St. Augustine’s Medicine For Doubt

I broke this discussion into two posts because I didn’t want Augustine’s greater point to get lost in his fit of pique. Instead, I want to draw your focus back to the first paragraph of the passage I cite from City of God Book 2:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure!

I’ve encountered that passage many times in my experience with City of God, but blew right by it without understanding that it was actually about me. (Look, it’s a thousand pages long: you can’t grasp the whole thing at one go.)

I returned to the faith after a undeniable encounter with the living God that broke through my doubt and drew me back, as though with Waugh‘s unseen hook and invisible line. But when I came back, I didn’t really believe it all. I fought my way back (or, rather, was dragged back) to Catholicism in stages, through mere theism (requiring deep reading in atheism and philosophy), scripture, Christianity (deep reading in apologetics), and finally Catholicism (lots of St. Thomas, Kreeft, Ratzinger, and catechism).

When I made that final leap to return to the faith of my youth, I didn’t believe everything Catholicism taught. I had mental reservations on a few contentious points, but I found everything else so balanced and perfect and right that I simply decided to submit my will and intellect on the rest. It was an act of humility, and not a pleasant one at first, but I saw that the collective wisdom of good and admirable and wise people, working for millennia on the deepest and most relevant questions of human existence, had yielded undeniable wisdom and clarity. If I was unable to mentally or emotionally grasp the last 5% that continued to give me trouble, whose fault was that?

And so, in what Augustine calls my “feeble condition,” I performed an act of faith, and submitted to the “the restorative medicine of sound teaching.” I let go, and put God in charge. As though one with the father of the possessed child in Mark 9:24, I said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” And in that act of submission, belief came.

I had to throw away a lot of carefully constructed dogma of my own invention, but once I shed it, I was overwhelmed with an immense sense of relief. I allowed my belief system to be stripped down to ground level: everything was on the table. In doing so, I shed a lot of modernist nonsense, as well as emotional and intellectual bias that clouded my thinking, and let myself be fill up with the simple and good things of God.

That’s an act of will leading to pure sacrifice. Submission of the will and intellect is what the Church calls for on its central elements of dogma. Modern ears hear that as simple tyranny, because, of course, in our few decades of life experience we know far better than the inherited wisdom of ages as guided by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity working through the Church. You don’t really know much until you grasp the enormity of all you do not–indeed, all you cannot–know as one mortal living a circumscribed and brief life. That’s the great lie of the modern world: I am my own man! I am self-invented! I can figure it all out! I took a class!

Hogwash. We are the product of billions of decisions made long before sperm met egg in a mother’s womb. We perch upon the accumulated wisdom of ages–trial and error, revelation and understanding, deep study in the things of God and man–and imagine we heaped up that mountain all on our own. At least, I did.

And from up there on my perch, it was impossible to tell whether that mountain is made of diamond or dung. I just knew it gave me a grand view of what I perceived to be reality. And it helped me look down on those who scratch out their lives on smaller mountains built of simple and sturdy faith.

Until I leveled that mountain, I may have known a lot of things, but a final and abiding Truth wasn’t among them. It was only in humility, and only by taking Augustine’s “restorative medicine” of simple faith, that I could find it.

It was only then that God could say, in effect, “Okay, let us begin.”

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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