The Confessions: St. Augustine's Views on God and Reason

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Augustine’s conversion: God is above reason

Most people know St. Augustine of Hippo as one of the Great Latin Doctors of the Church due to his numerous works explaining and defending the Church against the numerous heresies at the time. Less people know who Augustine was before his bishophood and consequent sainthood – someone who was “so great a sinner”, to directly quote his autobiographical The Confessions. Augustine’s stance of Christianity zigzagged throughout his pre-conversion years, from being genuinely curious about it to outright dismissing it by going against St. Monica, his Christian mother, and participating in the Manichean sect for nine years.

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One of the consistent traits of Augustine since his childhood days is his intellectual inquisitiveness and search for the reason in everything he sought. Augustine points out in The Confessions rather early on that he was searching for the Truth, and that he engaged himself in anything he saw could possess this Truth. Augustine had an interest and natural talent in rhetoric, the act of persuasion to convince others that what you are saying is true, and went to study in Carthage to pursue this study. Augustine’s stint with the Manicheans was also in search for Truth, as he was promised that Mani, the sect’s leader, would be able to give him the answers to his questions. When both rhetoric and Manichaeism disappointed Augustine, the former in how it morally corrupted people’s perception of truth, and the latter in how empty the promised truth was, Augustine did not hesitate to abandon them and continue in his search. It was only through St. Ambrose, another Great Doctor of the Church, who helped Augustine become more welcoming of the Catholic faith when the bishop explained it to him with reason.

Everything about Augustine’s search for Truth was driven by reason, by logic and argumentation, which is why it is ironic that Augustine’s moment of conversion happens when Augustine lets go of reason. Augustine states in The Confessions that he was moved by the story about Saint Anthony the Great, a rich Egyptian who, after hearing a reading that he felt was directed at him, gave up all his belongings to the poor and become a hermit in the desert. Augustine was tormented and angry, questioning his inability and unwillingness to commit just as St. Anthony did, before crying out to the Lord. In this moment, Augustine lets his emotions get the better of him, not his intellect, and it is only in this moment that God reaches out to him through the voice of a calling child, as Augustine recounted. It is only in this moment that Augustine finally saw the Truth he had been looking for so long – God.

Augustine returns to using his intellect and reason after the conversion, this time for the Catholic faith. More unreasonable events happen in Augustine’s life, most prominently his sudden ordination as priesthood and then bishop, but the saint was unwavering in his belief. If Augustine had doubted the faith in any period of his life, he would not have hesitated to leave it like he did with the Manicheans before. He never did.

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