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Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience (1 Peter 3:15b-16a ESV)

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1/04/2005

Faith and Reason 3: Augustine 

In Part 2, we talked about Tertullian, and his contention that faith and philosophy don't mix. This is a position that has been used and abused by Christians down through the ages, and we looked at what Tertullian might have meant.

Now, I want to take a look at another early theologian and philosopher, Augustine. Augustine wanted a faith that was consistant with reason, and he went in a LOT of directions to try and find one. He started off in Manicheanism, an early dualistic belief that taught two conflicting gods -- one good and one evil. In the ancient world, this religion held quite a bit of prestige, and Augustine was reluctant to abandon it completely. Finally, he realized that he couldn't ignore his doubts about this belief system, and embraced skepticism. He quickly saw some of the problems with this system, especially after reading neo-Platonist writings, and so he became a neo-Platonist for a time. Finally, through the influence fo Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, Augustine embraced Christianity. (The Catholic Encyclopedia has a good, short biography of Augustine here).

Augustine didn't see any conflict between faith and reason. Faith and trust are synonynmous to Augustine, and it's clear that there is a LOT of knoweldge that we have based on our trust of some other source. I know that the capital of England is London, and I know that London Bridge is there, but I've never been to Enlgand. I have to have faith in my sources of information on England to have any idea what England is like. Augustine defined faith, then, as knowledge that is gained without our own personal experience.

Reason, then, is knowledge that is gained through our experience. If I know that something is hot because I touch it, or because I see the steam from it, that is reason. If I know something is hot because I see someone else burn themselves on it, it's faith.

Faith and reason are like the two blades on a pair of scissors. Our knowledge comes from the interaction of both faith and reason, just as scissors cut something by using both blades. Faith is not something that only involves religious belief -- it is integral to any system of knowledge. Augustine expressed it this way: Credo ut intelligam -- I believe that I may understand.

I tend to be Augustinian. I don't think that faith means setting reason aside -- I think that faith and reason must be paired together to gain any real understanding of the world around us. We exercise faith all the time; religious faith is simply one aspect of the faith that we all have in facts that we have not experienced. We cannot experience everything that we know -- history is a perfect example of this -- so we have to exercise faith that our sources are correct.

But how can we be sure that even our reason is reliable? People are imperfect, after all. How can we rely on our reason to be accurate? How can we be sure that the reason of those we trust is accurate? Augustine had an answer for that, as well, which has been called his illumination theorywhich I'll discuss in the next installment of this series.


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