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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Alternative Facts and the Christian

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

We now come to a significant question in engaging politics and, indeed, a key question for Christian thought in general: what is the relationship between faith and human reason? As we engage in politics and policy, we think about areas of law, precedent, history, science, and philosophy. Experts in various policy fields inform our leaders and assist them in making decisions on a range of subjects. Our founding documents themselves reflect a mixture of basic Judeo-Christian principles and Enlightenment philosophy [1]. If we are going to engage in political discussions in the public square, we need to know how our Christian faith relates to the various schools of thought and fields of knowledge contributing to our public discourse. Augustine spends much of The City of God’s eighth book interacting with the philosophical schools of thought in his own day [2]. In the tenth chapter, he outlines several principles for evaluating human reason in the light of faith.

First, Augustine argues that Christians are “wary of those who philosophize according to the elements of this world and not according to God, who made the world” [3]. Since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” [4], Christians possess a certain skepticism towards those who do not begin their search for knowledge with that fear of the Lord. At the same time, Augustine points out, secondly, that God has revealed Himself through creation and can be known in some way through human reason [5]. He explicitly quotes Paul: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” [6]. But Augustine does not stop there. He returns to the original suspicion. Even those who encounter God’s truth through human reason err when they do not reason on the basis of God Himself [7]. He again quotes Paul: “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” [8].

While these principles are simple, they require far more work than they seem to at first glance. In practice, this is a complicated process. It obligates Christians to listen carefully to the actual arguments presented without dismissing them out of hand because the individuals are not Christians or because they are “socialists”, “fascists”, “the far-left”, or “the far-right”. American Christians are very good at Augustine’s first principle, suspicion of human reason. However, we too often utilize this principle as an excuse to dismiss arguments out of hand without engaging them. Christians have proven themselves to be just as susceptible to a political discourse that mischaracterizes opposing viewpoints and rejects them out of turn without first listening and engaging the offered argument as everyone else. We have a long way to go towards recognizing the second principle and the way the truth of God is perceived through human reason. We should expect to find God’s truth in law, science, history, and philosophy. Christians have to pay attention to the actual arguments and anticipate discovering the truth within human reason but also error at the same time. To distill the substantive arguments being made and to robustly critique where it fails to measure up to God’s truth, a process Augustine himself demonstrates [9], takes time, effort, and thoughtful care. American Christians are not known for intellectual rigor and faithfully engaging in the robust thought of the day [10]. If Christians are going to engage in the political sphere, we need to do so thoughtfully and faithfully following both of Augustine’s principles.

I think this is an essential issue to think through in our current political context. There is a growing distrust of experts among our populace. Tragically, this distrust has extended to the medical profession during our present pandemic and resulted in too many deaths. There is also a growing suspicion of the news media’s biases in reporting. As a result, rather than listening to a news source and critiquing them, we are beginning to simply dismiss significant reporting and news sources without engaging with them. Too often, this is simply an excuse to discount information that challenges our own biases. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in a significant increase in fake news, which Christians have been particularly susceptible to [11]. So how do we go forward? How do we make sense of information to inform our political decisions as Christians? That is where Augustine is helpful. We should expect scientists, historians, legal analysts, news reporters, our intelligence community, and policy experts to use their God-given human reason to discern the truth. People who have dedicated their entire lives studying particular issues are credible voices Christians can listen to. Where we are suspicious is that for those of differing faith commitments to us, without the eyes of faith, their analyses will not reach the crux of the matter, the depth of human brokenness, and the redemptive power of Christ. Simply put, listen to a variety of experts in their particular fields, learn from their research and knowledge, and use your wisdom to prayerfully consider, in light of who God is, how that information best fits into God’s revelation, and act in the way which best loves God and loves our neighbors based on your conclusions.

[1] Justin Taylor, “America as a Christian Nation: A Conversation with Mark Noll and George Marsden,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2016,

[2] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 58-65.

[3] Ibid. p. 65.

[4] Proverbs 1:7 NRSV.

[5] Augustine, p. 65.

[6] Romans 1:19-20.

[7] Augustine, p. 66.

[8] Romans 1:21-23.

[9] Augustine, pp. 58-65.

[10] See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[11] See Christopher Douglas (2018) Religion and Fake News: Faith-Based Alternative Information Ecosystems in the US and Europe, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 16:1, 61-73, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2018.1433522.

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