St. Augustine’s Medicine For Doubt

I broke this discussion into two posts because I didn’t want Augustine’s greater point to get lost in his fit of pique. Instead, I want to draw your focus back to the first paragraph of the passage I cite from City of God Book 2:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure!

I’ve encountered that passage many times in my experience with City of God, but blew right by it without understanding that it was actually about me. (Look, it’s a thousand pages long: you can’t grasp the whole thing at one go.)

I returned to the faith after a undeniable encounter with the living God that broke through my doubt and drew me back, as though with Waugh‘s unseen hook and invisible line. But when I came back, I didn’t really believe it all. I fought my way back (or, rather, was dragged back) to Catholicism in stages, through mere theism (requiring deep reading in atheism and philosophy), scripture, Christianity (deep reading in apologetics), and finally Catholicism (lots of St. Thomas, Kreeft, Ratzinger, and catechism).

When I made that final leap to return to the faith of my youth, I didn’t believe everything Catholicism taught. I had mental reservations on a few contentious points, but I found everything else so balanced and perfect and right that I simply decided to submit my will and intellect on the rest. It was an act of humility, and not a pleasant one at first, but I saw that the collective wisdom of good and admirable and wise people, working for millennia on the deepest and most relevant questions of human existence, had yielded undeniable wisdom and clarity. If I was unable to mentally or emotionally grasp the last 5% that continued to give me trouble, whose fault was that?

And so, in what Augustine calls my “feeble condition,” I performed an act of faith, and submitted to the “the restorative medicine of sound teaching.” I let go, and put God in charge. As though one with the father of the possessed child in Mark 9:24, I said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” And in that act of submission, belief came.

I had to throw away a lot of carefully constructed dogma of my own invention, but once I shed it, I was overwhelmed with an immense sense of relief. I allowed my belief system to be stripped down to ground level: everything was on the table. In doing so, I shed a lot of modernist nonsense, as well as emotional and intellectual bias that clouded my thinking, and let myself be fill up with the simple and good things of God.

That’s an act of will leading to pure sacrifice. Submission of the will and intellect is what the Church calls for on its central elements of dogma. Modern ears hear that as simple tyranny, because, of course, in our few decades of life experience we know far better than the inherited wisdom of ages as guided by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity working through the Church. You don’t really know much until you grasp the enormity of all you do not–indeed, all you cannot–know as one mortal living a circumscribed and brief life. That’s the great lie of the modern world: I am my own man! I am self-invented! I can figure it all out! I took a class!

Hogwash. We are the product of billions of decisions made long before sperm met egg in a mother’s womb. We perch upon the accumulated wisdom of ages–trial and error, revelation and understanding, deep study in the things of God and man–and imagine we heaped up that mountain all on our own. At least, I did.

And from up there on my perch, it was impossible to tell whether that mountain is made of diamond or dung. I just knew it gave me a grand view of what I perceived to be reality. And it helped me look down on those who scratch out their lives on smaller mountains built of simple and sturdy faith.

Until I leveled that mountain, I may have known a lot of things, but a final and abiding Truth wasn’t among them. It was only in humility, and only by taking Augustine’s “restorative medicine” of simple faith, that I could find it.

It was only then that God could say, in effect, “Okay, let us begin.”

St. Augustine is Annoyed: Or, Don’t Wrestle With a Pig

There are a number of things that draw people to St. Augustine: the power of his prose, the clarity of his faith, his humanizing struggles, and his centrality to Christian doctrine. No other saint (or, indeed, any single figure of the ancient world) left us so many words, and in these words we find an immensely appealing and brilliant man.

Spend a significant amount of time with him, however, and there’s one delightful sideline of his prose: his frequent eruptions of irritation. One of his quips seems ready-made for the combox troll, but there’s also the opening of City of God Book 2, which includes this extended diatribe against answering endless question from people determined not to believe [emphasis added]:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure! In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussion in order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.

But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible. Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see. The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand  In fact, the Bible says “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly.” [Ps 94.4] You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments. [from City of God, 2.1]

That’s some eloquent irritation right there, and I thought of it today after reading the patient and charitable explanations from some of the Patheos writers to the latest face-palm post from a blogger on the atheist channel. Augustine is addressing what writer Daniel J. Flynn called Intellectual Morons, and the kind of people brilliantly lampooned by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: people who may well be intelligent, but are so blinded by their own bias that they sometimes fail to grasp basic logic. They refuse to understand simple points because it disrupts a carefully constructed worldview.

It’s a good approach to take. We need to engage the faith and evangelize, but we also need to know when our efforts are wasted on people who are so intransigent in their disbelief that they insist on repeating the same errors even when corrected. It’s still worthwhile to give witness, but we need to also recognize “how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer.” Some fields will never be fertile, and you just need to move on and work the ground the Lord has prepared for you: good ground that will produce a crop thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

Or, as the old quote (sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw) goes: Don’t wrestle with a pig. You both end up dirty, and the pig likes it.

This post is continued here.