Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Philosophy & Religion

As we continue to explore a little about St. Augustine's life and influence, it's important that we set him in his historical context. Because some of his words (especially CONFESSIONS) have been translated and updated and sound like something so contemporary now, we sometimes forget just how long ago he lived and wrote (A.D. 354-430). Here I'll attempt to give you a little background on when he stepped into prominance. Friday I'll give you a little more biographical information about him.

Western culture has been shaped largely by two dominant forces: Greek philosophy and Christian religion. Greek philosophy has mostly emphasized reason; Christian religion has mostly emphasized faith.

The first few centuries of the Christian era saw an intentional effort by early Christian thinkers (aka Church Fathers) to bring these two forces together. They did this for several reasons.

Greek philosophy was simply imbedded in the thought-processes of the times. If you were an educated person, it was assumed that you thought along those lines -- kind of like the Darwinian theory of evolution is today. People just took it for granted that the Greeks had provided an adequate explanation of things. Once the Christian Church stopped running for its life, they were able to take a deep breath and start hammering out their beliefs into some kind of system. In order to do that, they borrowed terminology from the Greek rationalists. You could even say that they used Greek rationalism as the bulletin board on which they tacked their ideas.

After the Edict of Milan, the Christian Church was finally taken seriously as a religion. Now, they wanted to be taken seriously as a philosophy. By using the accepted language of the time, these early Christians hoped to gain enough credibility to spread their Christian faith -- which had always been associated with more uneducated peoples -- among the educated people of the world.

The Church Fathers knew that if they were ever going to be accepted among educated people they would have to answer some hard questions -- questions that aren't answered by the Bible. For instance, the Bible tells us THAT Jesus is both God and man; it doesn't tell us HOW that is possible. The Bible tells us THAT God created the earth; it does not tell us if he used pre-existing materials or not. In order to speculate on these and other difficult questions, the Church Fathers turned to Greek philosophy.

The greatest thinker among these early Christians was Augustine. He lived in Hippo -- a small town in North Africa -- and he wrote more that has survived to this day than any other ancient writer. Even though he wrote in Latin, his thoughts and words were very Greek.

It's hard to overstate how important Augustine was for the shaping of early Christianity. He was perhaps the greatest theologian since the Apostle Paul, and his ideas were the single greatest influence among the Western, Latin-speaking, church. Augustine's writings dominated the Middle Ages. Both the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation (Council of Trent) rooted their arguments in his teaching.

As a philosopher, Augustine anticipated Descartes' cogito ergo sum and Freud's theory of the subconscious. His influence can also be seen in the writings of Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Pascal and Kierkegaard.