Novak (novak) wrote,
Novak
novak

Theological Notebook: Teaching Anselm of Canterbury; The Power of Reason; Science and Religion

We had a good pair of sessions on Anselm of Canterbury yesterday. I was still not satisfied with that lesson after having already taught it for two semesters. I just seemed that the students were not really getting the impact of the material, and I had a distinct feeling that the lecture portion of my class was not illuminating and empowering the discussion portion for them at all. As I thought about it, though, I really began to think that the reading from Cur Deus Homo? (perhaps most accurately translated as Why the God-Man?, but more comfortably, if loosely, in English as Why Did God Become Human?) was in fact the most difficult selection in the Department's Introduction to Theology reader. It doesn't help that you have four chapters that aren't connected – 3, 14, and 24 from Book One, and 7 from Book Two – though they represent key parts of Anselm's argument.

So I decided a much slower walk-through was appropriate for this text, starting from the assumption that they really didn't understand the text, rather than from an assumption that they would have gotten the gist of it and proceeding from there. So I had them simply try to outline the argument for their written homework, and then they opened class working in groups, comparing their various outlines and trying to come up with a stronger and more complete group summary, tempered by one another's insights and criticisms.

But there was so much that they hadn't really seen before, that even in groups, they had no words for. The fact that Anselm's philosophical argument was largely an aesthetic one was something they needed help with. What did Reason have to do with Beauty? How could one make an argument based on Beauty? With "beauty" in our culture having been reduced to a commodity – supermodels selling us washers and dryers – I had to slow down and backtrack to the relationship in classical philosophy of the areas of Metaphysics, Ethics, and Aesthetics, of dealing with questions of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and how all these were inter-related. The medieval philosophers had a much wider concept of Beauty as that "fittingness" or symmetry or harmony that one found through nature or reality. The students could see that kind of language scattered through our art, but also through our mathematics, our physical sciences, and literature. They had just never tied this altogether under the category of "Beauty," and considered what philosophical implications or usefulness the idea of Beauty might have.

Beyond that, once we had wrapped up coming to terms with the intentions of the text and the nature of Anselm's argument, I asked them the basic question out of the introduction to the chapter as to why Anselm is called the "Father of Scholasticism," even if he was before the rise of the universities and the philosophical/theological method of those of the schools. After getting them to simply do the "trivia" of defining scholasticism and refreshing themselves on the historical note – important to know as a point of historical data and contextualization, yes – I hit them with the real question: After looking at the text itself, what could we say that it showed us about Anselm's beliefs about the status of human reasoning? What was the extent of Reason's power? Reason had the power to let humanity "decode" even the actions and intentions of God: Reason could connect the finite to the infinite, to give us finite creatures access to the infinite Creator.

Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise, but the implications of things we often say or take for granted – of words we are too used to hearing – those implications sometimes escape us if we don't go looking for them. Christianity had always taught that it was that aspect of God – the Logos in Greek, the Word, or variously translated as Reason or the Tao – that had become human in the man Jesus of Nazareth. But this medieval declaration about the power of Reason connecting God and the human mind had deeper implications. This was the great breakthrough. As any historian of science will tell you, it was this moment, this "leap of faith" that not only said Reason could help us "decode God," but also to decode the universe, God's creation. Thus Europe's intellectuals, through this act of faith, without any evidence to back them up, put in the decades and centuries of work that would become "modern science," and which would eventually start paying off in the immensely concrete benefits of the technology this version of science would produce. The irony would be that the anti-Christian philosophers of the 18th century would swoop in and claim credit for science just as it started paying off, and to create the "science versus religion" propaganda that is still with us today, casting the new science as the product of an anti-religious radical skepticism, despite the historical facts of Modern science's origins, like a teenager rebelling against his parents, or, more oddly, claiming not to have had any.

It let us end the session with some thoughts on the unity of Faith and Reason, which in our Enlightenment philosophy are taught to us as opposites, but which in reality are inextricably related. Religious faith, where "faith" means more "trust" than "belief," is like other human trusts: given through reflected-upon experience. We reason from our data and experience who it is in our lives that we will trust. Likewise, one of the Post-Modern insights into the Modern sciences has been to realize that science, too, acts on certain unprovable first principles – faith – such as the idea of the universal applicability of what we call "scientific laws," even though we have no access to almost the whole of the universe. Science as a system works because we assume that what holds true on both sides of the Earth also holds true on both our side of the universe and the opposite side, even though we have no proof at all that this is the case.

Getting past the cheap propaganda of "science versus religion" or "faith versus reason" is in many ways one of the chief goals of my class: I just want the students to slow down and ask questions. Our crappy thinking about these matters today is largely because people accept glib thinking on these matters without careful examination, whether that glib thinking is skeptical anti-supernaturalism or the superstition of much popular religion, both Christian and neopagan. If I can get the students to habitually think about this sort of thing, in the face of all the pressure our culture has to not really think, then I've won.
Tags: anselm, atheism, beauty, books, catholicism, class-intro to theology, faith and reason, historical, incarnation, philosophical, scientific, secularism/modernity, teaching, theological methodology, theological notebook
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