Boethius (if the Consolatio could really be called fiction), and so many others are out there, just waiting for us to take the time and learn from them.