St. Augustine, dead since 430, is alive and well in unexpected circles. In 2008, Polygraph: An International Journal of Culture and Politics dedicated an issue to the revival of interest in the North African bishop. Russ Leo’s introduction to the issue titled Cities of Men, Cities of God: Augustine and Late Secularism opens with French philosopher Maurice Blondel’s affirmation of Augustine’s renewable relevance. Writing in the 1930, Blondel believed
Augustine has more to give us than he has yet done …. Alone, perhaps of all philosophers, Augustine boldly faced the concrete and complete state of man as he is in the unity of his destiny and transnatural state …”
Russ Leo adds,
Augustine’s is, in Blondel’s terms, “a plastic force [able] to assimilate further elements,” “a truly integral philosophy,” “ever-fruitful,” young, “not only directed to a definite end, but also susceptible of unlimited adaptations and developments” — in other words, a philosophy that is, like its author, “the most alive of the living” . . .
All of this to say that Augustine’s thought tends to surprisingly reassert its relevance for contemporary society. Not necessarily in a direct and straightforward way so that there is a one-to-one correlation between what Augustine taught in late antiquity and how it may be applied today, but Augustine may present us with a certain wisdom about how we might think through our contemporary problems.
Augustine, for example, may help us think about a contemporary issue that may, at first glance, seem uniquely modern. The ongoing tension between science and religion flares up frequently in our society, sometimes touching off culture war skirmishes such as the recent controversy over the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools.
Early in life Augustine joined himself to a rather quirky religious movement known as Manichaeism. The movement grew out of the teachings of Mani who was not happy simply making pronouncements on what we might call spirituality, but felt compelled to make claims about the natural world as well. For example, Mani taught that eclipses took place when the sun and the moon needed to turn away from the cosmic battles between light and darkness. In his Confessions, Augustine who was remarkably well educated, recounts his growing disillusionment with the movement:
I used to recall many true observations made by [philosophers] about the creation itself. I particularly noted the rational, mathematical order of things, the order of seasons, the visible evidence of the stars. I compared these with the sayings of Mani who wrote much on these matters very copiously and foolishly. I did not notice any rational account of solstices and equinoxes or eclipses . . . or anything resembling what I had learned in the books of secular wisdom. Yet I was ordered to believe Mani. But he was not in agreement with the rational explanations which I had verified by calculations and had observed with my own eyes.
Mani’s teachings about the natural world simply were not true and Augustine knew it. Augustine was well aware that,
Many years beforehand [philosophers] have predicted eclipses of sun and moon, foretelling the day, the hour, and whether total or partial. And their calculation has not been wrong. It has turned out just as they predicted.
As far as Augustine was concerned, this wrecked Mani’s credibility even on spirituality or what Augustine calls piety:
Who asked this obscure fellow Mani to write on these things . . . his impudence in daring to teach a matter which he did not understand shows that he could know nothing whatever of piety . . . He had very much to say about the world, but was convicted of ignorance by those who really understand these things, and from this one can clearly know what understanding he had in other matters which are harder to grasp.
Augustine wraps up this discussion by explaining that sometimes when he hears a Christian going on mistakenly about some matter related to the natural world, “with patience I contemplate the man expressing his opinion.” Choose your battles wisely Augustine seems to be saying. But it becomes a problem that needs to be addressed when such a person
“thinks his view of nature belongs to the very form of orthodox doctrine, and dares obstinately to affirm something he does not understand.”
I wouldn’t suggest that all of this amounts to a clear prescription that happily resolves all of our struggles to relate faith and science, but Augustine’s comments are certainly suggestive of some helpful principles.