Augustine on Faith and Reason

Auden: “Stagger onward rejoicing”

Pope John Paul II, in his letter on Augustine, explained why his conversion took time to unfold; he was laboring under some serious errors that needed correction. His Confessions, as well as his many works, confront these issues head on. Pope John Paul II also makes these issues thematic in his work. Here is the summary from the letter on Augustine:

Despite this love for truth, Augustine fell into serious errors. Scholars who look for the reasons for this indicate three directions: first, a mistaken account of the relationship between reason and faith, so that one would have to choose between them; second, in the supposed contrast between Christ and the Church, with the consequent conviction that it was necessary to abandon the Church in order to belong more fully to Christ; and third, the desire to free himself from the consciousness of sin, not by means of the remission of sin through the working of grace, but by means of the denial of the involvement of human responsibility in the sin itself.

The great theme for Augustine is the pair “man and God.” But to clear away the obstacles to entering into the mystery of man in relation to God, Augustine and John Paul II work out the three issues. And it is for any member of the Church who wishes to be part of the new evangelization to learn from these great teachers of the faith.

The error concerning faith and reason is multi-dimensional. John Paul II names the error as the spirit of “rationalism.” Can one learn by detaching oneself from  the tradition of (true) faith? There is a presumption that by reason alone one can get right to the truth of things, as if with “the flick of a bic” (an old ad for a type of pen). Put aside scripture and put aside authority — we will work out all problems, all great issues, large and small. Augustine said of himself — “in my wretchedness, I thought that I could fly, and left the nest; and before I could fly, I fell.” Scepticism is an inevitable result of a faith-free approach, relying solely upon “pure reason.” I find it interesting to read in a book I now use in a class, Early Greek Philosophy, editor Jonathan Barnes says the following: “most of their arguments were false, and most of their arguments were unsound. (This is not a harsh judgment as it may seem, for the same could be said of virtually every scientist and philosopher who has ever lived.)” (p. 23 of older edition) Surely this a curious reason for urging philosophy on the young student!

Barnes was writing about Thales and other Ionians, so I thought of W. H. Auden’s nice poetic expression of the issue; in “Atlantis” he has this stanza:

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty scholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.
We must note the grief of philosophers, then and now. They pride themselves on their acute minds and dialectic prowess. But yes, their subtlety betrays their grief. I have known too many philosophers whose lives are a wreck. 

So why faith? Augustine, according to Pope John Paul II, “explained that faith is the medicine designed to heal the eye of the spirit, the unconquerable fortress for the defense of all, especially of the weak, against error, the nest in which we receive the wings for the lofty flights of the spirit, the short path that permits one to know quickly, surely and without errors, the truths which lead the human person to wisdom.”

Rationalism, an unbalanced or unhinged use of reason, will destroy the quest for wisdom and enervate the moral imagination of all those plunged into its briny solution. The educational system of our country from top to bottom excludes faith and therefore plants the seeds of our nation’s grief.  We are impelled to join cause with John Paul II and Augustine in their vigorous criticism of the ratioanalist presumption.  Augustine wrote at the very beginning of his great book, On the Trinity,  “my pen is on the watch against the sophistries of those who scorn the starting point of faith, and allow themselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason.” 

By the way, W. H. Auden left those sophistries behind; thus he says in Atlantis: 

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud 
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

Thank God for the poets; but more so, for the theologians, such as Augustine. “Understand the difference between presumption and confession, between those who see the goal that they must reach, but cannot see the road by which they are to reach it, and those who see the road to the blessed country which is meant to be no mere vision but our home.”  (Conf: 7.20)

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II reminds us that Augustine avoided the twin errors of rationalism and fideism: “one must pass safely between two extremes, between the fideism that despises reason and the rationalism that excludes faith. Augustine’s intellectual and pastoral endeavor aimed to show, beyond any shadow of doubt, that ‘since we are impelled by a twin pull of gravity to learn,’ both forces, reason and faith, must work together.”  

Tomorrow we will take up the issue of fideism.

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