Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Augustine: Reason and Faith, Philosophy and God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 30, 2012

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict has argued that faith and reason are both necessary for the human person to understand reality and live properly. In his famous Regensburg address and elsewhere, he has stressed the need for Faith to purify Reason, and for Reason to purify Faith. He has also stressed the perennial relevance of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

This reciprocal relationship between faith and reason is a constant theme in Catholic intellectual history, and it explains why the Catholic intellectual tradition is so rich, strong and full, perhaps unlike anything else in the world. From the first, the proclamation of the Gospel was united closely with the human insights of Greek philosophy, and while there have been tensions in the tradition—such as Tertullian’s famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—in general the idea of the reciprocity of faith and reason has been strengthened from the Patristic Age on.

The most important early theorist of the connections between faith and reason was St. Augustine, who was also far and away the most influential Catholic theologian prior to St. Thomas Aquinas. Therefore, I am not surprised that Pope Benedict called specific attention to St. Augustine’s contribution in one of his university addresses in 2007: Augustine, A Model for Dialogue between Reason and Faith. What is the connection that Augustine saw between the two?

To answer that question, I turn to a gift from my son the philosopher (Christopher V. Mirus of the University of Dallas), who for Christmas last year gave me a copy of Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. Chris knew that one of my many intellectual gaps was never to have read a book by MacIntyre, a deeply insightful thinker who has moved through many stages in his search for truth, finally arriving at Catholicism. Many users will have heard of his famous 1981 book, After Virtue, which has gone through three editions, the last in 2007.

In the book I am reading, MacIntyre is interested in tracing the Catholic philosophical tradition, and this makes it necessary to consider the question of whether philosophy is an independent discipline in its own right or whether it must be deeply illumined by theology in order to be fully itself. If Boethius did much to establish the independence of Philosophy, MacIntyre points out that Catholics cannot escape the deeper connections between faith and reason which the work of St. Augustine makes it impossible to forget.

For Augustine, as for Benedict, as for all clear-minded Catholics, the human person faces tremendous obstacles in the effort to arrive at truth—that is, the mind’s conformity with reality—because of the weakness of his fallen nature. First pride and then concupiscence make it almost impossible for a person to follow where truth leads, causing each person to get lost in what he wants to be real, rather than what is actually real. Unable to know himself clearly because of his pride and his passions, the person necessarily fails in his quest to understand reality.

But if by faith a person comes to accept the role of God and grace in his life, he gains two enormous advantages. First, his pride and passions—his slavery to sin and the consequent darkening of his intellectual powers—are mitigated and gradually healed and overcome by grace. Second, Revelation provides certain points of absolute truth which can serve as a corrective to the inevitable mistakes that even the best thinkers make in the application of their reason to the elucidation of the reality they experience and observe. It is not that a philosopher decides that such-and-so must be true because He knows it to be true by Faith, but the light of Faith will often enable a philosopher to see reality more clearly and so more perfectly assess the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments.

In summarizing Augustine’s contribution, MacIntyre insists that “it is the whole soul, the whole mind, that knows,” and it must begin by knowing itself, not just in parts, but as the very subject which “perceives, thinks, judges, remembers, feels, desires, and wills.” Thus the injunction “Know thyself”, if the mind is not to be at odds with itself, means that we must know our own nature so that we may live in accordance with that nature. According to Augustine, to achieve self-understanding we must turn within: “Do not go abroad. Return within yourself. In the inward human being dwells truth. If you find that you are by nature mutable, transcend yourself” (quoted from Of True Religion).

But—and here is the key point—Augustine understood that we can only move within ourselves, “so that we become aware of our true nature and transcend ourselves”, if God gives us the grace to make this possible. MacIntyre summarizes it this way:

Otherwise the path of self-knowledge is closed to us. Why so? What deprives us of the knowledge of God also deprives us of self-knowledge: an indefinite capacity for distraction by external trivialities and a craving for self-justification, so that we either do not attend to what is within or, if we do, disguise from ourselves our thoughts and motives. And in areas where our sexuality exerts its power, we lose our capacity for self-examination (Confessions 10.35-37). It is God alone who can rid us of the pride and the desire that is at work in these various agencies of self-deception.

This is why Augustine’s Confessions is written as a prayer. And this is why philosophy, and even reason itself, falters and flees from those who will not acknowledge God and seek His aid.

See my complete review of MacIntyre”s God, Philosophy, Universities here: Why Philosophy Matters.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 30, 2012 6:40 PM ET USA

    And the current age in which we live is the perfect storm for the deprivation of the knowledge of God and of ourselves. In addition to the "pride and then concupiscence" which lead to "failure in the quest to understand reality" there is a particularly tragic ignorance of that true beauty and love so freely offered by the eternal Trinity. Thus we see the paradoxical "reality" that surrounds us- the pursuit and acquisition of everything imaginable; the failure to be truly happy. For real.