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10.2: Anselm's Faith Seeking Understanding

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    The way of reasoned inquiry in Christianity did not receive the kind of early emphasis and direction that it did in Buddhism. It has had to struggle from time to time against two worries. First, it was feared that too great a latitude given to rational inquiry might threaten appropriate understanding of the truth of Revelation (what was believed to have been revealed of God in Christ) and culminate· in heretical teaching. Second, the sense of autonomy, pride, and pretentiousness that are naturally engendered in rational inquiry were seen to be in potential, if not actual, conflict with the requisite attitude of humble and simple faith. The Gospel was regarded as more accessible to simple, uneducated folk than to any educated intellectual elite. For many in Christendom, because the content of Revelation to their thinking is already clearly and unambiguously explicit, the only appropriate response is obedience, and not at all to question why, or what does it mean, or is it really so.

    This view, however, did not predominate. Because of the strong precedent set by early Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr (100-165), Origin (185-254), and Augustine (354-430), the way of reasoned inquiry came to have a significant place, especially in Western Christianity. For them, the Revelation of God in Christ was an inexhaustible mystery evoking wonder. In their understanding, Christ was the universal Logos or Reason of God, linking all Christians with reason and truth wherever it might be found. In consequence, rational inquiry for them was not to be limited simply to the study and interpretation of what had been made explicit of the Christian Revelation (e.g., in scripture, ecumenical council, or papal pronouncement). For them, rational inquiry was a way of entering more deeply into the the mystery. of that revelation. Moreover, by being joined with the Logos of God, human reason was deemed capable of accessing truth in all realms and motivated to do so.

    With the rediscovery of classical learning (and the writings of Aristotle, above all) and the rise of the medieval universities in twelfth-century Europe, a distinctive form of theologicalo study known as scholasticism emerged. The result was an establishment of the basic parameters for most of subsequent theologicalo reflection in Western Christianity, especially for Roman Catholic theology but also for much of Protestant thought. It was developed through intensive study of church doctrine, of the writings of respected earlier Christian thinkers, and of sacred scripture (especially as these bore upon issues of disagreement and controversy), honed through rigorous debate, and elaborated in a systematic form that sought to account for all major theological questions. Theology in this approach aspired to be a kind of rational science. Systematic theology in this sense is clearly an expression of the way of reasoned inquiry-though what it amounts to in practice as a distinctive way to draw near to and come into right relationship with God (i.e., as a distinctive spirituality) has rarely been explicitly reflected upon. Nevertheless, tbeologicalo study in this sense has been a large and respected part of Christian life in the West, especially for priests, ministers, and persons involved in religious vocations in Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant traditions since the thirteenth century.

    Long preceding the rise of scholasticism and continuing as a counterpoint to scholastic theology into modern times, there has been a less systematic and more mystically oriented sort of inquiry, in which the inquiry itself is unmistakably a personal religious quest (fusing some aspects of the way of mystical quest with the way of reasoned inquiry). This alternative pattern of inquiry was given its strongest precedent by Augustine, especially in his early works, and became characteristic of theologicalo reflection pursued in a monastic context. It came to be known as monastic theology and distinguished itself from scholastic theology once the latter fully emerged.5 Illustrated perhaps most clearly in Augustine's Confessions, intellectual inquiry in this approach involves, or rather is, a kind of dialogue with God in Christ, and specifically with the divine Logos that is believed to illuminate the mind and be the source of creative insight. To inquire tbeologicallyo, accordingly, is personally to draw near to God. After Augustine, the major figure who most clearly exemplifies this orientation is Anselm (1033--1109)-monk, prior, and abbot of a Benedictine monastery at Bee and later Bishop of Canterbury.

    The selections that follow are about and by Anselm.6 They focus upon a little book of meditations, entitled Proslogion and subtitled Fides quaerens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding"). This small book has come to exercise an extraordinary influence and provocation of thought down to the present day because of a remarkable argument in its second and third chapters, apparently drawing the conclusion of the existence of God from the idea that faith has of God. Most subsequent discussion of this so-called "ontological argument" (which has continued unabated until the present day) fails, however, to take account of its context in the life of monastic spirituality and its explicit intention "to seek to understand what is believed" and thereby raise the mind from "faith in God" to "the contemplation ofGod"-a contemplative, mystical knowing that transcends explicit representation. That is to say, the argument is designed to shift the reader's attention from the idea of God to the reality of God, from thinking about God to comprehending that one stands mentally in the very presence of God.

    Anselm of Canterbury: A Monastic Scholar

    For Anselm an essential part of ... [the] process of conversion was an intellectual one. [Note: all Benedictine monastics are directed to understand monastic life as involving a lifelong conversion to God and to his service.] The intellect is an integral part of man's created being and needs, as much as the rest of him, to be brought into contact with God for restoration and cleansing. "To discover the rational basis of the monastic life" [was one of two principal concerns of Anselm upon becoming a monk, according to his biographer and disciple, Eadmer. The other and first was simply to be a true monk.] . . . . "The rational basis"-what did Anselm mean by "ratio"? To find out one looks rather at the Mono/ogion and the Proslogion than at the Prayers. The first title Anselm gave to the Monologion was "De ratione fidei," an ambiguous title which he soon dropped. More appropriate for what he was trying to do was his sub-title, "Fides quaerens intellectum," for the Proslogion-that treatise in which prayer and intellectual thought are most wonderfully combined. It is here that we can see what Anselm meant by "ratio," and how it formed part of his prayer.

    The Proslogion [explicitly] begins as a meditation . . . . [And it] is clear that the major part of the Proslogion-twenty-one chapters out of twenty-five-is a meditation, a prayer reflecting upon the nature of belief in God. But to look only at those is to side-step the issue, for the early chapters contain a philosophic statement about the existence and nature of God more exciting than any produced in a monastery before or since and which has, more than anything else, given to Anselm-mistakenly-the title "Father of Scholasticism." It is a demonstration which has aroused and continues to arouse, lively interest among philosophers and theologians, including Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Leibnitz and Barth....

    "God is that than which nothing greater can be thought." It is important to see this [idea of God, the premise on which hinges Anselm's demonstration] in context and not in isolation, and especially in the context of its first expression. At Bee Anselm was exercising all the abilities of his mind to discover "the rationale of the nature of God as the true faith holds it to be," when suddenly "one night during matins [one in the cycle of formal community prayers, sometimes prayed at midnight] the grace of God shone in his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and jubilation filled his whole being."7 It was a matter of illumination about what was already believed, and it is this that provided the starting point for his arguments, not the reverse. It happened in the middle of a monastic service, and the whole setting of it is a prayer of longing and desire for God which is entirely monastic in tone. There is a joy and excitement which is far removed from the logical demonstrations of scholasticism and closer to the mystical experience of prayer. Anselm was not constructing a logical structure and imposing it upon God; nor was he proposing to discover by logical argument the existence of God as the end term of his own propositions. His fundamental way of doing theology was to bring all the powers of his mind to bear upon what he already believed, and this experience at Bee produced the gift of understanding more.

    It has often been said that the "proofs" of the Proslogion would never convince an unbeliever. For Anselm, theology is only true insofar as it corresponds to the being of God, and "ratio" for him is "ratio dei," the living word of God which is beyond all systems of human thought. Applying to the utmost all the powers of intellect and reason to "seeking God," the basis is nonetheless a confrontation with God himself and his saving purposes, which will in itself clear the mind of its darkness and restore it to that contact with God in himself which can be described either as true theology or as prayer. To do this Anselm uses every kind of concept: the Scriptures, dogma, and credal statements on the one hand, the secular concepts of philosophy on the other. "God is that than which nothing greater can be thought" affirms the impossibility of proving the unknowable essence of God by human reasoning. It is a way of knowledge that is apophatic; it is a demonstration rather than a proof. And from it Anselm explores whatever can be said or thought about God, using this first insight as the basis of his prayer and thought. "Thank you, good Lord," he exclaims, "for by your gift I first believed and now by your illumination I understand."

    This encounter with God, which he calls "illumination," is the attitude of a monk who having dedicated his entire being to God offers the whole of his mind, as well as his body, to knowing that truth which is beyond concepts, and to receiving it as a transfiguring experience. This is how Anselm understood the rational basis of the monastic life-not by looking for reasons to justify it, but by seeing the truth in God.

    The mystics tell us that no experience of God remains static or unused, it must communicate itself. This leads to the third of Eadmer's points about Anselm: "He expounded it to others."

    Anselm was not primarily a teacher, a school-man, a pedagogue . . . . He is concerned with his personal search for God and it is significant that he uses the dynamic word "seek." For Anselm prayer is not a static reception of something that can be passed on to others but an ardent and vigorous quest in which others may join him if they wish....

    The Proslogion was also a prayer, an "exemplum meditandi" ["example meditation"], and it was written, Anselm says, to share with others the joy he had felt in his experience of God. His concern is that everyone, even the "fool," should be brought to some experience of God whose nature it is to desire to bring sinners to repentance. Anselm's teaching always has this connotation of enabling others to experience God for themselves. He was not, like Lanfranc [Anselm's teacher who first advised him to become a monk at Bee], a master of the schools, attracting pupils from outside the monastery and teaching them according to a system. Anselm preferred to talk with his friends, with a few intelligent monks [as well as laypersons], with whom he could discuss ideas and communicate by talking rather than by teaching.

    Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Benedicta Ward, "Anselm of Canterbury: a Monastic Scholar," in her Signs and Wonders: Saints, Miracles and Prayers from the 4th Century to the 14th (Brookfield, VT: Variorum/Ashgate, 1992), pp. 8-12.


    Chapter 1

    In which the mind is aroused to the contemplation of God

    Come now, little man,
    turn aside for a while from your daily employment,
    escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts.
    Put aside your weighty cares,
    let your burdensome distractions wait,
    free yourself awhile for God
    and rest awhile in him.
    Enter the inner chamber of your soul,
    shut out everything except God
    and that which can help you in seeking him,
    and when you have shut the door, seek him.
    my whole heart, say to God,
    "I seek your face,
    Lord, it is your face I seek."

    O Lord my God,
    my heart where and how to seek you,
    where and
    how to find you.
    Lord, if you are not here but absent,
    where shall/ seek
    But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
    why then do I not seek
    Surely you dwell in light inaccessible-
    where is it? and how can I
    have access to light which is inaccessible?
    Who will lead
    me and take me into it
    so that I may see you there?
    By what signs, under what forms, shall/ seek
    I have never seen you,0 lordmyGod,
    I have never seen your face.
    Most High Lord,
    what shall an exile do
    who is as far away from you as this?
    What shall your servant do,
    eager for your love, cast
    off far from your face?
    He longs to see you,
    but your countenance is too far away.
    He wants to have access to you,
    but your dwelling is inaccessible.
    He longs to find you,
    but he does not know where you are.
    He loves to seek you

    but he does not know your face.
    Lord, you are
    Lord and my God,
    and I have never seen you.
    You have created and re-created me,
    all the good I have comes from you,
    and still/ do not know you.
    I was created to see you,
    and I have not yet accomplished that for which I was made.
    . . .
    I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving,
    that you have made
    me in your image,
    so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you.
    But that image is so worn and blotted out
    by faults,
    so darkened by the smoke ofsin,
    that it cannot do that for which it was made,
    unless you renew and refashion it.
    Lord, I am not trying to make
    my way to your height,
    my understanding is in no way equal to that,
    but I do desire to understand a little
    of your truth
    my heart already believes and loves.
    I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
    but I believe so that I may understand;
    and what is more,
    I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

    Chapter 2

    That Cod really exists

    Now, Lord, since it is you who gives understanding to faith, grant me to understand as well as you think fit, that you exist as we believe, and that you are what we believe you to be. We believe that you are that thing than which nothing greater can be thought. Or is there nothing of that kind in existence, since "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God"? But when the fool hears me use this phrase, "something than which nothing greater can be thought," he understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it exists. For it is one thing to have something in the understanding, but quite another to understand that it actually exists. It is like a painter who, when he thinks out beforehand what he is going to create, has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it as actually existing because he has not yet painted it. But when he has painted it, he both has it in his understanding and actually has it, because he has created it. So the fool has to agree that the concept of something than which nothing greater can be thought exists in his understanding, since he understood what he heard and whatever is understood is in the understanding. And certainly that than which nothing greater can be thought cannot exist only in the understanding. For if it exists only in the understanding, it is possible to think of it existing also in reality, and that is greater. If that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in the understanding alone, then this thing than which nothing greater can be thought is something than which a greater can be thought. And this is clearly impossible. Therefore there can be no doubt at all that something than which a greater cannot· be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.

    In a nutshell, these last four sentences constitute the main body of the demonstration. They pass by so quickly that the suspicion easily arises that some kind of verbal trick is being played. Take care and read them through again.

    Note here that the idea of God implicit in faith, according to Anselm, is not "the greatest" or "the most perfect being imaginable." That would put the idea of God at the end of the scale as a definite something. On the contrary, God is "that than which nothing greater can be thought." Whatever you can definitely imagine on the scale of more and less great, God is greater. In effect, the idea of God is the idea of something off the end of the scale. It is thus not an idea of something definite but rather of something infinite. Yet the idea here articulated is nevertheless thinkable. It is the thought of that which transcends thought in the direction of perfection or greatness. Here the mind, as it were, is at its limit and discovers the peculiarity of a thought of something necessarily lying beyond its grasp, the thought of something that of its very nature the mind cannot encompass, and which therefore cannot be merely in the mind. In this one instance, at least, the mind encounters an infinitude transcending itself. At this point the idea comes to seem no mere representation of something that may or may not exist outside the mind but rather a token of the actual presence to the mind of that thing. Anselm now goes on to demonstrate the peculiar kind of existence or being that it has.

    Chapter 3

    That which it is not possible to think ofas not existing

    This is so truly, that it is not possible to think of it not existing. For it is possible to think of something existing which it is not possible to think of as not existing, and that is greater than something that can be thought not to exist. If that than which nothing greater can be thought, can be thought of as not existing, then that than which nothing greater can be thought is not the same as that than which nothing greater can be thought. And that simply will not do. Something than which nothing greater can be thought so truly exists that it is not possible to think of it as not existing.

    This being is yourself, our Lord and God. Lord my God, you so truly are, that it is not possible to think of you as not existing. And rightly so. For if someone's mind could think of something better than you, the creature would rise higher than its creator and would judge its creator; which is clearly absurd. For whatever exists except you alone can be thought of as not existing. Therefore you alone of all most truly are, and you exist most fully of all things. For nothing else is as true as that, and therefore it has less existence. So why does the fool say in his heart, "there is no God," when it is perfectly clear to the reasoning mind that you exist most fully of all? Why, except that he is indeed stupid and a fool?

    Chapter 4

    That what the fool said in his heart is something that it is not possible to think

    Now how has he "said in his heart" what it is not possible to think; for how could he avoid thinking that which he "said in his heart," for to say in one's heart is to think. But if he really did, or rather because he really did, both think, because he said in his heart, and not say in his heart, because he was not able to think, then there is not only one way of saying in one's hea.rt and thinking. For in a way one thinks a thing when one thinks the word that signifies the thing; but one thinks it in another way when the thing itself is understood. So in one way it is possible to entertain the concept that God does not exist, but not in the other way. For no one who truly understands that which God is, can think that God does not exist, though he may say those words in his heart, either without any, or with a special, meaning. For God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. Whoever truly understands this, understands that he is of such a kind of existence that he cannot be thought not to exist. So whoever understands this to be the nature of God, cannot think of him as not existing.

    Thank you, good Lord, thank you, for it was by your gift that I first believed, and now by your illumination I understand; if I did not want to believe that you existed, still I should not be able not to understand it.

    In the remaining chapters Anselm proceeds to demonstrate the more traditional Christian qualities of God: "just, true, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be" (Ch. 5); just as much perceiving, all powerful, compassionate, and impassible as "alive, wise, good, blessed, eternal, and whatever it is better to be than not to be" (Ch. 11); life itself, wisdom itself, goodness itself, and so forth (Ch. 12); and unlimited by time and space and eternal (Ch. 13).

    Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, trans. Sister Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin Classics, 1973), pp. 239-246. Copyright© Benedicta Ward, 1973.

    This page titled 10.2: Anselm's Faith Seeking Understanding is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.