Notes on “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.”

Fitzgerald, Allan. “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.” Religions 2015, v. 6; pp. 204-210.


The author says this article grew out of his experiences teaching Augustine. Generally, the classes tend to center around “issues” such as whether unbaptized infants go to Hell or Augustine’s theory of predestination. Dr. Fitzgerald asserts that this is the wrong approach, because it misses understanding Augustine himself or his approach. When challenged about infants, his response was to rely on apostolic authority and to say, in effect, “I don’t understand this, but I am a mere human and no apostle. It is not my place to argue with God or to claim to understand everything; the riches of God exceed all human understanding. Even if it seems absurd to us, if Scripture says that salvation comes to those who are baptized in the name of Jesus and only to those, we cannot argue. If God so wills it, it makes sense to God even if it is beyond our comprehension.”

Similarly, his sermons contain claims like “I did not study this today, so that now I could be aided by your prayers and together God will reveal the truth to us.” In both cases, Augustine asserts his own limitations and denies any personal authority to pronounce dogma; it is all to the left to God to teach. He as the preacher is just as reliant on the Holy Spirit as are the laypeople listening to his sermon.

Critics have claimed that

  1. These examples, particularly relying on apostolic authority rather than trying to argue and prove his views, shows a lack of intellectual rigor.
  2. Some of this, particularly the sermons, may be just rhetorical ploys to draw the audience in and make them co-opt the message.

Fitzgerald argues that Augustine’s protestations of ignorance are neither feigned modesty nor intellectual laziness. Rather, Augustine is asserting that there is truth, seeking truth is necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to human understanding and that some important things are simply beyond us. In those cases, Augustine names the mystery, points out what it is and the general borders where the truth must lie, but by claiming it is a mystery asserts both that there is something there and that it is not within our grasp.

In Fitzgerald’s view, truth is something of a horizon for Augustine. We strive towards it, but we can never reach it. But that does not mean we abandon the quest, either. Augustine could not help but ask these questions, and he thought it was a human need to want and to strive for these answers. Doing so is a spiritual exercise as well as intellectual growth. And it is an exercise in humility. Humility recognizes one’s limits and dependence on other powers than oneself.

Relativism says there is no truth. This was intended to promote humility; the “dictatorship of relativism” came about as intellectuals told others that any truth claim was innately oppressive and that everyone has a right to his or her own “truth.” But in fact, relativism promotes arrogance. The rise of climate deniers, voodoo economics, anti-vaxxers and so on reflects a general trend in postmodern America, and indeed in postmodern society in general: the assertion of unfounded beliefs as “truth” even when those beliefs are contradicted by overwhelming evidence and ironclad logic. If indeed there is no “truth,” then my belief that the Freemasons manipulate the weather with chemtrails is just as valid as your belief that there is a general trend of climate warming beginning with the Industrial Revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels. I am free to believe and act on my beliefs, even if it means burning tires to stave off the Ice Age the Freemasons are trying to trigger.

By contrast, humility says there is a truth, and that we must accept responsibility for seeking it, and that we must submit to it. It also says that I admit I might be wrong, and you (if you have a realistic humility) admit the same. Therefore I have to listen to you and agree to test our views by every available means. We argue and debate.

Religiously, we see this humility in Augustine’s motto “I believe in order that I may understand.” God reveals truth; we can try to understand it as best we are able, but we don’t create it.

I see a parallel between this and Kant’s view of the transcendental ideas. It is useful, for example, to assume the existence of God as a way to tie all our experience together; such a belief can further investigation into phenomenal reality. If we assume that reality is simply absurd, we will give up sooner; having faith that there is a first cause or ultimate unity will cause us to push the boundaries of knowledge further and to discover connections we never would have otherwise. Still, Kant says, ultimately we cannot prove the transcendental ideas to be either true or false. Pushing for these truths may lead us somewhere and help us to grow, but ultimately these ideas are beyond our grasp.

Methodologically, Augustine invites his readers or hearers to join in the search for truth, rather than to simply passively receive. Humility denies authority. Augustine may feel his study and prayers have revealed some part of the truth and that he needs to share that, but he also places himself in the same place as the hearer of the sermon, relying on prayer to reveal the truth.

As Fitzgerald presents it, there are parallels to Socratic method here; the teacher does not claim to be the “wise one” but only to love the Truth, to be a fellow traveler, a co-disciple (condiscipuli). I am struck by how similar this is to Kierkegaard as well. In his discourses he renounces authority, and asks his hearer “does it not seem so to you as well?” His pseudonyms are entirely aimed at placing the reader at a point where he or she makes the discovery and the decision. But all of this humility does not mean Kierkegaard denies there is truth, or that it does not matter what truth one accepts. Just the opposite: it is the truth that humbles, and the esthete (who does not accept the existence of good/evil or true/false, but leaves everything to will) who is the willful relativist tending ultimately towards solipsism and derangement.


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11 Responses to “Notes on “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.””

  1. Nemo Says:

    I take it that Kant does not believe the Christian doctrine of Incarnation?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      In the traditional sense, no. He does have a place for it. I haven’t reviewed the relevant book in the last few years, so I am not going to try to explain it in detail; but the work to look at is Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The essence of his religious philosophy is in the two Critiques, but in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone he goes into more detail and in particular tries to reinterpret traditional Christian doctrines in ways that make sense in his philosophy. For example, his description of the doctrine of vicarious atonement has nothing to do with God paying our debt, since the Critique of Practical Reason had already established that each individual is solely and completely responsible for his or her own moral choices. Instead, he argues that when the self determines to make the moral law (defined as obedience to the Categorical Imperative) its sole maxim, that self is good (“the only good thing is a good will”). But while the noumenal self may be able to make the choice to be good in an instant, the phenomenal self is still caught up in its old habits and appetites. The now-good, noumenal self thus suffers from the burden of wrestling with the phenomenal self, as well as enduring any pains the sins of the phenomenal self might have brought upon itself; so you could say that the innocent noumenal self is suffering for the sins of the guilty phenomenal self.

      In Kant’s philosophy, a literal biological connection between Jesus and God would be both impossible and irrelevant. It would be impossible because, as the Critique of Pure Reason shows, everything we can possibly perceive must conform to the natural laws, including the rules of cause and effect; a “supernatural cause” is an incoherent concept. It would be irrelevant since the Critique of Practical Reason established that each individual is responsible for his or her own moral choices. We can rationally have faith that there is an eternity and that there is a God and that God will eventually reward each person with exactly as much happiness as he or she deserves; we cannot “know” this since it is beyond all possible experience, but we can rationally assume it since it is necessary if morality itself is to be rational (otherwise our moral reason shows us that the only rational behavior is morality, but experience would show that happiness and even survival are not necessarily connected to morality, so our existence would be absurd). If such a Son of God existed, it would be in the sense of a human being who had a completely holy will—that is, whose will was completely determined by the Categorical Imperative, and who never acted except for the sake of duty. Such a person would be a revelation of the divine nature since God’s will is holy—meaning for Kant that there is no contradictory non-moral maxim in that will so that it totally conforms to the Categorical Imperative. But if Christ exists to reveal what a holy will is like, then another person would be unnecessary. Each of us has the moral law embedded in his or her own pure practical reason, and can look inward to see it; hence Kant’s saying that the only two awe-inspiring things are the heavens above and the moral law within. And unless you see the Categorical Imperative in your own reason, you don’t see it at all. The place of the moral law in our practical reason is much the same as the place of the laws of nature in our pure theoretical reason; just as the laws of nature are really principles of our own consciousness by which we order and process our experiences, so to the Categorical Imperative is the principle of our own reason for directing our will and actions. You wouldn’t say you understood nature if you only understood logic and the basic natural concepts like space, time and causality because some third party told you of them or lived according to them, if you never experienced them or used them to understand experience. Likewise, you wouldn’t understand the good if you only saw it lived in a good person, even a completely holy one; you only understand the good when you try to be good and find the moral law in your own breast.

      Kant becomes the foundation for a lot the liberal theology of the 19th Century, and could even be said to be the grandfather of much of the demythologizing activity of the 20th. He doesn’t seek to throw out Christianity, but he does radically reinterpret it.

      • Nemo Says:

        Kant’ epistemology was from Hume, but not his ethics. How did that come about?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Kant’s philosophy is not “from Hume,” but is a reaction to Hume. And in particular, Kant was trying to save ethics and religion from Hume’s conclusions. Hume is a strict empiricist, which led him to what he called “mitigated skepticism.” He accepted the basic principles of Locke and his fellow British empiricists, but believed they hadn’t been consistent enough in following through on their empiricist principles. Hume argued that if you really believe that all knowledge comes from the senses, then almost everything we think we “know” about the world is only probability born from experience. We can’t even “see” causality; all we can see is that when A occurs, B follows every time in our experience. Because we are used to seeing B soon after seeing A, we anticipate B and therefore say that A “caused” B as if we had discovered some law of nature; but in fact, all we’ve really done is noticed a general pattern. In the opening of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he depicts his philosophy in action. Philo, the skeptic, is teased by Cleanthes (working from memory so the quote isn’t exact), who says, “Well, here’s Philo! Let’s see if he really lives that skepticism he claims, and leaves tonight through the window rather than the door.” Philo’s response is that he will use the door, not because he “knows” that he will fall if he jumps from the second floor window, but because experience has shown him that since he has never flown before he is unlikely to start tonight. Experience “mitigates” skepticism, says Hume; the sensible thing to do is to stick to probabilities, but only concede as “definitely true” the minimum necessary. If we can live without making a particular assumption, we should not make it. The results for religion are devastating. The Argument from Design, which was a favorite justification for religion among British Empiricists, is relentlessly mocked in Hume’s dialogues. The simple fact is that we can live day-to-day quite well without deciding whether or not there is a god, so we should not decide. The immortality of the soul is, if anything, even more suspect, since we never experience a “soul” at all; all we experience is different experiences separated by periods of nonexperience. Our memories suggest that something unifies these experiences, but we never experience that. As Locke had said a generation earlier, the self is a “something, I know not what” that is never directly experienced but seems to be the “substance” that underlies our experiences. But Hume points out that we never experience a soul, or for that matter any “substance;” we only experience various qualities that regularly occur in the company of each other. (In rejecting both physical substance and the permanent soul, Hume parallels Buddhist metaphysics, without any knowledge of this that we are aware of; it is one of those interesting synchronicities of history.) Hume says that the only certain knowledge that we have are relations between ideas, what we would call “tautologies.”

        Kant was a German Rationalist in the general succession of Leibniz until his friend Johann Georg Hamann translated Hume’s writings into German and showed them to Kant. Kant realized that the Enlightenment rationalism of the Continent could not withstand Hume’s criticism any better than British empiricism had, and that unless Hume was refuted there could be no actual knowledge of the world. He also realized that if Hume was correct, then religion also had to be rejected, and ethics could be nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure since the only “good” experience knows is pleasure (Hume is the father of modern utilitarianism). Kant saw his task, as he said in the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

        Kant argues that Hume’s skeptical arguments are only based on the world as it appears to the senses, or what Kant calls the “phenomenal realm.” They do not reach things as they are in themselves, what Kant calls the “noumenal realm.” But Hume is right to say that knowledge begins with experience; therefore, there can be no real knowledge of how things are in themselves. What we can know and study philosophically are the mental structures necessary for experience. Kant argues that we do in fact have certain knowledge of things of which we have no direct experience. For example, he says, we know that every triangle has three angles that add up to 180º, even if we have never seen every space which might be divided into triangles. That means the knowledge we have of such things is a priori; but since it is also possible to make deductions that go beyond our mere analysis of definitions, it is also synthetic and not, as Hume says, merely analytic. The only way sythetic a priori experience can be possible is if it relates to universally necessary preconditions of experience. How the world exists in and of itself is unknown; but as we are bombarded by sense experience, our minds structure it, first by arranging it in three dimensions and temporally, and then through the categories such as substance and cause-effect. Hume’s mistake had been to look for substance and causality and the other categories of the understanding in experience, and of course they could not be found there because they do not exist there; they exist in our minds as the necessary preconditions of experience. Knowledge requires both sensation and conceptual structure. Kant’s “Transcendental Idealism” is an analysis of the ideas that are necessary to structure all experience as we understand it. There may be other forms of experience. We can’t imagine how a hypothetical God, a being beyond the constraints of space and time, would experience the world (or for that matter, how an animal that has no rational mind would experience it); we only know that we ourselves experience it this way, and that all humans necessarily experience it this way.

        The laws of physics are thus universal, says Kant, for the same reason the laws of logic are necessary; they are the conditions of rational experience and thus no possible experience could ever refute them. When he turns to logic, Kant argues that the laws of morality are similarly transcendental. They are the laws of practical reason, reason in action as opposed to reason in thought. The critique of pure theoretical reason was intended to expose the necessary structure of rational understanding of the world; the critique of pure practical reason is meant to expose the necessary structure of rational action. Since we are rational beings, our actions should be guided by reason just as our thinking should be. That means our actions should be determined by a principle that is beyond all experience and is discovered by pure thought alone. That is the Categorical Imperative, which is the imperative based upon the mere form of an imperative itself: always act on that maxim that you could without contradiction will to be a universal law of nature.

        Let me take an example from Kant’s writings and try to address it the way both Hume and Kant would address it. Suppose you are in need of money, and the only way to obtain it is to tell someone that you will definitely return the sum at some time in the future when in fact you have no intention to do so or expectation of even being able to do so. Hume would say, first, that having what you need feels good, so the initial indication is that this lying and theft is good. However, Hume points out that what we call “moral” language occurs in a social context. If I say lying is good, I expect others to agree; this is not an aesthetic judgment like my claim that chocolate ice cream is good, which is based solely on my own private experience. If I make a moral claim, I am saying that not only do I find it pleasant, but I believe you and most people will also find it pleasant or beneficial. The morally best, therefore, is what will bring the most pleasure to the most people. Since this is based on experience, it is only a probabilistic expectation or extrapolation from experience. But most likely, my lie will benefit me but hurt the person I con out of the money, and likely others as well since it will at the least elicit negative emotions in anyone who hears of my despicable behavior; so it would be wrong to do this.

        Kant approaches this problem differently: In considering this action, my guiding principle (“maxim”) would be “Whenever I am in need of something, I can tell a lie to get it.” If were to will that this were a universal law, I would have to say that anytime anyone wanted anything, he or she could use deceit to get it. I can see at once that this notion is logically incoherent. The notion of lying requires that the other person believes the lie, which in turn requires that communications are generally truthful; if all communications were always lies no one would believe anything. The logic of the word “lie” is that there is a discrepancy between the truth and what I say, and furthermore that most people are truthful; I just want to make an exception for myself. I want the general law of the world to be truthfulness; I just want that law not to apply to me. That is irrational. My reason shows that truthfulness alone meets the standard of the Categorical Imperative; therefore, I ought always to be truthful. My moral judgment is not based on actual experience or on polling the opinions of others; it is based solely on my own practical reason and the preconditions of rational action.

        Religiously, Kant describes the notions of God, the Self and the Universe as “transcendental ideas” of pure theoretical reason. We can’t prove or disprove them by reason alone, and we don’t actually have to assume them to function day-to-day. They are beyond all possible experience. However, they allow us to unify our experience and thus to make it more rational, and they encourage us to push the limits of knowledge and thus to find more connections that we can in fact experience. My belief that all events are part of a single unity I call the “universe” can push me to keep looking for some sort of causal connection between apparently unconnected phenomena and thus possibly to find some connection, when I would never have found a connection if I had just assumed that the world is absurd and without any underlying unity.

        In practical reason, God, freedom and immortality are the three transcendental ideas that are necessary to make moral action rational. Of these, freedom is the most fundamental, and arguably may be one small glimpse into the noumenal realm. While experience may say all events, even our own actions, are caused by other events in the world, moral choice is choosing to do this action because my moral reason shows me that it is the right thing to do, even if it is not pleasant. Moral action is thus the opposite of acting on inclination; acting on inclination in pursuit of anticipated good results is unfree and bondage to the rules of the phenomenal world. God is not so much necessary, but if acting morally is to be fully rational we have to assume that eventually all persons will become as happy as they deserve to be. That requires both a rational being who can judge according to the moral law our practical reason reveals to us, and the time for that being to bestow that happiness. Thus, while we cannot know there is a God or afterlife, it is rational to have faith that there is a rational God who will eventually give us exactly what we deserve. Just as it was rational to have faith in the religious concepts that make our experience more rational and gave them greater unity, it is also rational to have faith that at some point our rational and phenomenal selves will be united and our morality will match our happiness. Hume had looked for the basis of religious beliefs in experience, and had not found them there. Kant says that in fact the rules of experience, the phenomenal world, would rule out any possible experience of God since by definition experience follows the laws of nature and God is super-natural; so the structure of the understanding would filter out God or freedom, if they exist in the world as it is in itself. But Kant also says that reason can know that it has limits, that God and freedom and etc. might exist beyond those limits, and that furthermore assuming that they do exist can make other operations of human reason work better; so it is not, as Hume claimed, irrational to assume them.

        I hope I’m doing some justice to Kant on this; his was a better mind than mine and he spent thousands of pages and many years explaining what I am carelessly tossing out. I do hope though that I’ve shown some of the differences between Kant and Hume, as well as the connections and how Kant tried to give Hume his due without surrendering to Hume’s final conclusions.

      • Nemo Says:

        How does Kant define “truth”? How does a person tell the truth and not lie, if the nominal self/world cannot be known?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Generally, when we say something about “the world,” we mean the phenomenal world we all live in. As long as we recognize that our statements may not apply to the noumenal realm, they can be true or false. If I say “I see the sun,” that is a somewhat imprecise but true way of reporting my actual immediate sensations, which can never be false if I am not deliberately lying. If I say “the sun is shining here but has set in Africa,” my statement must be true given the rules of the phenomenal world, even though they do not relate to immediate perceptions. In statements about the world, generally the noumenal is irrelevant. The noumenal is only important when we are considering moral and religious claims. The phenomenal/noumenal divide means that religious concepts such as God and immortality cannot be verified or falsified, since we have no access to things in themselves but only know them as they are processed by our understanding. I would say it’s as if we are wearing tinted glasses permanently glued to our faces. Since all of us always have the same colored glasses, we all experience the same reality. However, there may be colors we can’t even perceive. If we say those colors don’t exist because we can’t see them, we are forgetting we have these filters on our eyes that might be screening them out. But if we say the colors do exist, when we have no real proof since we can never see them, then we are going beyond the evidence; maybe they don’t actually exist at all. So, Kant would say, you can’t make any claims about their existence, but if accepting them serves some purpose then it is reasonable to believe in them for that purpose.

        That’s basically the notion of truth-telling in the theoretical reason. If you are using the term “lie,” then you are making a moral claim: that the falsehood is not just mistaken but is a deliberate deception. Morally, we judge by the intention. If I intended to deceive, then I am a liar and have violated the moral law; all rational beings have a duty to tell the truth. And I think Kant would point out that we do in fact commonly recognize this. We certainly can know that truthfulness conforms to the Categorical Imperative and lying does not. And if someone intends to lie and we know he or she intended to lie, we say that person is dishonest even if in fact the statement was true. I just finished watching a production of Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgeware Dies on Netflix. In this story, two people are trying to frame a third for murder by making false statements. They are still liars, and Kant would say they are attempted murderers since they are trying to get the third person hung for murder, even though it turns out that the person they were framing was actually guilty. And we would sort of admit that, since they could still be charged under British law with “wasting police time.” (However, in practice we generally would not charge them with murder and we would even partially exonerate them since the person they were trying to falsely implicate was in fact guilty; Kant might say we are too much enthralled with the phenomenal and don’t consistently apply the moral law.) The lie is a lie because of the intention to deceive; that is the relevant moral consideration. Whether the lie is factually true in the phenomenal world is morally irrelevant; at best you could call it a “happy accident.” So to answer your question, a person can “not lie” (a moral determination) if he or she is as truthful as he or she is able to be, and can “tell the truth” (an exercise of theoretical reason) if his or her statements are true of the world of experience, given the limits of human reason.

      • Nemo Says:

        I remember having a similar discussion on Kant with you more than three years ago. I still haven’t got around to reading Critique of Pure Reason, and so have little more to say than last time. Truth be told, I’m not sure I would benefit personally from studying Kant in depth, although he is no doubt important to philosophy.

        I see a discrepancy between Kant’s ethics, which makes absolute and universal moral claims and demands, and his epistemology, which is based on experience and therefore relative and personal. We don’t see the world the same way, neither are our glasses tinted in the same way. How can I will that whatever I do be made a “universal law” when as yet I don’t know a thing about anything?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Word to the Wise: Read Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics and Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals. (Some translations use “Foundation” or some similar phrase, instead of “Groundwork.”) Both were written by Kant for teaching his undergraduate students, and are VASTLY shorter and a bit clearer than the two Critiques. Then, if you’re not in love, you don’t have to read any more Kant; if you’re still curious, you can read something longer.

        The moral material is shorter and clearer than the Critique of Pure Reason in any case. You can read the moral writings and Religion Within the Limits… without the first Critique, though reading the Prolegomena will help.

      • Nemo Says:

        Well, I did read the Groundwork and Critique of Practical Reason more than three years ago on your recommendation, that’s when I noticed the aforementioned “discrepancy”.

        I enjoyed having a glimpse into a great mind, but I’m not sure that Kant’s version of religion is worth saving if the only reason for its existence is its usefulness not the truth it conveys.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, then you’re done with Kant. If anyone else reads these comments I hope they take the suggestion. Personally, I find the whole constellation between Kant, Hamann and Kierkegaard interesting. Hamann, the one who introduced Hume to Kant, was one of Kierkegaard’s favorite writers. Kierkegaard often references Hamann and at times even seems to be quoting Hamman quotations of Hume without knowing it. Kierkegaard didn’t read English, so all the Hume he had was absorbed indirectly through Hamann. Hamann’s own philosophy seems to have been a lot more like Hume’s than Kant’s was. Hamann liked Hume’s skeptical conclusions and felt that they were a fitting rebuke to the Enlightenment arrogance of thinking human reason could replace revelation. He basically accepted Hume’s claims that religious belief is totally improbable; but while Hume argues that we should hold back from religious belief, Hamann argues that the individual has a choice to decide whether to stick with the probable or to choose to believe. Hamann thought that all knowledge is a sort of revelation; knowledge gives itself through the senses. We just have to choose what revelations we will live by. Since Hume has shown that reason is extremely limited, we either accept some things as true and risk error, or we hold back in “mitgated” skepticism and refuse to believe for fear of being taken in—but to refuse to believe what is in fact true is just as bad as believing what is in fact false, so either one is a risk. I say Hamann “seems” to say this, because Hamann is widely conceded to be the most obscure writer in the German language, which is saying a lot.

      • Nemo Says:

        I still plan to read Prolegomena and the other two Critiques, but, at this stage, Kant seems to me a master of compartmentalization. He built an impressive structure of philosophy, only to save something he knows not what.

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