"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Thornton: St. Anselm, a Guide for Anglicanism Today

    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.
Now, my whole heart, say to God,
       'I seek your face,
    Lord, it is your face I seek.'


       O Lord my God,
    teach my heart where and how to seek you,
    where and how to find you ...


    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 of sin,
    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,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
    which 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.

~ excerpt from Chapter 1 of the Proslogion by St. Anselm of Canterbury

Saint Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  Among his writings is the Proslogion (meaning colloquy, or conversation, in this instance between Anselm and God).  The full title given to the work by Anselm himself is Faith in Search of Understanding.

Martin Thornton, in his book English Spirituality, identifies Anselm as the father-founder of the "English School" of Christianity.  In Anselm, we have the first great exemplar of the "affective-speculative synthesis" in theology.  By this, Thornton means that we find in Anselm's writings neither solely passionate, emotional, experiential religious devotion (the affective), nor a coldly logical, purely rational philosophic pursuit (the speculative); rather, we find a true synthesis of the two.  Thornton writes,
The affective-speculative synthesis does not mean an exact fifty-fifty balance, nor is it attained either by adding an occasional devout phrase to a theological work, or by interposing one or two quotations from the Fathers in an affective meditation.  It is a synthesis, not merely a mixture, and the true synthesis is possible to different temperaments.  Everyone has a natural bias to one side or the other, and spiritual health is attained by allowing this bias to be permeated by the other aspect through mental and emotional discipline. 
St. Anselm is often misunderstood precisely because his critics fail to grasp this synthesis, and instead want to peg him as a philosopher in a more post-Enlightenment sense.  For example, the famous, much debated and often criticized "ontological argument" (God is that than which nothing greater can be thought) comes from the Proslogion.  But it was not intended to be a proof of the existence of God in the modern, philosophical sense.  Rather, it was a spiritual-intellectual insight born out the experience of fervent prayer, a desire to know and love God better: faith seeking understanding.  As Thornton puts it, we may well imagine the affective theologian preaching to an audience with a desire to elicit an emotional response, while the speculative theologian is alone in his study, in company only with his books and the keenness of his mind, "but whatever one reads of Anselm, he can only be visualized on his knees, not trying to do anything but worship God.  Approached in this way, Anselm still has much to say to modern English spirituality."  

For St. Anslem, the journey begins with the gift of faith, and continues by and in that faith.  This point is fundamental (I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand).  But it is not a blind faith.  It is a faith that sincerely and fearlessly seeks understanding.  Truly, we are in need of the example of this saint now as much as ever.  Thornton concludes,
Thus Anselm speaks to modern Anglicanism: we are right to grapple with the deep mysteries of the faith; "blind faith" is not loyalty but sloth.  If doubts arise in the mind, they are to be calmly faced and resolved as the struggle continues, they are hurdles to be jumped as we progress toward understanding and love.  That is truly Anglican, for it is neither "free thought" in the sense that anyone has the right to believe what he likes, nor does it make dogma anything but dogmatic, but it does not impute sin to honest inquiry.
Thus the pastoral answer to intellectual doubt is not that it is wicked to doubt the dogmas of the Church, nor that it does not very much matter.  The answer is in the acceptance of a creative challenge.  So, to a spiritual guide, such difficulties should be neither shocking nor unimportant.  They should be seen as positive not negative, a call to further action: it should be "let us see how to use this" rather than "oh but you must trust the Church" or "try not to worry".  What Anselm is saying, in Sunday school language, is when in doubt go and tell God about it, and keep on arguing: the result could be another Proslogion.
The Anglican Church, therefore, is wise not to promulgate a series of new dogmas, to be held on pain of ecclesiastical censure.  It is very unwise to allow contrary opinions on fundamental doctrine.  Anglicanism needs no Index of prohibited books, not through lack of discipline but because of its Anselmic spirit.  But it is both foolish and unfair not to give positive pronouncements as to what Baptism, Confirmation, the Real Presence and the Virgin Conception really mean, because such dogmatic statements, rather than inhibiting reason and understanding, are the basis of them.  One cannot "believe in order to understand" when one does not know what to believe in the first place; one cannot even indulge in the creative process of doubting.

Peace of Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I needed to hear this just now