Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Irish Augustine

The Irish scholar John Carey was kind enough to read my manuscript for Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain and make valuable suggestions. Certainly, his studies of early Irish Christian writers were invaluable resources as I was writing. The book would have been less substantial without him.

What I was trying to articulate in Climbing Brandon was a synthesis of empiricism and wonder, what is generally called religious naturalism, an alternative to the natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul dualisms that have been the source of so much contention between science and religion.

Most importantly, Carey introduced me to the work of a remarkable 7th-century writer known as Augustinus Hibernicus, the "Irish Augustine," who articulated a Christian theology that owed much to the Celtic naturalistic (pagan?) tradition

In his book A Single Ray of the Sun, Carey summarizes Augustinus Hibernicus' approach:
His thought differs most significantly from the attitudes of modern science in its premises, not in its methods. For Augustinus Hibernicus, God and God's actions are everywhere in the world around us: nature is a manifestation of the heavenly mind and will. His science was a sacred science: to explain all of the wonders of faith in the light of reason and nature was for him an act of homage, not defiance, to the Almighty. The spot where Augustinus knelt to worship became a battleground in the Renaissance; and the war between Science and Religion has raged, generally to the detriment of both, down to the present day.
One would be hard pressed to find another Christian writer of any age (or, indeed, of any of the major Western faiths) who so forcefully rejected dualism. For Augustinus, miracles were not contrary to nature; all of nature was miraculous. The world was shot through and through with wonder; every bush and stone was a source of awe.

One need not share Augustinus' professed Christianity, or even his pantheistic inclinations, to appreciate what he was reaching for -– a way of relating to the world that does not separate mind and heart. And this too was a corollary of his unitary theology: a holy ignorance. "We are only able to perceive in part even the bodily things which we see," he wrote. We are not omniscient, and face mystery on every side.