Saturday, April 21, 2012

Anselm on Seeking Understanding

Today is the feast day of Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109). Among other things, Anselm is famous for asserting (following Augustine of Hippo), "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand."

Here is more from Anselm along that line:
I shall preface a few words in order to curb the presumption of those who with abominable insolence dare to raise as an objection to one of the articles of the Christian faith the fact that they cannot grasp it by their own intellect. With witless arrogance they judge that what they cannot understand is in no way possible, rather than acknowledging in humble wisdom that many things are possible that they are unable to comprehend. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue that something the Catholic Church believes with her heart and confesses with her lips is not true. Instead, always holding that same faith unswervingly, loving it, and living in accordance with it, a Christian ought to seek the reason of its truth as humbly as he can. If he is capable of understanding, let him give thanks to God. If he is not, let him not brandish his horns to scatter, but instead let him bow his head in reverent submission.
For human wisdom trusting in itself can more quickly tear out its own horns by brandishing them than it can roll this stone by pushing. For as soon as some people have begun to produce, as it were, horns of self-confident knowledge — not realizing that if someone thinks he knows something, he has not yet understood in what way he ought to know — they often presume to rise to the very loftiest questions of the faith before they have developed spiritual wings through the firmness of their faith. This is how it comes about that they absurdly attempt to climb up through their understanding to those things that first require the ladder of faith: as Scripture says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” And when they do this, they are compelled to fall into manifold errors because their intellect fails them. For it is obvious that they do not have the firmness of faith, given that they raise objections against the truth of that faith, which has been made firm by the holy fathers, simply because they cannot themselves understand what they believe. It is as if bats and owls, which see the sky only at night, should dispute about the midday sun with eagles, who behold the sun itself with unflinching eyes.

So first our heart must be cleansed by faith; Scripture describes God as “cleansing their hearts by faith.” And first our eyes must be enlightened by our keeping the Lord’s commandments, since “the command of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes.” And first we ought to become little children through our humble obedience to the testimonies of God, in order that we might learn the wisdom that the testimony of the Lord gives, for “the testimony of the Lord is sure, giving wisdom to little children.” This is why the Lord says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the learned and wise, and have revealed them to little children.” First, I say, we must set aside the things of the flesh and live according to the spirit. Only then can we investigate perceptively the deep things of faith. For someone who lives according to the flesh is carnal or sensual. Of such a person Scripture says that “the sensual man does not perceive the things that are of the Spirit of God”; but one who “by the Spirit puts to death the deeds of the flesh” is made spiritual, and of him we read that “the spiritual man judges all things, and he himself is judged by no one.” For it is true that the more abundantly we take nourishment in Holy Scripture from those things that feed us through obedience, the more acutely we are brought to those things that satisfy us through understanding. Indeed, someone who ventures to say, “I have more understanding than all my teachers,” is speaking in vain unless he is bold to add, “because your testimonies are my meditation.” And someone who proclaims, “I have more understanding than my elders,” is lying unless he is well-acquainted with what follows: “because I have sought out your commandments.” There is no room for doubt about what I say: one who has not believed will not understand. For one who has not believed will not experience, and one who has not experienced will not know. For as much as experiencing a thing is superior to hearing about it, so much does the knowledge of someone who has experience surpass that of someone who merely hears.

And not only is the mind forbidden to rise to understanding higher things apart from faith and obedience to God’s commandments, but understanding once granted is taken away and faith itself is destroyed if one does not take care to preserve a good conscience. For the Apostle says of certain people, “Although they had known God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks; but their thoughts became empty, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” And when he commanded Timothy to “fight the good fight,” he spoke of “preserving faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck regarding the faith.” Let no one, therefore, be in a hurry to plunge into the thicket of divine questions unless he has first sought in firmness of faith the weight of good character and wisdom, lest he should run carelessly and frivolously along the many side-roads of sophistries and be snared by some obstinate falsehood.
--On the Incarnation of the Word (ca. 1094)

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