Thomas McDonald at God and the Machine is chiding us for being too much like the Prostestant Fundamentalists and accepting a woodenly literal interpretation of the Bible. He compares us unfavorably to the church father Augustine of Hippo.
Honestly, I think McDonald is distorting the picture. He’s simplifying the methods of interpretation that Augustine used to the point of caricature. No, we don’t accept the methods of interpretation that Augustine used, and neither do the overwhelming majority of modern American Christians. Augustine used methods that simply won’t wash with moderns, and most especially with modern atheists.
A Living Text
For example, Augustine believed that there could be multiple meanings within the text:
So when one person says “He meant what I say,” and another says “No, he meant what I say,” I think it would be more pious to say “Why not both, if both are true?” And if someone should see in his words a third truth, or a fourth, or indeed any other truth, why not believe that Moses saw all these truths? (Conf. 12.31.42.) [All Augustine quotations via The Cambridge Companion to Augustine]
Augustine also accepted allegorical interpretations. For example, his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has the victim symbolizing humanity, the samaritan representing Jesus, the two silver coins representing the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, etc.
All of this explains why Augustine could be so relentless and questioning of his text. He accepted as a matter of faith that there would be an important meaning at some level of the text, and he was willing to use wildly creative methods to get at it. If the meaning of a text seemed problematic, that meant it had to be searched for another meaning. A new meaning could be created, and the text could be tamed and rendered acceptable by allegorical interpretation.
For example, the Canaanite genocides are troubling because they reflect badly on the character of God. Since this conflicts with Christian tradition, the surface meaning gets rejected. Instead, the passages can be interpreted allegorically to represent Christ’s conquest of the soul, with the Canaanites representing internal vices to be overcome.
How do you know when you’ve arrived at the true meaning of the text? Not from the author, but from an inward experience brought about by the Holy Spirit:
I would know what he was saying. But from what source would I know whether what he was saying was true? And if I were to know that, I wouldn’t know it from him, would I? No indeed: the inward Truth, within me in the dwelling-place of my thought, would say to me – not in Hebrew or Greek or Latin or any barbarous language, without any organ of mouth or tongue, without the rattling of syllables -“What he says is true.” And I with certainty and confidence would immediately say to him, “What you say is true.” (Conf. 11.3.5)
History for Everyone
All of this this is well beyond our modern notion of “literal” and “figurative” readings. This is based on the notion that the Bible was divinely inspired, which meant that God had breathed life into the dead text just as He had breathed life into the inert clay to produce mankind. Therefore the text of the Bible is categorically different from, say, the histories of Augustine’s Roman contemporaries. It is also a method driven by the Holy Spirit rather than an exercise of the scholar’s own reason.
To accept these notions, one first has to believe in a God and accept certain assumptions about His nature and the way in which He relates to His creation. Without those assumptions, Augustine’s methods make little sense.
These assumptions come down though Christian tradition and dogma. I’m a secularist. That means I’m non-sectarian. I do not accept any sect’s creed, revelation or dogma. Therefore the methods employed by Augustine are unavailable to me.
The method I accept is the historical-critical method. This method accepts that historical texts like the bible are survivals from a previous time that can be used to help us mentally reconstruct a previous era. For this method, the meaning of a text is the message intended by the author and directed at his audience. Later you can spiral out to discuss reception history and literary interpretation, but this is where you start.
Ancient Voices and Modern Ears
Ironically, this is one level of meaning that Augustine wasn’t interested in. He didn’t seem to believe that it was possible to reconstruct the intended meaning of the author. Anyway, such a meaning would be irrelevant, since the real meaning is the divine truth hidden within the text which is understood through our inward experience. Augustine believed that a text could contain such truths even if the original author was unaware that they were being written into the text.
I’m not sure McDonald is interested in the author’s original message either. Like Augustine, he seems to be working under the standard Christian assumption that the texts will always have some meaning that is relevant to us today, even if they only provide questions that spark reflection. The historical-critical method accepts that a text was written by an author in a certain time for an audience that shared that time. It does not assume that a text must contain a meaning that is relevant to our time.
To me, the idea that every passage of the Bible must contain a meaning that is relevant to our lives seems self-centered. We’re not allowing the voices of the past to really speak for themselves. We’re muzzling them and supplying our own meaning to their words. As an archivist, I find that both irrational and unethical.
It is also special pleading. This is not something we’d do with the Roman histories, nor would Christians do this with the Quran or any other tradition’s holy text. Thus McDonald’s message to atheists, boiled down: to understand the Bible, you must stop being atheists and start being Christian. That, I’m afraid, is unacceptable.