Augustine and the passion fr truth

“O Truth, Truth, how deep was the yearning for you    
St Augustine is a model for the search for God. He was a man who loved truth. John Paul II said: “The conversion of St. Augustine, an event totally dominated by the need to find the truth, has much to teach the men and women of today, who are so often mistaken about the greatest question of all life.” John Paul II appeals to him to explain the importance of religious freedom.

John Paul’s first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, defined his pontificate. In a major section of his first encyclical he discussed human rights and asserted that “Actuation of the right to religious freedom is one of the fundamental tests of man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.” §17 Indeed he speaks from historic and personal experience when he says: “the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have.” Ten years later, in a Apostolic Letter on the Outbreak of World War II, he returned to this theme. He said that it “is our duty before God to remember these tragic events in order to honor the dead.” But in addition “we have the duty of learn from the past so that never again will there arise a set of factors capable of triggering a similar conflagration” or to learn the “process which brought this conflict to the very depths of inhumanity and suffering.” §2 John Paul II identifies the root factors contempt for law, for man, and for God. These attitudes opened up a “moral abyss.” The key to the whole process, John Paul claimed, was “the abandonment of all reference to God and to all transcendent moral law.” §7 Indeed, he said the presence of the “ruler of this world” was palpable in this seduction of conscience through falsehood, scorn for law, and the cult of power and force.

            The attitude of “proud self-sufficiency,” closing man off from God and the moral order, continues and is in fact “attenuated” today because science and technology provide the temptation for us to consider humanity as “the sole master of nature and history.” The attempt to “erase God and his image from man’s horizon” predated the outbreak of the war, its roots going into the 19th century. And today, “in many areas of existence, modern man thinks, lives and acts as if God did not even exist.” The danger therefore continues to lurk that “man will be handed over to the power of man.” The solution must be the rediscovery of God, for “respect for God and respect for man go hand in hand.” John Paul II refers to the dual respect for God and man as “the absolute principle” for peace. §12

Herein lies the real problem and the challenge to the Church. According to the ideologies and the dominant practices of the modern world, the person is not encouraged to really seek the truth about God and man. Totalitarian ideologies and pressures of conformity in liberal society both lead to an effective shutting down of the search for transcendent morality and God. The totalitarian ideology serves as a substitute for religion. In liberal society, mass culture and the weakness of the individual in face of the group weaken the energy for search. Tocqueville said “It is safe to foresee that trust in common opinion will become a sort of religion, with the majority as its prophet . . . and democracy might extinguish that freedom of the mind which a democratic social condition favors. Thus it might happen that, having broken down all of the bonds which classes or men formerly imposed on it, the human spirit might bind itself in tight fetters to the general will of the greatest number.” The Church must push back against this closing of the mind.

For this purpose, I believe, John Paul II emphasizes that aspect of religious freedom characterized by “seeking.” The human person must be free to seek the truth and to appropriate it. Without freedom of conscience, one is not able to exercise this deeper part of oneself. One is locked into the formation of childhood or the on-going propaganda of the state. One is pressured by the means of social communication and the advertising of commercial interests. It is good to recognize the freedom of conscience so that the initiative and spontaneity of the mind, will and heart may press forward to seek the truth.

John Paul expounds on the Augustinian core of his message in section 18 of Redemptor hominis: “Our heart is restless until its rests in you.” And thus John Paul II can turn to the human person and see a “creative restlessness” that “beats and pulsates” with what is most deeply human: “the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience.” The Church will stimulate and encourage active seeking of the truth and see in the restlessness various signs of the times for which the gospel will be proposed as an answer.

In a way this argument for religious freedom appeals to what is subjective (the native powers of the soul) and to what is inherently skeptical (zetetic). These are the very things which a dogmatic and institutional religion could well find a threat or antithetical to its existence, and the very things championed by Locke and Voltaire. Such an appeal to the subjective powers and skeptical search may of course be problematic and contribute to the very lack of respect for truth. This arises only if there were no hope in truth or no intuition of the good. It depends upon the presuppositions of a philosophy of man. Intellect and will are fulfilled by knowing the truth and willing the good in love. Contemplation and communion anchor the restless mind and will; thus truth and good exercise their attractive influence on the open search. Pope John Paul II argues for an anthropology incorporating the full truth about man. The depth of subjectivity and the ardor of the search can be matched in kind by the wisdom of God and the splendor of truth. In addition, the Church in confident in its message of redemption and the attractiveness of Christ.  In other words, the Church has nothing to fear from subjectivity as such, or the skeptical mind, understood as the seeking mind.

The conditions of the modern world encourage the cessation of intellectual search and draw the person to life on the surface of life. A rediscovery of the subject and arousal of intellectual curiosity is a good for humanity under these conditions. Scientism, technology, and tyranny may all strip dignity from the human person and shatter the coherence of the world. These modern forms of knowing and ruling deny the subject of knowing and willing and severely limit or restrict the searching. But the restlessness of the mind and heart surges against these strictures. Many may exhaust themselves in futile pursuits, and others may despair of ever finding, still Pope John Paul II holds out the promise of redemption through drawing close to Christ. The Church will benefit from freedom of conscience and toleration.

            The doctrine of true toleration, based upon respect for the person in his or her free search for truth and understanding of the good in conscience is rooted back in an Augustinian account of the person who seeks the true sanctuary of conscience in the vast resources of memory. “But in which part of my memory are present, O Lord? . . . What sanctuary have you build there for yourself?” (X.25). Augustine’s own life and search stand as a model for this explanation of religious freedom. As we discover in his Confessions, the intellectual search of Augustine led him through Manichaeism, skepticism, Platonism and eventually to embrace Christianity. The active search for truth led to his embrace of Christ. Hannah Arendt said: “Augustine, the first Christian philosopher and, one is tempted to add, the only philosopher the Romans ever had, was also the first man of thought who turned to religion because of philosophical perplexities.” Life of the Mind/Willing, chap. 10. His moral quest led him to discover the distinction between love and lust and the emptiness of worldly ambition. The experience of moral weakness and the phenomenon of “two wills” opened up for him the horizon of grace. The lived experience of this great saint and doctor of grace thrived on keen searching and a penetrating self-reflection. The exploration of memory in Book X culminates in the discovery of the inner sanctuary, the place of encounter with God. The affirmation of the human subject and the protection of the search have become a necessary condition for the discovery of God. Augustine provides the model.

 Pope John Paul II wrote: “let us ask this extraordinary man what he has to say to the modern man. I believe that he has indeed much to say, both by his example and by his teaching. He teaches the person who searches for truth not to despair of finding it. He teaches this by his examplehe himself rediscovered it after many years of laborious seeking—and by means of his literary activity, the program of which he had fixed in the first letter after his conversion. “It seems to me that one must bring men back . . . to the hope of finding the truth.” He teaches therefore that one must seek the truth “with piety, chastity and diligence,” in order to overcome doubts about the possibility of returning into oneself, to the interior realm where truth dwells; and likewise to overcome the materialism which prevents the mind from grasping its indissoluble union with the realities that are understood by the intelligence, and the rationalism that refuses to collaborate with faith and prevents the mind from understanding the “mystery” of the human person.” (Augustine Of Hippo)Apostolic Letter to the bishops, priests, religious families and faithful of the whole Catholic Church on the occasion of the 16th centenary of the conversion of St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor, 28 August 1986.

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