In On Christian Doctrine Augustine famously analogizes from the way the ancient Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians when they fled Egypt after the tenth plague. Israel had been tormented in slavery for at generations. God sent Moses as a deliverer, to confront Pharaoh and to lead the people to the Promised Land. As escaping slaves, how would the Israelites make it? What could they use as resources? They ended up “plundering” their Egyptian neighbors who, at least temporarily, looked on them with favor. (Exodus 12:33-36) Egyptian culture had much for the Israelites to reject: their worship of idols and practice of slavery, for instance, but they did have some things of value. These valuables were free for the Israelites’ taking.
Augustine speaks of the Christian use of pagan philosophy in a similar fashion. If you read Plato, for instance, you’ll see regular mention of the gods of ancient Greek world. As a Christian, and thus a Trinitarian monotheist, Augustine would have none of that. But he did find much of value in Plato and his successors. Unlike Tertullian who had posed the question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem,” with the assumed answer of “Not much, if anything,” Augustine would answer, “Quite a bit.” He saw the pagan, i.e., non-Christian philosophers writing about many subjects that would be of value to Christians and thus worthy of appropriation. Take the good, leave the bad, he would say.
One important point in evidence here is the conviction that truth is not limited to Christians. It is possible for those outside the faith not only to be concerned about truth but even to seek and find truth. Looking from one side we might quote the maxim, “All truth is God’s truth.” From another, we might quote Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one square inch in all of creation over which Jesus does not declare “Mine!” Where Augustine applied this specifically to phenomena we classify as “philosophy,” it is only a short step to apply this way of thinking to other phenomena. Two phenomena in particular come to mind. First, we might imagine Augustine affirming that the phenomena we call “religions” might be similar to the ancient philosophies. Though they have errors and fall short of the fullness that is in Christ, they are not wholly devoid of truth. Second, science, a very different human phenomenon, might also be seen as a possible source of truth. Though science and other religions are often taken to be competitors of Christianity it is quite possible, from an Augustinian point of view, to take them as containing gold, silver and other valuables.
I’ll back up a moment and consider the concept of competition. It is probably common to see other religions as competitors with Christianity in ways that science is not. After all, we assume, one can be a Christian and a scientist at the same time. One cannot, however, be simultaneously adherents of two religions at the same time. One cannot, for example, be a Buddhist and a Christian at the same time. Considering just the issue of the telos of life, we see a vast and irreconcilable difference. Within Christianity the telos of life is eternal life, an ongoing and unending fellowship with the living God who created the universe and redeemed it with the gift of his only son Jesus. Within Buddhism, however, the telos is annihilation. Suffering is at the very core of existence and to get rid of suffering, we must end our existence. The idea of eternal life would thus be anathema to a Buddhist.
But maybe things aren’t so simple. Perhaps the difference between religions is mischaracterized when we focus solely on beliefs. The phenomena we call “religions” are characterized not only by their beliefs, but also by their practices, ethics, experiences and social organization. Christians who practice yoga are engaging in a practice drawn from Hinduism. Must we say either that they have become Hindus or are both Hindu and Christian?
Once we recognize that religions are more than belief systems, it is not an overreach to see that Augustine’s question must be asked of more than philosophies and religions. Our interaction with every culture requires discernment and discrimination. Whether we’re considering Buddhism, Platonism, Existentialism, Capitalism, or the modern entertainment industrial complex, we will need the discernment to tell the difference between the gold and the dross. There’s a deep challenge here. When the Israelites plundered the Egyptians the difference between the two groups was obvious and stark. For us – and for Augustine himself – the difference is often not that stark. For Augustine the Platonists were not just out there somewhere. He himself had drunk deeply from their wells. Likewise, when we seek to distinguish the gold from the dross in our own culture and its institutions, we find ourselves always already immersed in them. It is hardest to see clearly that which is closest to us.
So how we come to the place where we can adequately practice discernment? Whether the story is true or apocryphal, I’ve long heard that banks train their people to recognize counterfeit bills not by exposing them to examples of the counterfeiter’s art but by inundating them with the real thing. As tellers spend hours seeing, touching, handling real bills, the few fake bills stand out clearly. Likewise, the starting point for evaluating philosophies, religions and other cultural phenomena is our immersion in what we take to be the real thing: intimate life with Jesus. As we spend time in Scripture, in prayer, in obedience, and in corporate worship we come to know God better. Chances are that we will pick up dross along the way: but as we inhabit these contexts and engage in these practices we allow ourselves to be challenged and provoked. By these means we become the kind of people able to discern the good from the bad.