Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Co-Narrating the Search for True Religion: Augustine's De Utilitate Credendi and Belief's Shaky Priority


“So there was a bewildering forest, and it had finally become intolerable to be planted in it” (8.20). So Augustine narrates, looking backwards, not only his own state as a confused and misled Manichean before his Christian conversion, but also that of his friend Honoratus, the impetus for and recipient of Augustine’s small work De Utilitate Credendi. Currently a similarly bewildered (or at least, from Augustine’s perspective, disordered but appropriately open) Manichean, and one due to their friendship, Honoratus finds himself narrated—subtly, powerfully, attractively—into Augustine’s own story: dazed and falsely taught, in search for truth, able to be delivered by God alone into all wisdom and salvation in the warm hearth of the Catholic Church. In the course of this co-narration, Augustine addresses the primary issue (apparently) holding his friend back from Christian belief: namely, belief itself. The Manicheans taught well that true religion must be arrived at by reason—that ultimately reliable faculty of human understanding—and that belief was a foolish roundabout for the unskilled, ignorant, and heretical. This assessment of faith/belief—so central to the Catholic Church’s doctrine, life, and witness—raises serious challenges for Augustine, a relatively new Christian. They are never far from his response in De Utilitate, which is the co-narration of Augustine and Honoratus’ journey together toward the essential truth—found in the Catholic Church—that trusting belief in God’s providential authority is necessarily prior to understanding.

The structure of the work is fairly straightforward. In 1.1-3 Augustine introduces the topic and names Honoratus as the addressee of the treatise. He quickly moves into the issues in 2.4-4.9 by addressing the accusations of the Manicheans against the Catholic inclusion of the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture. From there, Augustine takes a detour in 4.10-6.13 into types of error and truthful writings only to lead back to a final answer concerning the Old Testament. He goes on explicitly to co-narrate his and Honoratus’ search for religious truth in the context of so much confusion in 7.14-8.20, before returning to the subject at hand in 9.21-12.26—namely, the necessity of believing for daily life. Finally, in 12.27-14.32 Augustine presents his argument concerning the wise and the foolish and the need for trustworthy authorities, before his climactic exhortation in 15.33-17.35 where he articulates the acts of God in Christ, miracles, and given authorities for the benefit of all. He concludes in 18.36 with a final appeal and personal remarks.

In the following we will take up a close reading of the text, identify prominent themes for analysis, and critique, both positively and negatively, the effectiveness, substance, content, and form of Augustine’s arguments.

On the Advantage of Believing

Augustine begins his discourse by addressing Honoratus personally—a practice he continues throughout the work, keeping the second person pronoun firmly in view at all times—and by distinguishing, for Honoratus’ sake and (likely) for other potential readers’ sake as well, between true heretics (those who author or uphold views that are false and/or for “some temporal gain”) and those led astray by heretics (1.1). Because Honoratus is in the latter camp (whether truly, or placed there by Augustine’s rhetoric), he and Augustine can search for the truth together. This is fitting since both men came to Manichaeism in concert, and generally for similar reasons, believing that the Manicheans would answer—reasonably answer—their religious questions, and deliver them from the superstitions holding them back (2.1). Having now converted (or returned) to the Christian faith, Augustine now aims to reclaim his friend by proving to Honoratus “that, when the Manicheans attack those who, before they are capable of gazing on that truth that is perceived by a pure mind, accept the authority of the Catholic faith and by believing are strengthened and prepared for the God who will bestow light, they are acting irrationally and sacrilegiously” (2.1). Their own fallacious and irrational teachings may be clearly seen when “fact may compete with fact, case with case, proof with proof”—and Augustine leaves “its consideration, therefore, to [Honoratus’] good sense” (1.3).

Augustine moves immediately into the primary textual critique of the Manicheans against the Catholics, namely, the presence and use of the Old Testament in the sanctioned writings of Christian Scripture. Augustine is less immediately explicit about the nature of the Manichean objections to the Old Testament, though his language is visceral: they “upset the uneducated by attacking the Catholic faith and especially by criticizing and tearing apart the Old Testament” (2.4; emphasis mine). Instead of repeating the Manicheans’ criticisms, Augustine presents a positive case for how to read the Old Testament faithfully, which “is offered...under four aspects: as history, as explanation, as analogy, and as allegory” (3.5). He goes on to explicate these aspects in their particularity but also as cohering in a way that is reasonable, straightforward, universally taught in the Church, and employed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. History is plain enough: reporting something that happened (3.6). Explanation is when the Old Testament is used to elucidate the reasons for a particular action or teaching, especially regarding the differing expectations and commands in the different ages before and after Christ. Analogy “enables the harmony between the two testaments to be perceived,” and indeed is “used by everyone whose authority those people recognize” (3.7). Here Augustine partially reveals the substance of the Manicheans’ critique: that interpolations have corrupted the text, and in particular where certain texts might indict the false claims of Mani. Here, Augustine says, “only ordinary intelligence” will suffice to see through their “great stupidity.” Finally, allegory is the refusal “to take everything...according to the literal meaning of the words,” and instead “to have it unveiled by the Spirit,” that is, to see the true spiritual meaning conveyed by the words (3.9). Everything these aspects of faithful interpretation convey, according to Augustine, is utter repudiation of the Manicheans’ claims.

At this point Augustine takes a detour—and not an impersonal one—into exploring with/for Honoratus the various types of error (vis-à-vis authoritative writings) into which one may be lead astray (4.10). The first is to mistake as true something untrue, though it is not the writer’s own thought; the second to mistake as true something untrue, though it is the writer’s thought; and the third to understand as true something really true, though the writer did not know it (4.10). Augustine has “nothing against the first, and [is] not concerned about the last”; it is the second that is the issue (not to mention the fourth possibility: to understand truly the truth of the writer’s intention) (5.11). The point about these types of error is that it is unclear, and in fact incoherent, which type of error the Manicheans accuse the Catholic Church of making. In fact, the Manicheans revel in their ignorance by attacking what they do not understand, for “everything in that scripture is profound and from God,” containing “absolute truth,” there being “nothing wiser or purer or more sacred” than the writings of the Old Testament (6.13). Honoratus should come, then, not to “despise the actual authors,” but to “love them,” “extend[ing] the same good will to those through whom, as such a long tradition assures us, the Holy Spirit spoke.”

Augustine does not merely want to prove the worth of the Old Testament or disprove the false accusations against the Catholic Church: he wants “to open up for those who have a care for their own souls the hope of a divine outcome and the discovery of truth” (7.14). In this spirit he describes his and Honoratus’ situation as one, their “soul...trapped and immersed in error and stupidity...looking for the way of truth, if there is one”; if Honoratus “recognize[s] the truth” of this description, Augustine invites him to “look for the truth together.” It is here that Augustine introduces the foundation for the rest of the work—namely, the imaginative construal of the world as consisting of a mass majority of those who cannot or do not know the truth, a small few who can or do, and the rational proposition that the ignorant should trust the knowledgeable (7.15). This construction of the world lays the groundwork for a search for the truth, with the Catholic Church as the natural starting point (7.19). Having set up this search, Augustine narrates where he was immediately before his conversion, planted in the “bewildering forest” of so much confusion, “ready and very receptive” to “anyone able to teach” him (8.20). As for Honoratus, his “soul should be in a similar state of concern now.”

In the next section, Augustine arrives at the original, inaugurating question: the Catholic Church’s “insistence that those who come to it must have belief” (9.21). Augustine’s thesis is complex but direct: “There is no right way of entering into the true religion without believing things that all who live rightly and become worthy of it will understand and see for themselves later on, and without some submission to a certain weight of authority.” (Initially there is a sidestep into the difference between credulity and belief, explaining it by analogy with the important distinctions between interest and curiosity, keenness to know and studiousness [9.22].) At this point Augustine is engaging in an imaginary dialogue with Honoratus, supplying both skeptical questions and proper answers. Accordingly Augustine walks through the various objections to belief—after noting that apart from belief ordinary human practices like friendship could not exist—by positing again that mass of needy persons who must believe before they can come to understand (10.23). And even if Honoratus is not among the needy, he ought to believe for the sake of example—not to mention the fact that one cannot know everything for certain (10.24). This latter point leads to differentiation between understanding, believing, and having opinions, the second of which is simply unavoidable in human life, so long as it is true, something one could not know otherwise, and grounded in trustworthy authority (11.25). The ultimate example is that of children’s rightfully believing that their parents are in fact their parents, for otherwise “filial love, humanity’s most sacred bond, would be the victim of criminal arrogance” (12.26). To believe, as presented here, is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

The argument continues: “No one will question that everyone is either foolish or wise” (12.27). Thus in important matters the foolish must trust the wise rather than themselves. Yet “[h]ow can the foolish find someone who is wise?” (13.28). For the fool, in his foolishness, cannot know who is wise or foolish! “[T]he cure for this immense problem can only come from God,” who provides trustworthy authorities for the foolish to trust. The Catholic Church is right therefore to teach “that, before all else, those coming to religion must be persuaded to have faith” (13.29). In this instance the Manicheans are caught in an impenetrable web of contradictions—than which there is no “greater insanity”—for in urging people to believe their teachings about Christ, they undermine themselves by fostering belief (but in them, not Christ) and basing their teaching on Scripture’s historical record (which they denounce) (14.30-31). Why not disbelieve in Christ completely rather than believe in their version of him, when by their own admission they were not actually on hand to witness him? No, in obedience to Christ’s own direct command, true Christians necessarily must believe in him (14.32).

Finally, Augustine reaches his climactic exhortation: “[I]f your heart is set on a happy life, then with total commitment and every kind of offering, with sighs and even in tears if possible, pray to God to deliver you from the evil of error” (15.33). Given that human beings inevitably trust fellow human authority, there is no greater act of love than divine wisdom’s condescension into human form. The salvific efficacy of this authority is established by Jesus’ miracles while on earth, which displayed the power and majesty of God’s authority and thereby “turned the straying souls of mortal men and women of those times toward itself” (16.34). Similarly, the widespread approval and acceptance of the Catholic faith testifies to its providential authority instituted and wrought by God, the refusal of which is either sacrilege or arrogance (17.35). Concluding, then, Augustine calls once more on his friend to “listen...and commit...to the good teachings of Catholic Christianity, doing so with devout faith, lively hope and simple love...not ceas[ing] to pray to God himself” (18.36). Belief not having been impinged by the Manicheans’ accusations, Augustine ends by enticing Honoratus with other philosophical truths learned from Catholic teaching, a closing hint that initial belief truly is only the first step.

Prominent Themes

The themes of De Utilitate Credendi are expertly interwoven and not easily disentangled. For example, the Old Testament plays a prominent role in the beginning, but plays little to no discernible role in the latter two thirds of the work. Similarly, the Manicheans themselves (and the views they represent), while seemingly omnipresent in the work, exist primarily to be refuted, as an example of false religion, a necessary backdrop against which the light of truth may be more fully revealed; but Augustine seems more concerned to present the beauty, the positive substance of Catholic faith to his friend than to nitpick the naysayers. Though he engages in the latter, it is a subordinate concern.

What, then, might the essential and overarching themes of De Utilitate Credendi be? I suggest that there are three pairs of themes that work together as mutually illuminating units in the course of the work, within which other prominent issues may be located: friendship and the search for religious truth; belief and authority; and God and the Catholic Church.

As we have seen already, the very existence of De Utilitate is predicated on the ground of the long friendship between Augustine and Honoratus. That friendship permeates Augustine’s words, for the entirety of the work is built on his sincere, tangible desire for his friend to be reclaimed and delivered from the error of his ways. Though to some modern ears the hefty appeals and strong claims Augustine makes in the work might seem to undercut his goal, the honesty and care so explicit in them only reveal the seriousness with which he views attending to the truth. Such an approach could only have endeared him to the type of man he portrays Honoratus to be. Thus the ever-present “you,” the shared past between the two men, and even the (seemingly) rhetorical throw-away example of the possibility of legitimate friendship in 9.22 thematically cohere as the common ground within which Augustine and Honoratus may take up their search for the truth together. As friends with a common history, Augustine is at liberty to include Honoratus in the supposedly past narration of his own life, now brought forward into the present as a sort of type of religious quest in which Honoratus now finds himself. The past (Augustine’s journey from the Church to the Manicheans and now back to the true religion) and the present (Honoratus’ unsettled identity as a Manichean, originally inspired by Augustine himself) now unified by Augustine’s rhetoric, the two are one in search for true religion. And because God promises finding to the seeker, faithfully blessed Augustine’s past search, and assigns reason its appropriate place in Catholic faith, the quest for truth is undeniably an event to be encouraged, lauded, and shared.

Belief, of course, is the founding question of the document and the central argument at its heart—and, we may presume, the singular obstacle to Honoratus’ entry into the Catholic Church. Moreover, given that the work is not a mere private letter, and with his Manichean past looming in the present, De Utilitate seems also to be an exorcising of Augustine’s prior religious demons—or, put differently, a direct attack on what once so damagingly misled him and so many others, and continues to do so, through one of their most widespread critiques of the Church. The thesis of the work, stated negatively in 1.2, may be restated positively: “To prove that those who accept the authority of the Catholic faith act rationally and religiously, and in doing so are made capable, through a pure mind, of gazing on the truth, as well as strengthened and prepared for the illumination of the true God.” For Augustine, the (gracious) flip side of the necessity of belief is the gift of the authority of the Catholic Church. Any discussion of belief requires mention of the role of authorities (and human trust thereof) in daily, and particularly religious, life. Thus even when one is mentioned without the other, each exists only in reciprocal relation to the other and, by the end of the work, can only be understood as mirror perspectives of the same reality.

If, then, authority leads ineluctably to the Catholic Church, the Church is not conceivable outside of the intimate, sovereign acting of God. The Church can only be the sole true authority for human religious life if it is the gift of God. In this context God cannot be passive, distant, or a mere observer, nor can the Church be of human manufacture, for to give the absolute trust of faith to an institution not ordained and ordered by the wisdom of the God who condescends to human existence would be foolishness worse than the Manicheans’ claims. Alternatively, Augustine has no interest in making “Catholic faith” merely another religious human option in contrast to “Manichaeism,” but rather seeks to ensure that God is the ultimate subject and telos of both this particular discussion and religious seeking in general.

Understanding the interlocking themes of De Utilitate Credendi in this way, as inseparable pairs of mutually illuminating ideas, opens up the work to be itself without forcing an arbitrary hermeneutical stamp upon every page. Furthermore, subordinate themes like the role of reason, the place of the Old Testament, and the impact of providence each fit appreciably within the foci of the respective thematic pairs above.

Assessment and Critique

Regardless of Augustine’s actual success or failure to convince his friend of the usefulness of believing, De Utilitate as a work in itself contains a myriad of profound achievements, curious choices, and fascinating questions. Its overall strength is, as discussed above, the ethos of integrity and pastoral care that pervades it from start to finish. Whether or not Augustine had been ordained as a priest yet (see “consecrated” in 2.4), the extraordinary lengths to which he goes to share with his friend why he should leave his heretical group and come to the truth are a testament to the overriding power of Augustine’s own faith and the love he held for Honoratus. The opening paragraph, in which he clarifies that what he ascribes to the Manicheans as heretics does not apply to someone in Honoratus’ case, indicates from the outset the extreme sensitivity of his approach (1.1). Beyond the friendly spirit, Augustine’s willingness to tell his own story of searching after the truth as a single narrative uniting the two together is more than rhetoric—it is gracious and exceedingly charitable, recognizing his past self in the lost bewilderment of his friend and offering solidarity. His persistence in moving beyond merely denigrating the Manicheans, and instead offering a positive vision of the Catholic faith, is indicative of the work’s exceptional character.

At the same time, Augustine does offer a thoroughly satisfying dismantling of the Manicheans, and it is difficult to imagine Honoratus’ continued conviction in his sect’s claims. The very man who brought Honoratus into the fold—now more than five years a Christian, possibly a priest, and by choice unmarried and removed from the social ladder once so limitlessly open to him—writes with passion and empathy, but more than anything knowledge, to take apart, piece by piece, the religious claims of the Manicheans. The ferocity of Augustine’s rhetoric is reserved especially for them: they “attack” believers and act “irrationally and sacrilegiously” (1.2), they deceive with words “removed from pure and simple reasoning,” they “upset the uneducated...by criticizing and tearing apart the Old Testament” (2.4), they make “shameless” claims that are “uncritical and foolish” (3.7), they “condemn...before learning” thereby revealing their “wretchedness” (3.9), they critique the scriptures “so foolishly and so ineffectually” (6.13)—and so on. But Augustine’s critique is not limited to harsh accusations. Positively, he presents the case both for the legitimacy of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture and for the historical accuracy and authoritative reliability of the entire canon. Negatively, he points out the enormous logical inconsistencies of the Manicheans’ receiving truth from a book like the Acts of the Apostles while simultaneously holding that interpolations render it suspect (3.7); clarifies for the Manicheans themselves that their accusations of error are incoherent (4.10-12); and delivers the fatal blow by casting light on the ridiculous claim that, in contrast to the historical record given by eyewitnesses, people should believe in the Christ presented by those living hundreds of years later (14.30-32). In short, the Catholic faith rests secure, and the Manicheans are left dizzy and out of breath.

Augustine also succeeds mightily in proving the necessary reality of trusting authorities in human life. Augustine deftly deploys the extensive argument concerning wisdom and foolishness and the daily regularity of believing authority by reshaping and refashioning the lens through which Honoratus views the world; furthermore, he grounds the priority of authority’s authority, so to speak, in God. “Since, therefore, we had to model ourselves on a human being but not set our hopes on a human being, could God have done anything kinder or more generous than for the real, eternal, and unchanging wisdom of God itself, to which we must cling, to condescend to take on human form?” (15.33). It is “this authority [that] saves us,” for divine providence establishes it “to be like a fixed step on which we may stand to be lifted up to God” (16.34). And having seen “such great help from God, so productive and so beneficial, shall we hesitate to hide in the bosom of his Church?” (17.35). From the search for truth, to the necessity of authority in human life, to the providential action of God in Christ and his miracles, to the safe and happy home of mother Church: the case is closed, the path clear. It is now only up to Honoratus what he will do.

To leave it there would undoubtedly be Augustine’s wish—and is certainly the effect after reading his closing words—but pressing weaknesses and peculiar holes in the work remain. The first has to do with Augustine’s treatment of the Old Testament. Put simply, whether or not the Old Testament yields to various methods of interpretation, and whether or not those methods may be found in the New Testament, is immaterial with regard to whether the contents of the Old Testament render it unfit for religious use. Of course, there is a circularity involved here, one which Augustine exploits to great success, concerning the validity of any scriptural texts as they currently stand. But it is an odd choice to prove from texts the Manicheans claim are corrupt and rampant with inaccurate interpolations (the New Testament) that a separate, equally criticized text (the Old Testament) is valid. Though Augustine rightly dissects the Manicheans’ circular logic, in this case his own argument falls prey to the same temptation.

The next two weaknesses are similar in the brazen bizarreness of their assumed acceptance. The first is found in 7.19, where Augustine, having dealt sufficiently with the Manicheans, asks “what religion we shall commit our souls to for cleansing and renewal.” His answer? “Without question we must begin with the Catholic Church.” Why is there no question? Is not the entire point of the work that there are significant questions? Augustine glances over “reasons” for this supposedly clear starting point: the numeric volume of Christians; that “everyone agrees that there is only one Church” in spite of so many heresies; that “as those who know assert, [the Catholic Church] is more sincere about the truth than all the rest.” It barely warrants noting that these are not reasons at all, but merely Augustine’s own opinions proffered as universally recognized or even self-evident truths. Who are “those who know”? Augustine knows more than anyone that not everyone agrees there is one Church. And since when did quantity equate to truth or sincerity? Why should Honoratus not begin with the Donatists, or with the Jews, or with Platonic philosophy? There is no lucid or compelling rationale.

The other brash assumption Augustine makes is found in 12.27: “No one will question that everyone is either foolish or wise.” This statement is the set-up for much of Augustine’s argument concerning the need for authority in human life. While the heart of the argument still obtains without Augustine’s radical sapiential division, it is unhelpfully and unnecessarily weakened by the dichotomy created at the outset. The point, of course, is that Honoratus will likely agree that the vast majority of humankind is in need of wisdom they do not possess, and therefore must trust others’ wisdom for their own sake; and as far as it goes, the argument works. The problem surfaces in the commitment Augustine must subsequently make to the notion that the wise do not necessarily belong to that category of persons who need to believe. Honoratus might understandably counter Augustine: “But if I am one of the few wise, why should I believe? Shouldn’t the foolish believe me?” Augustine’s humility entails no problem placing himself before God as one who is foolish and in need of greater faith, but he cannot (or chooses not to) categorize his friend in the same way. “[A]uthority is there for those who are incapable of gazing on the truth” (16.34)—but what about those who are capable? Augustine explicitly includes Honoratus in that small group of those “who are easily able to grasp the divine secrets with sure reasoning” (10.24). Then why should they believe? Well, it would not be harmful to them; but more importantly, it sets a good example, since it is the established rule of the Church, and no one ought (or at least, Augustine would never be willing) to question the practice. Besides, “who can say we should believe nothing that we do not know for certain?” This is clearly the greatest weakness of Augustine’s argument: there is simply no definitive reason offered why, if Honoratus is wise, he should, at the last, believe.


Though Augustine’s failure in this respect—to articulate persuasively why belief is necessary for those who are wise—is significant, the shortcoming is not ultimately overwhelming. The whole of De Utilitate Credendi, so filled with Augustine’s fervor for the faith and exacting impatience toward its fallacious shadows, equally robust with dissecting argumentation and the gentleness of friendship, more than makes up for the deficiencies, inevitable as they are, of a work authored by one happy to admit he wasn’t always right.

1 comment:

  1. Please check out this set of essays which point out that the Process that is True Religion only begins to begin when one has become thoroughly dis-illusioned with all of the usual self-consoling mommy-daddy beliefs


    Plus related references.