COLUMNS

Volume 39 - Issue 3

Is It a Mistake to Stay at the Crossroads?

by Michael J. Ovey

Abstract

I want to argue that there are some important parallels between the scepticism that Augustine encountered and some contemporary ways of handling the Bible. I also want to argue that Augustine has given us something of enduring value in meeting those approaches by his analysis of what it is to make a mistake.

Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs
To tell me which way I should go to find the answer.1

One of Augustine’s earliest Christian writings is his dialogue, set in Cassiacum, Against the Academics (about 386). It is not, of course, against academic study as such, but against the philosophical school known as the Academics, famous for their commitment to sceptical questioning. For Augustine this was vital ground-clearing work in his nascent Christian faith. He found the scepticism of the Academics powerful and enticing in some respects, and he saw its huge significance for any kind of Christian faith, his own included. For the essence of the scepticism of the Academics was to suspend judgment and therefore to suspend commitment. And, noted Augustine, commitment is of the essence for Christian faith, for in faith I trust and believe Jesus Christ for who he says he is and what he says he does. Therefore, at some point the scepticism of the Academics makes Christian faith impossible. It kills it—hence the need for Augustine to slay some of his own inner demons in Against the Academics.

I want to argue that there are some important parallels between the scepticism that Augustine encountered and some contemporary ways of handling the Bible. I also want to argue that Augustine has given us something of enduring value in meeting those approaches by his analysis of what it is to make a mistake. His point is that when you are on a journey it is a mistake to remain sitting at the crossroads.

Let me begin by outlining the scepticism Augustine meets. By the time he is writing his dialogue, recognisably sceptical philosophy was some 700 years old, with its origins back in the late fourth century b.c. with figures like Pyrrho of Elis. In its developed form this is what it asserted by Augustine’s time: the wise person assents only to what is definitely true; we cannot prove what is definitely true; therefore we should assent to nothing.

Why should we adopt such an apparently odd position? Well, answers Sextus Empiricus some 150 years before Augustine, this is the way to happiness. Sextus comments that the goal of sceptical philosophy is quietude of mind, or freedom from disturbance (ataraxia). To achieve this, one must deliver oneself from the existential agony of choosing between different ideas and philosophies, which requires suspension of judgement (epochē). To achieve suspension of judgement, one meets every argument with another argument. You do not have to believe this opposing argument or even think it probable. The point is not that the arguments are of equal weight but that no argument is wrong beyond all shadow of any possible doubt. The idea is that for every argument there is at least a possible counterargument, no matter how contrived or desperate. At that point you are entitled to suspend judgement and enjoy freedom from disturbance.

I encountered this sceptical technique when taking questions at a university campus in Wales on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. The objection was that I had not shown in my talk that Jesus was not an alien who had strange powers of self-resurrection after physical death (source critics may identify a Hollywood ET debt here). I asked what evidence the objector had to support this. ‘Oh none,’ came the answer, ‘but it’s still a possibility.’ And of course with this technique comes the claim that one must therefore suspend judgement and therefore suspend any commitment to faith in the resurrection even while admitting the evidence pointed that way—just as Augustine foresaw.

Two quick comments: Obviously this technique can look as though it is intensely intellectually rigorous. Equally obviously this is emphatically not a technique designed to find the truth. Sometimes people assume that sceptical questions are a tool for finding the truth. They are simply not designed for that. Instead the sceptical programme of questions is designed to ensure that you never have to commit to the truth because on the sceptical view your happiness lies not in commitment to something but in being free from disturbance, that is, in not committing.

But why think sceptical techniques are alive and well in the way we read the Bible? Let me take an example from the last year from the Church of England’s Pilling Commission, set up to discuss the issues relating to same-sex relations and marriage. There was both a majority report and a courageous and penetrating minority report. For present purposes let us look at the majority report.

In paragraph 235 the Pilling majority tell us that the Bible is authoritative. So far, so good. However, the meat of the Pilling majority’s findings is that they cannot apply or set out what the Bible teaches on the issue of same-sex relations. Let me set out the major factors cited:

  1. The sincerity of different opinions must be respected.
  2. The scholarship is too vast to be synthesised by the Pilling group.
  3. The Bible is not clear.
  4. Various members of the Pilling group have heard arguments from those they disagree with but remain unpersuaded by those arguments.
  5. The Church of England lacks a magisterium to make a decisive ruling.
  6. Not only is there disagreement about what the Bible says, there is disagreement about the hermeneutical approaches we should bring to the Bible.

It is factor 3 that is most pertinent here. The Bible is, say the majority, to be authoritative, but it is also, in the judgment of the majority, not clear. Once you have judged that something is ambiguous or obscure, how can it authoritatively guide your conduct? Put another way, how does the Pilling majority’s claim that the Bible is authoritative fit with its judgement that the Bible is unclear?

At this point there is all too readily an argument that runs on very similar lines to the sceptical argument Augustine faced. It goes like this: the wise scholar assents only to an interpretation of the Bible that is definitely true; we cannot prove which interpretation is definitely true beyond all shadow of doubt; therefore, we should assent to no interpretation.

At that point, of course, on the subject in question the Bible is very definitely not authoritative, for we are not using it as a basis either for acting in a particular way or abstaining from acting in a particular way. The statement that one treats the Bible as authoritative has no practical effect. It is purely decorative.

This approach need not be confined to the issue of same-sex marriage or relations. All the theological disciplines are festooned with odd theories here and there. One of my favourites is that it is a misinterpretation of the Gospels to say Jesus ever really existed; rather Jesus never existed but was created as a myth by people on hallucinogenic mushrooms. But let us ask about this theory precisely the killer question that Sextus Empiricus advocates sceptics should ask of any theory: can we 100% guarantee that no evidence whatsoever will ever emerge that supports this theory?2 It is pretty hard to claim nothing will ever emerge that could not possibly be construed by someone as supporting the mushroom theory. One hundred percent guarantees like that are not possible for humans to make. That in turn means that the magic mushroom theory cannot be dismissed. And since this theory is that there is no historical Jesus, how can I make a commitment to him? For I might be wrong—there is an alternative explanation which I cannot completely disprove.

Now how does Augustine help? Amongst other things he contrasts two different theories of what it is to make a mistake: (1) Error is taking as true something that is false.3 (2) Error is always seeking and never finding.4

The first version of what counts as a mistake is very much that of the sceptics: it prizes the notion that we must not commit to what is false, and therefore to what might be false, and hence we must not commit to anything at all. Similarly, this is the version of mistake implicit in the Pilling majority: we must not commit to an interpretation that is uncertain, and unclear passages can give only uncertain interpretations.

Augustine certainly sees the force of saying we must not commit to what is false. But his second account of mistake (Error is always seeking and never finding) opens the door to a subtler and more extensive understanding. After all, if the aim of the game is actually to find something and I spend all my time searching, I still haven’t found what I am looking for. I am in the same position as the person who has found the wrong thing: neither of us has the right thing.

Later in the dialogue Augustine develops this line of thought in terms of a journey. Imagine you are on a journey to somewhere, Kalamazoo, say: you come to a crossroads. One sign indicates a road leads to Kalamazoo. Imagine you now employ sceptic interpretation: can you be sure 100% this was put up by someone with knowledge? Was it put up by someone who wants to see Kalamazoo cut off from civilised visitors? Was it put up by someone as a postmodern ironic comment on authoritarian authorial statements? On a consistent sceptic basis you cannot exclude these possibilities, and since you do not commit to what might be false, you cannot take the road. You stay sitting at the crossroads. You never arrive at Kalamazoo. That means you are in the same position as someone who actually did follow a false signpost: neither of you are in Kalamazoo.

We can apply Augustine’s thinking to the sceptical claim that says ‘Do not commit to an interpretation because the Bible is unclear.’ A vital observation is that one thing this suspense of judgement means is that we have not actually obeyed what the Bible says. I am, so to speak, always sitting at the crossroads claiming I cannot be sure what the right interpretation is. And since I have no interpretation, I end up in fact not obeying.

Jack Nicholson, playing the role of Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men, famously shouts ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ It is a painful moment in the film, and it is painful to contemplate as we think about the interpreter of the Bible who resolutely sits at the crossroads without interpretative commitment. For such an interpreter has a technique that means that she or he never has to handle the truth as such. The Jessup line is understandably iconic. But the less famous close to his speech is even more unnerving: he explains why his audience cannot handle the truth: ‘You don’t want the truth.’ Ultimately that becomes the question about the sceptical technique when applied to biblical interpretation: do we prefer to sit at the crossroads because we do not want to arrive? And is that why we chose to use that particular technique, precisely because it is a seemingly impressive way of never arriving?


[1] Eric Clapton, lyrics from Let It Grow.

[2] He also notes we can put the killer question round the other way: can I guarantee 100% that no evidence whatsoever will ever emerge that disproves my theory. Again, humans cannot do this since it would require omniscience to give such a guarantee.

[3] Error mihi videtur esse falsi pro vero approbation (Against the Academics, I.11).

[4] Nam errare est utique semper quaerere, nunquam invenire (Against the Academics, I.10).

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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