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Augustine of Hippo: A Role Model for Intelligent Faith

The tug of war between religion and science was settled 1,600 years ago by a North African Bishop. As always, those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.
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The tug of war between religion and science was settled 1,600 years ago by a North African Bishop. As always, those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.

The path to sainthood was a meandering one for Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (Augustine of Hippo). Born in 354 in Tagaste, a city in what was then Roman North Africa (now Souk Ahras, Algeria), Augustine was the product of a "mixed" marriage: a devoutly Christian mother and an incorrigibly promiscuous pagan father. After some youthful hooliganism and sexual adventurism (probably exaggerated), Augustine settled in with a concubine and began searching for the truth. He preferred Latin over Greek, Cicero and Virgil to Aristotle. He was smart -- a cocky, snot-nosed kind of smart that irritated his elders. To his mother's distress, he found the Christian scriptures far too humble to be of much value. His intellect wandered along with his romantic interests, ranging over Manichaeism, skepticism and Platonism, but nothing satisfied. Then to Milan and a mentor, Ambrose, who could challenge and chastise with equal aplomb. Finally a voice -- "take and read" -- and Christianity claimed her most formidable intellectual prize.

As with most converts, Augustine took passionately to the new faith but the passion was tempered by an outsider's critical eye. For him, Christianity could not be just a simple, comforting faith -- too boring! Instead, it must be the culmination of man's unceasing search for wisdom. Now the cleric-scholar, Augustine wrote voluminously, becoming the leading intellect of his age and earning the respect of even modern-day atheist philosophers. Bertrand Russell, who did not think much of Aquinas, held Augustine in high regard.

In our time, some religious folks have chosen a distinctly anti-intellectualist route. Creationists, "intelligent-designers," and Biblical literalists seem hell-bent on wearing ignorance as a badge of piety. History repeats itself. In Augustine's time, the great issue was not religion and science or religion and evolution, but Christianity and the corpus of classical learning. With the Roman Empire crumbling, increasingly it was left to the Christian Church to either incorporate or abandon the great Classical intellectual tradition. Centuries before Augustine, some church fathers had already chosen ignorance. Tertullian famously proclaimed: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church? ... We have no need for curiosity since Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry since the Evangel."

Augustine would have none of this. With fist-pounding certainty he argued that reason was as critical to faith as revelation. Alarmed by his stance, a fellow Bishop, Consentius, wrote to remind Augustine that "God is not to be sought after by reason but followed through authority." Setting collegiality aside, Augustine's response was unusually blunt:

You say that truth is to be grasped more by faith than by reason ... Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not believe if we did not have rational souls.

Reason was essential to a correct understanding of the Bible. Yes, the Bible should be taken literally where it makes sense to do so, Augustine would instruct. But where it obviously contradicts our everyday experience, we must search for other meanings. In The City of God (16.7), for example, Augustine discusses Noah's Ark and how it was that animals were present on distant islands so soon after the great flood:

[I]t is asked how they [various wild animals] could be found in the islands after the deluge ... It might, indeed, be said that they crossed to the islands by swimming, but this could only be true of those very near the mainland; whereas there are some so distant that we fancy no animal could swim to them ... they were produced out of the earth as at their first creation ... this makes it more evident that all kinds of animals were preserved in the ark, not so much for the sake of renewing the stock, as of prefiguring the various nations that were to be saved in the Church.

Wait a minute, St. Augustine, do that again. Noah didn't literally save all the earth's animals on the ark? (How could a good Catholic Bishop have never heard the Irish Rovers' unicorn song?) It's representational, you say, the Church saving the nations of the earth? But we've got Ark museums now that show us how Noah did it. They found the actual Ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey, didn't they? Five hundred years before any European thought of using a fork for dinner, Augustine already understood that the Bible required critical interpretation, not a mere wide-eyed scan. What must he be thinking about some Christians today?

Actually, we don't need to ask. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (1.19), Augustine is pretty clear about what he thinks of stupid Christians. After reminding Christians that many non- believers are well-versed in such areas as astronomy, biology, and geology, he admonishes them against blithely using scriptures as a basis for lecturing intelligent non-believers on these topics:

Now, it is a disgraceful and a 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.

If a Christian shows himself to be ignorant and foolish, then can the religion and its scriptures be any less so?

If they [non-believers] 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?

To be sure, Augustine's views on religious tolerance, sin, and sexuality can offend modern sensibilities. He did not always transcend his times (few do). But his instance that reason was as much God's gift as revelation provided the foundation for the "Truth (of reason) cannot contradict Truth (of revelation)" dictum later championed so vigorously by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The best of the Christian intellectual tradition offers no comfort or cover to today's foolish Christians who ignore science and reason in a misguided effort to guard the faith. Their timidity and intellectual cowardice soil the proud edifice great Christian thinkers of the past toiled so hard to erect.

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