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Augustine of Hippo: A Saint for the 21st century

Augustine’s conversion did not dispel his intellectual curiosity, but instead gave it a new orientation.

Detail from image of statue of St. Augustine, carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini [c.1650; WikiArt.org]

Thanks to the myth of there being a perpetual war between science and religion, even broad-minded unbelievers are liable to think the faithful are trying to effect damage control when we emphasize that the Bible is not a science textbook. Yet long, long before the Galileo affair, the widespread acceptance of Darwinian theory, or any other episode which supposedly discredits the Faith, one of the very greatest Doctors himself pointed out that the purpose of revelation is to tell us how to get to heaven rather than how the heavens go.

Saint Augustine, in The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, warns that it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, in speaking through the prophets, “to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” Pondering the day of Creation, Augustine concludes that “”at least we know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar”:

We see that our ordinary days have no evening but by the [sun’s] setting and no morning but b the rising of the sun, but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly believe it.

Clearly Augustine’s conversion did not dispel his intellectual curiosity, but instead gave it a new orientation.

It should come as no surprise that such a perceptive thinker’s reflections on creation and time should be cited generations later by non-Christian scientists such as Paul Davies. Or, for that matter, that a modified version of the Augustinian dictum Credo ut intellegam should be adopted by the famous Lutheran Werner Heisenberg (1901-76), who in his defense of classical education drew upon a revised version, Credo, ut agam; ago, ut intellegam:

This saying is relevant not only to the first voyages around the world, it is relevant to the whole of Western science, and also to the whole mission of the West […] Nobody knows what the future will hold and what spiritual forces will govern the world, but our first step is always an act of faith in something and a wish for something. We wish that spiritual life may once again blossom here, that here in Europe thoughts may continue to grow and shape the face of the world.

As some readers are no doubt already aware, Heisenberg was a peer of Einstein and one of the founders of quantum mechanics. So it is demonstrably untrue to say that the great men of modern science stand in uniform opposition to the Church Fathers.

In any event, as edifying as Augustine’s remarks about nature and the intellectual life may be, at least as important to our morally confused age are his observations about ethics and the problem of evil. Under the spell of various ideologies so many today walk the same Manichean path that the youthful Augustine himself once trod prior to coming into the Church. Later in life, as a Christian, Augustine would realize the enormously significant truth that evil has no essence.

Saints have an appropriate love for each and every person and thing in Creation, with their highest love—adoration—directed toward God. Sin, by contrast, is committed whenever a man “inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses,” and is not to be blamed upon the things in themselves, which are inherently (albeit not supremely) good. In practical terms, as Augustine explained in City of God, sin is the result of disordered love:

For avarice is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold, to the detriment of justice, which ought to be held in incomparably higher regard than gold. Neither is luxury the fault of lovely and charming objects, but of the heart that inordinately loves sensual pleasures, to the neglect of temperance […] Pride, too, is not the fault of him who delegates power, nor of power itself, but of the soul that is inordinately enamored of its own power, and despises the more just dominion of a higher authority.

To apply this insight to the political pandaemonium that is postmodernity, the problem with the extreme nationalist or feminist or libertarian is not that the person in question may cherish nationality or women’s dignity or liberty, for all of these are indeed good and worthy and have a place in any just society. No, the problem with ideologues is that they adhere to such objects of devotion inordinately, to the utter exclusion of myriad other things which may have a claim upon them – honesty, for example, or the unborn child, or the public good.

The cure for ideology lies not in trying to cynically debunk commitments or ideals which are in themselves noble, but in placing all lesser loves under the rule of charity. Love is never forbidden. Rather, the challenge is to love rightly and in accord with Creation’s God-given harmony. This is of course easier said than done, both in the political realm and in our everyday lives. In striving for this high ideal, however, we are always free to call upon the aid of the Bishop of Hippo.


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About Jerry Salyer 37 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor living in Franklin County, Kentucky.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you Jerry. As an ex-Southern Baptist convert to Catholicism myself, I always think about my parents watching the Billy Graham Evangelism shows and how Beverly Shea would sing about a God bigger than science, religion or anything the human mind can possible conceive: “Oh Lord, my God when I in awesome wonder…”. You know the key is ‘Wonder’ – as Pascal pointed out we keep looking for God and we find clues but he remains hidden, (I actually converted to Catholicism because of the liberating freedom of being able to think and doubt and re-think and question and resolve existentialism of St. Augustine). And in this glorious hide-and-seek for God, what wonderful human intellectual delights were produced and continue to be produced; Great aha moments as diverse as ‘Hamlet’, entropy, chow mein, 1/x as x approaches 0, ‘The Ethics’, The King James version of the Bible, action and equal/opposite reaction, Be-bop, the great pyramids of Giza, ‘Napoleon Dynamite…For me when I am bummed by the weight of the world and the ever growing influence of Satan’s liberalism mob-mentality, but as a Catholic it is a gift from God that in the great works of science and art I can find all roads pointing to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.

  2. Salyer writes: “Clearly Augustine’s conversion did not dispel his intellectual curiosity, but instead gave it a new orientation.”

    Right on, it was Augustine’s consistent intellectual curiosity that not only was not dispelled, but that first freed him from Manichaeism. The Manichaeans lost his vote because they very wrong about astronomy:

    “I compared them [observations and mathematical calculations on creation, succession of seasons, stars] with the pronouncements of Mani, who in the course of his raving had written very extensively on these matters, but in his works I found no explanation of solstices, equinoxes, or the eclipse of the greater lights, and nothing such as I had learned in the books on natural philosophy. But I was ordered to believe the things he wrote and this belief did not agree with those proofs established by mathematics and by my own eyes, but was far different” (Confessions, Book 5, Ch. 3).

    St. Augustine’s counsel to Christian apologists (also in his Literal Reading of Genesis), therefore, is to avoid the same kind of theologizing too much about what is actually natural science. Potential converts deserve better.

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