On the distinction between thinking from and thinking to
Dicit mihi homo: “Intellegam ut credam”. Respondeo: “Crede ut intellegas” — Augustine, Sermo 43
Sed inrideant nos fortes et potentes, nos autem infirmi et inopes coniteamur tibi — Augustine, Confessions
I went off to college with a head full of new learning, and high spirits on account of it. I had only a few years prior discovered that there was much gain in reading ‘old, dead theologians,’ and so left for college with a modest dose of what is now commonly referred to as classical theism. After a couple of years in the philosophy department—largely analytic in its orientation—I found myself quite deeply troubled by the torrent of “problems” analytic philosophers of religion had “uncovered” in the classical theist tradition. Yet, I had learned from Augustine something equally as deeply useful: the advantage of believing.
In a doctrine of God class I took at that college, I was given the assignment of a personal reflection paper. Here is a brief excerpt from that paper (hubristically—and somewhat stiffly—parroting Augustine’s Confessions).
How far above the heavens, O Lord, are your ways. And your thoughts are too high for me, O God, who has laid the foundations of the earth and determined its measurements. Am I now so bold as to darken counsel with these words that lack wisdom? Yet, confession is good for the soul, and at times the soul needs to speak once, even twice, though they be words carried by the wind. So now, my Rock and my Fortress, hear these groans not as complaints, but as offerings to be burned upon the alter. May their smoke be a pleasing aroma to You. I believe, my Lord and my God. Help my unbelief.
My feet had nearly stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. How was I, so young and immature, to bear their weight? Did they not press me for wisdom? Did they not scorn me as simple? I did not wish to answer a fool according to his folly. Yet, I could not turn and hide. Surely there are times when the fool needs to be answered, lest he be wise in his own eyes. But how am I to answer, O God, with answers I do not have? When I sought to understand these things, it seemed to me a wearisome task. When I had begun along the way, your voice, O Truth, had seemed so clearly to call, “Life. Come all who are weary.” I confess, my God, I am weary. Whence comes the green pastures and still waters, and when?
Have You not made foolish the wisdom of this age, O God? Have You not caught the wise in their machinations? Yet, that does not make them cease to try to snare me. Like a bird I have felt trapped. But You, O Lord, will deliver me from the snare of the fowler. It is not You, O God, whom they wish me to doubt. But the sufficiency of Your revelation and the ability of my understanding. Keep me from pride, O God, and keep me from unbelief.
I came to college to apply myself to philosophy. Not that I might grow puffed up on knowledge again, but that I might begin to build tools appropriate for gaining wisdom. But what is wisdom, O God? Is not Your wisdom taught in a mystery that only those to whom You’ve given Your Spirit can understand? Is it not Christ crucified and raised to newness of life according to the scriptures?
Yet they pressed me with questions whose answers I did not know. I was branded a simpleton and ridiculous by some, and unlearned by many more. Have You not said that You have given Your word to us and to our children that we might understand You, O God? Do You not say that Your word is sufficient for us to know You, my God?
I do not know how to answer these questions. Perhaps with more study I shall be able to give them an answer for the hope that is within me. Perhaps with more study I shall learn to rightly divide Your word which is truth. But much study is much labor. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. I am weary, O Lord. Whence comes the green pastures and the still waters, and when.
As I now read this old text, I admit that the imitation is clunky and that some of its content smacks more of adolescent attempts to navigate the waters of academia than anything else. But I also think that I had hit upon something. I had hit upon it first in the style of Augustine’s Confessions, and later in his teachings. What struck me at the time was that the Confessions is a book of questions, but of questions in the context of prayer. Put another way, it’s a book of seeking within the context of rest, of coming to understand within the context of belief. As Augustine later put it, “believe, so that you may understand.”
Augustine writes more explicitly about this in his De Utilite Credendi (On the Advantage of Believing).
“For true religion can in no way be rightly entered upon, except those things be believed which each one afterwards, if he shall conduct himself rightly and be worthy, attains to and understands, nor altogether without a certain weighty control of authority.”
But doesn’t this simply make one credulous? Augustine says just as the studious person does not simply collect bits of data concerning this and that, but carefully cultivates habits of mind which allow him to come to wisdom concerning things significant for himself, so too the believing person does not go about blindly accepting all things about anything, as does the credulous person. Rather, she cultivates a posture of the mind whereby she may be lifted up to grand things significant for herself by the hand of appropriate authorities.
But shouldn’t authorities give reasons for why what they teach ought to be believed? Yes, he responds, but some things that stretch the limits of the human intellect, or indeed go beyond it, defy simple reasons given at beginner’s levels. Those with little mathematical training or abilities will be left denying Einstein’s relativity theory if they demand “reasons” before they assent. Rather, assent must come first, then patient and steady work to come to understand. So it is with the mysteries of the Christian faith.
I had been pressed at college to drop what I had been taught about God by the doctors of the church because I didn’t have answers to various objections to that set of teachings. But what I learned from Augustine was that rather than reasons to drop these teachings, they were actually invitations to explore them more deeply. The best footing to begin seeking understanding is not ignorance and suspicion, but belief in appropriate authorities. For the Christian, the appropriate authorities are, magisterially, the prophets and apostles of Holy Writ, and, ministerially, the teachers of the church.
This seeking is not made easier in this way, mind you. C. S. Lewis captures the difficulty well in his The Pilgrim’s Regress, when Mr. Sensible, who dislikes Reason very much, gives his argument for staying clear of her:
Sense is easy, Reason is hard. Sense knows where to stop with gracious inconsistency, while Reason slavishly follows an abstract logic whither she knows not. The one seeks comfort and finds it, the other seeks truth and is still seeking. Le bons sens is the father of a flourishing family: Reason is barren and is a virgin.
Though not easy, reason’s search is greatly aided by the boundary markers and trail signs posted by past pilgrims. One may decide, I suppose, to take on the wilderness by hacking one’s own trail. For my part, the old paths do not take away from the adventure, they simply start one off at the right point and in the right direction. The traverse must still be made. Reason is still borne by those paths whither she knows not, and she is still barren. But she is not lost.
All this leads me to my point. There is a distinction between thinking to and thinking from. This point has been put in other ways by other writers (See, e.g., Lewis’ similar distinction in his “Meditations in a Tool Shed”). And that’s for the good, because it is an important point. Thinking to something is a very important intellectual art. It is of the essence of human learning. By it one takes what one knows and reaches to new judgements, acquiring new knowledge. But that is just it. One cannot think to unless one has something to think from. Thinking to is always predicated upon a thinking from.
I’m still quite persuaded by Augustine that the most advantageous “from” of my thought is that stamped by the divine, his prophets, apostles, and teachers. And thus, though we may be ridiculed by the strong and the powerful of this world, let us still persist in confessing our belief in God. And from that confession, let us seek.
 “A person says to me, “I will first come to understand, then I will believe.” My response: “Believe first, so that you can come to understand.”
 “But let the strong and might now deride us; we, the weak and frail, will nevertheless confess to you.”
 Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (New York, Sheed & Ward, Inc, 1935), bk V, ch iv.