by Margaret Antonio
“My early education in Theology effectively came to a stop in 6th grade – after that, the classes just repeated that there are seven sacraments,” said Professor Sarah Byers. For many people, the seemingly routine memorization of prayers, rattling off the seven sacraments, and listing the three Persons of the Trinity in Sunday school result in their leaving the faith or partitioning it off in favor of “higher” intellectual pursuits. However, for Sarah Byers, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, studying philosophy helped her bridge this gap between faith and reason in her own life.
Studying Augustine “was the first time I realized there was such a thing as high-level intellectual Christianity,” said Byers. Professor Byers’ interest in philosophy began at a young age, when at the dinner table her father took part in her intellectual development by challenging her about political ideas or ethical issues in which she was interested. When Byers took a philosophy core class as a freshman at the Jesuit St. Joseph’s University, she realized that those conversations with her father were at the heart of “philosophy,” which she eventually declared as her undergraduate major. Later, during her graduate studies, Byers’ studies on Augustine presented her with “the idea that early Christian philosophy was asking interesting questions in ethics and metaphysics, and that it was a development from ancient philosophy.”
In November 2012, Byers published her book, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis. Byers’ “first-rate study” of Augustine’s moral psychology “makes a substantial contribution to Augustinian research,” according to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. One of the topics the book addresses is the relationship between grace and freewill, a popularly debated topic in the modern era by the Dominican Bañez and the Jesuit Molina.
Augustine, said Byers, asks the question of how people can have sudden conversions or dramatic changes of lifestyle and what role grace plays in such conversions as his own which he recounts in Book Eight of the Confessions. Grace, in Augustine’s account, is “the action of God on the mind to change one’s motivations.” According to Augustine, individuals who are habituated in a certain way often cannot perceive the virtuous life as something that will make them happy. “Instead, they see it [the virtuous life] only as a list of requirements, and rules and restrictions on their freedom, things that will not bring them pleasure,” says Byers. “They may see in a detached way that it is admirable in other people, but they’re not motivated to do those actions.”
Although grace motivates the often dramatic motivational shift toward a virtuous lifestyle, it does not negate our free will according to the Stoic epistemological model that Augustine uses. “Perceiving virtuous action as good for oneself happens by grace – God acts to make us see things differently and feel attracted to doing the right thing. But that initial perception that God gives is not the same as actually deciding to do the relevant action. Assent to that ‘first impression’ is needed.”
Augustine also thinks that in the case of these large-scale conversions, the person is so morally weak that he cannot assent by himself, thus prompting the individual to intercede for yet a second grace from God, the grace to respond to the desire to convert. Therefore, the “locus of freedom” lies between the first impression and the decision. “When I receive the first impression, I could reject it straight-away, refuse to think about it. Or I could entertain it. By dwelling on it, entertaining it, I am being receptive. If I entertain it, I will feel repentant of my current lifestyle, and this leads me to invoke God to help me further. As a response to my invocation, God then grants me the second grace, the grace of decision or assent.”
In discussing her journey through philosophy and her book, Professor Byers stresses that philosophy is for everyone and can enhance anyone’s understanding of the world and who we are as persons.
“Human beings are not just made to do stuff... it’s not true that we can be satisfied by skill knowledge,” says Byers. “We have speculative minds. We need to get to core ideas, understand transcendent principles. Everybody needs to ask about the meaning of life.”
From learning to think through ideas at the dinner table to answering questions on faith and reason, the study of philosophical ideas is foundational for logical thought and debate. Professor Byers’ advice to students: “Take ancient philosophy. Go back to the core questions that ancient philosophy asked. Everybody needs to know what is the meaning of life.”