As a 1989 Villanova Commerce & Finance graduate with an Honors minor, I registered one semester for an upper-level Honors seminar course with a focus on St. Augustine and his Confessions. The course included a capstone writing assignment on an Augustine topic of my choice. Unsure of what to write I visited my professor Fr. Don Burt and asked for his suggestions and guidance.

He thought for a moment then quietly suggested that I write a paper which compared and contrasted two statements: “credo ut intellegam” (I believe in order to understand) and “intellego ut credam” (I understand in order to believe). As I began to research these statements about how we discern truth and gain knowledge in light of our relationship with God, it became clear these statements create a tension, a type of chicken-and-egg conundrum: which comes first, belief or understanding?

In Sermon 43, Augustine says:

“Of course, what I am now saying, I am saying to help those people believe who do not yet believe. And yet, unless they understand what I am saying, they cannot believe. So what this person says is partly true— ‘Let me understand, in order to believe’; and I on my side, when I say, just as the prophet says, ‘On the contrary, believe, in order to understand,’ am speaking the truth. Let’s come to an agreement, then. So: understand, in order to believe; believe, in order to understand. I’ll put it in a nutshell, how we can accept both without argument: Understand, in order to believe, my word; believe, in order to understand, the word of God.” (43.9)

As a business major and self-professed logical thinker, I found my faith life could get stuck on a focus on understanding. It was certainly more straightforward; faith seemed to be about trust not knowledge. I knew Augustine himself was a learned man. How did he arrive at a place that saw faith as leading to understanding?

As I wrestled with these concepts, I began to realize Fr. Burt’s suggestion was much more engaging than I first realized. It opened up the possibility of a relationship and synergy between faith and understanding that was new to me. Instead of viewing these two concepts as separate and perhaps in conflict, I began to see them as complementary, one adding to the other.

Perhaps additional life experience helps with this complementary mindset. As I have aged, I notice that I am much more comfortable with the unknown and with paradoxes. The idea that faith could lead to understanding seemed a concept in reverse during my college years. There is almost a relief that comes with realizing that not everything can be understood, that cultivating a sense of wonder, of humility, of simplicity has its own rewards.  And that we cannot use human understanding to fully explain divinely inspired faith.

Recently, I’ve made a career change into grief counseling and I do find it very helpful to think of grief as a journey of trust and a journey of understanding….and while I cannot always explain in words how a grief journey will unfold, I do have endless hope that all grieving people will learn how to recognize sadness and joy as companions. Over thirty years later, these two statements continue to challenge me and deepen my understanding of myself, and of my faith journey.