Thursday, November 18, 2010

Confessions – Book 5

Post #5 in my series of notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

Predestination (5.1.1 – 5.2.2)

Augustine’s strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty (and corresponding grace) was at the heart of the theology of Martin Luther and especially John Calvin. Augustine developed this theology most fully in his debates with the Pelagians later in his life, but it is apparent even in earlier works like The Confessions.

For the closed heart does not bar thy sight into it, nor does the hardness of our heart hold back thy hands, for thou canst soften it at will, either by mercy or in vengeance, “and there is no one who can hide himself from thy heat.”

  • Do you agree with this perspective? If God can soften our hearts or harden them, does that mean that God picks and chooses favorites? On what basis does God pick some people vs. others? Does this make God in some sense responsible for sin?

The Natural Sciences (5.3.3 – 5.4.7)

We should remember that the ancients knew a great deal more about the structure of the natural world that we sometimes give them credit for. For instance, they were also able to predict certain very mysterious events, such as lunar and solar eclipses. They were also very clear on the idea that the earth was round, and they even had a pretty good idea about its size: one fairly standard estimate had it at about 25,000 miles in diameter. In this respect, Columbus was wrong and everyone else was right: the debate between Columbus and his detractors was not whether the earth was round or not (they all agreed that it was spherical), but how large it was. Columbus was relying on some very faulty calculations when he argued that the earth was only 13,000 miles around.

Augustine was duly impressed by these achievements of physical science, and if you read between the lines, he gave them all their appropriate due. But he was also aware that these achievements were a dangerous stimulant. Nearly all of these advances had been come through the hands and minds of pagan philosophers, and from Augustine’s perspective, these accomplishments accomplished perilously little. In the end, does it matter that you can predict an eclipse of the sun if you don’t acknowledge the sun’s maker? Or to put it more bluntly, what is the value of being able to program a computer if you’re gonna go to hell when you die?

  • Do you agree with Augustine’s critique of natural science?
  • Does Augustine leave any room for a Christian to be a scientist? What would “Christian” science look like?

Scientific and Religious Conceptions of the World (5.5.8 – 5.5.9)

Although Augustine quite definitely believed that religious concerns should trump merely material scientific concerns, he held to at least a preliminary doctrine of “separate concerns”. It was a nearly fatal strike against Manichaeism that its cosmology appeared to contradict what was known scientifically. If Manichaeism had neglected to speak on scientific matters entirely, this would not have bothered Augustine; nor if individual Manichees had been misinformed would this have troubled him in the slightest. But Mani was claiming to speak under divine inspiration, and consequently, Augustine believed, we should expect that he would speak accurately on those matters. I don’t know the precise nature of the inaccuracies of which Augustine speaks, and haven’t been able to find good documentation on what those inaccuracies might have been. Perhaps Mani’s explanations of various physical phenomena simply disagreed with contemporary science but were not strictly falsifiable (such as his claim that the phases of the moon were related to the ascent of souls back to the original light); perhaps he made predictions which were not borne out by observation.

  • How much does it bother you that a particular religious scheme does not seem to be scientifically accurate? Under what circumstances would you expect Christianity either to confirm or to conform to science?
  • How do you deal with what seem to be disagreements between Biblical accounts of creation and contemporary scientific explanations?

Faustus (5.6.10 – 5.7.13)

Interestingly, Augustine’s mildly critical account of Faustus seems to differ somewhat from his later no-holds-barred attack on Faustus a few years later (in Reply to Faustus the Manichaean). In the Confessions, he says that Faustus was intelligent and well-spoken, and appropriately humble about the limitations of his own knowledge. However, he is unsparing in his criticism of him in his later work: perhaps because he was required to publically defend doctrines which Faustus had publically attacked, and because Augustine was dealing with Faustus not in his capacity as former friend and disciple, but as a bishop of the Catholic Church.

Rome (5.8.14 – 5.9.17)

The Academics (5.10.18 – 5.10.20)

Augustine had apparently been studying various contemporary and ancient philosophers for a while, but as the result of his growing dissatisfaction with the Manichaeans, decided to embark upon a systematic study of the philosophers. The school of thought which he found most congenial to his current state of mind was that of the Academics, philosophers of a skeptical turn who had established themselves in Plato’s Academy in Athens. They were primarily known to Augustine and his contemporaries through the writings of Cicero, especially his Academica. Their fundamental idea was the requirement of εποχη, suspension of judgment. They basically said, “You shouldn’t claim to know something unless you’ve got a pretty good reason to claim it. Under most circumstances, therefore, you would be wisest to withhold judgment.”

Despite this moderate skepticism, Augustine apparently continued to form and test theories about the fundamental nature of things. One of these theories, formed much earlier and continuing a firm hold on Augustine’s imagination, was that all of reality (even divine reality) was fundamentally material. God existed and was eternal, Augustine held, but was a substance of infinite extent, in conflict with evil, another eternal substance of infinite extent. This idea is basically a philosophically refined abstraction of Manichaeism: it’s the basic idea of Manichaeism, but without its silly, offensive and inaccurate cosmological ideas.

Milan (5.12.22 – 5.14.25)

Augustine’s stay in Rome was a brief one. He stayed there long enough to learn that students were effectively the same everywhere. The ones in Rome were, on the surface, better behaved, but scratch the surface, and they were still fallen. So when the opportunity came to pursue a career in government as a court rhetorician, he jumped at the opportunity. The result was that by the end of the year, he found himself in Milan, still teaching, but now living off a government salary.

One of the advantages Milan extended to this newly questing Augustine was the opportunity to observe and interact with Ambrose, the city’s influential and hyperactive bishop. As a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine was interested in Ambrose’s style of address, and although Ambrose was not at the level of Faustus in this regard, he nevertheless did not disappoint Augustine’s discerning ear. Furthermore, unlike Faustus, the more Augustine listened to Ambrose’s sermons, the more he found himself approving not just their style, but their content as well.

The net result was that Augustine found himself abandoning the Manichaeans, but his newly free allegiance remained torn between the philosophers and the church.

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