Back to St. Monica and her son, St. Augustine of Hippo. As long as we’re talking Confessions, I will confess something shameful: the first time I ever heard of St. Augustine (outside of the lovely turf grass) was on The Simpsons. Ned Flanders is about to baptize the Simpson children when Homer intervenes and the water hits him instead:
Bart: Wow, Dad, you took a baptismal for me. How do you feel?
Homer: [reverently] Oh, Bartholomew, I feel like St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan.
Ned: [gasps] Wait! Homer, what did you just say?
Homer: I said shut your ugly face, Flanders!
Ned: Oh, fair enough.*
Sadly, this is not the only example of my being exposed to culture via a cartoon.
But I digress.
My interest in St. Augustine (which apparently is pronounced a-GUST-in, not AUGUST-een, the way I’ve been pronouncing it) was piqued when I found out he was a disciple of Plato’s.
Perhaps disciple is the wrong word. Adherent.
Augustine was turned off by what he saw as the blind devotion to Christianity of his mother, Monica. He was an intellectual, and he wanted to know why Scripture did not always jibe with what he saw in the natural world. Much of the Old Testament in particular seemed absurd to him. How could the earth be created in six days, for example, if the sun was created on the fourth? Without the sun to mark days, there should have been no time before its creation!
Augustine’s turning point happened when in Milan he learned from St. Ambrose about neo-Platonism. Augustine read Plato for instruction in natural philosophy, the predecessor to science. Non-Christians of his era generally knew things about the planets and stars, so when a Christian said something that obviously contradicted reality, it irritated Augustine. Through reading Plato he began to try to follow Plato’s vision of the forms of the good and the beautiful and had a sudden vision of God. He realized that all truth is God’s truth, whether it comes from pagan Greeks or Scripture.
For the first time Augustine began to interpret Scripture as allegorical rather than literal, and in doing so he was able to see an intellectual component to it. Augustine came to believe that it’s our job to synthesize what we learn about the natural world with what we read in Scripture. As we learn more about the world, we need to update our interpretation of what we’re reading.
“It is a disgraceful and a dangerous thing for one without the faith to hear a Christian talking nonsense [about the natural world] when trying to give the meaning of Scripture,” Augustine wrote. In other words, if a Christian were wrong about a simple matter of reason or experience, why would a pagan believe him when he talked about something very difficult to comprehend, something that requires faith?**
To put it in modern terms, it’s like the fundamentalist Christian contention that the world is only a few thousand years old. Science clearly has shown that to be untrue. So when a fundamentalist continues to protest that Scripture says the earth is 6,000 years old, it causes non-Christians to think (or say), “What an idiotic religion.” That doesn’t do much for winning new converts.
Sometimes I wish I could be more like Monica, an unquestioning believer. It seems easier. But I am not wired that way. I question, and I challenge, and I hold back a part of myself from buying into the Christian faith. I’m enjoying learning about Augustine (who I’m still calling AUGUST-een in my head). His journey and transformation give me hope that I may be converted yet.
*Thank you to www.snpp.com for the quote and www.lardlad.com for the image.
**Much of this information I gleaned from the excellent lectures of Dr. Lawrence Principe in his series, “History of Science: Antiquity to 1700”
Categories: Brain Workouts