Monday, October 16, 2006

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

By the end of Book 7 Augustine is approaching intellectual rapprochement with Christianity. He is convinced of the intellectual superiority of Christianity, and has decided to accept Christian beliefs. But, very paradoxically, he comes to this conclusion by reading, not Christian Scripture, but pagan philosophy. More specifically, by reading what he calls "the Platonist philosophers."

He never took Christianity seriously, he says, before listening to St. Ambrose preach. Before that, he only knew about Christian beliefs through a Manichean lens, which proved to have been a very biased lens after listening to Ambrose speak. He was already disillusioned with Manichean doctrine after being unimpressed with one of the Manichean rhetoricians. At that point, Augustine says, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some books that were "written by the Platonists."

He's not specific about which Platonist texts he actually read. It's even more difficult to figure out which Platonist philosophers he was reading because they are paraphrased instead of being presented directly. When he paraphrases what he read it sounds not only suspiciously like something other than Platonist philosophy: they sound exactly like something other than Platonist philosophy. That is to say, what he reads in the Platonists sounds exactly like the beginning of John's Gospel.

His paraphrasing of the Platonists begins this way, "In them I read, not that the same words were used, but precisely the same doctrine was taught, buttressed by many and various arguments, that, in the beginning was the word and the word was with God; He was God. He was with God in the beginning. Everything was made through Him; nothing came to be without Him."

Augustine uses this strategy--of saying "In them I read..."--four times in Book 7. Think about this is outrageous claim, and this outrageous strategy. Let me paraphrase Augustine's strategy: "What was in these works? The best way I can adequately summarize them is by quoting word-for-word, the beginning of John's Gospel."

Because he is becoming increasingly aware of his Christian identity, in them, he finds a way of articulating Christian belief, and a way of moving towards Christian belief. Platonists told him that Christian beliefs were what he was looking for.

The logic behind his psychological movement towards Christianity goes something like this. Because the Platonists have come to the same conclusion that the Gospel of John has, without Revelation, then this part of Christian Scripture is something that can also be discovered through the use of reason.

But if what he read in Platonist philosophy was the beginning of John's Gospel, why does he need Platonist philosophy? Why not just read John's Gospel?

What he seems to imply is that, since the Platonists have reached the same doctrine as the Gospel of John by reason, it provides an explanation for how one arrives at the Gospel of John. Augustine can see, reasonably, and "buttressed by many and various arguments," how the Gospel is evident to one who has not received the Revelation. After all, what John's Gospel does not do is give many and various arguments. Knowing that there is a rational basis for accepting some of what's in Scripture makes it much easier to accept what cannot be "buttressed by many and various arguments" in Scripture.

Augustine's psychological path to Christian belief, is an elaboration of the Pauline notion that there is a Natural Revelation available to everyone through reason. Paul uses it to say that no one claim ignorance of God. Augustine is simply updating this notion for his own people of his own historical time and people of his own particular intellectual experience. How do we get to Christianity? Well for somebody like Augustine--somebody educated in the pagan classics--pagan classics is going to be the most natural way to get to Christianity. Augustine suggests that, not only is this simply permissible, but there is something very interesting about the way in which Athens and Jerusalem complement each other.

What about the things the Augustine did not read in the Platonist philosophers? In fact, Augustine mentions what he did read in John's Gospel as opposed to what he did not read in the Platonists. This comparison is intruiging because it seems as though he's saying that, since the Gospel of John has proven to be something that one can arrive at using reason, then it must be some kind of shortcut through reason. In other words, he accepts the reasonability of Revelation. He then uses the Revelation as something with which to contrast against the things he did not read in the Platonists. The Platonists could not by reason prove that "God so loved the world...." so we must conclude that Platonism is, essentially, insufficient.

Augustine uses a somewhat obscure metaphor to justify this approach. It comes from the story of the Exodus: the paradigmatic story of the Jewish people. He takes a particular view of the Exodus. The Jews obviously left everything behind in Egypt when they left. But they also took the Egyptian gold with them. Augustine asks, what does this mean for me now in this situation of reading Platonist texts, and Christian belief and identity? This leads Augustine to say that, for him, the Platonists philosophers are the Egyptian gold. One can, and should, Augustine says, take those things with them on their journey out of Egypt. The Egyptian gold comes out of Egypt, other Egyptian things stay behind. It's a powerful metaphor in which Augustine can both understand and justify the use of and taking of the Platonist philosophy to his Christian identity.

The Egyptian gold becomes a kind of consecrated, shorthand way of describing anything from another culture which becomes valuable to Christianity. As such, Augustine is making an enormous contribution to the question Tertullian famously asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Enormous because of course, implied in this, if there is Egyptian gold, there is going to be a lot of things that we want to leave behind: such as idol-worship. For Augustine, he wants to leave behind stories about, for example, Zeus doing dirty things with nymphs. (But even then there's opportunities of reading the stories deeply rather than literally.)

What this means is that Augustine now has the opportunity to bring pagan culture and Christian culture together in a sanctified and meaningful way, and a way in which it isn't simply a luxury for somebody like Augustine. It's something that enriches the Christian community itself. Augustine is making the claim the Egyptian gold he brings to the table, not only allows him to become a Christian, but enriches the Christian patrimony once it's there.

We know more about who we are as a Christian community because Platonist philosophy has been let in. And in this sense he is making a fairly radical claim about what Athens has to do with Jerusalem.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Good to hear the history and relation of Athens and Jerusalem. True enough, Israel has many historical stories in every city. It is the reason why tourists visit Israel. I can say that it is a good Christian holy land tour.

We visited the Holy Sepulcher last year and luckily. we got an affordable Israel family tours, with that we truly save cost and time.