Are faith and philosophy compatible ways of seeking the truth? Augustine, surprisingly, will answer that they are compatible, that though they appear starkly different at first glance, they are not so different after all. Augustine’s augment for why each is compatible with one another centers on how we come to know Truth and the purpose of Truth.
Around the time of his ordination to the priesthood in 391, Augustine wrote On True Religion. It is an interesting text because though nowadays we think of church doctrine and hierarchal organization as normal, back in Augustine’s day it was still thought of in terms of cult-activity. The idea of a ‘true religion’ which has certain forms of conduct and the like, was alien to many in Augustine’s day; religion was something you did, not something you believed.
To Augustine, correct worship and correct belief are inseparable. He criticizes pagan philosophers who were willing to participate in religious rituals which were at odds with their religious beliefs. Worship and teaching, in other words, must be consistent and this marks a theological turning point.
Today, many see reason and faith as opposed to one another. One utilizes facts within the observable world as defined by a relatively stable empirical data and scientific process, while the other uses blind fanaticism, belief without evidence. But Augustine does not take such a dichotomy.
Augustine sees both faith and reason demanding our cognitive and affective sides (desires, wills, and commitments). Another reason why Augustine rejects this delineation between faith and Truth is that the delineation does not ask what value there is in seeking the truth. People who value knowledge for its own sake, according to Augustine, is making a fundamental moral mistake. Until we know what knowledge is for we cannot evaluate what faith or reason or both might serve that aim.
This standard way—of forcing a delineation—assumes that there is a standard way of apprehending the Truth. If this was true, then an upholding of faith would require a repudiation of the wholly rational path (assuming that a purely rational approach to the Truth was even possible). To Augustine, any search for Truth must begin with the acceptance of authority.
Faith, or belief, comes from hearing. Knowledge, meanwhile, comes by sight. Knowledge depends on the first-hand experience while belief comes from accepting something from second-hand—believing what we have heard, testimony which appears to be reliable and definitive. Needless to say, much of what we would call knowledge Augustine would not consider as such: if I travel to Paris France and spend several weeks inebriated while seeing the sights and praying that I do not get caught up in a terrorist attack, then that is knowledge, because I have seen it—and my hangover— first hand; however, if I have heard of a place from friends called Paris, Utah then that is faith because I have not been there first-hand, I only of an idea of its alleged existence because I have taken several trusted sources as my guide in determining if such a place exists.
One such explicit result of Augustine’s philosophy is that no one can teach anyone anything by means of language.
Williams teaches it like this: if I teach you something, then I cause you to know it. But in order to cause you to know something, I have to show you the thing that you are to know. But words cannot show anything, they can only point you toward something. If I wanted to teach you that there is a place called Oxford England, I could not teach you by telling you about it since even if you believed me, you wouldn’t know it you would simply believe me. In order to teach in to cause you to know it, I would have to take you there, but if that was the case, then it wouldn’t be my words to teach you, but rather, your own sight.
As we learned previously, there are two different things that we can know—sensible things and intelligible things, in keeping with our Platonic distinctions. It is easy to demonstrate that sensible things cannot be shown by means of language, as the example, vis-a-vie Oxford demonstrated. However, it also turns out that we cannot teach intelligible things by means of language.
For Augustine, intelligible things exist in our own minds. Justice, for example, is one such intelligible thing; in order to know justice, you must have first-hand experience of justice itself. Now, justice exists in the mind—our minds have access to it, it is an intelligible thing. But how can one show another something that only exists in their mind? I cannot know your own mind—I cannot use words to demonstrate the existence of an intelligible thing since they only exist in our minds; words can only be used to focus on ideas and ideals, not manifest something into reality in the same way which I can prove the existence of Paris, France by taking you there. The first-hand experience which constitutes knowledge is not something that I can give you.
How then do we come to know intelligible things? Augustine’s account of this is called the ‘theory of illumination’. This theory presents knowledge as an analog to vision. In order for physical vision to take place we need the power of vision itself, the presence of a physical object, light, and finally, the proper direction of our eyes, we must look in the general direction of the object which we wish to see. ‘Intellectual Vision’ is analogous on all four points: we need intellectual vision—the mind itself—we need also the presence of the intelligible object (that of Truth or Justice or whatever), we need something which corresponds to light in the physical realm, and finally, we need the proper direction not of our eyes, but of our wills.
The power of intellectual vision is always present. All human beings have that power since it is the power of reason. This is always a given. But the power of the intelligible object is also always a given; Justice, beauty, Goodness (etc.) are not like sensible objects which come and go. Intelligible objects are permanent and relatively unchanging. Thirdly, the intelligible light is always present as well: Augustine describes this intellectual light as the second person of The Trinity—that true light who enlightens every human being via God the word. All of this means that the only requirement for intellectual vision which is not always met is the proper direction of our wills. Consequently, a failure of intellectual vision is, in some ways, always traceable to a failure of will. Failure of will, remember, is what Augustine would call Sin.
To back-up a bit, there were some issues of delineation in defining the search for Truth between reason and faith. One side was the cognitive side whereas, for Augustine, the affective side plays a major role; why? Because it is the state of our wills which ultimately determine the state of our intellects. Secondly, in our delineation, we see that the problem of seeking the truth is ignored: what is the value of seeking Truth (Belief)? Augustine answers in book five of the Confessions where he speaks of the Truths discovered by the natural sciences: a person who understands the natural world is not any better off—happier—than something who is purely content with God, since that person who understands the natural world but lacks God, lacks that fundamental spark which led to the creation of the natural world (the argument is more complicated than this, but this is, more or less, the gist of it). Same approach for philosophy, as far as Augustine is concerned, especially when applied to Biblical interpretation since such words are only non-sinful when the interpretation creates greater love for God, hence, Biblical interpretation for its own right, is sinful since it does not produce a great love for God. All of this is underwritten by divine assurance: it does not matter where the soul comes from, as long as you have divine assurance (Augustine relates it to a journey where even if you do not know where you left from, as long as you know where you are going, then all is well).
As such, we see in Augustine’s philosophy a radical devaluation of the kind of knowledge which posits knowledge for its own sake; one Good as such transcendence value that it must overwhelm all other Goods (i.e., God). The purpose here is transformation rather than information. In principle, seeking the Truth based on reason is any better for the purpose of transformation than seeking it based on the acceptance of authority. So faith, which relies on authority, does not need to take a back-seat to reason; the humility necessary to accede to authority is in itself a precondition for transformation. Accepting authority is an admitting that we cannot do it all by ourselves, so that sort of humility in the face of a Truth which exceeds our power of comprehension is part of what is necessary in order to have a will that is properly directed at the Truth. Such humility and acceptance of authority, therefore, is not merely an optional extra, but rather, a pervasive feature of any human being seeking transformation; this is something which holds true for anything which we wish to know (to take an example of my own creation, also one at the other end of the spectrum: if one wishes to know the capitalist mode of production, then one must take on Karl Marx’s authority, the basic premises of Marxism in order to begin a rigorous study of said mode of production).
This brings us to the third reason why the dichotomy between faith and reason does not do justice to Augustine’s views—the usual method that of positing the purely rational life as the one way of obtaining Truth, then that would mean that faith comes in, at best, as a supplement to the rational life. To Augustine, this understanding, that which posits that you either know everything or know nothing, is a symptom of Pride (the root of all other Sin). A successful search for Truth will, at some point, rely on authority; this is true because we must always rely on other peoples’ testimony even to maneuver in the world for mundane matters (communication, family lineage, travel, etc.).