This post is the third of a four-part series on Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana – basically, it’s four books long, so we’ve got a post per book. He’s talking about language and Biblical interpretation, and in this book (Book 3), he’s looking at ambiguous signs. Book 1 was about things, Book 2 was about unclear signs, and Book 3 is on ambiguous signs. It’s also on cultural relativism, ritual, metaphor, and morality. Fun stuff!
So Book 3 is looking at ambiguous signs, and considering how to interpret them. Augustine subdivides into literal and figurative signs – so, for example, when somebody’s talking about an ox and they’re actually referring to an ox, that’s literal, but if they’re talking about an ox and referring to a bishop, that’s figurative. Sometimes punctuation and pronunciation cause ambiguities: in those situations, Augustine runs with his ‘rule of faith’, which is basically that you take the plainer passages and interpret the more complex ones in the light of the simpler ones. This is interesting, insofar as it seems to give a sort of hierarchy to different parts of the Bible – a hierarchy that I daresay would be supported by many Christian teachers today.
Probably the more interesting discussion revolves around the ambiguity of metaphorical or figurative phrases. Augustine begins by commenting on the “miserable slavery of the soul” which insists on reading signs as things, noting things like sacrifice and pointing out that we’re not meant to read them as applying to our lives in a literal sense. It’s not a literal sacrifice in terms of killing a sheep and offering it to God – there’s a more metaphorical usage of the word. He then argues that the Jewish observance of various rituals etc is proof of their bondage to the letter of the law, rather than the freedom of relationship with God (to whom the signs and ‘letters’ of the law refer). Augustine’s probably being a bit cheeky here, because Christians are still bound to certain rites and rituals – namely Communion and baptism. Augustine describes these rituals as ‘useful signs divinely appointed’, which is no doubt exactly how the Jews would describe their rituals. It does seem a bit underhanded to describe the Jews as in bondage to signs and Christians as somehow free when both religions carry out rituals – well, more accurately, it’s a point of theological dogma, rather than a logical argument.
Augustine goes on to argue that the line between figurative and literal Biblical statements may be discerned thus: if it can’t be both a) literal and b) have reference to either knowledge and/or love of God and neighbour, then it’s figurative. So, for example, when God tells Jeremiah “I have this day set thee down over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down”, Augustine sees that as figurative – which is contentious, but let’s keep moving. So basically if it sounds morally good, it’s probably literal, but if it sounds kinda bad, it’s probably figurative. Augustine acknowledges that this sounds like a terrible way to tell the difference when he points out that it seems to allow people from different cultures the liberty to just accept the bits they like and claim that the bits that they don’t like are figurative.
Augustine tries to get around this by claiming that the Bible “enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust” – so he’s trying to present a rubric by which to determine what’s actually morally right, and what’s meant to be taken figuratively. To my mind it’s not much of an argument, because it still leaves us in the same place – what qualifies as charity? What qualifies as lust? We’ve just changed the terms. He continues by arguing that actions in and of themselves often aren’t moral – rather, it’s the heart of the person who acts. That’s more useful, as an argument, but it still doesn’t give us any clear guidelines as to how to act – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Okay, so this is the exciting bit: Augustine basically proceeds to outline cultural relativism, saying that when people come across stuff from outside their culture, they often perceive it as immoral, on the grounds that it’s not an action which would be moral in their culture. Let’s just take a step back for a second: cultural relativism only really came into its own at the start of the 20th century with Franz Boas, an anthropologist, and here’s Augustine in the fourth century saying the exact same thing (which is cool). Augustine’s also clearly familiar enough with the idea to understand some of the pitfalls: he hastens to add that this cultural relativism doesn’t undermine the idea that there is actually still a transcendental goodness, which he argues is embedded in the central two commandments: love God, and love your neighbour. According to Augustine, these rules hold eternally true: they “cannot be altered by any diversity of national customs”. That grounding gives room for push-back against certain cultural norms, which is important – the downside of cultural relativism is that it makes it hard to explain to murderous cannibals that maybe they should stop eating people, because you can’t privilege your cultural understanding of goodness over theirs.
So there we are: Augustine’s conclusion is that figuring out right and wrong can be tricky, but that there are general guidelines as well as cultural differences to be negotiated. There’s no clear answer, but there is a goal to work towards, which is something.