Saint Augustine’s Reconciliation of Faith and Intellect
All Christians desire to be closer to God, and ultimately, to be with Him after death. But how does one grow closer to God? There are two possible answers to this question. The simplest answer is that all one needs to do is have faith in the words of the Bible. But for many, faith alone does not seem enough. They feel the need to understand God. What can their beliefs mean without understanding? So, again, the question: Should one follow God’s word with blind faith, or should one use reason and intellect to better understand one’s creator? Saint Augustine, a great Catholic saint, struggled with this very same question. On the surface, The Confessions is the story of one man whose spiritual journey leads him from the depths of sin and sexual appetite to the life of a devout Christian. However, aside from his struggle with lust, Saint Augustine wrestles with another issue, one which lies just under the surface of his narration. Like other Christians, he yearns to be close to God, but as he searches for the method to reach this goal, the conflict between his Biblical and Platonic beliefs comes to a head. Though Plato may not seem directly applicable at first, there are many parallels between Plato’s “Good” and the Christian God. However, while the Bible suggests that one can only grow closer to God through faith alone, Plato says that one can only grow closer to the Good by using philosophy, an act of the intellect. Throughout The Confessions, Saint Augustine wavers between these two, seemingly opposing ideas, but, in the end, he is able to reconcile this problem of intellect and faith.
Christian teaching offers faith as the single most important means to drawing closer to God. Early in the text, Saint Augustine says that “The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all” (6, 5). To the church, proof and understanding do not have any importance whatsoever. Three main principles form the foundation of the Church. First, there is the belief in the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. Secondly, they believe that Jesus, who was God incarnate, was born of a virgin to die on the cross in order to conquer hell and ascend into heaven, thus redeeming the souls of all men. Lastly, there is the promise that good Christians will be rewarded by eternal life in heaven with God. These beliefs cannot be supported or proved with the perceived laws of the world that we live in. Therefore, because these things are seemingly supernatural, faith has become the single most important characteristic of Christianity.
One book in the Bible is devoted almost entirely to the idea of faith. In the book of Job, Job becomes the subject of a bet between God and Satan. Satan claims that Job, one of God’s faithful servants, only lives a “blameless” life because God protects him from harm. To prove Satan wrong, God allows him to destroy Job’s children, servants, and animals, and, later, curse Job with boils. When Job’s friends come to see him, they try to explain Job’s condition. Presuming to know God’s motives, they claim that it is God’s punishment for Job. Eliphaz asks, “isn’t your wickedness great?” (Job 22:5). He tells Job, “That’s why snares are round about you” (Job 22:10). They believe that they can understand God’s ways, and that only Job’s own actions can be responsible for his misfortune. Instead of attempting to use reason, Job recognizes that he cannot understand God, and points out to Eliphaz and the others that they cannot either by saying, “Whence then comes wisdom? Where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hidden from the eyes of all living… Destruction and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’ God understands its way, and He knows its place” (Job 28:20-23). By saying this, Job not only points out that God is the true keeper of wisdom and understanding, but he also suggests the consequences of attempting to gain true wisdom. Only fallacies can be found, and ultimately the seeker will be led to “Destruction and Death.”
The book of Job also gives a clear picture of God’s view in this matter. As Job and his friends debate, God comes down in a cloud and says to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). God is angered at Eliphaz because he has misrepresented Him. Only Job recognizes that God’s wisdom is not to be understood by men; and, as his friends are punished for presuming to understand God, Job is awarded for being faithful.
Faith is also greatly emphasized in the gospels, especially in the book of Matthew. Jesus speaks often of faith throughout this gospel, and makes it clear that it is the most important part of a good Christian life. When angry at the cities that did not repent after experiencing his miracles, Jesus says “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). In this speech, Jesus draws a clear distinction between the innocence and simplicity of children, and the men that are thought to be “wise and understanding.” Even though they are men who seek wisdom and understanding, they miss the truth that Jesus preaches about. By praising God for giving the truth to children, Jesus suggests that the truth is either unattainable or hard to understand among those that are seeking it. The only right way to receive the truth is by accepting it as given directly by God. Jesus also illustrates how faith brings men closer to God, saying, “if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed…nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). By using the image of a mustard seed, he illustrates how even a small amount of faith brings one closer to God, such that God’s strength will be with him. This faith is the source of one’s connection to God.
Saint Augustine offers evidence of the importance of faith in one of his confessions by illustrating how, without faith, it is impossible to be close to God. When talking about his misery and pain after losing his best friend, Saint Augustine says, “I knew, Lord, that I ought to offer [my soul] up to you, for you would heal it. But this I would not do, nor could I…It was not you that I believed in, but some empty figment…and if I tried to find in it a place to rest my burden, there was nothing there to uphold it” (4, 7). God was not with him to guide him through his troubles or give him strength for his suffering because Saint Augustine did not truly have faith in him. Saint Augustine suggests that had he had faith in God, God would have taken his burden from him and given him relief.
Even though faith is very important to Saint Augustine, he is still, by nature, an inquisitive man. At times, however, his curiosity and desire to understand God seem to him like a curse. This is most evident in book 10, when Saint Augustine introduces a kind of paradox after explaining his search for an answer to the question “…what is my God?” (10, 6). He says, “The animals, both great and small, are aware of it1, but they cannot inquire into its meaning because they are not guided by reason… Man, on the other hand, can question nature. He is able to catch sight of God’s invisible nature through his creatures, but his love of these material things is too great” (10, 6). Men have the ability to reason, which sets them apart from animals. This allows them to get a glimpse of God by looking to nature and questioning it. However, animals simply know that God is the higher power, and that he is found “above us” (10, 6). They do not question this because, for them, there is no need for greater understanding. Humans, on the other hand, because of the power to reason, and their inquisitive minds, search for a better understanding of God. But, in so doing, they can become too focused on the material world which will, in the end, keep them from knowing Him.
The Bible answers the question of intellect directly. For example, from the very beginning of human existence in the Bible, it is condemned as the devil’s means of driving men away from God. In Genesis, after God has created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden, he gives them all of his creation, save one thing – knowledge. He instructs Adam to eat from any tree “but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). God does not tell them why he has commanded them not to eat from this tree, but he expects them to do as he says even without explanation. Their role is obey him without question. However, Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent who encourages them to eat from this tree, saying, “God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). The snake explains to them that they will not die, but gain understanding from the tree. To be like God is too tempting for them to resist, so they eat the fruit and bring upon themselves God’s anger. It is the desire to gain knowledge and understanding that leads to man’s banishment from paradise and the introduction of pain and death in the world.
This Biblical influence is apparent in The Confessions when Saint Augustine points out the uselessness, and even the danger, of the intellect. One example of this is in Book 5, when Saint Augustine is still with the Manichees. Speaking of the scientists he says, “their thoughts could reach far enough to form a judgment about the world around them, though they found no trace of him who is Master of it” (5, 3). Here, Saint Augustine points out that even though these scientists claim to understand the world around them, they miss the most basic and important fact: that God exists and is master of it all. Their intellect brings them no closer to God than someone who does not understand science at all. Saint Augustine even suggests that understanding science has no importance at all. After all, knowing God is most important to him. As an illustration of this point, he says that “A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks [God] for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator” (5, 4). In this passage, the tree can be interpreted as representing all things that God has given – the whole of creation as well as His word. Whether Saint Augustine is simply referring to a tree as the representation of God’s earthly creation, or whether he is referring to God’s word, the point is clear: it is not important to use science to understand what God has created. The only way to be closer to God is to faithfully accept His gift, and praise Him for it.
More than merely thinking it useless, at one point, Saint Augustine calls inquisitiveness an outright sin. He says, “in addition to our bodily appetites, which… lead to our ruin… the mind is also subject to a certain propensity to use the sense of the body… for the satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness” (10, 35). Here he likens curiosity to the sins of the body, but even states that it is “more dangerous than these” (10, 35). This thirst for knowledge and understanding, like the bodily indulgences, is a sin to be avoided. Saint Augustine explains that “curiosity… invades our religion, for we put God to the test” (10, 35), suggesting that giving in to this temptation only leads men away from God.
Though Saint Augustine appears to believe that the use of the intellect is wrong, his actions show how he continues to struggle with the issue. Being naturally inquisitive, he has a hard time simply accepting everything on faith alone. While discussing mathematics, Saint Augustine says:
I compared it all with the teaching of Manes, who had written a great deal on these subjects… But in his writings I could find no reasonable explanation of the solstices and the equinoxes or of eclipses and similar phenomena such as I had read about in the books written by secular scientists. Yet I was supposed to believe what he had written, although it was entirely at variance and out of keeping with the principles of mathematics and the evidence of my own eyes (5, 3).
This passage hints at Saint Augustine’s frustration, as what he is supposed to believe does not fit with the evidence that is clear to him. He prefers to agree with the mathematicians because they provide solid evidence, whereas the religious “scientist” is unable to persuade him because his explanations are not “reasonable” and he provides no real proof. Mathematics makes use of concrete concepts which Saint Augustine can understand by using reason, but he confesses that “I wanted to be equally sure about everything else, both material things for which I could not vouch by my own senses, and spiritual things of which I could form no idea” (6, 4). In order to truly believe in them, Saint Augustine desires spiritual concepts to be as accessible through reason as mathematics.
Saint Augustine’s attachment to mathematics is evidence of his Platonic influence. In order to better understand this influence, it is helpful to step back and take a look at the order of the universe in Plato’s mind. Plato does not personify it as Christians do, but he does believe in one thing which is the focal point of the universe. He identifies this as “the Good.” In Platonic theory, the universe is divided into two parts: the physical world, which is always changing, and the world of the forms, which are the true, unchanging models which the objects in the physical world only reflect. In this metaphysical world of the forms, it is the Good in which all other forms participate. Similar to the Christian God, to Plato, the Good is the source of all things. Humans, constrained by their physical bodies, can only perceive the things around them in the physical world through their bodily senses. However, because the soul must experience its surroundings through the body, it does not get a true picture of the universe. It can only experience the changing world, which in the end, separates it from the true forms. Mathematical thought is quite different from the sensory perceptions of the body. Plato says that mathematicians “make use of visible shapes and objects and subject them to analysis. At the same time, however, they consider them only as images of the originals…in all cases the originals are their concern and not the figures they draw” (Republic, 510d-510e). Because it focuses on the mental concepts, not on their physical representations, Plato claims that mathematics serves as a kind of steppingstone.
This link to the forms is important to Plato because, to him, understanding the forms should be the goal of all men. In Plato’s mind, some men live bad lives, and when they die, they are punished for living unjustly. On the other hand, some men live just lives, and because of their good behavior are given the chance to choose another life. Both classes of men, however, fail to put focus on the forms, concentrating instead on the physical world. A smaller and completely separate class of men live their lives only to understand the truth of the forms. These men are called philosophers. Plato says, “And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful” (Phaedo, 114c). By living as a philosopher and separating one’s soul from the pollution of the body, one can achieve the ultimate reward after death. The soul is set free and exists among the forms, therefore attaining the ultimate goal of being one with the Good.
Instead of dismissing the intellect altogether, as the Bible does, Plato claims that, used properly, the intellect is the only way to become a true philosopher, and thus, understand the Good. He does, however, contest the use of intellect solely for physical investigation. To Plato, one must live to separate oneself from the material and changing world. Only then can one grasp the concepts of philosophy. The process by which one can get past the physical world to understand the forms is called the dialectic. The dialectic is a rational discourse between two or more people in response to a question or preconceived idea. Plato further explains the dialectic within the dialogues of the Republic. For example, he says, “Then dialectic remains the only intellectual process whose method is that of dissecting hypotheses and ascending to first principles in order to obtain valid knowledge” (Republic, 533c-533d). By making intelligent arguments, the participants are able to cast off the limitations of the physical world and work together toward understanding true knowledge of the forms. When discussing the importance of philosophy among the guardians, Plato says, “Even when the soul’s eye is sunk in the muddy pit of barbarism, the dialectic will gently release it and draw it upward, calling upon the studies we recently examined to support its work of conversion” (Republic, 533d). Here, he underscores the power of the dialectic. The barbarism that he refers to is the completely uncomprehending soul of one who is rooted in the material world. By using one’s intellect, however, through the dialectic, the soul can rise up from the false images of the physical world to understand the true forms, and eventually, understand the Good.
Plato’s influence on Saint Augustine begins to become even more clear as Saint Augustine looks into the Bible for deeper meanings. In Book 6, Saint Augustine describes the Bible as having “plain language and simple style [which] make it accessible to everyone, and yet it absorbs the attention of the learned. By this means it gathers all men in the wide sweep of its net, and some pass safely through the narrow mesh and come to you” (6, 5). He suggests that, while the Bible satisfies the needs of some men with its straightforward stories on the surface of its pages, for other men, like Saint Augustine, who yearn for a greater understanding of God, there are deeper meanings to be found with the intellect. Like Plato’s philosophers, Saint Augustine even suggests that those men who find the deeper meanings will ultimately be closer to God than those who do not. By questioning the Bible to search for that deeper meaning, Saint Augustine shows that, like Plato, he believes in using his intellect in a dialectic fashion to get past preconceived ideas and come to a better understanding of God and his creation.
Saint Augustine is, indeed, strongly influenced by Plato’s ideas. Plato does not, however, have all the answers that Saint Augustine needs. What is missing from Platonic thought is faith. Because Saint Augustine is a Christian, he cannot, and does not, dismiss the value of faith. Instead, where Plato emphasizes a discourse between men, Saint Augustine turns to God for guidance. Because God is omniscient, Saint Augustine believes that He is the only source of true knowledge, and therefore, one cannot find the truth while relying on other men. One must put his questions to God. He believes that one can understand the truth, but only by putting faith in God to guide him in his search.
In fact, Confessions itself is an example of this “dialectic” with God. Throughout the text, Saint Augustine refers to God in the second person, using “You”, which shows that he is, in fact, addressing God directly, and Confessions is therefore Saint Augustine’s dialogue with God. After elaborating on his past sins, Saint Augustine poses many questions to God about His creation. All throughout Book 11, he asks to better understand God’s mysteries. For example, he asks, “Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth” (11, 3). Though the Church would like Christians to accept the words of Genesis as truth in the simplest form in which they are presented, Saint Augustine questions them, and wants to understand them more deeply as Moses understood them. He confesses, “My mind is burning to solve this intricate puzzle” (11, 22). His questions are followed by long discourse with himself where he suggests possible arguments in an attempt to find the truth. For example, Books 12 and 13 are dedicated entirely to possible meanings of the words in Genesis. Instead of relying solely on himself to find the answer, however, putting faith in God he asks, “Through Christ I beseech you, do not keep it hidden away but make it clear to me. Let your mercy give me light” (11, 22).
Because the teachings of the Church and those of Plato set faith and intellect as opposites, people struggle by denying one or the other in their attempts to become closer to God. Saint Augustine, however, shows that faith and intellect can work hand-in-hand to reach this end. In fact, he suggests that this is the best way. Faith and the Bible form the foundation of the search for truth, but Saint Augustine suggests that one should perform a kind of internal dialectic in order to gain knowledge by posing questions to God. Though these questions are not answered directly by Him, Saint Augustine believes that one can ultimately, through one’s own intellect and faith in God’s guidance, be led to the truth, and thus, become closer to Him.
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