Novak (novak) wrote,

  • Location:
  • Mood:
  • Music:

Theological Notebook: Magister Article on Lessons From Anselm of Canterbury

I meant to jot this down last month when I saw it in Sandro Magister's column on Anselm's 900th birthday, but forgot until now. I was just saying to Dan the other week that one thing I've noted over the last few years is that I have an increasing fondness for Anselm of Canterbury (or, less famously, "of Aosta" or "of Bec," as below). When I was doing my Master's degree, I repeatedly heard Anselm blamed for making his Christology too "legal" in its conception, borrowing too much from medieval ideas of law, and thus (I was told) propelling theology of Christ down a path that increased bad, legalistic understandings of the faith.

Like most easy ideas that excuse you from having to actually work through details, that's garbage, I've since discovered.

Like an awful lot of other myths, someone once summed up an idea in a catchy way, that probably had the useful benefit of "explaining everything," and likely also offered the bonus feature of making us feel smug in our superiority for having risen above such tawdry ideas. Augustine of Hippo gets that all the time, usually getting the blame for every dysfunction in the history of Western sexuality and psychology because he had issues with his own sexuality. This gets repeated endlessly among professors of numerous fields, I've found, none of whom have ever read a word of Augustine. After all, why mess up a good punchline with complicated facts and details? That's boring.

So it is with poor Anselm, too, I've found. But as I've been reading him – and more importantly, teaching him – over the last few years, I've found a thinker who is subtle, exciting, human, and complicated; not in the way of "over-complication," of multiplying difficulties, but complicated in the way that anyone trying to describe reality and to avoid "sound bite thinking" has to be complicated. I noticed that my students in engineering and the physical sciences seemed to especially like his passion for logic, and that's no surprise in the writer known as the "Father of Scholasticism." ("Scholasticism" is that medieval movement – the thinking "of the schools" – that gave rise to today's university system.) His thought is rich, urging a wonderful and useful consistency of universal scope, and that's been fun to discover. So I thought it worth while to jot down this more popular note and recognition of one of those long-gone thinkers whose words still challenge and provoke our own thinking today. (Hmm. Even all this is probably too vague and cluttered of me: I need to eat some food. So here's the cartoon version someone made, in case that's more accessible.)

Anselm of Aosta: a "formidable thinker" among the modern prophets of nothing
Nine hundred years later, his "intelligence of faith" is still the main way through "our age of the proliferation of doubts." The blistering homily with which Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, in the name of the pope, opened the celebrations for the great doctor of the Church.
by Sandro Magister

ROME, April 23, 2009 – To celebrate the "doctor magnificus" Anselm at the ninth centenary of his death, Benedict XVI sent as his delegate a bishop theologian like himself, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi. And the cardinal carried out his task in his own way. In the cathedral of Aosta, the birthplace of the saint, in the homily for his liturgical feast on April 21, he defended the extraordinary relevance of the great Anselm: "a formidable thinker" and a man of faith among the many false teachers of doubt, absolutely faithful to the successor of Peter among the many, including bishops, who left him alone. Cardinal Biffi's homily is presented in its entirety further below.

For the occasion, pope Joseph Ratzinger sent two messages: the first, to the abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Notker Wolf, and the second to Cardinal Biffi, his special envoy for the celebrations. The second of these messages was read at the cathedral of Aosta on April 21, immediately after Biffi's homily. A link to the complete text can be found at the bottom of this page.

One of Anselm's savings has become famous: "Non quæro intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam"; I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.

But even more famous in the history of thought is his way of asserting the existence of God: as the evident, undeniable equivalence of "that than which no greater can be thought" and the being that cannot be thought of as not existing. This argument was criticized and rejected by Thomas Aquinas and by Kant, but considered valid by Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, and Hegel. But properly speaking, the reformulation that Descartes and others after him made of this "ontological argument" does not correspond to Anselm's authentic thought.

According to the most attentive students of his work, for Anselm the existence of God is not something that must be "demonstrated." The evident "proof" instead concerns the denial of his existence: those who deny the existence of "that than which no greater can be thought" trap themselves in an insurmountable contradiction, cutting off the possibility of all thought.

Anselm was a man of Europe. His name is associated with Aosta, beneath the peaks of the Alps, with the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy, of which he was abbot, and with Canterbury, of which he was bishop. The celebrations involve all three of these places.

Here is Cardinal Biffi's homily, given at the cathedral of Aosta on April 21, the feast of St. Anselm:

"Three gifts suited for our confused and troubled age"
by Giacomo Biffi

It is both my pleasure and my duty to express my gratitude to the Father of heaven, source of "all good giving and every perfect gift" (cf. James 1:17), for the joy that has been given to me in presiding over this ceremony, which commemorates and exalts the extraordinary and fascinating man of God Saint Anselm, the inalienable glory of this Church and this city of Aosta, at the ninth centenary of his blessed passing to eternal life. And I am grateful to our Pope Benedict, who has reserved for me the privilege of representing him, as his special envoy, on this blessed occasion.

Anselm's splendid and fervent life, although it was always marked by an absolute interior coherence, developed in three periods, very different from each other in their diversity of tasks, concerns, and responsibilities.

In the beginning, there were the years he spent in this, his birthplace, the years of his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. In these years, he already showed himself to be a tireless searcher for God, thirsting for an existence rich in meaning and with a supernatural purpose.

The second period, which lasted for thirty years, took place at the abbey of Bec, in Normandy, where he was an exemplary monk before anything else. Then, as prior and as abbot, he demonstrated his talents as an original educator and pedagogue, a wise teacher of the life of prayer, a formidable thinker, as well as an intelligent and brilliant searcher of revealed truth.

Finally, in the last sixteen years, after becoming the archbishop of Canterbury and primate of England, he showed himself to be a courageous and wise pastor, in love with his Church, which he defended from the overweening power and greed of the Norman kings William II and Henry I, who in this were worthy heirs and sons of William the Conqueror.

His entire earthly pilgrimage was rich in marvelous teachings and valuable examples. So it is natural to express the hope today that this centenary may be an opportunity for those who aspire to be true "theologians," for the diverse ranks of men of culture, for the entire body of believers, to listen again and with new diligence to his teaching, and carefully explore the treasures of truth and grace that he offers to us.

But we, in the brief span of a homily, must limit ourselves to considering only three of the admonitions with which Anselm is capable of gratifying us today, one from each stage of his ecclesial journey: these are almost like three "gifts," uniquely suited for our confused and troubled age.


From his earliest youth, Anselm had an extremely acute awareness of the invisible world, meaning that reality which lives and breathes beyond the showy, noisy scene of the things and events here below: this is the world where the most august Trinity reigns; it is the world full of throngs of happy creatures; it is the world that transcends us, but is also near to us and gives meaning and scope to our lives as mortal creatures.

As his biographer Eadmer notes, he was "a child who grew up among the mountains," imagining that the tall snowy peaks surrounding the city were the foundations and pillars of the mysterious house where the Lord dwelt with his angels and all the saints. One night, he even dreamed that he had climbed to the top, and found himself before the divine majesty.

This is the first lesson that we want to grasp. When in the "Credo" we affirm that God is the creator of all things "visible and invisible," we not only recall the truth of faith that everything comes from him who is the cause of all, but we also express a persuasion that is, so to speak, preliminary and overarching: that reality as a whole is much greater than what we grasp through simple natural understanding, substantiated solely by sensory experience, inductive and deductive reasoning, mathematical calculation. Today, Anselm tells us: it is indispensable that the true dimensions of existence never escape you.

For those who are able to keep the idea of the invisible world alive and sharp in their awareness, it becomes natural to assume a posture of listening: listening to the divine revelation about that which lies beyond the tumult of shadows, figures, chance occurrences, aberrations in which we are immersed; and more widely, a listening to that which is told to us in various ways by the Holy Spirit, who is the hidden but primary actor in our truest history.

When we are overcome by depression and discouragement at the sight of what takes place under the heavens, both within and outside of Christianity, the most decisive remedy to this sort of disappointing spectacle lies precisely in remembering the actual extension of the universe, which also includes the invisible world; that invisible world which is already victorious over evil is already our own; that invisible world which is full and exuberant with a superhuman energy in which (even when we do not realize it) the earth is constantly bathed.


A second and not inconsiderable teaching concerns the relationship between faith and reason. In our time, not a few – and they are not among the least self-assured and the least talkative – judge faith and reason as two forms of understanding that are incompatible with each other, and entirely opposed: those who reason, they say, do not need to believe; and those who believe, by that very fact leave the domain of rationality: they maintain this with unswayable and dogmatic conviction.

Anselm would shudder at this kind of mental attitude. For him – and for every adequately informed Christian – faith not only is not separable from reason, and does not harm it, but is even the greatest and highest exercise of our intellectual faculty.

On the other hand, in modern culture, influenced and dominated by an absolute subjectivism, there has been a gradual assertion of a pessimistic view of natural human knowledge. Many think that man is not capable of arriving at any truth that is not conditional and intrinsically relative.

When it comes to the questions that count – about our origin, about the ultimate destiny of man, about some persuasive reason for existence – certitudes are today laughed at, and even vilified. The most serious questions, when they are not strangled at birth by the various dominant ideologies, are allowed only as a premise and impulse for the proliferation of doubts. But this means extinguishing all necessary trust in man: how can we resign ourselves to hanging the only life we have on question marks that have no answer?

Anselm, however, recognizes the dignity and the effectiveness of reason. For him – and for all disciples of Jesus – reason must be honored for its own sake, as a great gift from God. Moreover, it is an indispensable element of the act of faith, and remains an indispensable element of that "understanding of faith" in which Anselm is an acknowledged master.


There is a third admonition that Anselm issues to ecclesial life in our time: never lose sight, he exhorts us, of the primary and irreplaceable function of the see of Peter.

During the long and bitter battle to save the "libertas Ecclesiae" from the arbitrary interference of political power, the primate of England remained alone. "Even my suffragan bishops," he writes with a certain sense of gloom, "gave me no other advice except in agreement with the will of the king" (Letter 210). So he sought, and obtained, the support, encouragement, and defense of the bishop of Rome, to whom he turned in trust.

Anselm knew that it was to Peter and his successors (and not to others), that Jesus said, "Strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:32); he knew that it was to Peter and to his successors (and not to the various opinionists of "sacred doctrine," as learned and brilliant as they might be) that Jesus promised, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19); he knew that it was to Peter and his successors (and not to this or that ecclesiastical or cultural association) that Jesus gave the task of feeding his entire flock (cf. John 21:17).

He knew this, and we as well must never forget it: the apostolic see is always the normal point of reference and the ultimate, indisputable judge for every problem concerning revealed truth, ecclesial discipline, the pastoral approach to be taken.

The archbishop of Canterbury repaid the help that he received from the Roman pontiff with unswerving fidelity, which among other things repeatedly cost him the discomfort and bitterness of exile.


As has been seen, Anselm of Aosta has a prestigious and beneficial place in the history of the Church, in the history of sanctity, in the history of human thought; and we give thanks to the Lord who raised him up for us.

Still today, he is a truly relevant figure and personality. So much so that we spontaneously count on his intercession with God on behalf of our time; of these our times, which are so often forced to hear from the most varied pulpits the bold voices of the many prophets of nothing, and the speeches of the self-satisfied proponents of a human destiny without plausibility, without meaning, without hope.
Tags: anselm, benedict xvi, faith and reason, incarnation, medieval studies, mysticism/spirituality, philosophical, theological notebook

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.