Augustine for Adventists: More Thoughts on Faith and Reason

(system) #1

One of my favorite prayers is one penned by St. Augustine:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

My goal in this post is to look at Augustine’s biography, and the story behind this prayer, more than his actual philosophical and theological thought, with the hope of finding more resources to address the question of the relationship between faith and reason.

Augustine was born into a family of mixed religious convictions. His mother was a devout Christian, but his father was a pagan. Early on, Augustine was unimpressed by Christianity and the Bible. Aesthetically, he found the prose of the Bible to be awkward and clumsy. (He preferred the much more elegant prose of the Latin classics and went on to study and teach rhetoric.) Morally, he found himself struggling with his physical drives. Before his eventual conversion to Christianity, he had a mistress and had a child out of wedlock. (One of his famous prayers is his cry to God: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”) Intellectually, the main problem that befuddled him was what today we might call “the problem of evil.” He could not reconcile the idea that a benevolent God had created everything with the reality of pain and suffering in the world.

Trying to satisfactorily untangle this conundrum led Augustine to reject the Christianity of his mother, and on an intellectual journey, which I will now oversimplify to make my point.

His reading of the author Cicero, through his study of rhetoric, gave him some familiarity with Stoic philosophy, which emphasized self-mastery, and this provided him with some resources to explain and deal with his sensual desires.

However, Augustine needed more; he wanted an explanation about reality and this led him to Manichaeism. He spent nine years as a hearer of Manichean teachings. Simply put, the Manicheans taught that here was a perpetual struggle between two eternal, equal, and opposing forces—light and darkness. Our souls, comprised of light particles, had become entrapped in the darkness of the world. Through ascetic practices one could overcome the powers of darkness, and eventually, join the greater Light.

This explanation initially made a lot of sense to Augustine. It explained, perhaps in an inelegant way, the source of evil in the world; it also helped him make sense of his moral struggles. Eventually, however, Augustine became dissatisfied with this explanation. He recalls a disappointing meeting with a leader of the Manicheans, whose simplistic and unclear answers left him with questions about the ultimate origin of everything.

Augustine left Manicheanism behind and, for a short time, became a skeptic.

Then he met Ambrose, the Christian leader of Milan, who interestingly, introduced Augustine to writings of some Neo-Platonists. The Neo-Platonists had an explanation of evil that Augustine found very compelling. Simply put, evil was understood to be a privation of the good. In other words, evil does not exist on its own, as an independent entity apart from the good, but is parasitic on goodness. Evil is a lack of goodness.

This way of thinking about evil opened Augustine to theism and the God of Christian Scripture, the God, who in the beginning, creates everything ex nihilo and declared it good. I won’t recount his conversion to Christianity here (which had mainly to do with his moral struggles and his discovery of a spiritual power beyond his personal efforts), but eventually Augustine became an influential Christian leader and author, and beyond the confines of Christendom, has done much to shape Western culture.

This, critics will say, was a negative development for the church. Augustine gets a bad rap in many contemporary circles for introducing “errors” into Christian thought. One of them, with which, many of us are familiar; he’s the guy who brought Platonism, with its erroneous dualistic anthropology, into Christian theology.

The other, more charitable way to read him, however, is seeing him as doing the same thing Aquinas was doing in his own day (see my previous post) - making Christianity intelligible to the reigning intellectual framework of his day. (Many people in his day found neo-Platonism to be a very convincing way of explaining reality and the self.)

Augustine’s thought, in a vivid way, reveals the double-edged blade of the theological endeavor. On the one hand, one of the positive things good theology does is making the truths of Christian Scripture relevant and comprehensible to contemporary culture. The downside to this is that culture changes and once the reigning intellectual framework of a respective culture shifts, the theology that has been developed to address it becomes outdated.

Ultimately, however, I believe Augustine’s biography shows us something valuable about the relationship between faith and reason. It’s common to pit faith against reason. Reason, philosophy, science, etc. is seen as getting in the way of faith and leading away from devotion to God. Augustine story demonstrates the opposite. First, we learn that reasoning can prepare the way for faith. Ambrose used the ideas of neo-Platonism to answer Augustine’s very valid intellectual questions. Secondly, however, Augustine’s story shows us how reasoned inquiry can eventually lead us to God, the source of all truth, and the journeys each of us undergo can serve to eventually deepen our understanding of and service to God, who transcends, and is the source of, the created order. __________ Zane studies and teaches philosophy at Fordham University in New York. (He is not a secret member of the Jesuit order.)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at