ST. AUGUSTINE AS A GUIDE TO HONORABLE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION OF CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS
[ NOTE: This was originally presented at the ACTC 2014 Annual Conference.]
My anxious heart races, Lord, in this impoverished life of mine, when the words of your Holy Scripture pound upon it. Too often, the poverty of human intelligence nonetheless leads to long discussions, for we use more words when we are inquiring than when we state the discovery of an answer; it takes longer to beg for something than to receive, and the hand that knocks works harder than the hand that receives.
Those who’ve had occasion to take up and read Augustine’s Confessionsoften stopped reading after the first nine biographical books. Maybe the material seemed too dense; maybe it was too abruptly philosophical after to the enlivening biographical portion; maybe it wasn’t assigned by the professor. Whatever the reason, too few have had the determination or the academic obligation to tackle the final, philosophical books (10—13). Some have noted that there were other ancient texts that started with biography and ended with a philosophical point, suggesting Augustine’s work was not as novel as some have assumed. Several scholars believethat Augustine’s work is a sort of archetypal or universal story of the human experience, including Marjorie Suchocki, following J. J. O’Meara and Robert J. O’Connell.
Despite the understandable temptation to spare undergraduates the distress of the final books, this portion of the text is precisely where Augustine can help students wrestle with the cognitive dissonance they are bound to experience in their studies. This paper will explore Augustine’s approach to the problem of underdetermination of data to theory, as it relates to interpretations of Genesis 1-3, and will explore how Augustine helps model important intellectual virtues, specifically humility and courage. It will conclude with reflections on ways Augustine has been helpful for fostering wise, honorable, and cultivated dialog amongst Lutheran, atheistic, and religiously diverse students at a church-affiliated university, even when the topic is the science of origins.
I teach at a Lutheran university, and one that, for the most part, is deeply committed to maintaining its distinct Lutheran identity and ethos. This presents both unique benefits and distinct challenges. A benefit is the importance of the doctrine of vocation; for us, vocation is not usually associated with pre-professional training, it is closer to Aristotle’s concept of telosthan to ITT Tech’s course catalog; it refers to God’s call in our lives to serve our neighbor, in our unique roles in life. We also believe that each individual has multiple, simultaneous vocations. Sometimes, these vocations present true dilemmas, wherein we must decide whether we are to fulfill the duties of one vocation over another. The most significant example of this, at my institution is the difficult task of distinguishing the vocation of an undergraduate professor, who must handle classic texts responsibly and critically, and the vocation of a representative of a particular denomination, who is called to faithfully represent and articulate the doctrine of a particular confession. In my tradition’s history, we have long emphasized the importance of the latter task, in which faculty have formed students in undergraduate religious education as well as seminary preparation for church callings. The former task, that of cultivating critical thinking and open dialog with undergraduates, has been a more delicate one in our circles, despite our deep roots in the liberal arts reforms of the sixteenth century, especially through humanist Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560).
To illustrate the environment for faculty in my institution, allow me to cite two texts from my circles. The first is “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973), a document from the apex of the LCMS’s civil war over seminary education and interpretation of Scripture. In the course of its statements it rejects the following ideas:
That recognition of the primary purpose of Scripture makes it irrelevant whether such questions of fact as the following are answered in the affirmative: Were Adam and Eve real historical individuals? Did Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land? Did the brazen serpent miracle actually take place? … (3)
That there are various “meanings” of a Biblical text or periscope to be discovered at various stages of its precanonical history, or that the meaning a canonical text has now may differ from the meaning it had when it was first written. (5)
That the question of whether certain events described in the Scripture actually happened is unimportant in view of the purpose and function of Holy Scripture. (9)
What is interesting about each of these rejected views is that the synod ventured not only to articulate and confess a doctrinal position, but also rejects those who assume that the doctrinal position is unimportant, uncertain, or open to multiple legitimate interpretations.
This becomes especially relevant when we approach controversies surrounding the interpretation of the Genesis creation account. In the spirit of the 1973 statement, a recent article by Joel Heck of Concordia University, Texas, in the April 14 edition of the Lutheran Witness, asserts a traditional position with confidence:
Solid research shows with a 99.99 percent degree of probability that Genesis 1 is historical narrative rather than figurative poetry. We can tell this simply by reading the chapter …. (17)
Here, the perspective that there are multiple possible interpretations of this ancient text is dismissed because the competing interpretations are too implausible to consider seriously.
I share these two quotations not to discuss their respective merits, nor to air dirty laundry, nor to weigh them against Augustine’s interpretation as a matter of theology. They serve instead to demonstrate a vexed problem for undergraduate professors who teach within an LCMS university. More importantly, they set up the context into which Augustine’s Confessions Book XII is valuably inserted as a core text.
Shortly after Charles Darwin came onto the scene, Catholic thinkers turned to Augustine to find a sophisticated response to the theory of evolution. In doing so, many found that a form of theistic evolution was compatible with the best minds of the church. Neither this paper nor the conversation in my classes seeks to use Augustine’s thinking on science for any authoritative purpose, or even to learn what Augustine thought precisely about the science of creation. Rather, we include it because Augustine’s approach to the perplexing subject of Genesis 1 serves as a model for intellectual virtue and scholarly ethos—a model that is valuable for students in every discipline.
We use Augustine both in Core Theology and Core Philosophy, though Book XII shows up in our philosophy reader, shortly after students grapple with Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism. In that selection, students wrestle with the following passage from chapter XXIV:
Indetermination is a state of mind in which we neither deny nor affirm any of the matters which are subjects of dogmatic inquiry, that is to say, non-evident. So, whenever the Sceptic says “All things are undetermined,” he takes the word “are” in the sense of “appear to him,” and by “all things” he means not existing things but the non-evident matter investigated by the Dogmatists …. [In other words, the skeptic states:] All the matters of Dogmatic inquiry which I have examined appear to me to be such that no one of them is preferable to the one in conflict with it in respect of credibility or incredibility. (166)
A student confronted with the words of professor Heck and the statement from Sextus Empiricus will be pulled in two directions. Are we to expect an education that results in definite, and highly probably conclusions, or should we expect to multiply questions about reality as we proceed through college?
With this question in mind, we bring core philosophy students to Augustine’s text. Operating from a Neo-Platonic perspective, he recognizes that many things are underdetermined, but suggests that we ought to nonetheless commit ourselves to the quest for truth, and asserts that, while our interpretations of certain mysterious texts might indeed be underdetermined, we ought to take an interpretive stand and confess our commitments faithfully, even while we respect those who hold to alternate interpretations.
Augustine’s thoughtful approach here fits well with James Mannoia’s stages of development for undergraduate students, expressed in his book Christian Liberal Arts: An Education That Goes Beyond (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). These stages include:
1. Naïve dualism. Here a student senses that interpretations are rather straightforward and reflect relatively certain answers to most questions.
2. Naïve relativism. At this stage, students experience cognitive dissonance as they are confronted by so many new, competing ideas that they become pessimistic about discovering any definite answers.
3. Critical commitment. At this final stage, which sometimes fails to materialize until after an undergraduate education, students learn to humbly, and sometimes tentatively, use their research, reason and experience to assert commitments and act accordingly.
Pedagogues cannot force students through these stages, but they can cultivate an ethos that will facilitate student progress toward critical commitment. And for this, Augustine is invaluable, for it is he who argues for an ethos that cultivates the virtues of humility and courage. Humility causes students to be cautious about facile interpretations of texts and pushes them beyond naïve dualism. Courage causes them to, ultimately and critically, take a stand as to the best interpretation of data. He demonstrates this ethos well in the last section of the Confessions.
The backdrop of Book XII includes remark in Book XI, wherein Augustine defends the right of an intellectual to inquire into difficult topics. “This is my reply to anyone who asks: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ My reply is not that which some is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said ‘He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question and to win approval for an answer which is a mistake.” (229) In other words, Augustine prepares for his discussion in Book XII by establishing the right to inquire, by recognizing that we sometimes don’t know our own intellectual blind spots, and by indicating that the intellectual life should be characterized by a charitable ethos.
Then, throughout Book XII, he seems almost giddy, as he delights in contemplating questions that are important but offer no certain resolutions, with the exception that Genesis contains truth.
Augustine suggests that a formless universe was created ex nihiloby God, that is an “almost nothing” but not “absolute nothingness” before there were any days. (XII.iii) Instead of long, gradual time, he seems to prefer to think of the creation account as related to an instantaneous pattern that came to the mind of God. This formless, invisible matter, he says, is “not counted among the days of creation” because without form, order, or movement, there is no time. Thus the absolute age of the universe is underdetermined for Augustine, or—more precisely—it is an irrelevant question, given his philosophy of time (XII.ix). Contemplating this inspires awe and prayer: “Speak to me,” he cries out, “instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysteries indeed.” This sentiment is important for students to carry with them as they investigate any text or set of data. Augustine can go through this work of inquiry because he assumes first that God is above time. Thus, he asks God “what are your ‘days’ but your eternity, as are ‘your years which do not fail, because you are the same?” To this same God he prays that God would make the proper interpretation of the days of creation clear to him. In the meantime he prays “may I dwell calmly under your wings.” (XII.xii)
When Augustine launches into his interpretation of Genesis 1, he calls it “my provisional interpretation.” (XII.xiii) Then he writes:
What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing. To concentrate on it is to experience awe—the awe of adoration before its transcendence and the trembling of love. (XIII.xiv)
The following paragraphs are filled with phrases like “one interpretation,” “another interpretation,” and “a yet further interpretation.” He occasionally inserts a warning about the wellbeing of students. For instance, he writes “After hearing and considering all these interpretations, I do not wish to ‘quarrel about words, for that is good for nothing but the subversion of the hearers.” (XII.xviii) Finally, he admits that one might become distressed by all the possible interpretations.
So what difficulty is it for me when the words [of Genesis] can be interpreted in so many ways, provided only that the interpretations are true? What difficulty is it for me, I say, if I understand the text in a way different from someone else, who understands the scriptural author in another sense? … As long as each interpreter is endeavoring to find in the holy scriptures the meaning of the author who wrote it, what evil is it if an exegesis he gives is one shown to be true by you … even if the author whom he is reading did not have that idea and, though he had grasped a truth, had not discerned that seen by the interpreter? (XII.xvii)
His approach to underdetermination is one in which he is willing to exclude impossible or unlikely interpretations. Nonetheless, he says that there are several interpretations that could possibly be true, that he is unable to determine which, if any, is what Moses had in mind, and suggests is possible that several interpretations might simultaneously be correct.
Before concluding his discussion, he weighs in on the spirit of uncharitable dogmatists. He writes a delightful bit of prayer in which he prepares mentally and spiritually for the opposition: “pour a softening rain into my heart that I may bear such critics with patience (plue mihi mitigationes in cor, ut patienter tales feram).” (XXII.xxv) Then he throws a punch and suggests that they aren’t really as certain about their interpretation as they seem. Rather, they are intellectual gangsters interested in what we might identify as sociological signals of group identity rather than reasoned opinions. “They have no knowledge of Moses’ opinion at all,” he writes “but love their own opinion not because it is true, but because it is their own. Otherwise, they would equally respect another true interpretation as valid, just as I respect what they say when their affirmation is true, not because it is theirs, but because it is true. [But]Even if they were right, yet their position would be the temerity not of knowledge but of audacity. It would be the product not of insight but of conceit.”
Thus, we come to the important takeaway for applying this reading to core philosophy undergraduate education: Augustine demonstrates it is possible to commit to an interpretive stand without denying the intellectual integrity of differing interpreters. The thoughtful stance for Augustine is that of competing interpreters standing shoulder-to-shoulder around a text, suggesting interpretations and asking questions. It is not primarily one of face-to-face polemics. The best summary of this charitable spirit is his statement in XII.xxx: “May all of us who, as I allow, perceive and affirm that these texts contain various truths, show love to one another, and equally may we love you, our God, fount of truth—if truth is what we are thirsting after and not vanity.” His recognition of at least some cases of underdetermination is not, ultimately, unsettling, since he maintains faith that truth will prevail, and that faithful inquirers will one find what they seek, even if that must wait until the beatific vision. This is important to Augustine, who enjoyed working on a theologia viatorum, or theology for wayfaring strangers and pilgrims. For this reason, even the Confessionsdo not conclude with an air of finality; as Matthewes has observed, the fact that the last word of the work is aperieturor “shall be opened” indicates Augustine’s belief that a “faithful life is a project of resisting our always premature attempts at conclusion.”
Following Augustine’s lead, professors with a seminary vocation may remain stalwart and focus on teaching the tradition of the sponsoring church body. Meanwhile, undergraduate professors in the same church body have a different vocation, which includes critical thinking skills and civil dialog. By reading Book XII of the Confessions, undergrads—even undergrads with strong commitments to a distinct religious identity—can engage in a core class about a divisive topic, with atheists and members of different confessional identities. It allows each student to recognize the merits of alternative positions without forcing them into some generic, non-offensive position. It allows people to assert their identities boldly without creating a hostile ethos. Likewise, non-religious students can enjoy a class in theology because the text itself is inviting warm dialog about issues that matter.
On the structure of the work see Annemaré Kotzé, “‘The Puzzle of the Last Four Books of Augustine’s Confessions’: An Illegitimate Issue?” Vigiliae Christianae60.1 (2006): 65-79. As Kotzé rightly notes, the ancient reader of the Confessions, would not have been as surprised as today’s readers that the last three books move from earthly experiences to discussions about time, eternity, and inquiry into the origins of creation. She argues that they would have expected not the sort of autobiography with which we are familiar, but rather a lengthy conversion narrative leading to a philosophical essay.
Marjorie Suchocki, “The Symbolic Structure of Augustine’s Confessions,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50.3 (1982): 365-78.
For a summary of the possible connections between evolutionary thought and Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis, see Kevin Guinagh, “Saint Augustine and Evolution,” The Classical Weekly40.4 (1946): 26-31.
For an examination of Augustine’s understanding of hermeneutics, see Brenda Deen Schildgen “Augustine’s Answer to Jacques Derrida in the Doctrina Christiana” New Literary History, 25.2 (1994): 383-97.
Charles T. Matthewes, “The Liberation of Questioning in Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 70.3 (2002): 539.