Augustine & Descartes: God Is, but What is He?



bronzeA previous article discussed that both Augustine and Descartes arrived at the concept of an existing God by first concluding that each of them, as an individual person, existed. Augustine proceeded from his proof that he existed, from his Si fallor, sum (If I am mistaken, I am), to the conclusion that God must exist. Similarly, Descartes proceeded from Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am),to the conclusion that God must exist. For Augustine, God provides the illuminating light of truth for all we experience; and for Descartes, God is the guarantor of the truth of what we clearly and distinctly perceive.

God’s Nature

But each of these thinkers had in mind a God whose nature or essence could not be put into words, or was “ineffable;” a God about whom we could really say nothing other than “He is.”

For St. Augustine, God is “ineffable” and “unspeakable.” He said, “God transcends even the mind.” “Ineffable” means that something cannot be described or expressed in words. “Inexpressible” and “unutterable” convey some of the meaning of “ineffable.”

For Descartes, God’s “Divine Nature” is-

“immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite.” Descartes says that “God’s greatness . . . is incomprehensible to us, although known to us” and “God is a cause whose power surpasses the limits of human understanding.”

St. Augustine and Descartes are not alone in trying to speak about the unspeakable.

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom refers to God’s ineffability:

“It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. “

St. Thomas Aquinas says that “‘by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches” and that “The first cause surpasses human understanding and speech”.

There is an entire area of theology devoted to this notion of the “ineffability” of God.

So where does that leave us – with this God whose essence we cannot know?

The Catechism Of The Catholic Church says this leaves us with a mystery:

“Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: “If you understood him, it would not be God” (St. Augustine,“Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: “If you understood him, it would not be God” (St. Augustine, Sermon 52, 6, 16: PL 38, 360 and Sermon 117, 3, 5: PL 38, 663).” (Catechism No. 230).

I Believe in Mystery

So one could choose, as many people do for whatever reason, to say “Well, if it is a mystery, then it is baloney, bollocks, meaningless. If it is a mystery, it does not exist.” Alternatively, we can realize that “mystery” and “reality” can be one and the same thing; and that this is why we stand up periodically in church and say, not “I know God,” but “I believe.” Much of what follows that “I believe” is a mystery.

What makes it possible for us, again and again, to say, and say publicly, “I believe” in the mysteries? And to go further and to not only say I believe the mysteries, but I embrace them and I love them? The answer is a gift from God.

For St. Augustine, this gift is faith. In explaining Holy Scripture, including Ephesians 2:8, he tells us that faith is a divine gift:

”For he himself [St. Paul] also says , ‘By grace are you saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves; but is the gift of God,’ that is to say, ‘And in saying ‘through faith’ even faith itself is not of yourselves, but is God’s gift.” (On The Predestination Of Saints, Chap. 12).

Section 160 of the Catechism entitled “The Freedom Of Faith” quotes Dignitatis Humanae: “The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.”  The section goes further: “Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals Himself.”

A Gift of Faith

This gift, which we have all been given in baptism, is a theological virtue, a supernatural virtue, a “habit” for doing good that facilitates and makes it easy for us to say “I believe.” Think of faith as a top-of-the-line industrial-strength flashlight God gives you, complete with batteries, maybe even a solar charger.

It is your gift. You are free to do anything with it. You can put it in a cabinet and never turn it on. You can deny that it is a flashlight. You can throw it away. You can beat it against a tree and destroy it. You can also freely choose to turn it on and light the way for yourself and for others. In the dark you see nothing, but then you flip the switch on, the light shines, and you say “I see.”

Faith is like this. God gives it to you, a free gift, but he does not force you to act faithfully. God never compels you to flip the faith “switch” on. Powered with this gift, you can encounter mystery and, exercising your free will, say “I believe.” Implicit in your “I believe” is that you do not know and you do not understand (yet) what God is, nor do you understand the other mysteries to which you assent.

A Taste of Light

But do not expect Jesus to appear at your side next Sunday when you stand up and say “I believe” like He did for St. Thomas. What you will get is a hint of glory to come:

“Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God “face to face”, “as he is”. So faith is already the beginning of eternal life: ‘When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy’” (Catechism Section 163, citing St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, 15).

Regarding this “taste of light,” St. Augustine and Descartes, two of the greatest thinkers in all human history, concluded, in real humility, that they could know God exists, but that they could not know God. For St. Augustine, faith was a gift that the recipient had to nurture so that the “taste of light,” a promise of things to come, would be fulfilled:

“But You, Beloved, who possess this Faith, or who have begun now newly to have it, let it be nourished and increase in you. For as things temporal have come, so long before foretold, so will things eternal also come, which are promised.” (Concerning Faith Of Things Not Seen, 11).

For Descartes, after faith’s first “taste if light,” once one came to know God and that one could not know His essence, the proper response was a “Thank You” to God:

“And I have no cause for complaint on the grounds that the power of understanding or the natural light which God gave me is no greater than it is; for it is in the nature of a finite intellect to lack understanding of many things, and it is in the nature of a created intellect to be finite. Indeed, I have reason to give thanks to him who has never owed me anything for the great bounty that he has shown me, rather than thinking myself deprived or robbed of any gifts he did not bestow! “ (Meditations On First Philosophy, Fourth Meditation).

Next Sunday’s “I believe” is a beginning, not an end. It may be some good ole Texas “Horse and Rabbit Stew,” equal parts of two horses – St. Augustine and Descartes – and one rabbit – you; but in publicly acknowledging what you do not comprehend, but what nevertheless you do believe, you will be in fine company when you “nourish and increase” God’s gift of faith, and tell Him “Thank You.”

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9 thoughts on “Augustine & Descartes: God Is, but What is He?”

  1. “So one could choose, as many people do for whatever reason, to say “Well, if it is a mystery, then it is baloney, bollocks, meaningless. If it is a mystery, it does not exist.” “
    Yes, one could, – but one would be far more logical to say, “We just don’t know, and never can, so let’s get on with life – and Heaven and God and Hell can wait until we’re dead.”
    Nor are mysteries non-existent. Find me anyone who believes that. Everyone on the planet is familiar with mysteries of some description, even if it’s only music.
    You have made a straw man, Guy. (A guy, in fact.)

    1. As I said on another site in a comment that will probably never leave the mod queue:
      “you were allowed to be born here instead of directly in hell for one reason: to give you a chance to Repent.”

      this is the meaning of life. I think you already knew, which is why you spend your days railing against Love, Absolute Truth, and Natural Law. It is like you devote yourself to attacking something you do know (albeit not consciously willing to admit it) but are angry because you cannot meet the standard of. I think I just put it into words for you what your angst is about.

      it is exclusively in this world and this life that you can Repent. you must have been listening to the devil and without question as what you call “logical” (logic is the lowest form of thought, and your statement doesn’t even qualify) would send you right to hell where you belong. that same hell that Venerable Fulton Sheen informed us that begins on earth then extends Eternally from here.

      Now, you could Repent. I’ll just leave it there.

      you, like many “skeptics” also seem to think “mystery” is something you can hide behind. Questions ONLY exist to be answered. Oops, someone told you (possibly the same “someone” who told you that it is “logical” to damn yourself for funsies) that questions somehow shut out answers instead, didn’t they?

    1. James-I appreciate your reading this. Muchas gracias. We do know God as God/Man-Jesus is a Man and we know that God the Father chose in revelation to reveal Himself to us as Father. And that Jesus referred to Him as God the Father, His Father, and Abba, which some say is more correctly translated as Daddy. Then there is the fact that Jesus never referred to God as mother or she, nor did any of the evangelists or St Paul, inspired by God. I do wonder sometimes re the Holy Spirit-sometimes the best I can do is come up with a warm divine friendly fog when I try to think of the Holy Spirit in human terms. It’s hard to get a concept of a Holy Force or Breath. No problem-we believe. Guy

    2. And we refer to St Nicholas as Santa Claus – I think the OT guys and JC was doing their best treat us as children with very limited conceptual abilities. But enjoyed the piece none
      the less.

    3. “We do know God as God/Man-Jesus is a Man and we know that God the Father chose in revelation to reveal Himself to us as Father. “
      Who’s “we”? You might know that, Guy (or think you know that) but the majority of the world doesn’t. Or are we solely preaching to the choir here? I don’t “know” that, myself. Although It might be true. No way of telling, though.

    4. Dear TD-sorry-cannot bring myself to call you “toad”, you certainly dont look like one – I have assumed you are catholic and you recite with many of us the Nicene Creed each Sunday-so I include you in the “we.” And it begins not with “I know” but “iIbelieve” and mentions things visible and invisible. I would enjoy preaching to a choir, and the CS “choir” is a very congenial group. I am still figuring out what voice and key you sing in. Heaven And God and Hell will wait til I am dead, but I will choose to which I go.Hope we go together, or you pull me up. Have a fullofwonder weekend. Guy McClung

    5. My full name is “Toadspittle,” Guy, but Toad will do for short. I am what you might call a “Sceptical Catholic,” that is, I was born and brought up as one, but then, as I grew older, I began to ask myself many questions to which the answers have, so far, proved unsatisfactory. Now I ask other people those questions. I have many such, as you may discover.

      I attend Mass on all appropriate occasions (every Sunday, for one) but doubt almost everything I hear there. My conscience prevents me saying The Creed.. I am, I suppose, a child of Modernism Liberalism and The Enlightenment. ( and excessively fond of commas)

    6. Toad, do you have a spiritual advisor, someone in the parish or diocese where you attend Mass, who can help you on your journey? I would think that a face-to-face exchange, on a regular basis, would ultimately be more helpful in your journey, although you will find many people here, both contributors and commenters, who are open to a civil, respectful discussion.

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