Thursday, October 27, 2005

Philosophy Paper Number 2

Meh, blogger bothers me. I had this whole preamble to my paper written out and when I went to preview it and come back it disappeared. The general gist of it is this: I still have no clue what my professor is looking for, as he said about my last paper that I didn't stay clost to the text. So in this one...text. Lots of it. I fear now that it errs too much on the side of being a summary, but oh well. The conclusion is where it's starting to get interesting, though there are a few tidbits in the paper itself that would be really neat to delve into a little more, if I had the ability to do it in such a way that it connected back.

Where Can Truth Be Found?

Saint Augustine’s Confessions and On Christian Teaching demonstrate his attitude toward secular learning and suggests how one should go about searching for Truth. Augustine characterizes God as entirely good, unchanging and eternal, omnipresent, and as Truth itself, and this characterization of God allows for different approaches to Truth. In each book, he takes a different angle as to how one can relate to this Truth. Confessions recounts Augustine’s personal discovery of Truth and relates his story to how others can come into a similar relationship with God. On the other hand, On Christian Teaching is less personal and more abstract – about how one can find truth in secular learning and apply it to understanding the truth in Scripture.

Confessions outlines Augustine’s journey of how he came to a fuller understanding and acceptance of the Christian faith. He wrote this book to God as a confession of his life before becoming a Christian, and throughout the text he acknowledges God’s guidance even in the midst of his sinful ways. He recognized that throughout his life, God never forsook him and was continually striving to bring Augustine into a relationship with God. At one point he mentions, “But your mercy is unknown to sinners such as I was then, though step by step, unwittingly, I was coming closer to it” (Confessions 107). He constantly repeats how he was looking for God in all the wrong places outside himself, yet once he “entered into the depths of [his] soul” (Confessions 146), he discovered the Light of God.

According to Augustine, one must go beyond one’s memory in order to reach God. In Book X, he describes going past the power of the soul and the power of the senses, arguing that these features are not unique to human experience. He writes of the soul, “this is not the power by which I can find my God, for if it were, the horse and the mule, senseless creatures, could find him too, because they also have this same power which gives life to their bodies” (Confessions 213). Animals also have this ability to perceive the world through the senses, so Augustine concludes that he must go further than this in order to reach God. He also didn’t find God by the means which one experiences the outside world – through the senses. His desire for Truth led him to apply it to ideas and things other than God: a mistress and the teachings of the Manicheans. He searched for Truth in these different places, but did not find it.

It was only when he turned and looked inward did he find God. God was found in his memory, “since the time when [he] first learned of [God]” (Confessions 230). God had always been present in his memory, and for this reason, Augustine had never forgotten God. While he was searching for God out in the world, God was actually with him and within him (Confessions 231). He says to God, “You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted even my own self. I could not find myself, much less find you” (Confessions 92). Self-realization led him to a point where he could recognize that God was already inside of himself.

Though Augustine narrates his own personal journey of discovery, his asserts that every person is able to find God. While the wicked do not know Christ, the mediator between humanity and God, they have only to “turn back, and they will find [God] in their hearts” (Confessions 92). This assumes that everyone has a means by which they can personally connect with God without necessarily having any prior knowledge about God. At some basic level, we have a desire for God even if we are unable to figure out exactly what we desire. This seems reminiscent of Plato’s idea of a shared memory: we are all trying to rediscover the true forms that we caught glimpses of in our pre-existence. As noted in class discussion, in Plato’s Phaedrus there is a connection between knowledge and memory, and Augustine appears to be using that connection to argue that each individual has access to God without the individual necessarily being conscious of it. He asserts that all men have a desire for happiness, so at some level, they must know what happiness actually is. “Unless we had some sure knowledge of it, we should not desire it with such certainty” (Confessions 228). For Augustine, true happiness is God alone, and any other source of happiness cannot be true. “True happiness is to rejoice in the truth, for to rejoice in the truth is to rejoice in you, O God, who are the Truth” (Confessions 229).

He also mentions briefly in Confessions about how truth can be found outside of the Scriptures. His time with the Manicheans showed him that their calculations about the world were, in fact, true. This knowledge, however, did not bring him any closer to God. According to Augustine, the pursuit of knowledge shouldn’t be an end unto itself. For him, it only matters whether or not an individual knows God. “Even if he knows them all, he is not happy unless he knows you; but the man who knows you is happy, even if he knows none of these things. And the man who knows you…is happy only because he knows you” (Confessions 94 – 95). Yet Augustine understands that knowledge is not without its uses, which he shows in On Christian Teaching.

In On Christian Teaching, Augustine argues that certain aspects of secular knowledge are necessary to the understanding of Christian Scripture, and that truth can be found other places because all truth is rooted in God. Before this, all “pagan” knowledge was forbidden but Augustine recognized the value of learning and suggested a system of education that included particular elements of this culture. He argues for the knowledge of languages, specifically Greek and Hebrew, so that one could reference the original text for the resolution of discrepancies between the various Latin translations. One must have understanding of the characteristics of different plants and animals in order to understand expressions that shouldn’t be taken literally in the Scriptures. An understanding of numbers should also be had to understand the significance of the way they are used in relation to each other. Music is important as well. Essentially, Augustine believes “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities” (Teaching 47). While his conception of God as Truth isn’t as clearly spelled out here as it is in Confessions, the general idea is the same. These truths point to and are a part of a bigger Truth that is God, and these truths can appear in places outside of the Scripture.

However, Augustine cautions people not to get swept up by the pursuit of knowledge. “Do not venture without due care into any branches of learning which are pursued outside the church of Christ, as if they were a means to attaining the happy life, but discriminate sensibly and carefully between them” (Teaching 63). Augustine appears to be speaking from experience in this case, as his own quest for truth led him to pursue knowledge as a means of finding happiness. Yet he still recognizes its worth. He even compares the appropriation of secular knowledge for religious purposes to the Hebrew people leaving the land of Egypt with Egyptian goods. There, too, he warns the people that just like the Egyptians possessed idols and burdens alongside the useful goods, so too does pagan culture contain “false and superstitious fantasies and burdensome studies” in addition to “studies…more appropriate to the service of the truth” (Teaching 65).

Augustine also talks about how one should study the Scriptures in order to find truth. He has already established the importance of this outside knowledge in order to aid comprehension. He goes on to say that it is important to understand which passages are to be taken literally, and which passages should be taken metaphorically. Misinterpretation of a passage hinders one’s understanding and limits their relationship with the Truth. He calls it “spiritual slavery” (Teaching 72) – not being able to see beyond what is physically present to the Truth that exists beyond the literal.

Throughout both these texts, Augustine’s equating God with Truth allows him to use truths wherever they may be found as a connection with the Divine. God’s presence is not limited to what one can find in the Scriptures, but can be found in music, mathematics, logic, and even sciences. All of these truths about the world point to a larger Truth that we all have access to, whether we are aware of it or not.

Monday, October 03, 2005

God in Genesis - Who is this God, really?

Texts: Genesis 6 - 9; Genesis 18:16 - 19; Judges 19 - 21

The God portrayed in each of these stories subverts our image of the character of God. In the flood story, God destroys all flesh because of its corruptness and the evilness of men’s minds, and God regrets having created humanity. With the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, God hears an outcry and has to descend to earth to investigate. God debates whether or not to clue Abraham in on the plan, and once God does, Abraham bargains God down to not destroying the city for the sake of the righteous within, and yet, God decides to wipe it out anyway. In the Judges text, God doesn’t even speak until the Israelites are battling Gibeah, and then it is only to reassure Israel that they will be victorious over the city, put the people are quick to attribute these actions as God-sanctioned.

This characterization of the divine raises questions about God’s ability to administer justice. God’s willingness to wipe out a whole city due to some injustice without a thought for the innocent in the city causes concern for us who picture a God who deals with sin on an individual basis. God gives little forethought to the destruction of the earth in the flood, saving only one individual, Noah, and his family and all the animals. God’s lack of restraint in curbing God’s violent tendencies is alarming; after the flood, God needs a reminder not to wipe out the earth ever again.

From these texts, it seems like God’s justice is like a WMD, as class discussion on Friday noted. Others suffer innocently at the hand of God’s justice. Furthermore, it’s not clear that those saved are more righteous than those destroyed, as each story is followed by an account of sexual sin. God’s judgment in these cases appears muddy.

Note: Class was great. There were two great comments, the first one being that God's justice is akin to our millitary tactics -- we decive ourselves with our "smart weapons" and while we think we target well, we really aren't that accurate, and innocents die.

Second was a side comment made by a fellow student about Lot and the story after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We were talking about who is really telling the story here. Are the girls heroes because they truly thought that they were the last people on earth? Or was Lot telling the story and instead of taking the blame for the incest, he blames it on his daughters. The student's reaction to this was...priceless.