Agustine against the literalists

by Jamie Lutton

Today, I read that the Texas board of Education are fighting  (again) about putting the theory of evolution into public school textbooks. They argued until midnight one night,  as a few creationists on the board were not happy with natural selection being taught, without teaching creationism and intelligent design along with it it as 'competing' theories.

They also objected to seeing any discussion of  climate change being included in the science textbooks, since they believed that climate change had not been proved (or was a liberal hoax).
None of the board members who protested had any sort of science background..

I found this quote from the ancient world that addresses this, from  St Augustine writings, in his massive commentary on The Bible, called The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, written in 408 AD.

Check this out.

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and 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.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they 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?

 Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.
For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position,' although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion'. [1 Timothy 1.7]”

What we see here is that St. Augustine was dealing with Christian fools and fanatics who refused to accept rational observation that contradicted the Bible. He  argues that reason does trump 'mischievous false opinions'.

You note that St. Augustine accepted the miracles or acts of God in the Bible, because the science that could contradict these absolutely had not yet been developed.

But he  stated repeatedly that as new knowledge was (attained), opinions on miracles, sin and the nature of man, etc,  would and could change. .He clearly favors reason and science over slavish devotion to any  belief in the Bible being literally true.

St. Augustine was a convert to Christianity late in life. He made his living teaching and writing. He lived in what is now Algeria, in part of the extended Roman Empire of the early Fifth century, just before it's fall.
What he is known for, outside his philosophical and theological writings, is the systematic training of teachers.
He introduced the idea that there were three kinds of students, and instructed teachers  to distinguish between them, and tailor their instruction accordingly.

The student who was  (already) well educated by good teachers, The student who has had a poor education, and the student who has had a poor education, but believes himself to be well educated.

Briefly: the first two are much easier to teach and that last. Students who have already been educated, the goal is to challenge them to expand their knowledge.. The poorly educated  student the teacher must be patient with, and encourage. But the last must be impressed with the difference between "Having words and having understanding.", and is the most difficult to teach.

This is close to the Buddhist saying that a full cup cannot take any more water, or cannot learn.
I had the luck to be raised by a Christian father who was also a working scientist (chemist), so I was raised to think science did not conflict with belief in God.

He challenged reading Shakespeare to me, encouraging me to be interested in politics, and giving me books to read. Often I was stubborn, , thinking I knew more than I did. He taught by example, though, best of all, by showing he was still learning. I found his copy of T. S. Eliot's poetry, all marked up in pencil with academic notes. I asked him if it was his 'college copy' and he said no, he had studied it on his own much later.  This impressed me mightily. So, I read and try to write about what I have read, and Try to keep learning.


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