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."


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

wow, that was LONG.

Couple of comments. I actually started a blog post a while back comparing some of the comments of Origen and Augustine on the interpretation of Gen. 1, but I never finished it to my liking.

You said: 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.

I think this is what Tom Oden was getting at in one section of "Agenda for Theology" when he talks about Fundamentalism (and liberalism) as a reaction to Enlightenment/Modernity and that try to fit the Bible within the categories of knowlege that Modernity invented (which is of course a silly thing to do).

If you (as some do) begin to speak of God as "ultimate reality" then Willard's shorthand for "truth" and yours will not be so very different. I think somehow the pagan (that St. Paul quotes) must be on to something here when he says, "In him we live and move and have our being." (acts 17:28)

Reason is, of course, very important to The United Methodist Church, and all of the Anglican tradition in general, as helping us to understand and articulate the faith of the Bible. I am continually frustrated by the false dichotomy that I hear in the mouths of ignorant people of faith/religion vs. science/reason as if the two must be mutually exclusive (I heard one such contrast in an NPR story about an atheist summer camp only yesterday! - All Christians are assumed to be young earth creationists, faith must be to the exclusion of reason).

I still am wondering what you mean, Nance, (and the authors you quote) when you talk about ID. When I use that idea, I'm basically talking about guided evolution. Surely the Christian scientists you are quoting don't believe in random evolution, do they?

JWD said...

"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."

Reminds me of a certain previous affair involving the location of earth and the center of the universe. Seems to me that we are in the process of repeating history.

"Surely the Christian scientists you are quoting don't believe in random evolution, do they?"

This is definitely an idea that's outside my range of study, and I don't claim to be a philisophical expert by any means, so whatever I say here should be tagged with a "highly experimental" label. But, since the universe was created by God and precisesly tuned to his rules, and since God exists outside of time, making his knowledge of results unavoidable, can there even be a practical difference between guided evolution and random evolution? I mean, the fact of the matter is that we're here, randomly or otherwise, and that God foresaw our existance. Like I said, I've studied nothing on this subject, but couldn't we have generated randomly in an arena specifically designed to bring about our existance through effectively random mutation and natural selection?

Nance said...

It seems to me that ID "proper" is less a proponent of "guided evolution" as a general concept than of the exploring of specific instances that we can note as evidence of the Intelligent Designer. The would be a great difference between an evolutionary scientist's countering the one or the other, I think.