Augustine for the 21st Century (4): What Were Augustine’s Starting Points and How are They Relevant for Today?

August 25, 2009 by Bruce Ashford

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Augustine teaches us to use Christian doctrine as a lever to unseat false prophets such as Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens.

Augustine defended Christianity from one basic starting point: the biblical narrative is true and it alone explains the world within (existential viability) and the world without (empirical adequacy). He knew that his interlocutors did not agree. Augustine understood that, as Romans 1 puts it so damningly, the Roman pagans were busy suppressing the knowledge of the truth, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping the creature rather than the creator. In response to their idolatry, therefore, Augustine presupposed and proclaimed the truth of the biblical narrative. He used certain basic Christian doctrines (God, Creation, Man, Sin, Redemption) as starting points to show the falsity of the competing Roman narrative.

Those same doctrines provide starting points for us in defending the gospel in a 21st century context.

Take, for example, the doctrine of man in relation to atheism. As I wrote in an article in Spring 2007, “The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, ‘At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.’

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. A glittering example of this is Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. ‘By 2040,’ he writes, ‘it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.’[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming ‘human.’ At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word ‘I,’ signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as ‘conscious’ as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.”[4]

Atheism-like any worldview other than Christianity-cannot make proper sense of mankind. It tends toward either the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may act and interact because God made us not only rational but relational beings. As theologians, this robust anthropology unlocks the complexities of man’s unique capacities and his relationship to the rest of the created order.

Or take the doctrine of God in relation to pantheism (Note: Certain ancient philosophers, most Buddhists, many Hindus are pantheists. Pantheism comes in many varieties, and this blogpost inevitably will refer only to certain streams of pantheism). One of the problems for pantheists is that they are unable to account for aspects of human life such as evil or logic precisely because they do not believe in the God of the Bible. As Christian theists, we believe that God is eternal and good. He created the world from nothing, is separate from it, but relates personally to it. Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the world and the world is God. All is one. This monism, however, puts the pantheist in a major bind. If all is one, then there can be no distinctions. But few things are more apparently false than this belief.

If all is one, there can be no such thing as logic. Logic just is the making of distinctions. Logic is premised upon the belief that A cannot be non-A at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Our use of human language is in turn premised upon logic. When we state something, we intend for it to be taken in the way that we meant it (“A”) rather than in the opposite manner (“non-A”). But for Buddhists, logic is the enemy and if we are to become one with the world we must rid ourselves of it. This is why one can find Buddhists meditating on the sound of one hand clapping. It is an illogical exercise aimed at setting the practitioner free from captivity to logic. The Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, for example, argues that we must abandon/transcend logic because it is not applicable to reality.[5] But in order to deny that logic applies to reality, one must make a “logical” statement about reality to the effect that one cannot make logical statements. If a person states that there is no logic (because all is one and there are no distinctions), his statement is itself a distinction.

Further, if all is one, I find it difficult to imagine how one can explain evil in relation to goodness. If all is one, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are not really opposed to one another after all-they are really the same thing. For this reason, some pantheists argue that there is neither good nor evil and others argue that evil is an illusion. Prabhavananda and Usherwood, for example, say, “All good and all evil is relative to the individual point of growth….But, in the highest sense, there can be neither good nor evil.”[6] Such an argument, however, is not only counter-intuitive but goes against an abundance of empirical evidence. Good and evil exist and evil is not an illusion.

In summary, just as Augustine used basic Christian doctrines to show how the competing pagan worldview lacked explanatory power, we are able to use those same doctrines to expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and falsities of pantheism, atheism, and other worldviews.

[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Bruce Riley Ashford, “Worldview, Anthropology, and Gender: A Call to Broaden the Parameters of the Discussion.” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XII, Issue 1 (Spring 2007) 7-9.

[5] D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 58.

[6] Prabhavananda and Usherwood, Bhagavad-Gita, 140.

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3 Responses to “Augustine for the 21st Century (4): What Were Augustine’s Starting Points and How are They Relevant for Today?”

  1. Terry says:

    Huh? Many fallacies in your above discourse. Here, to name a couple.

    When Pantheism states, “All is one”, it is to say that, “All is interconnected”. Such as all of the organs of the human body are one. Not that all is literally one, without distinction. That would be absurd.

    As for evil. Good and evil are relative terms, as to the perspective of the observer. Example: most would not argue that Adolph Hilter was evil…except Adolph Hitler! From his perspective what he did was good. From most other perspectives it was evil. So, you say that he was evil. But from what perspective? Yes, good and evil exist, but only from ones own perception. But, in the perspective of science (which attempts to explain Nature, and hence all that exists, empirically), good and evil do not exist.

    So, I could go on and on, but time forbids me.

  2. Terry,

    Thank you for your comments.

    First, you say that I do not represent pantheism correctly. My response: In the pantheism section, I am using actual examples of pantheism, gleaned mostly from my trips to Asia but also from pantheist writings. I would say that pantheism is a multi-headed monster and there are many different outworkings of a pantheistic worldview. On the topics of oneness and good/evil, I gave examples of actual conversations I have had in one little corner of the pantheistic world. Further, those comments are representative of a major stream of pantheism. Pantheism is multi-headed, coming in absolute, emanational, developmental, modal, multilevel, permeational and other varieties. It is not possible for me to represent all varieties. That is why I said “some” pantheists in my post.

    Second, you say that good and evil are relative to the observer. My reponse: Not correct. Your comments to me imply that you don’t really believe your own statement. If you thought it was “wrong” for me to “misrepresent” pantheism, and you took the time to write me and correct me, then you must believe that I also should think it is “wrong” to misrepresent pantheism. You seem to have some standard of right and wrong that is not perspectival.

    I hope that my comments have been helpful.

  3. Joshua Owens says:

    Perhaps your best part of the series yet, Dr Ashford! Quite excellent and encouraging. I would say that good and evil are definitely not relative (since God is good, how can good be relative?) though to our own sin-twisted minds they may seem that way. Remember, sin darkens the mind of reason; it does not enlighten it (Rom 1). We all have our own perspectives, but because I claim to have seen a lion with horns and hooves does not mean lions have horns and hooves.

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