Saturday, January 04, 2014

Kernel and Husk

Probably the most significant work on religious epistemology from a liberal Christian perspective written in the nineteenth century (and perhaps ever) is Edwin Abbott Abbott's The Kernel and the Husk, subtitled 'Letters on Spiritual Christianity'. Slow-witted as I am, I only realized just last night that the title is probably Augustinian in origin:

To run over it briefly: by the five loaves are understood the five books of Moses; and rightly are they not wheaten but barley loaves, because they belong to the Old Testament. And you know that barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments: but yet, if we get at its pith, it feeds and satisfies us....

What remains then, but that those matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude cannot take in, be entrusted to men who are fit to teach others also, just as were the apostles? Why were twelve baskets filled? This was done both marvellously, because a great thing was done; and it was done profitably, because a spiritual thing was done. They who at the time saw it, marvelled; but we, hearing of it, do not marvel. For it was done that they might see it, but it was written that we might hear it. What the eyes were able to do in their case, that faith does in our case. We perceive, namely, with the mind, what we could not with the eyes: and we are preferred before them, because of us it is said, "Blessed are they who see not, and yet believe." And I add that, perhaps, we have understood what that crowd did not understand. And we have been fed in reality, in that we have been able to get at the pith of the barley.

Of course, the difference is that Augustine thinks such moral doctrines are interpretations of miraculous events, which were all done not merely to show a wonder but to teach truth, and Abbott's thesis is that all the stories of the miracles are cases where moral stories were mistakenly taken literally.

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