Augustine, the Old Testament, ‘truth’ and ‘myth’

Lent sacrifice: whisky

Lent reading: St. Augustine’s Confessions

On the latter:

I’ve had a copy of the Penguin Classics Pine-Coffin translation on my shelves for years, but never got beyond the first few chapters. Now I’ve bought myself a crisp new copy of the Oxford World Classics edition, translated by Henry Chadwick, and resolve to read some every day until Easter (Incidentally, I love the way Amazon describes the book as being by ‘St. Augustine and Henry Chadwick’ – a co-authoring partnership spanning nearly 2,000 years!).

Until now, my knowledge of the Confessions has been mostly second-hand: for instance, via Wittgenstein’s use of Augustine’s account of learning to speak, to illustrate the conventional understanding of the relationship between language and thought. (Fergus Kerr has a helpful discussion of this in his excellent Theology after Wittgenstein).

As before, I’m finding the old saint’s opening sections tough going. His habit of interlacing the narrative of his early childhood with frequent biblical quotations is somewhat off-putting to the modern reader. I find it interesting, too, that most of these extracts are from the Old Testament, and it struck me how odd it must have been for these Romans and North Africans to ‘take on’ the scriptures of another people – the Jews – and make them their own.

And that in turn reminded me of one of the many doubts that hold me back from a full return to faith. I think most modern biblical scholars accept that a substantial proportion of the Old Testament narrative is myth. And yet the early Christians – and much more significantly, Jesus himself – clearly believed in it as a true account, and built their own faith on these foundations. Moreover, the Christian Church asks us to accept the Jewish Testament as ‘sacred’ scripture, as much as the New or Christian Testament.

I’m wary of falling into the heresy of Marcion, who held that the ‘Gods’ of the Old and New Testament were two different deities. Nor is my scepticism prompted by antisemitism, as much pseudo-Christian disdain for the Jewish scriptures has been. Indeed, I’m a huge admirer of Judaism and the Jewish people, and a strong supporter of Israel. But one of the things that some newcomers – or returners – to faith find odd and difficult is the habit Christian preachers have of relating stories from the Old Testament as if they were true (‘when the Red Sea parted…as Abraham said to Isaac…’), when you know that most of them now accept that these are legends rather than historical accounts.

Can something (Christianity) be ‘true’, if rests on foundations that are mostly mythical?


6 thoughts on “Augustine, the Old Testament, ‘truth’ and ‘myth’

  1. Finally, a blog about Christianity to which I can relate…

    Oh how I sympathize with the back-and-forth struggle with Christianity; but this is not necessarily the place for my personal story.

    I recently had a hankering to return to Augustine, when I nearly converted to Roman Catholicism five years ago, The Confessions were one of the first books I picked up to read and I found myself often frustrated by the interlaced passages of Scripture and, after a while, the trust with which Augustine, like all pre-modern believers, placed in the veracity of Biblical narrative. My conversion didn’t happen and I’ve been bouncing around various Protestant denominations ever since, with decreasing returns, though not without a desire to believe. It seems my reason keeps me from belief at present and I lack the appropriate mental frame with which to approach Christianity, seeing it now as a story I wish were true but suspect is just an elaborate and sustaining illusion.

    There is a part of me that has always appreciated Stephen Dedalus’ view that Catholicism is “an absurdity which is logical and coherent” while Protestantism is “one which is illogical and incoherent.” But it is far easier to sit in the back pews with doubts, week after week, in an Anglican (or Episcopalian, in my case) Church than it is in a Roman Catholic Church. Like you, I suffer from ‘all or nothing’ syndrome and have enough respect for the Catholic Church to stay away unless I can take on the whole metaphysical and ethical package. But liberality in religion only breeds discontent and lukewarm feelings in me.

    Tolkien talked about ‘true myths’ and I understand that in a literary context though it is difficult for me to accept basing a faith and worldview on the same; I read a lot of Rudolf Bultmann last year, a scholar who essentially wrestled all his life with the same question: “Can something (Christianity) be ‘true’, if rests on foundations that are mostly mythical?” But the existential leap of faith (more characteristic of the Lutheran branch of Christendom) that Bultmann recommended doesn’t seem the right move; I’m far more attracted to the Roman Catholic idea that the faith is reasonable and knowable and that the incarnational aspect of Christ and a tangible, recognizable Church is evidence that doesn’t require any Kierkegaardian jumps. I like the idea, though I wrestle with the opposite: that the universe is unknowable and dark; that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that man is inherently irrational and untrustworthy. I would love to believe otherwise, but can’t seem able to find such belief right now.

    I look forward to checking in on your progress as you navigate this difficult question of faith.

    • Dear Cyril Dominic (though I have an inkling that might not be your real name, any more than mine is Alban Bartholomew?), Thank you so much for your comment. I’d like to match your ‘Finally’ with one of my own: Finally I have a reader for my blog, and not only that, one who is sympathetic to the dilemmas I’m trying to articulate here. It will spur me to write more, I hope: it’s been difficult, not knowing who’s likely to find their way to the blog, and suspecting that many might be avowed believers who will shake their heads at my doubts and backslidings. My situation is obviously a little different from yours, at least nominally: having converted some thirty-odd years ago, I’m still ‘officially’ a Catholic, but in reality I’m as torn by doubts as you are.

      I don’t share your occasional attraction to Protestantism. I suppose, having been brought up a Methodist, I worked that out of my system many years ago, and my turn to Catholicism was a huge revolt against Protestantism. I love Anglican churches: living in a small-ish town in England, I’m surrounded by them, and love visiting them and imagining their pre-Reformation past. But Protestant worship does nothing for me – neither happy-clappy evangelicalism nor dry and wordy Anglicanism. And I actually find it easier to drop into the back pew of a Catholic church than a Protestant one: fewer questions, no insistence that you ‘join in’, etc. Which isn’t to say I don’t have a great respect for Anglican liturgy, music, theology, not to mention the poetry of Traherne, Herbert, et al.

      Everything you say about Tolkien, Bultmann, ‘truth’ and ‘myth’ rings true for me too. Identifying what it’s actually possible for a 21st century person to believe, post-Darwin, post-everything else, is part of my quest…I look forward to having your company on the journey!

  2. Alban,

    Happy to be a bystander. Not being English, my appreciation for things Anglican is of that precious Anglophiliac variety; the poetry, the country parish, Trollope, Auden, Herbert, the idea of a culturally-specific, national church (not eliding the difficulties of Erastianism). I never would have gone a-roaming among the Protestants in the U.S. had the contemporary Catholic liturgy not been so consistently appalling. One of the things that tripped up my conversion was the obvious disparity, despite the apologetic insistence to the contrary, between the Roman Catholic Church of, say, 1943 and 2003. I can’t but see Vatican II as a deep rupture in Catholicism, which doesn’t leave me running for the Sedevacantists, but it does make me question the ‘timeless’ aspects of Catholicism that so attracted me in the first place, instead seeing The Church as culturally and chronologically-grounded as any Anglican, Lutheran, Nonconformist, or American Evangelical denomination.

    And one last thing about readership…I say I am happy to find your humble blog if only because it has been so rare (strike that, nonexistent) to find a blog that takes difficulty seriously. Why aren’t more apologists reckoning with the sheer difficulty of believing? My fear is that the striking triumphalism of most apologetics and theology stems from a simple subterranean stance of psychological assurance. Mix in the toxic seasoning of our cultural wars where all theological hedging is conflated with imminent socialism, pansexualism, feminism, environmentalism, etc. and you get a pretty thin gruel for the doubting seeker. And on the other hand you get more tolerant and ‘liberal’ Christianity which takes doubt seriously but almost to the point of believing in nothing especially firm, which leads me to say ‘what’s the point?’

    Enough rambling…carry on. I’ll be along as I am able.

    • Thanks once again for the comment, Cyril. I became a Catholic in the late 70s, and it’s probably fair to say that Vatican 2 made my conversion possible – I’m not sure that a socially liberal, protestant-born child of the Sixties like me would have found the Church congenial without it. Some of my happiest memories are of attending really well-done contemporary Masses – in a university chaplaincy, in a modern church with the pews in a semi circle around a simple altar. I love Latin and tradition too, but my nonconformist upbringing has left me with a dislike of frills and frippery. I agree that much contemporary catholic ritual is dire, but I don’t seem anything much better elsewhere.

      I’m glad you like the blog, and I completely agree with you about the rarity – certainly online – of honest debate about the difficulties of faith. I want to write a post at some point about my trawls through the Catholic blogosphere, but here I’ll just say that, like you, I’ve found it to be generally triumphalist, defensive, combative and ultra-conservative. Very little sense of the engagement and debate with modernity that was one of the good things about Vatican 2. At the same time, like you I’m turned off by ‘anything goes’ liberal Christianity which seems indistinguishable from liberal secularism – so what’s the point?

  3. I appreciate your exchange. You have both hit on my own doubts and worries. I’d be interested in continuing the conversation with both of you, via email or facebook messaging.

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