Confessions: You Aren’t Discovered By The High And Proud
Master, yet you have regard for lowly things… you don’t approach any people but those trampled down at heart; and you aren’t discovered by the high and proud, not even if, in their painstaking expertise, they can count the stars and the grains of sand and measure the tracts full of heavenly bodies and track down the stars on their trails.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.3
When Augustine was 28 years old and living in Carthage, Faustus, a respected dignitary of the Manichaean sect, came to the city. Augustine was excited to learn from Faustus because he was prestigious in every field and “especially polished adept in the liberal arts.” (5.3.2) At first Augustine was raptured by the man’s “tasty eloquence” (something I hope people would say about me), but eventually Augustine became disappointed.
He recognized that although Faustus had a great understanding of the universe, he (and these are my words and evaluation) did not know his place in the midst of it. Augustine compared what he had read from the philosophers with what Faustus was teaching and “found more plausible the statements of those with only an aptitude for evaluating the material world…” (5.3.3) Simply, Augustine found more truth in the words of less learned men who evaluated the world only by what they could experience.
Was Augustine against science? Did he really believe that anecdotal observation is more accurate than scientific calculation? No, he did not. It was not that Augustine found fault in Faustus’ calculations of the material; what Augustine found fault in was hubris. Learned men could read the skies scientifically (astronomy) and predict eclipses, and the movements of stars, moon, and sun to the second. And when they did, “they claim to be wise, attributing to themselves qualities that are [God’s] and in doing so they strive, in their deprived blindness, actually to attribute to [God] what belongs to them” (5.5.4).
Although not a Christian yet, Augustine saw in their calculations a divine being moving. While the Manichaeans “do find him and recognize him as God, they don’t honor him as God or give him thanks…” (5.5.4). Philosophy had enabled him to see things as they really were. Sure, the less learned men did not understand the mechanics of the universe, but they were wise enough to attribute to God what belongs to him.
For Augustine, understanding must have faith. A Primary dictum of western theological tradition channeled through the conduit of Augustine and Anslem has been that faith leads to understanding. Not that faith replaces understanding, but that faith is a volitional state. Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead” (Monologion 78). Faith is not merely epistemic (something that you know), faith is love for God that drives our desire to understand how to live and how the world works.
In the year 2021, faith is not considered prestigious but it is necessary for the modern saint. There is no problem with being a scholar, or in understanding the mechanics of the world. The problem is hubris. When we believe that faith no longer has a role to play in our perception of the world. As Augustine notes, God is not “discovered by the high and proud.” God is found by those who seek him with all their hearts.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.—Jeremiah 29:13
Lord, remove my hubris, that I may have faith seeking understanding.
Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.