Augustine, the cosmos and the self

Karla Pollmann, Professor of Classics and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Kent, talks to Nigel Bovey about the influence of early Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo on contemporary thought.

Professor Pollmann, you have written four books and numerous academic papers about the early Church Father Augustine of Hippo, who was born in North Africa in the 4th century. What fascinates you about him?

Augustine is one of the craziest early Church Fathers. He is the person in antiquity we have most texts of and he has written on practically everything the world bothers about – love and sex, war and peace, manual labour, justice. He is an exceptional communicator and arguably the most influential early Christian thinker in the Western world.

He is the author of at least one piece of world literature, because at the very end of the 4th century he wrote Confessions, a book narrating the story of his conversion to Christianity in his mid-thirties.

As a philosopher, he adored Plato and Cicero but then went on to pose questions that are still relevant today – questions about the self, conscience and evil. His insights into psychology are unmatched in that period of history. For example, one of his best-known questions is: What do I do when I steal pears? His answer is: I steal not because I am hungry but because I love the very act of stealing.

What major insights did Augustine give into questions about God?

In the polytheism of the ancient world, people believed that it was possible to bridge the gap between themselves and the gods by working hard at their moral attitude and behaviour. Likewise, many early Christians believed that they could bridge the gap between themselves and God through their own efforts and that Jesus Christ would help them. Augustine challenged that view. He said that if it needed a divine act of salvation – for which, in his mercy, God offered himself through his Son – humanity must have been unfathomably bad. Otherwise such a sacrifice would not have been required. He said that humans could not be the forgers of their own destiny. It is all God’s grace.

The concepts of salvation by God’s grace and personal faith in Christ are foundational to the theology expressed in the biblical writings of the apostle Paul. They are key to the Protestant perspective. Yet Augustine is also revered within the Catholic tradition.

Against a pagan culture based on different assumptions, Augustine amplified Paul’s teachings about God’s grace, and the Protestant tradition is steeped in that perspective. Augustine also saw a person’s faith as an act of God’s grace.

However, Augustine’s work is rich and complex. Five million of his words still exist, written over a period of 44 years. During that time, he sometimes changed his mind or accentuated things differently. He can be admired by opposite groups: for instance, he appeals to just-war theorists and pacifists; feminists and patriarchs. Likewise, Augustine can be called the Father of Catholicism and the Father of Protestantism.

The younger Augustine was more optimistic and influenced by the pagan tradition that believed in the human possibility of self-salvation. This is the part that still has a bearing on Catholic thought.

What would Augustine say to new atheist voices who describe religious faith as a blind leap in the teeth of evidence?

Theirs is not a new accusation. Augustine admitted that he found it impossible to convince a pagan intellectual by argument. Augustine tried to find knock-down arguments about God. Eventually he concluded, as many others subsequently have done, that at some point one has to satisfy oneself that there are things that are real or fundamentally relevant but cannot be proved.

While individuals might ridicule or belittle religious faith, in his work About the Usefulness of Faith, Augustine makes the point that no society can function without faith. Faith and trust hang together. Financial systems are built on trust – the word ‘credit’ is Latin for ‘he or she has trust’. Scientists cannot do science without putting their trust in observations. Science is not based on absolute proof. Scientists can prove only a tiny fraction of what they believe to be true.

Over time, scientific ‘tooth fairies’ are debunked. How 15th-century ‘scientists’ interpreted the world would today be regarded as surreal, because as more evidence becomes available, so science changes.

Augustine regarded nature as indicative of a Creator. Is the likes of a beautiful sunset evidence for God?

I am not against the view of a person looking at a sunset, marvelling at its beauty and concluding that someone must have made it. My concern, though, is that this contains an idea of somehow taming God, trying to control him, saying that we have understood the formula. For me, God is exactly the opposite. As Augustine said, God is the ‘ultimate other’ and our human autonomy paradoxically consists in focusing on something which we know we cannot control. God is elusive. He is not a delusion; he is an elusion.

It is to Augustine that we owe deep thoughts about God’s transcendence. God is not on a distant pedestal but is in us as well as all around us. Augustine emphasised the idea that God is love. For him, God’s love is the gravity that gives direction, meaning and joy to our lives. He said that ‘any idiot can study the world like a scientist’, but understanding God’s word and the mystery of our own existence is a billion times more challenging.

Science tells us that there was no time before the big bang. How does that fit with Augustine’s understanding of time?

Augustine once said: ‘If you don’t ask me what time is, I know. But as soon as you ask me what time is, I do not know.’ He said that the present does not exist. We can think about time only in terms of what has happened or what will happen, because we cannot grasp the instant of the present.

According to Augustine, God created time with the universe. Time did not exist before the beginning of the world. Modern science agrees with this. Augustine comes from the Platonic tradition, which says that eternity is where the laws of time do not work any more. Eternity in this sense is not a very long time, rather it is timelessness.

Does Augustine’s view agree with the modern science that says the universe came about through a singularity?

Pre-Socratic and other pagan philosophers believed that the cosmos was eternal. (Years later, scientists termed this the ‘steady-state’ model of the universe.) Augustine disagreed. He said the universe had a beginning and an end.

The big bang theory was first put forward by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and professor of physics in the first half of the 20th century. Initially, some scientists accused him of trying to bring the Bible into science by the back door. Now, it is widely accepted as the scientific working model.

A new atheist argument is that the world can be explained only by rational thought and scientific insight. What would Augustine’s response be?

Augustine said there were two books through which we can explore and explain the world – the book of the Bible and the book of nature. They are not in opposition but give complementary accounts of the world.

Augustine wrote the book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. What did he mean by ‘literal’?

For Augustine, literalism is a scheme that strives for a renewable, fresh understanding of the Bible. It involves the repeated close reading of the biblical text and fighting for its meaning. When it comes to exegesis – the critical interpretation of the text – he says that it is legitimate, within the parameters of the basic Christian rule of faith, to apply your own interpretation of what God through the Bible is saying to you.

To him, the Bible was God-inspired. Therefore, its whole meaning is unfathomable. This is an indication that God is in control. By contrast, the fundamentalists claim to have total understanding and control of God’s intention. That is dangerous.

How did Augustine read the Bible’s six-day timescale for Creation?

Like the early Jewish philosopher Philo and the early Christian thinker Origen, Augustine said there was simultaneous creation. Everything was created in what is now called the big bang. The biblical creation account in Genesis is, therefore, not a chronological sequence but a logical sequence.

Science and the Bible are presented as authoritative. Some scientists and some Christians argue that the authority of their respective world view cancels out the other. Some scientists say that the Bible is a fairytale so we can dismiss it. Some Christians say that, because the Bible is God’s word, then a six-times-24-hour Creation and an 6,000-to-8,000-year-old Earth follow by necessity.

Problems arise when people treat the Bible as a science statement. As a classics scholar, I know that the Bible is not a scientific textbook. If science has evidence that the planet is billions of years old rather than thousands, why can that voice not be heard? Personally, it makes no difference to my understanding of God. Surely, if God is outside time, he can stomach a few extra noughts.

As the word of God, the Bible reveals what God is like. It describes such qualities as his wisdom, eternity and love. These are not things that can be examined and quantified by science. So, neither ‘side’ has the tools to interpret each other’s insights. Ultimately, though, this faith-science ‘conflict’ is not about content; it is about control – who controls the narrative and, ultimately, who controls the world view.

Augustine said that ‘the authority of the Bible is greater than human genius’. Was that about control?

This is often quoted as a slogan taken out of context. It comes from The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. The word ‘authority’ comes from Latin, and in its original sense means ‘augmentation’ – so it is a method of bolstering your point of view with some additional means in order to make others accept your point of view.

If one looks at Augustine’s writings as a whole, it is evident that he accepted reason as a path to truth but also that he saw something in the Bible that transcends reason. To him, although faith in God contains reason, reason is not God nor is reason the ultimate goal.

If one thinks carefully about it, what Augustine said in that quote about authority is not a threat to free thinking but a declaration of liberation. In effect, he is saying that in whichever age and whatever the level of human genius, the Bible will still be relevant. It will still have the answers to the human condition. It will still provide insight and comfort. So rather than indicating that the Bible suppresses human reason, he insists that the human mind should stop controlling the Bible. Instead of control, he is pleading for continued dialogue.

How much of what Augustine believed in do you believe in?

Augustine says there are two great riddles – the cosmos and the self. For me, because both are unfathomable, we need God to help us make sense of life.

What Augustine says about God’s unending love and our being created towards God are wonderful thoughts – true anthropology. That we are not secure in ourselves is, for me, a ‘proof’ of God’s existence.

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission

Image: Portrait painting of St Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century