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Confessions: Even If He Doesn’t Know Any Natural Philosophy

Master, God of truth, is it really possible that whoever knows that sort of thing ipso facto pleases you? No, because even anyone knowing all of that, but not knowing you, is an unfortunate person. It’s a happy one, on the other hand, who knows you, even if he doesn’t know any natural philosophy.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.7

For the Philosophers, Manicheans, and astronomers, the ability to read the heavens and the material world was of most importance. The one who had knowledge had the capability of being famous as Faustus was. Augustine had chased fame, knowledge, and clout his entire career only to be disappointed upon arriving to the peak of success. His searching soul was still searching, his heart was still restless. Augustine could contend with the philosophers, Manicheans, and explain the heavens but found no rest in it.

Why? Because understanding the universe does not give meaning to it. A scientist can tell us what ingredients are in a cake, the process it took to make a cake, and explain how all the ingredients work together to make the cake. But all of that does not tell us why the cake was made. Moreover, it does not actually give the scientist a cake to eat.

Augustine makes the illustration of a fruit tree. A person who understands science and the one who does not will both be satisfied by eating from the tree, not by understanding the tree. A person can count its branches and leaves, measure each branches length, measure the trunk's diameter and height, observe its growth rate, determine its age, measure its roots but he/she won't be any happier for it. “A person who knows that he possesses a tree and thanks you for the use of it, even though he doesn’t know how many cubits high it is, or how far it stretches from side to side, is better off than the person who measures it and counts all its branches but doesn’t possess it or know or love its creator” (5.7.3).

For Augustine, knowledge of God, the creator of the cosmos, is what brings meaning, flavor, and beauty to what is discovered and understood about the material. We have been created with the ability to understand the cosmos, but we have not been created for that purpose; we have been created for the purpose of knowing God.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.—2 Peter 3:18

Lord, may I grow in grace and knowledge of You.

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.


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