By Phineas Upham
The relationship between faith and knowledge in Christianity is troublesome. Some Christian authors deny that knowledge leads to faith, St. Augustine for example felt that his worldly knowledge was a hindrance to his conversion. Other Christian authors, such as John Donne, believe knowledge and reason is a necessary prerequisite for faith. Kierkegaard sees the realm of human knowledge and the realm of the divine to be of a different sphere and under different criteria. Revealed by an exploration of this relationship is the paradoxical and many-faceted nature of Christianity. Yet all the authors remain under the same umbrella, albeit a large one. In the plesitude of voices on this issue, with none rising very far above the rest, the flexibility, the ambiguity, the diversity, and the strength of Christianity are illuminated. Disturbing questions remain: Are the wise closer to God? What is the difference between worldly knowledge, scriptural knowledge, and divine knowledge? What does a Christian need to know in order to believe? Why does the word knowledge have a silent k?
A more appropriate question then the penultimate one above is what sort of knowledge, if any, does a Christian need to have in order to believe. Most of the authors recognize three distinct types of knowledge: scriptural knowledge, worldly knowledge, and divine knowledge. St. Gregory of Nyssa agreed with St. Augustine’s view that the divine nature of God (divine knowledge) is inscrutability when Nyssa wrote that, “[Christs] incorruptible nature is beyond verbal interpretation. ” “Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden/under the tension ” agreed Eliot. Aelred agreed that knowledge of God was impossible and counseled man to study man instead. In order to describe the inherently indescribable the authors often resort contradictions. “You must go through the way in which you are not./ And what you do not know is the one thing you know/ … And where you are is where you are not. ” “You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are old, and yet all things have new life from you. … You are active, yet always at rest. ” Christianity is what Kierkegaard calls a paradox-religion. Knowledge alone is not enough. A leap of faith, an epiphany, a conversion is necessary. Man cannot earn faith, in the end he must be given it. The paradoxical nature of faith rests firmly on this problem. How can a Christian have faith if the proof is, on principle, unavailable? How can a rational person believe without proof? It is clear that the authors do not claim to offer proof. “How can an Apostle prove that he has authority? If he could prove it physically then he would not be an Apostle. He has no other proof than his own statement. That has to be so. ” “The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved. ” A Christian therefor does not, and must not, require divine knowledge for faith. Though the authors read tend to agree that the final step toward faith must be a leap, they conflict over what sort of knowledge leads toward faith and over what the proper relationship between faith and knowledge is.
St. Augustine tackles the relationship between faith and knowledge in his Confessions. Although Augustine explicitly rejects worldly knowledge, the book as a whole leaves the reader more ambiguous on the role of knowledge in faith. Augustine does not feel his actions entitled him to receive God’s grace. “I shall look to you, Lord, by praying to you… it is my faith that calls to you, Lord, the faith which you gave me… you are not drawn down to us but draw us up to yourself. ” Rather it is God’s through God’s mercy and despite out great sins that we receive grace. In Augustine’s youth he valued honor and praise and rhetorical ability. “I stood in peril as a boy. I was already being prepared for [the worlds] tournaments by training… I was blind to the whirlpool of debasement in which I had been plunged away from the sight of your eyes… My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error. ” But his search for knowledge of the truth began in earnest after reading Cicero’s Hortensius. “[upon reading the Hortensius] All the empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for wisdom of eternal truth. I began to climb out of the depths to which I had sunk in order to return to you. ” So it seems that knowledge both led Augustine astray and helped him find himself. Christianity has always been a word based, a logo-centric, religion. The scriptures are for Augustine a necessary but insufficient element to faith. By studying Augustine’s path from knowledge to faith we can isolate what was, for him, the relationship between the two.
But Augustine did not find his faith through knowledge. “The dishes they set before me were still loaded with dazzling fantasies, illusions with which the eye deceives the mind… it did not nourish me but starved me all the more. ” His relentless search for truth in material knowledge led him astray. “I deafened the ears of my heart by allowing my mind to twist and turn among these material inventions. ” Augustine laments his intelligence and knowledge as temptations which he fell for. “What then was the value to me of my intelligence [and knowledge] when in the doctrine of your love I was lost… And was it so great a drawback to your faithful children that they were slower than I to understand such things? For they did not forsake you. ” But Augustine’s intelligence played more of a role in his belief than he sometimes claims. Though he says, “I ought to have deplored my state, but instead my knowledge only bred self-conceit. ” His reading of the Hortensius drew his from the worldly toward truth, and the Platonists led his to look for truth “as something incorporeal, and I caught sight of your invisible nature. ” So perhaps, worldly knowledge can correct itself. It led Augustine from the correct path, and then turned him in the right direction.
It was scriptural knowledge that Augustine credits with leading him to the doorstep of faith. Though it could not take him beyond that. “The words of the scriptures were planted firmly in my heart and on all sides you were there like a rampart to defend me. ” The words of the scripture, and belief in his heart were not enough. Augustine says, “I was in torment, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever as I twisted and turned on my chain. I hoped that my chain might be broken once and for all, because it was only a small thing that held me. All the same it held me. ” He uses the passive tense when describing the severing of the chain because it was not through will or knowledge, or even belief that his faith would finally come. It was through the grace of God. Fallen, sinful man can never earn faith.
After all, if faith were earned, how could it be lost? Why so much doubt. Why is doubt so essential to the nature of paradox-religion? It seems that if faith were earned then doubt would imply that some of the knowledge or some of the acts which earned the faith had disappeared. But this is not how doubt is created for the authors we read. And belief is not restored by new facts, or new acts, but instead through grace and a releasing of self. Augustine explains how the will to convert cannot be sufficient. He was told to “take it and read” and after he did “it was as though the light of confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. ” Augustine had studied Paul in depth before, but the passage did not change him when first read. It was therefor not the content itself that had such power. Augustine’s worldly knowledge served only to untangle itself. It was his scriptural knowledge that led him to belief, since “we are too weak to discover truth by reason alone and for this reason need the authority of sacred books. ” But though Augustine speaks of “men who have not had our schooling, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here groveling in this world of flesh and blood! ” It is clear that knowledge played a large part of both his road to sin and his road to faith. Could he have analyzed and understood the scriptures, much less read them, if he had not studied worldly knowledge? Was not his final conversion, by Augustine’s own logic, more wonderful because he had sinned? Did he not owe much to Cicero and the Platonists? Though Augustine may envy the simple who were inculcated in faith, he seems aware of his own great status as a great man of God a title he earned due to his knowledge and intelligence. It is unclear to me that a man of Augustine’s intelligence would have been as content in his faith if he had not already suffered all the temptations of earthly knowledge. He himself admits he might have been tempted from the faith by Cicero if he had not already read him. Lastly, what status does the Confessions themselves have? They are not scripture, yet they are intended to help those who are lost find the light. They are loaded with rhetorical devices, and clever crafting, tools Augustine learned while in sin, and are not scripture in the proper sense. If they therefor count as worldly knowledge, and they are intended to help people find Christianity, they seem in conflict with the message they contain (that worldly knowledge misleads and “you alone are the life which never dies and the wisdom that needs no light besides itself. ”). Perhaps this can be resolved by concluding that worldly knowledge cannot lead man toward God, but it can, as it did with Augustine, untangle its own knots.
John Donne, who lived in 17th century England during the times of Humanism, believes that the light of reason was a necessary part of our finding God. Augustine would have argued against man’s prominent place in reaching God. Donne writes that “the common light of reason illuminates us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion. ” So though reason can be used or abused, if used correctly “by the benefit of this light, men see through the darest, and the most impervious places that are… All the wayes, both of Wisdome and of craft lie open to this light, this light of natural reason. ” But while Donne makes the link between faith ad reason a much closer one than Augustine, nevertheless he grants that it is insufficient to reaching faith. “Knowledge cannot save us, but we cannot be saved without Knowledge; Faith is not on this sade of knowledge, but beyond it; we must necessarily come to Knowledge first, though we must not stay at it, when we are to come thither. ” If all Donne meant by Knowledge was scriptural knowledge, he and St. Augustine would agree. But Donne has a wider understanding of knowledge and reason. “Some men by the benefit of this light of Reason, have found out things profitable and useful to the whole world; as in particular, Printing. ” Martin Luther would agree with the value of the printing press and the translation into the vernacular. Donne sees worldly knowledge as a more positive thing than Augustine. He believes it can bring man loser to God. Though it is not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one. But if this is true, does this imply that a man with more reason can blow his ember of divine knowledge into a larger flame? Can the more intelligent really reach closer to God? Augustine would answer a resounding “No.”
Soren Kierkegaard draws a sharp line between the worldly sphere and the divine sphere. A genius and an apostle may say the identical words, but the content and the meaning of their messages are very different. The core of the difference lies in authority. Central to Christianity is its paradoxical nature. It need not make sense, and it need not prove its correctness. Thus we need no knowledge in the traditional sense in order to have faith. We do not need arguments, or facts, or even reasons. “Genius is appreciated purely aesthetically according to the measure of its content, and its specific weight; an apostle is who he is through having divine authority… It is not by evaluating the content of the doctrine aesthetically or intellectually that I should or could reach the result… I have not got to listen to St. Paul because he has divine authority. ” To base your belief on facts, intellectual or aesthetic, would thus be the basest form of blasphemy. “To ask whether a king is a genius – with the intent, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lese-majeste; for the question conceals a doubt whether one intends to submit to authority. ” Surely God, who is the king of kings, and has eternal power, not just temporal power, Kierkegaard reasons, should not be asked for reasons. “To ask whether Christ is profound is blasphemy, and is an attempt (whether conscious or not) to destroy Him surreptitiously; for the question conceals a doubt concerning His authority, and his attempt to weigh him up is impertinent in its directness. ” Indeed, though a sentence has the same words, it means something different if it came from a genius or an apostle. If a man discovered the identical message of an apostle and said it, Kierkegaard argues, it would not be the same. We evaluate the worlds of the poet and the king differently even if they are identical. One has authority one does not. In fact, he argues, if Christ answered the question “Is there eternal life?” by “there is eternal life. ” this would be a statement of fact, and not profound at all. Whereas if Plato were to say the same thing, his statement would be enormously profound, since he has no authority. Similarly, if Plato were to say it, we would expect and demands proofs, whereas if Christ said it a person of faith would need neither. But this division between knowledge and faith, though it is convincing, does not answer the question of how one acquires faith. How can a rational man believe if there can be no proof. For “how can an Apostle prove that he has authority? If he could prove it physically then he would not be an Apostle. He has no other proof than his own statement. That has to be so; for otherwise the believers relationship to him would be direct instead of being paradoxical. ” More vexing than how a rational man can believe, within the framework of Kierkegaard’s logic, is how a rational man begins to believe. It cannot be through proof. It is not through God’s brute physical power (as it is with a king). The answer in this line of argument lies within the paradox of God’s authority. It cannot be answered, it transcends the rational.
The scholars here acknowledge that the final leap of faith to faith is not through knowledge alone. But they disagree on the appropriate relationship between faith and knowledge. They place at least some importance on scriptural knowledge (though Kierkegaard would not call it knowledge). The authors generally agree that divine knowledge is impossible. But on the subject of worldly knowledge, there is fierce disagreement. Augustine believes it misleads, Donne thinks it is a necessary but insufficient possession, and Kierkegaard, perhaps most convincingly, dismisses it as not pertinent to paradox-religion. Aelred believe that man should understand and love his fellow man to reach God, while Kierkegaard believed that mankind should be scorned. Bonhoffer believed that a Christian sometimes ought to interfere with politics of the world and gave his life to that end, while St. Francis believed in generally accepting the world as it was and contemplating God alone. Ultimately no clear answer emerges as to the proper relationship between faith and knowledge. Yet though the authors all disagree how they got there, all of them have faith. All remain Christians despite their differences. Perhaps there is no correct relationship, and each person, as each author did, must find their own path. Perhaps while attempting to understand this conundrum we ought to remember: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. And that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is lacking cannot be counted. ”
About the Author
While an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Phineas Upham was the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Review of Philosophy. He graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and currently works as an investor in New York City and San Francisco. Visit his website at PhineasUpham.com.