A Personal Journey Part IV: A History of Knowledge (Augustine of Hippo)

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Charles van Doren (1926- )
Charles van Doren (1926- )

This is the fourth post to do with my personal journey to do with the Age of Limits. Posts in this series are shown below. Those that have an associated hyperlink have already been published at this site. One of the books that had a great influence on my thinking was A History of Knowledge by Charles van Doren. In it he discusses some of the major thinkers who changed the world. In this post I look at what he had to say about Augustine, Bishop of the north African town of Hippo.

  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
    • Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
    • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
    • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
    • Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
    • Isaac Newton (1642-1726)
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

van Doren describes how Augustine, bishop of Hippo, developed the concept of a ‘City of God’ — a city that was fundamentally different from the City of Man. (It is this theme that provided the inspiration for my book.)

Aurelius Augustine was the son of a pagan, Patricius of Tagaste, and his Christian wife, Monica. While studying to become a rhetorician, he plunged into a turmoil of philosophical and psychological doubts, leading him to Manichaeism. In 383 he moved to Rome and then Milan to teach rhetoric. Despite exploring classical philosophical systems, especially skepticism and Neoplatonism, his studies of Paul’s letters with his friend Alypius, and the preaching of Bishop Ambrose, led in 386 to his conversion from mixed beliefs to Christianity. He soon returned to Tagaste and founded a religious community, and in 395 or 396, became bishop of Hippo.

Augustine – Bishop of Hippo

Augustine had a ring-side seat for the decline of city of Rome. He understood that all cities of men eventually fail (just look at the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). Only the City of God, he argued, is permanent. It is this concept that is central to the theme of my interpretation as to what is going on now in our society. Our current ‘City of Man’ — an industrial culture based on the gift of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels — is winding down. So what will our new ‘City of God’ look like? Along with two other of his books — De Mendacio and Confessions — we are provided with guidance for the coming Age of Limits.

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The Stoic Christian

 

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.

The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant. But he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa.

One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

For many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to suffer the consequences without complaint.

Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly stoic.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.

(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)

In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes. (This approach is, of course, the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”)

Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”

Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.

Pillars of Stoicism

Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.

  1. Confront fears head on
    If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, certainly. But you will probably survive.
  2. Do not judge
    This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
  3. Impermanence
    Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Christian Stoicism

There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.

Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

Christianity and Stoicism

Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage / Fortitude

There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.

In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.

One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.

First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.

A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.

< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .

Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .

Cantor (1994)

A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.

But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.

  • Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
  • Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.

Flynn (2018)

Stoicism in an Age of Limits

In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.

The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments

The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.

The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.

The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.

This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.

In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.

The Christian Stoic

We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.

  1. There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
  2. As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
  3. It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.

Sister, Mother Earth

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi

One of the most important Christian documents to do with the Age of Limits is, in my opinion, Laudato Si’  (Praise be to You), written by Pope Francis I in the year 2015.

Summary

The following are the key points in the encyclical.

  • The science of climate change is clear.
  • Humans are the cause of climate change.
  • We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
  • The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
  • Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
  • It’s time for a change.

His message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.

Style of Language

Abandoned car
Source: Angelic Warfare Cofraternity

The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”

This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports, which rarely actually never use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document. Francis is looking at the challenges we face in moral terms.

Morality

Francis tells us that it is not just that people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 he states,

These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

In paragraph 229 we find the following,

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.

The Challenge

Paragraph 102 reads,

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity”.

The challenge that Francis has set for himself, and for all of us, is to marry the advances and benefits of modern technology with the “awe-filled contemplation of crea­tion which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi.

In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. The atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted.

Brooks himself states,

The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

Neither Brooks nor Pope Francis tackle the physical limits that are the theme of this series of posts. Neither seems to be willing to accept that our standard of living is likely to decline. Brooks says,

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Concerns

Although I believe that Laudato Si’ is a vitally important statement of Christian faith, there are two areas of concern. They are population pressure and the concept of “sustainable development”.

Population

For many, the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.

World-Population-1
World-Population-1

The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be dif­ferent, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make eco­nomic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the envi­ronment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”

The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.

The Second Law

Although I have great admiration for Francis’s message, there is one aspect of the document that bothers me greatly, and that is the sub-title of the document, On the environment and sustainable development.

What is meant by the term “sustainable development”? If Francis is referring to spiritual and moral development then I am hugely supportive. But if he believes that we can continue with our material “development” in an Age of Limits then the holy father needs to brush up on the second law of thermodynamics.

A Papal Encyclical
A Papal Encyclical

 

Fires, Predicaments and Fatalism

California Fire November 2018

When faced with catastrophes such as the California fires (see the post Ending with a Whimper) it is tempting to adopt an attitude of fatalism. After all, there seems to be little that we as individuals can do to stop the ravages of climate change. The situation is bad, and is going to get worse. So what’s the point of trying to make a difference?

Indeed, a central theme of this site is that we are facing predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. Since there is nothing we can do to make the predicament go away, it is tempting just to give up. It is tempting to become fatalistic.

Fatalism

Example of a predicament

Fatalism is a way of thought that accepts that events are fixed in advance and that human beings are powerless to change them. It is a way of thinking is generally seen as somewhat pessimistic, and can be seen as a form of denial. In the words of Socrates,

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.

Those of us who have been following the world’s response to climate change over the last couple of decades can easily become fatalistic. Certainly, I have gotten to the point where I do not bother to read the almost endless stream of reports that come out telling us that the situation is serious. All that seems to change is the level of urgency that the authors express. One can drift into a cynical point of view that the governments of the world have two responses. The first is to come up with bold plans, and then do nothing. The second is to say that there is nothing to worry about, and then do nothing.

The Oil Patch and Prosperity

In the sub-Reddit ‘Collapse’ one of the responders to a post at that sub writes as follows (it is lightly edited),

Living in Alberta, Canada’s Texas, I came to understand that if people’s jobs are connected in any way to the oil field they don’t want to change. I am one of the very, very few here who oppose pipelines and oil sands.

The moment that I realized no one will change was when I had a long talk with my sister about our whole situation. Me being the doom and gloom, it’s pretty much too late person. Her the ‘we would change if we could BUT what about all those jobs?’ I suggested we use the money we spend propping up the oil industry to teach those workers a new trade. As she was explaining how this is ridiculous and you can’t have that many people without jobs and not being productive, That’s when it hit. We don’t care about the planet. We care about ourselves, our family, and maybe some select friends.

What would these people trained to be? Carpenters to build more houses from more trees? Electricians to make it easier to use more power? Solar experts so we can dig up the last of the lithium, which isn’t even enough to support one sixth of our most modest energy use? Farmers to destroy more habitat? Every move our Capitalist society makes is to take more, make more, consume more. Even if we stop using fossil fuels, we will still consume the rest of the resources.

It also occurs to me that while I write this, I am in a heated home, using a smartphone, with the lights on. All paid for by a job I have in the rail industry. Why don’t I get another job? How can I be such a hypocrite? Because I get paid well, it affords me to have a fridge, a phone, cable, heat. This is how I know we won’t change. Because even as a person who understands the gravity of the situation and abhors what is happening, I am addicted. I know I am addicted, and so do the oil companies.

It’s like if heroin drug cartels ran the government and everyone was addicted to heroin, to try and say ‘hey we shouldn’t do heroin’ but first I need to shoot up so I can think about this more comfortably.

This response is somewhat fatalistic. The writer recognizes that,

  • He is in a comfortable place; he does not want to give up his wealthy lifestyle.
  • All of the alternative jobs that he could do are environmentally destructive. Maybe not as much as the tar sands, but they all have an impact.
  • He compares our present situation to someone who is addicted to a drug.
  • He fully understands that the oil companies, and other large organizations, including the Canadian government, are not going to force a change. Indeed, these organizations are themselves addicted.
  • He appears to feel as if there is nowhere to go.

False Optimism

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

Fatalists can be optimistic. In the post Pilate’s Question we saw how some people hold the view that, in the words of the magnificent Wilkins Micawber, “Something will come up”. These people hope that advances in science and technology will enable us to perform an end run around the laws of ecology, physics and thermodynamics. They may be right, indeed I hope that they are. But it’s getting very late.

Realism

I suggest that one reason that people can become fatalistic is that they intuitively understand that many of the actions that they are taking verge on being futile. For example, people conscientiously recycle paper, glass and aluminum. But Jevons Paradox tells us that such actions may not only be ineffective, they may actually be counter-productive, i.e., they could actually make the situation worse. Or people may intuitively sense that attempts to “save energy” are not going to work — the first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be saved.

Therefore, while it is important for Christians not to be fatalistic, it is equally important for them to be realistic.

Throughout this blog and its accompanying book I stress that it is crucial for Christians to tell the truth. But first they must learn what the truth is — they need to make the effort to understand the physical realities of the dilemmas that we face. This is not easy, but it is important. Indeed, it is vital.

Book: A New City of God

Augustine of Hippo
The book entitled A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits is well on its way to completion. Publication will probably somewhere around mid-2019.

Here is an overview of what the book is about. (For more detail check out the Table of Contents.)


We have entered a time of slow-moving crisis — an Age of Limits. The Industrial Revolution, which started about 300 years ago, is hitting physical limits in many areas. We are depleting our non-renewable resources such as oil and ground water, we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere in spite of the increasing severity of global warming problems, we create nuclear waste that we don’t know what to do with, we degrade the biosphere with our poisons and fertilizers, and our population continues to grow, thus adding more people to consume these limited resources and to make yet more pollution.

Our society needs leadership, but we do not see such leadership from our governments, corporations or even non-profits. The fundamental reason being that all of our economic and social systems are based on an assumption of never-ending growth — something that would have been incomprehensible to the people of biblical times. But infinite growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. We need new ways of thinking, or, from a Christian perspective, a new theology.

A similar situation occurred about 1500 years ago. At that time the Roman Empire was slowly, but inexorably declining and disintegrating. One of the church fathers of that time — Augustine, bishop of Hippo — recognized that all human institutions have a sell-by date — just look at all the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible. He argued that the only permanent city was the City of God — hence the title of his most famous book. In that book he develops a theology that was to endure for centuries. And the medieval church that he helped create provided organization and structure for all of society in the coming dark years. The church was an innovative, well-managed organization — one that has been called the Silicon Valley of its time. — it was not merely reactive, as it tends to be now.

We are now in a similar situation to the one that Augustine and the other church fathers faced; our material world is in decline, so we need a theology for our times. Genesis 1:28 says,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Well, we have followed that instruction all too well.

In the book we outline possible elements of a new theology. It is based on the following thoughts and assumptions.

  • The issues to do with resource limits, environmental degradation and financial overshoot are not problems, they are predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. There is no going back to the good old days. Like it or not, we are entering a time of shortages, climate chaos and social instability.
  • Christians should be willing to accept such a situation. After all, fundamental to the faith is something about a Cross: Good Friday. We do not want to face such an event, but we accept that it can happen.
  • But, following Good Friday, comes Easter Sunday. There is hope, but it is hope directed toward the spiritual world, rather than one of endless material progress.

What will the new theology look like? I suggest that it will contain the following elements:

  • Christians need always to tell the truth. , even if the truth is discouraging and arouses controversy. There is always hope (Easter Sunday) but there is no excuse for “hopium”.
  • Moving away from Genesis 1:28, we need to live in equilibrium with our environment, which means that we have to wind down our use of fossil fuels. The key word will be conservation of both resources and the environment.
  • Live the life preached.
  • As the predicaments that we face get worse, there will be many people who need help. The admonitions to help others that are to be found throughout the gospels will apply as more than ever.
  • We should develop religious communities using the parish concept where everyone within a geographical area is part of the community, no matter who they are or what their background may be.

So, instead of focusing on Genesis 1:28, maybe we should pay more attention to Ecclesiastes 1:5-7.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

It’s as if we are moving from a theology of linear progress to one of living within a cycle or rhythm.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

These are heady and controversial topics which will certainly invite discussion and debate. If you would like to participate in a (courteous and civilized) discussion, please do so at this blog.

Pilate’s Question

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

. . . let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Matthew 5:37

When Jesus was brought before Pilate for judgment he said,

. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

To which Pilate replies,

“What is truth?”

In our book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits (publication date not yet announced) we work on developing a theology that is appropriate for our times. The first step in such a theology is, we suggest, to be absolutely truthful as to what is going on.

Age of Limits issues are  complex, with lots of moving parts and feedback loops. So, from a technical point of view, it is not always easy to determine exactly what is the truth when we consider climate, resources, finance and population. In addition, any statement that explains what is going on has to be hedged with the fact that there is always scientific and statistical uncertainty. But, from a practical point of view, the truth as to what is going on is reasonably clear, and, we argue, it is the responsibility of Christians to learn that truth and then to abide by the consequences of that truth.

But this statement begs questions such as:

  • How does one determine what is true?
  • How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
  • Which experts do we trust?
  • Where are their hidden agendas?
  • What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
  • How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?

The title of the book is taken from Augustine’s City of God. But he wrote other books which are pertinent to our discussion; one of these is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine stressed the need for Christians to be utterly truthful. He did not even allow for white lies.

In our times, when we are surrounded by lies in all forms, it is vital, in my opinion, for us to follow Augustine’s leadership and to place an equal importance of understanding the truth as to what is really going on around us.

It is not only Augustine who stressed the need to tell the truth. Secular writers who have studied the trajectory of our society have reached same conclusions.

Telling the truth is fundamentally important to use as a species. If an individual cannot be trusted, we can learn to ignore that person. But if our whole system is based on misleading us, then our society cannot function.

Today’s level of division of labor, insofar as it imbues suspicion that much communication is being done for ulterior purposes, weakens or destroys that ability to rely on a network of information sources.

. . .

Destroy trust in verbal inputs and you destroy a core attribute of human nature . . . you allow yourself to become less human.

Catton 2009

If Christians are to be completely honest, then we face the question that Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus, “What is truth?” It forces us to address questions such as,

  • How does one determine what is true?
  • How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
  • Which experts do we trust?
  • Where are their hidden agendas?
  • What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
  • How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?

The answer to the final question is not all that hard. If two people thoroughly research a very complex topic such as global warming it almost certain that they will agree that it is happening, and that it is largely caused by human activity. They may reach different answers to specific questions such as the nature of the end point or the speed with which events will unfold. In other word, it will not be a case of denial or non-denial; the differences will be merely a matter of degree.

In the context of this book we will consider the following areas of truth.

  • Real things and objects represent truth. Oil flowing out of an oil well is an objective fact. A melting ice sheet is a fact. Both facts are true.
  • Measurements represent truth. If the global temperatures, as measured at meteorological stations around the world, show a steady increase, then it is true that temperatures have been rising. We can also accept as true that sea levels are rising.
  • Some scientific theories can be considered to be true. For example, the laws of thermodynamics cannot be challenged, at least for the purposes of this book. It is possible that someone, one day will find out how to “beat” those laws. But, for now, we can take them as true. Perpetual motion machines are not possible.
  • People can speak the truth, at least as they see it. If a person states that he does not accept that global warming exists, and if that person has also conducted extensive, honest research, then he is speaking the truth.
  • Jesus often spoke in parables. In doing so he was challenging us to work out our own understanding of truth.

But there is another type of truth. Not only do we need to consider “the facts of the case”, we also need to understand the manner in which we, as individuals, react to those facts. It is all too common for a person to accept the facts to do with global warming, say, but then to move on as if they have just learned something interesting, but not all that consequential. They have not internalized their intellectual knowledge — maybe because they sense that doing so would open up a whole range of emotional issues that they would rather not consider.

For this reason, it is vitally important not to criticize “deniers”. We can and should, of course, challenge their statements and reasoning; but we need to realize that their responses to the scary issues that we face are, in fact, quite sensible. make sense within their own personal context.

It is easy to become frustrated, and even angry, with those who choose to deny what is going on around us.

You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

Harlan Ellison

But it is important not to disparage those who deny that the changes we talk about are taking place. Age of Limits issues are challenging and frightening — we all wish that the world could go on as normal. We all choose to deny reality whenever we can. Some of the ways in which we do so are discussed in this section.

I reiterate, many people who deny that the world is changing believe that they have a legitimate point of view — it would be irresponsible not to take that point of view seriously. Even if their arguments are specious, we do need to recognize that their doubts are often based on emotions such as fear for the future of their families. They need to be heard.

In future posts we will explore the issue of truth in an Age of Limits. We will also look at the different types of denial, and discuss why people respond in the way they do. For now, it might be useful to consider the nature of Pilate’s question. We know very little about the man. Was he:

  • Genuinely interested in having a philosophical and theological discussion to do with nature of truth?
  • Being sarcastic?
  • Taunting Jesus?
  • Trying to conduct a fair trial and to establish justice?
  • Trying to look good in front of the Jewish authorities?
  • Challenging those authorities because they had not made a formal accusation?

Clearly, the pursuit of truth is difficult. Which is one reason not to brush off “deniers” without thought or discussion.

Pontius Pilate by Maureen Carter
Pontius Pilate by Maureen Carter