Jordan Peterson put his finger on the pulse of what is now referred to as the meaning crisis. Even as he has disappeared from the scene (update here), the conversation is continuing without him. The person I listen to the most on this topic is Paul VanderKlay, a Christian Reformed pastor at a church in Sacramento. (BTW, his videos from his Sunday School class might be the best thing he puts out; these are found on another channel.)
VanderKlay recently had a conversation with John Vervaeke. Vervaeke is a professor at the University of Toronto. He recently completed a fifty-part series on the meaning crisis, diving into the history of philosophy and religion, and moving through the issues of our present time and the necessary (in his view) path forward.
In the conversation with VanderKlay, Vervaeke offered the following four factors necessary for one to find meaning in life. One need not have all four in exact proportion, there can be much more of one and much less of another.
1) A sense of connectedness to what is real, what is significant, what is bigger than you
2) A sense of mattering to others and to reality
3) A sense of being cared for by others, relationships that have a developmental import for you
4) A sense of purpose, that there is some overarching goal that all of your other goals are subservient to
Christianity certainly offers all four of these. But Vervaeke suggests that the answer won’t be found in Christianity – or any other thing we call a religion. He does not suggest that individuals cannot find these factors through religion – he knows many that do. He does suggest that it no longer works for the broader society. Therefore, he is after finding a religion that is not a religion.
Why does it no longer work for the broader society? Per Vervaeke, there is much in the Bible that just doesn’t work given what we have learned from science – or at least doesn’t work in the way that many Christians say it works. Biblical cosmology and Biblical biology – if taken at face value and in the plain meaning of the words – really doesn’t fly, certainly not based on current science.
Vervaeke’s religion that is not a religion must not fall into such a trap – it must capture the four factors and the best of modern science all together.
What does this have to do with Augustine? There are a few big hang-ups that moderns have with the Bible as science. Obviously, they don’t like Jesus rising from the dead – but this one is kind of non-negotiable, else there is no Christianity.
They also don’t like the Biblical creation story as science. Now, before I go any further…my intent is not to start a debate on the matter – for me, exactly how and when the universe came to be is not terribly important to my faith, other than my belief that God created it. I have addressed this general topic of Biblical interpretation and meaning once before; consider this post an extension or continuation of the discussion.
The story begins with a monk:
John Cassian (c. AD 360 – c. 435), also known as John the Ascetic and John Cassian the Roman, was a Christian monk and theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern churches for his mystical writings. Cassian is noted for his role in bringing the ideas and practices of Christian monasticism to the early medieval West.
How does he fit in?
Among early Christian writers, there were two main schools of thought about biblical interpretation. Those who studied the Bible in Egypt tended to favour more symbolic interpretations. Those who studied in what is now Turkey, however, preferred more literal, historical readings.
A monk called John Cassian (360–435 AD), took the discussion to the next level by bringing both kinds of interpretation together. He identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical. By the Middle Ages, these four methods of interpretation (or ‘senses’) had become fairly standard among Christians.
Which brings me to Augustine and The Literal Meaning of Genesis. First, for some clarification: what is meant here by the word “literal”?
For Augustine, to interpret something “literally” means to interpret “in the sense intended by the author.”
In early Church history, there were varied interpretations of the earliest passages in Genesis. Basil took the days of creation to be just that: 24-hour days, just as we know these. Origen went for the allegorical interpretation – symbolic representations.
So, what did Augustine see regarding Genesis? From his book:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received.
C. S. Lewis held a similar view in Mere Christianity. Christians disagree about so many theological topics, and even disagree about the relative importance of what they should disagree about. But is any of this really so terribly important to the faith? Lewis focusses in on the key necessity:
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.
That word “somehow” is also the source of many of the disagreements. Beyond this, Lewis adds:
There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names – Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper.
The manners by which these are practiced are almost infinitely variable, but they are all practiced.
The farther we move past these core points, the closer we are moving toward Augustine’s matters that are obscure and far beyond our reason. And what does Augustine suggest about this?
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics… (emphasis added)
I will say it more politely: why would we not incorporate reason and experience into our understanding? As reason and faith both come from God, why would we be afraid of either? Why would we run away from one being a purifier for the other?
Which leads Augustine to address one of the main criticisms of Christianity – and one raised by Vervaeke:
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
Remember: Augustine is writing this in a book in which he is analyzing the opening passages of Genesis.
Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.” (1 Tm 1, 7) (emphasis added)
It is worth expanding this passage from 1 Timothy:
3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Many Christians are so completely sure about their interpretation, to the detriment of the faith as Augustine notes. God said it, but was he speaking literally, symbolically, ethically, or mystically? What did He mean by it? This was the point of my earlier post on this topic.
Christians have been debating, arguing, even warring over many theological doctrines for two-thousand years. I guess that might be of value if such action moved Christians closer to unity, but it has done just the opposite. As Augustine and Vervaeke note, it also drives non-Christians and former Christians away from the faith entirely. (And some will want to argue about if there is even such a thing as a former Christian…sigh…)
There is no part of the Bible where internalizing this point might be more necessary than in the opening chapters of Genesis. A little humility might go a long way toward witnessing to those who, like Vervaeke, find some of the “history” and “science” hard to swallow.
Augustine was not afraid of recognizing this reality of the earth, nature, and the heavens. He did not fear allowing this knowledge to influence how to interpret Scripture.
In a conversation that Vervaeke was having with another, they were exploring what might be aspects or features or necessities of this religion that is not a religion. The way the video started, it must have been a continuation of an earlier conversation, but I could not find the previous conversation.
They were taking about a basic income guarantee, and it seemed quite clear – although I may have misunderstood – that they viewed such a thing as a necessity for a society that was to live within this religion that is not a religion.
I sure hope that I misunderstood, because this is nonsensical. Do you want to implement perhaps the most certain way to remove meaning from a man’s life? Take away all responsibility to provide for himself and his family. Go back and look at the four factors proposed by Vervaeke, found at the top of this post. A basic income guarantee pretty much eliminates all four from one’s life.
I really have to have misunderstood, but it sure sounded like this is what they were discussing.