Friday, July 15, 2005

St. Augustine on Truth, Reason, and Rest

I often hear, in the church, arguments for being silent before God. That silence is often regarded as the only way we can begin to understand God, because God is a great mystery and that the only appropriate response to this mystery is quietude.

This, though, is not the position taken by the great completive thinkers within ancient Christianity, despite the fact that they do defend the mystery of God. Take, for example, this quote from St Augustine:

"Return within yourself. In the inward [person] dwells truth. If you find that you are by nature mutable, transcend yourself."

We see here St. Augustine's depth of insight into how we come to know the truth; the truth is something that dwells within us. We turn to the inward person because the outward person is mutable and changing, subject to the spiral of death. The inward person, which is lasting, is what is most like truth. This is where truth resides; in what is not subject to change, because what is true is everlasting.

St. Augustine urges us even to transcend our ability to reason:

"But remember in doing so that you must also transcend yourself even as a reasoning soul."

Why must we transcend our reason? Is reason not a gift from God? Is reason not the way we come to know what is true? Is this not the task of the theologian, to reason about God? St. Augustine continues,

"Make for the place where the light of reason is kindled."

This is why we must transcend the reasoning soul, because human reason finds it's origin in the heavenly places. Reason is necessary, but only the way in which we look for what is true:

"What does every good reasoner attain but truth? And yet truth is not reached by reasoning, but is itself the goal of all who reason."

The reasoning person is on a search, a search for what is true. This is, to some degree, the theological task: to think long and hard about what is true. But what St. Augustine is so importantly pointing out here, is that though the goal of human thinking is to attain the truth, the truth is not reached by the human effort of reasoning. The truth remains outside the confines of the carnal human mind.

"There is an agreableness than which there can be no greater. Agree, then, with it. Confess that you are not as it is. It has to do no seeking, but you reach it by seeking, not in space, but by a diposition of mind, so that the inward man may agree with the indwelling truth in a pleasure that is not law and carnal but supremely spiritual."

For St. Augustine we do not begin with silence before God. We begin with reason, and thinking, and searching for the truth. But the way in which we find truth is by pressing upon the limits of our mind, through reasoning, until we break through into the place where "the light of our reason is kindled," where we no longer reason but find rest in what is true, and we discover the one who makes us reasonable persons. And when we reach this place, we recognise not only our own limited ability, but also the rightness and agreeableness of what is true.

This is when we find silence, after the quest for what is true. And this is where we find our rest.


Blogger Kim said...

This post is a great comfort to me. It actually moved me to tears. I see this phenomenon in my own experience of God and truth. It's always nice to know you're not alone :). Thanks (again).

Saturday, July 16, 2005 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

I approach this from a restless mind and life. I am not quiet. But there are moments in life when I feel so present in the beauty that surrounds me (nature, people, art etc.) that it feels like the world has gone into slow motion... the noise of the passing cars is gone, the heat or the cool (Winterpeg cool) seem not to be a factor and I don't even feel the mosquitos attacking. There is rest and truth for a moment - it makes no sense, I can't use "reason" to explain it... can I? All I know is that even in the business and noisiness of my life it is these moments were silence is provided, even forced on me, that I feel so close to God.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 2:36:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

I'm glad that you pointed this out, Ruth. There is more to the experience of God, or truth, than what St. Augustine is pointing out. We don't always reach that rest through the agony of thinking hard.

What I find disconcerting is when this is used as an excuse for the church not to think hard about pressing issues. Many of us experience a deep relationship with the Holy Trinity in very different ways, and they are often related to what we do well. Like you and dancing. But this variety of experience does not let us off the hook in our examination of difficult issues, as if they would all go away if we would just be quiet. Let us dance and love God; let us also think and love God.

This post is an attempt to say that even thinking hard, and debating, and disagreeing, can be a spiritual activity - when we recognise "the place where the light of reason is kindled," and make sure that this is what we are seeking: the heavenly places where we find the embrace of God.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 3:53:00 PM  

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