Fresh insights in old books

St AugustineLiterary festivals introduce us to new writing. They rarely celebrate the old, for nothing is older than an old book. We instinctively assume that our fresh insights will have superseded such wisdom that any old tome might impart.

We judge books partly by their content but even more by their voice. Writers of another age speak oddly. They stop to reflect on what we slip lightly past, acquiesce in what we find outrageous.

Of early Christian writers St Augustine has suffered most from superficial reading. He is articulate and argumentative. But he has a mordant view of human nature and displays attitudes to religious coercion and to women that most people now would protest against.

But just as you have come to this conclusion Augustine surprises you with passages whose voice is sharp and contemporary. A Richard Dawkins among the flock, we might think.

In his Confessions (book 5), Augustine reflects on science and faith. He explains why he joined the Manichees for some nine years. He was attracted to their view of evil as a force in the world for which neither God nor human beings are responsible. To Augustine, a sensitive young man, this theory gave breathing space. Buttressing it was an elaborate astrology that related human destiny to celestial phenomena.

Augustine’s wide reading in science led him to question the Manichees’ account of the world, and so to be sceptical of their religious theories. He set their account against the consensus that he found in the works of mathematics and astronomy that he had read. In contrast with Manichaean theories, scientists offered an explanation of celestial phenomena. He explains:

I saw that their calculations were borne out by mathematics, the regular succession of the seasons and the visible evidence of the stars. I compared these with the teaching of Manes. In his writings I could find no explanations of the solstices and the equinoxes or of eclipses or of similar phenomena such as I had read about in books written by secular scientists.

Augustine concluded that if Manichaean theories of the natural world displayed such ignorance and pretension, their religious views must also be suspect. He went on to reflect more broadly on the relationship between scientific knowledge and Christian faith.

Characteristically, he does not consider it abstractly, but from the perspective of how confusion between the two might affect the Christian believer.

Whenever I hear a brother Christian talk in such a way as to show that he is ignorant of these scientific matters, and confuses one thing with another, I listen with patience to his theories and think it is no harm to him that he does not know the true facts about material things ... The danger lies in thinking that such knowledge is part and parcel of what he must believe to save his soul and in presuming to make obstinate declarations about things of which he knows nothing.

Augustine's intellectual style is characteristically modern in its hard-headedness. When he compares different explanations of natural phenomena he reads the best science available to him. He then asks which of the alternative explanations is best supported by mathematical calculation and best predicts the phenomena it claims to explain.

When he reflects on faith — 'what we must believe to save our soul' — he carefully distinguishes it from scientific knowledge. Christians can afford to be mistaken about scientific explanations. Such error is without cost to their faith. But they run the risk of confusing their scientific theories with faith, and so of incorporating badly understood science into the things that must be believed. This distorts Christian faith and imposes unjustified burdens of belief on other Christians.

Augustine's argument is sharp and clear. His distinction between the businesses of science and faith is particularly unfussy and confident. It may even be ahead of our contemporary game. Augustine certainly cuts through the often confused debate about the origins of the world. His argument suggests that it would be dangerous to support on religious grounds theories of creationism and intelligent design. This would be to confuse the areas of faith and science to the detriment of faith.

But Augustine remains a man of his own century and is the more interesting for doing so. After carefully summarising the conclusions of the non-Christian scientists, he gives them a serve: they might have been right, but they were motivated by pride. In the 21st century we certainly wouldn't bag people we disagree with, would we?

Confessions of St Augustine (electronic version)

Andrew Hamilton Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

The disciplines of theology and science can be complementary and both are concerned with the human search for understanding. Augustin's search was motivated by his heartfelt love and desire for God.

The theological aspect of religion should maintain this heartfelt orientation but mostly seems to focus upon the Truth of who God is. Human persons can experience the presence of God's Truth but unlike a scientific formula it cannot be contained or confined to some dogma or formula because of the personalised dimension and a quality called love.

I think that when scientific knowledge is used with honourable intentions it is as valuable as any religious doctrine or creed. But in the end both disciplines are subject to the changing awareness of the the way things are (evolutionary processes and unfolding human consciousness).
Trish Martin | 08 May 2008

A wonderful article. Thank you.
Dr Susan Reibel Moore | 08 May 2008

The closing paragraph of Andrew Hamilton's 'Fresh Insights...' suggests an ethical dimension to intellectual activity that - if it exists in today's world - is invisible to me. Where does it lead?
Lorna Hannan | 08 May 2008

I do not remember reading much of St Augustine in the original, but I have read a fair bit in English translation and enjoyed the literary character of much of what I read. I found the writing rather disappointing because of his anti-material or anti-human body outlook. He may be an antidote for much that needs addressing today but I have not savoured his incisiveness (possibly lost in translation).
Ray Lamerand | 08 May 2008

The findings, that is, direct, unequivocal, empirical, observations on which the scientific understanding of the world has broadened and deepened markedly since St Augustine’s time. Back then, areas of learning and study as diverse as theology, philosophy, mathematics, science, even (descriptive) art, were all considered united.

One discipline within what is now science is ecology, which is the study of how all parts of the natural world relate to each other.

If anyone wonders how there could be an ethical dimension to intellectual activity, I suggest they look for “altruism” in ecological, perhaps even zoological, databases.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Western Buddhism, by Kulananda. The first five chapters of that book also offer insights into ethical aspects of intellectual activity. The remaining chapters introduce some Buddhist cosmology, which does not necessarily provide further such insights.
David Arthur | 08 May 2008

Well said! This is a timely reminder in the current sociol/regilious/political climate of the west. I think it is also timely to remind scientists to not mix their scientific method with 'faiths' that place unbearable burdens on true scienctific pursuits. It is this faith-science that evolutionists & human-induced climate change zealots are particular guilty of. Like with Christian faith, their 'faith' sees every new turn as another affirmation of their a priori position, counter-examples are swept under the carpet! Long live pure science!
Luke McCormack, B.Sc., B.Theol., Grad. Dip.(Ed). | 09 May 2008

In response to Lorna Hannan's seminal question, I would argue that there are two ethical judgments about intellectual enquiry. The first is that intellectual curiosity is central to human flourishing and is good. Second, in the ways that we pursue our curiosity, human flourishing depends on us acting with scrupulous respect for the world in which we live and particularly for human beings.

I think that in the contemporary world there are notable examples of people acting in this way, as well as of people acting with disrespect. The ethical challenge, of course, is to name what is entailed in respect.
Andy Hamilton | 09 May 2008

Thanks for another insightful article, Andy. Augustine is an incredibly important figure in the Christian faith yet so often misunderstood and overlooked. Thanks for bringing him back to the forefront of discussion.
Grace Grixti-Cheng | 12 May 2008


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