Saint Augustine, whose feast day is celebrated by the universal Church on August 28th , is “the greatest Father of the Latin Church”, according to many Popes, but in this instance Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was a man who underwent a radical conversion, and whose intellect and skill as a pastor and theologian, left a profound impact on Christianity as a whole and Western civilization. In Saint Augustine, the undercurrents of Western Culture, its philosophical and theological influences, and the past and present meet in his works. His additions to Catholic thought in both philosophy and theology continue to shape the minds of members of the Church and non-Catholics alike. His Confessions are still considered one of the greatest works of literature in Western civilization. He is read in the classrooms of both secular and Catholic universities. Pope Paul VI said of him, “It may be said that all the thought-currents of the past meet in his works and form the source which provides the whole doctrinal tradition of succeeding ages.”
Augustine was born in Tagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia in Africa on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan and his mother, whom we know as St. Monica, was a devout Christian. There is little doubt that the fervent prayer, fasting, and devotion of St. Monica had a great influence on St. Augustine’s eventual conversion to Christianity. As is often the case on the journey to truth, Augustine’s life was impacted through the works of a non-Christian, in this instance, the pagan Cicero. When Augustine went to study in Carthage, he read Cicero’s, Hortensius. In his Confessions, Augustine explains his response to Cicero, “The book changed my feelings…every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart.”
After reading Cicero, Augustine began to read Scripture because he came to believe that Jesus Christ was the only answer. He knew that while the wisdom of Cicero was a starting place, it was incomplete and erroneous in many areas. Augustine’s first introduction to Scripture did not go well. He found it unsatisfying and the Latin style of the translation of Sacred Scripture was lacking in many regards. He was deeply disappointed in his first reading and study of Scripture.
While Augustine knew he wanted Jesus Christ, he was left wanting and turned to the heretical group known as the Manichees. Augustine’s desire for wisdom and rationality was briefly answered through Manichaeism, but a mind as brilliant as his, and a heart longing for the fullness of truth, could not find fulfillment in heresy. Manichaeism seemed to speak to Augustine’s pride through its principles of the election and strict views on morality, but it did not answer his longings for Jesus Christ and the truth.
Eventually, by the grace of God, Augustine found himself under the instruction of the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Augustine began to see the hypocrisy and superficiality of Manichaeism. He moved to Milan in order to accept a prestigious post thanks to the influence of Symmacus, a pagan who was openly hostile to the works and teachings of St. Ambrose.
St. Augustine began to find answers to his questions and his desire for wisdom through listening to the teaching and preaching style of the Bishop of Milan. He began to be deeply affected and discovered answers to the questions and struggles he had with the content of the Old Testament, which seemed to violate reason. It was when Augustine realized that the Old Testament is the path to Jesus Christ that he could see the beauty and philosophical depth of Scripture. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his book, Doctors of the Church, explains:
Augustine soon realized that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture and the Neo-Platonic philosophy practiced by the Bishop of Milan enabled him to solve the intellectual difficulties which, when he was younger during his first approach to the biblical texts, had seemed insurmountable to him.
Augustine thus entered into the great tradition of using faith and reason in worshipping and serving the Triune God. This was a tradition present from the very beginning of the Church, and in the adoption of correct Platonic ideas, he continued in the footsteps of saints such as Saint Justin Martyr. Augustine converted to Christianity on August 15, 386. He was ordained a priest in 391 and ordained the Bishop of Hippo in 395.
In his time serving as Bishop, he took his gift of rhetoric and turned to the pastoral care of his flock and to responding to his interlocutors. He took on Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism, which were heresies endangering the Christian faith in the one God and His great mercy at the time.
The major thread of Saint Augustine’s work and life was the relationship between faith and reason. This is a relationship that is largely at war in the post-modern world. It is precisely the need for both faith and reason in the human experience that led St. John Paul II to write his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, which is a personal favorite of mine. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out how Augustine’s merging of faith and reason is just as important today as it was in his own day:
Thus, Augustine’s entire intellectual and spiritual development is also a valid model today in the relationship between faith and reason, a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of every human being. These two dimensions, faith and reason, should not be separated or placed in opposition; rather, they must always go hand in hand.
Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, 90.
Saint Augustine said shortly after his conversion, that faith and reason are “the two forces that lead us to knowledge” (Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43). We are meant to use reason to understand the world around us and to deepen our knowledge, while the supernatural gift of faith guides reason outside of itself into the very mystery of God. We believe to understand, according to Saint Augustine, which is why then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, defines faith as “thinking with assent”. In believing, we are able to “cross the threshold of truth…the believer scrutinizes the truth to be able to find God and to believe” (Doctors of the Church, 91). Pope Benedict XVI expounds further:
Augustine’s two affirmations express with effective immediacy and as much corresponding depth the synthesis of this problem in which the Catholic Church sees her own journey expressed. This synthesis had been acquiring its form in history even before Christ’s coming, in the encounter between the Hebrew faith and Greek thought in Hellenistic Judaism. At a later period this synthesis was taken up and developed by many Christian thinkers. The harmony between faith and reason means above all that God is not remote: he is not far from our reason and our life; he is close to every human being, close to our hearts and to our reason, if we truly set out on the journey.
Reading the works of Saint Augustine in our own day helps us to understand the answers to the great war between faith and reason that is raging in our culture. The philosophical undercurrents of Western civilization since the Enlightenment have sought to divorce faith from reason either through a purely rational system of God or through atheism. On the flip side, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters have divorced reason from faith by improper and overly literal interpretations of Scripture that were never meant to be used and never the intended by the inspired authors. Scripture is not a scientific book. It is not meant to be read or interpreted in that manner. This is why Catholicism blends philosophy, theology, and science in order to guide human beings on the journey to truth; that truth rests in the Triune God. Saint Augustine’s influence on the Church and civilization cannot be overstated. His works survive the test of time because they are universal in nature, whether it is his conversion in Confessions, or his many sermons or texts. Saint Augustine is an exemplar guide on our eschatological journey and in our search for wisdom and truth.
Saint Augustine, ora pro nobis.