25 October 2011

Nugent's Nonsense: Spilt Ink in the Irish Times, Part 4

Michael Nugent's Irish Times column this week is pretty thin, which is a relief, because I've work to be doing and I've already blogged once today, talking about the battle of Agincourt

That said, thin though it is, this week's column is no less flawed than his previous efforts, and yet again it leaves me wishing somebody would explain to Mr Nugent, using small words, why there's a whole universe of difference between the concepts of 'God' and 'a god'. Until he understands that, he really should steer clear of discussing theology or religion in general. Frankly, he should keep away from mythology and philosophy too.

Did Augustine really say that?
This week's Irish Times article has him off on yet another semi-learned rant, during which, speaking of Christians in late Antiquity, he cites one of James Mackey's July articles:
'Prof Mackey also suggests that Christian faith is supported by reason, because early Christians were able to borrow from Platonic philosophy to support their beliefs. He quotes St Augustine as saying of the Platonists, "Change a few phrases, and they might be Christians."'
I was puzzled when I read that Mackey article, as I've not been able to find such a line -- however we might translate it -- in Augustine. It doesn't seem to be in the relevant part of the Confessions, but that doesn't mean it's not in On True Religion or any of the other zillion things Augustine wrote. That said, it is a curious phrase, and not merely because the only place I can find it online is an unreferenced citation in Mackey's own book Christianity and Creation; discussing Neo-Platonism in his Confessions, Augustine's at pains to stress its value as a step towards truth, but its inadequacy as a ladder. It would take rather more than a 'few phrases' to turn Neo-Platonists into Christians.

That aside, I don't think it's accurate to say that Professor Mackey had suggested that Christian faith was supported by reason because early Christians recognised a harmony between their own beliefs and the ideas of the likes of Plato. His point, rather, was to argue that to be a theologian is simply to reason about gods, and that the early Christians saw it as entirely legitimate to do so from a non-Christian stance, such as adopted by Plato. Granted, they though such reasoning would only get you so far, but they thought it fully legitimate for all that.

Ah, the old God/god chestnut again...
Nugent goes on, saying:
'It is true that they partly succeeded in this, by selectively using parts of Greek philosophy. Aristotelian logic, and ideas such as the first unmoved mover, could be used to help to support (already-existing) beliefs in a god.'
The first ludicrous thing here is the reference to Christians 'selectively using parts of Greek philosophy'. This suggests that Greek philosophy was all of a piece, a single unity from which Christians had to prise convenient bits. Nothing could be further from the truth: Greek philosophy was a huge matrix of thought, encompassing Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and far more besides. It wasn't a unity, and it could only ever be drawn from 'selectively'.

That aside, it's preposterous to claim anything Aristotelian, let alone ideas such as the first unmoved mover, could be used to buttress pre-existing beliefs in 'a god'. One thing neither Plato's nor Aristotle's ideas could ever do is support such ideas as belief in Zeus, Isis, Mithras, Dionysus, Caesar, or Mercury. Rather, their ideas indeed pointed towards the idea of a single being, an unmoved mover and a first cause, which could be understood as God -- and indeed, they blended quite naturally with the Jewish and Christian ideas of God.

Not everybody was a Neo-Platonist
Onward he goes:
'But in a wider context, the Augustinian project failed. Its aim was to synthesise all knowledge by rationally reconciling Neoplatonism with Christian belief. Because they found it useful to use Aristotelian logic, Aristotle was incorporated into Christian tradition as "an authority".'
Again, this could hardly be more wrong. Augustine wouldn't have thought that the reconciliation of Neo-Platonism with Christianity would have synthesised all knowledge. What's more, in terms of appreciating a harmony between the two, such that Neo-Platonism could be seen to throw light on Christianity, just as Christianity could be translated into Neo-Platonist terms, Augustine was hardly first to the banquet: among those who preceded him, Origen was probably the single most important figure; it is, frankly, ludicrous to speak of an 'Augustinian project'.

I don't know where he's getting this idea of Aristotle being thought of as an 'authority' in late Antiquity, because of the use early Christians made of his systems of logic. The fact is that Aristotle had fallen from fashion in that era, such that his influence was felt only indirectly, through the writings of others who'd been -- themselves often indirectly -- influenced by him. It's true that people such as Boethius translated his logical works, such as Categories and On Interpretation, but they don't seem to have been in wide circulation in the west, though there was a much greater cultural continuity in the east. Insofar as his ideas filtered through into the western Christian worldview, it was his metaphysical ones that had the greatest -- albeit indirect -- impact!

Rejected by some, accepted by many...
Of course, they hit the Christian West with rather more direct force centuries later:
'Later, Aristotle’s metaphysics – with, for example, its eternity theory contradicting creationism – reached Christians via Ibn Rushd. Christian philosophers now had the dilemma of rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysics, without undermining his "authority". Aquinas attempted this, partly by arguing that some issues can only be decided by divine revelation, but his compromise was rejected (by both conservative Augustinian Christians and strict Aristotelians).'
This is the kind of stuff that's tricky to deal with, as its wrongness is so subtle as to look right. It is true that the recovery of Aristotle in the west changed everything -- indeed, it's quite probable that it was the single most important intellectual phenomenon of the last millennium -- and it's also true that Christians found his ideas quite a challenge, and the likes of William of Auvergne grappled with him at length. That said, they never thought of him as in some way divinely inspired, so it was wholly plausible for him to be right on some matters and wrong on others, especially where his premises were flawed. 
As for Aquinas, while he did more to show how Aristotle could be harmonised with Christian thought than anyone else had done, it's a tad disingenuous to suggest that he just fudged things. He's philosophically agnostic, for instance, on the question of whether the Universe has always been here or not: he says that philosophically speaking, Aristotle could be right, but that there's no way of being certain; however, as with the early Christians who felt the likes of Plato would only get us so far, so he says that only Divine Revelation can let us know for certain.

This isn't a fudge. Indeed, it's entirely correct. Left to philosophy and science, and given how time is itself a physical phenomenon -- a property of the Universe, it is impossible to tell whether the Universe has always existed or not. Even if we can identify a moment when our Universe began -- a Big Bang, if you will -- it's still conceivable that ours is a daughter or successor universe, and that the Big Bang had followed a Big Crunch, say. This may be an area for intriguing speculation, but it's not empirically testable, and as such is beyond what science can tell us.

Divine Revelation, on the other hand, indeed tells us that the Universe had a beginning, and as Aquinas argues that Revelation is itself trustworthy -- that's another argument -- so he trusts it. He believes, as a matter of Faith, that the Universe began and that it has not always existed, but he believes that that Faith is itself reasonable.

This isn't a compromise, and though it was opposed by those in the Church at the time, it caught on to such an extent that eventually Aquinas became almost an 'official theologian' of the Catholic Church. It's certainly nonsense to say, baldly, that 'his compromise was rejected'.

Technically, Nugent's right to say that, of course, in that some indeed rejected what Aquinas argued, but on that basis one could as easily claim that the theories of Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Lemaître, and Einstein were rejected. They were, of course, but they were also accepted, and it'd be more than a bit disingenuous to gloss over that all-important fact.

Could Mr Nugent wrap things up in a more hackneyed way?
And with that, the oldest canards of all appear...
'Christianity has always been good at absorbing parts of the customs and beliefs of other cultures, in order to make it easier for other people to become Christians. Early Christianity combined Jewish traditions with a god that had a similar virgin birth to other gods of the time. Existing seasonal festivals became Christmas, Easter and All Saints celebrations. We could perhaps reverse the quote of Augustine, and say of some Christian theologians: "Change a few phrases, and they could be pagans."'
Well, yes, we could do that, Michael, except we'd be wrong to do so. Early Christianity couldn't have combined Jewish traditions with beliefs about virgin births in other religions at the time, as there weren't any, contrary to popular misunderstanding. Despite popular beliefs, Christmas doesn't seem to have been an existing seasonal festival at all, instead seeming to have been located on the calendar based on fairly elaborate calculations from Jewish tradition. Easter was sort of a seasonal festival, in that as the Gospel makes clear it happened around Passover, but its roots certainly weren't pagan; like Christmas, they were Jewish, and the only people who think otherwise are those who twist and misapply Bede's comments about Eostre in England. And though the original date of All Saints -- 13 May -- coincided with a much earlier Roman festival propitiating the malevolent dead, there's not even a vague consensus that their relationship was in any sense a causal one.

Just one more of these, I think, assuming Nugent's trying to match Mackey round-for-round.

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