Augustine on Faith and Reason, 2

After making the Augustinian case for faith, John Paul II then explains that Augustine also “emphasizes that faith is never without reason, because it is reason that shows ‘in what one should believe.’ ‘For faith has its own eyes, by means of which it sees in a certain manner that which it does not yet see is true.’ Therefore ‘no one believes anything, unless he has first thought that it is to be believed,’ because ‘to believe is itself nothing other than to think with assent … if faith is not thought through, it is no faith.'”

In the Confessions Augustine spoke of the influence of Cicero who advised “to love wisdom itself, whatever it may be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly.” (Conf: 3.4) Augustine took such advice to heart and never ceased to search, pursue, hold and embrace truth, that is, he never  ceased to be a man of strong intelligence. Thus, after emphasizing the importance of faith, he balances his view with this: “in point of time, authority is first; in the order of reality, reason is prior.” Yes, we must embrace the certitude and stability of faith and authority; but we must strive to make it our own and to understand what we believe. Reason is at work in coming to the truth of faith and in its explication and comprehension (however limited that may be). 

Maritain says that fideism, the position that touts faith at the expense or neglect of reason is akin to throwing a stone into a pond where it lies at the bottom, lifeless and still. Faith should be an inspiration and “awaken a spiritual élan” in the heaven of the soul; thus, renewal “entails and requires a vast labor of reason.” He says that faith calls for reason, indeed faith “presupposes reason.” (Peasant of the Garonne, c. 5) After all Augustine said said “credo ut intellegam” — I believe that I may understand.” Understanding is the telos, the purpose of faith. Contemplation of the divine involves the heart and the head.

It is too easy to live a life out of balance, our culture encourages it. We find a narrow and punishing rationalism, exalting scientific thinking, scientific method, scientific findings; this mind set is narrow because it excludes that which it cannot measure and it is punishing because it ridicules and lashes out at any refinement of judgment about the good or at any sign of a spirited defense of what is honorable.

But we also find the growing cults of enthusiasm and emotive indulgence. Relativism allows endorsement of any creed or passion from “Heaven’s gate” to techno “love fests” to gospels of success and the therapeutic; and we find that the bathos of reality TV and the debauchery celebrated by the “stars” of culture  conspire to legitimize the crass and the lewd as authentic options. The religion of self proceeds to make gains in all directions. It is a new faith, virtually unchecked by reason or reality. I love to quote Russell Kirk in his citation of a founder who said “King Demos struts naked.” We stand aghast, speechless at the spectacle. Rationalism allows no judgment; a spirited defense of decency must be punished as intolerant. Behind the appeal to authenticity is a the power of the crowd, and the power of the elite who have ruled out the traditional approaches to life. Russell Kirk’s citation is embedded in a larger comment:

We live in a world that is giving at the seams. Sometimes, indeed–especially to a man who travels a good deal–there comes an uneasy feeling that the garment of civilization has already parted and that if one were to tug even the least bit, a sleeve or a trouser leg of our social fabric would come away in his hand. In half the world, the decent draperies of the old order have been burnt altogether, and King Demos struts naked, like the emperor with his imaginary new clothes. When the garment of civilization is worn out, we are confronted by the ugly spectacle of naked power.

Yes, Augustine saw similar trends of decline in his day; he participated in the diversions of the Manichees and the sceptics; he practiced the sophistry to political speechmaking. Faith brought salvation and a return to reason. And the task remained of the rebuilding, nay the re-founding, of culture. JP2 pointed out “in the great work on the City of God, which is at once apologetic and dogmatic, the problem of reason and faith becomes that of faith and culture. Augustine, who did so much to establish and promote Christian culture, solves this problem by developing three main arguments: the faithful exposition of Christian doctrine; the careful salvaging of pagan culture, to the extent that it had elements capable of being salvaged (in the area of philosophy, this was no small amount); and the insistent demonstration of the presence in Christian teaching of whatever was true and perennially valid in pagan culture, with the advantage of finding it perfected and exalted there.” Friends, this is our task today; this why John Paul II was an Augustinian at root. We have Thomas for the intellectual tools of our labor, but we find the field for our labor through St. Augustine..

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