[E]cce pietas est sapientia” (Conf. 5.5.8).

In Book 5 of his Confessions, Augustine describes his ongoing struggle for understanding. As he leaves behind his twenties, he is plagued by questions and doubts. While he hopes that Faustus the Manichean might be able to help assuage his anxieties, Faustus proves to be inadequate for the task (though at least he is aware of and honest about his limitations). Augustine’s attraction to Manicheism thus begins to wane, and he finds himself sliding into skepticism.

“I realized,” he writes, “that there were people of a different stamp who doubted even the possibility of truth, and were unwilling to trust anything conveyed in elegant and fluent style” (Conf. 5.6.10).

I think most of us can relate to the young Augustine’s confusion and doubt. We, too, have likely asked ourselves: Am I living the way I should? Are the values I hold the right ones? Is there any way to know for certain that my beliefs are true? Is there such a thing as truth?

At this point in his life, Augustine is still approaching these questions from an academic perspective. His life thus far has been spent as a student and teacher. He desires the correct answers to his questions, but perhaps just as strongly he wants to be able to prove why they are correct.

It will take Augustine some time before he becomes more comfortable with not always having answers to his questions. But eventually he will come to realize that knowledge in and of itself will not bring fulfillment if it is knowledge without faith.

“Unhappy is anyone who knows it all but does not know you [God],” Augustine reflects, “whereas one who knows you is blessed, even if ignorant of all these” (5.4.7).

Augustine believes that those who have faith but are otherwise ignorant have a greater claim to blessedness and happiness than do those who have acquired great knowledge but are not believers. This lesson is illustrated in the foundations of Christ’s teachings: Christ chose poor, uneducated fishermen to be His disciples rather than those who were highly educated or nobly born; their lack of knowledge did not matter so long as their faith was present.

“The starting point of a good life,” Augustine asserts in Sermon 43, “is right faith” (43.1). Rather than ask to understand in order to believe, Augustine argues that we should “Believe in order to understand” (43.4). While faith and reason can coexist, belief necessarily comes before understanding.

This is a significant lesson in intellectual humility, and it is all the more striking that it comes from Augustine, whose superior intellectual capabilities are a central part of his identity and livelihood. Augustine, more than most, had a reason to be proud of his knowledge, but he insists on humility – on the importance of belief before understanding.

Augustine challenges us through his own example to accept uncertainty and gaps in our knowledge and understanding so long as our faith is present; it is not knowledge but belief that ultimately matters most.