Confessions Book 5

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

In Book 5, Augustine ends his relationship with the Manichees and becomes a Christian catechumen. This roundabout process takes him from Carthage to Rome, then to Milan. Our pluralistic age has something to learn from this passage, for it frame-by-frame illustrates the process by which a person comes to a religious de-conversion: Zeal gives way to questions, questions left unanswered form doubts, doubts unresolved engender detachment.

Augustine’s account undercuts two ditches of Christian apologetics – fideism and evidentialism. A fideist would assert that since religious commitment is an ultimate, heart commitment which cannot be justified rationally, evidences and arguments are useless; only proclamation remains. An evidentialist assumes that faith, like any other belief, is produced when arguments render that belief probable. Thus, apologetics/evangelism (there is little distinction) are essentially giving reasons to reduce doubt.

Neither of those approaches sits well with Augustine’s account. Augustine’s dissatisfaction with the Manichees began with the discrepancy between astronomical predictions and their teachings. Two statements illustrate the stifling fideism of the Manichees: “I did not notice any rational account… yet I was ordered to believe Mani” (iii.6) and, “Ignorance of the liberal arts is compatible with holding authentic piety, but not if one is a Manichee” (vii.12). He is able to hold his doubts at bay for awhile, assured by his friends that when Faustus comes, he will be able to give an answer. But Faustus cannot, and Augustine’s zeal is quenched. The soul cannot bear a fundamental divorce of reason and faith.

On the other hand, Augustine would not approve of an evidentialist approach to Christian apologetics. A man can have faith without a scientific knowledge of nature (and here we might add a convincing account of the historicity of the Gospels). Even if he does have such knowledge, he “is not on that account happier. You alone are his source of happiness if knowing you he glorifies you for what you are and gives thanks and is not lost in his own imagined ideas” (iv.7). Argumentation is not necessary for a person to come to faith, and hearing convincing disputations and good sermons is not sufficient, if the soul is still in the grip of some blasphemous idea. Moreover, throughout Confessions and elsewhere in his corpus, Augustine is clear that the faith that God gives is a certain assurance, not the accretion of probabilities, which is all an evidentialist can offer.

So, we might say that apologetics has a sort of negative function in conversion. It cannot bring someone to faith, but often God will use human rational arguments as secondary instruments to display the emptiness of non-Christian ideas. On a similar line of thinking, this suggests to us that giving a coherent view of life and the universe is a most Christian duty. Augustine criticizes Mani on this account:

He had very much to say about the world, but was convicted of ignorance by those who really understand these things, and from this one can clearly know what understanding he had in other matters which are harder to grasp…. He even tried to persuade people that the Holy Spirit, the comforter and enricher of your faithful people, was with plenary authority personally present in himself. So when he was found out, saying quite mistaken things aobut the heaven and stars and the movements of sun and moon, though these matters have nothing to do with religion, it was very clear that his bold speculations were sacrilegious. (v.8)

Without acceding to a naive view of science, that the current body of scientific opinion is inviolable or even correct, Christians cannot afford to let their articulation of the universe and the scientific articulation drift apart. To do so is to place thinking people in an unnecessary dilemma in which either choice is injurious. This is true in the natural and biological sciences, in which Christians really need to come to grips with the evolution problem. One approach may be to come to a synthesis which respects both theology and evolutionary science, but I confess I have not yet read one which doesn’t leave one party feel like a loser. Another is to create a serious creation science, a movement that actually contributes to scientific achievement and dissociates itself from hairbrained Seventh Day Adventist prophecies. So far I have been unimpressed with the creation science movement. However, the “I believe in creation as a Christian and in evolution as a scientist” idea simply needs to die. As Augustine would say, it is simply sacrilegious.

History is another area that needs this Augustinian critique. All of Scripture. perhaps most crucially the Gospels, makes historical claims. These claims may either be defended or abandoned, but they cannot be quarantined in a salvation-history or subjective history that does not interact with a “secular” history. Such an arrangement may in one sense protect Christian doctrine from secular assault, but it also protects non-Christian ideas from Christian correction; furthermore, it operates on an assuredly false premise, that Christianity needs protection.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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