Earlier this summer, I forwarded to the Harvard Ichthus email list this spectacularly helpful quote that I had stumbled upon from Augustine:
“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 Scripture, 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 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 and 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 [1 Timothy 1.7].” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 1 Chapter 19 Paragraph 39)
Recently the thorny and perennially volatile relationship between faith and science has arisen with a new fury in the circles of American Christianity (see here, here and here among many others). I have no interest in rehashing these complicated debates here, nor am I an expert in any sense on the questions involved in learned scientific disputes. What I do find helpful are some of the larger categories and theological insights that Augustine–over 1500 years ago, no less–offers us if we will listen. Though writing long before the rise of the modern scientific worldview that dominates our collective consciousness today, one is struck by Augustine’s awareness of all the major problems that antagonize us still.
At the heart of much of this quandary, it seems to me, is a whole heap of sloppy, unexamined assumptions on all sides. Whatever else needs to happen, these precious a prioris must come to the light for a thorough examination. They must be validated, not simply accepted as self-evident givens. As Christians, what are our hermeneutical principles when what Scripture seems to teach conflicts with the present consensus in scientific research? Why? What justification do we have for our particular construal of their relationship? Is there any tangible way we could be proven wrong, or are we methodogically sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting to drown out the naysayers who disagree? Let’s talk about this for a minute before we start screaming again. Aren’t we bored yet?
Along these lines, let me offer another sterling selection from the Bishop of Hippo’s corpus that I discovered recently in his exhilarating Confessions. In context, Augustine is recalling his painful disappointment with Mani–the intellectual leader of the Manichees, a group Augustine had sometime earlier begun to identify with before his conversion–and I was surprised to see how important Mani’s uninformed obtuseness on cosmological issues was to Augustine’s growing realization that this entire movement was spiritually bankrupt:
“Lord God of truth, it surely cannot be that simply knowing these [scientific] things renders a person pleasing to you? Unhappy is anyone who knows it all but does not know you, whereas one who knows you is blessed, even if ignorant of all these. Nor is anyone who knows both you and them more blessed for knowing them, but blessed on your account alone…Who ever thought of asking some fellow called Mani [leader of the Manicheans] to write on these subjects? People could perfectly well have learned true piety without any such expertise. Your advice to us is, Reverence for God, that is true wisdom. Obviously Mani might have been thoroughly conversant with scientific truths, even if a stranger to piety. In fact, however, he was ignorant of them, but still had the effrontery to teach them, and from this it emerges that he knew nothing about piety either; for to profess these theories about the world is a mark of vanity, whereas piety is proved by confession to you. It was providential that this man talked so much about scientific subjects, and got it wrong, because this gave people who had truly studied them the chance to convict him of error; and then by implication his insight into other, more recondite matters could be clearly assessed. Mani was content with no modest evaluation: he tried to persuade his followers that the Holy Spirit, who comforts your faithful people and enriches them with his gifts, was with full authority present in him personally. It followed, therefore, that when he was caught out in untrue statements about the sky and the stars, or the changes in sun or moon, his presumption was plainly revealed as sacrilegious, because although these matters are not directly relevant to religious doctrine, he was not simply discoursing on things of which he was ignorant, but even, in his insane, pretentious vanity, passing off his own erroneous opinions as those of a divine person—himself, no less.
“When I hear one or other of my fellow Christians expressing a mistaken opinion arising from his ignorance in these fields, I regard with tolerance the person who entertains the notion. As long as he does not believe anything unseemly about you, O Lord, creator of all things, I do not see that it does him any harm if he chances to be ignorant of the position or characteristics of a material creature. It does harm him, however, if he thinks his view forms an essential part of our doctrine and belief, and presumes to go on obstinately making assertions about what he does not know. Yet when this kind of weakness occurs while faith is in its cradle, our mother, charity, bears with it, looking forward to the day when newly created humanity will grow to the stature of perfect manhood, and no longer be tossed about by every gust of teaching. The case was quite different with a man who set himself up as a teacher and writer, and as the leader and principal guide of those to whom he propounded his views, and this so persuasively that his disciples thought they were following no ordinary man but your Holy Spirit. If ever such a man were proved to have spoken untruly, could anyone doubt that he must have been grossly deranged, and that his ideas were abhorrent, and to be rejected outright?” (Confessions, 5.5)
Perhaps in the coming months I can return to the question of how modern Christians ought to view science in light of their biblical committments, and how they ought to read the Bible in light of science. For now, I content myself to make mention of several themes apparent in these two citations from Augustine.
*Human beings can know many things with certainty about the physical world simply through experience and reason, quite apart from Scripture. Interpreted divine revelation does not simply trump natural revelation on extra-biblical matters, as much as some presume. Indeed, Augustine realized that being filled with the Holy Spirit has little to no impact on the scientific skill (or lack thereof) of believers in comparison to unbelievers. Being justified by grace does not automatically make one marvelous in the laboratory. Deep down, don’t we all believe this? Do any of us really think the roundness of the earth or the centrality of the sun in our solar system are up for grabs until we find them approved by Scripture. Don’t we pre-reflectively grasp that any such passages which on the surface seem to operate with these antiquated ideas are actually about something else entirely? Why then are we not consistent with this intuition in other areas?
*The apologetical importance of not majoring in the minors. Augustine is frank–rightly so–that what one believes about the stars and moon and sky and earth bears little on the quality of one’s faith and relationship to God in daily life. The really important questions are elsewhere. Who are we as human beings? What is wrong with the world? Who is God, and what are His purposes for our existence? Moreover, Augustine argues that the worst possible scenario is that of hindering a learned unbeliever from entering the kingdom of God by ruthlessly insisting that they first agree with our pious, often nonsensical cosmological convictions, even though they matter not for him or for us. If stumbling blocks to the gospel are to be studiously avoided anywhere, it is here. Once again, common sense, right?
*The key is striving to read the Scripture in accordance with their overarching purpose in God’s economy. The priority for Christians is to get in line with what God’s Word is trying to do in us and through us, and not asking it to speak to issues that are incidental at best to the biblical narrative at any given part. Augustine, long before the Enlightenment ever raised the issue of science with blunt force, already sensed intuitively that metaphor and symbolism were heavy laden within the creation account. Its purpose is primarily theological, not scientific. How much more so ought we to realize this today in light of the stunning cosmological common ground that exists betweeen Genesis and virtually every Ancient Near Eastern creation account that has turned up? The difference lay elsewhere. What truly matters, as Augustine writes above, are realities like the resurrection from the dead, the Lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God, and faith and obedience in the struggle against every form of human evil.
*Finally: how about just admitting we might be wrong on any given issue, that we don’t always know, and living with the tension as we debate the various views in faith, love and hope? Augustine demonstrates admirable humility throughout his writings in not thrusting forth bold convictions on every conceivable scientific dilemma of the day. In fact, he oftens admits forthrightly that he simply does not know. When was the last time you heard anyone on any side of the current debate utter such a sentiment?