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Anselm for Adventists: Faith Seeking Understanding

In this post, I want to turn to look at the thought of yet another medieval figure—St. Anselm. Previously I have argued that Aquinas shows us a way to think of faith and reason in harmony (with faith completing the aspirations of reason). Augustine’s biography shows us a way that reason can lead to faith. Anselm, I propose, provides us with inspiration to think about the role reason can play in the life of the believer, or in his own words, the importance of “faith seeking understanding.”

In his Proslogion, Anselm attempts to prove God’s existence with an ontological argument, and then goes on to provide arguments for God’s attributes—God’s omniscience, God’s omnipresence, God’s eternity, etc. I’m not interested in focusing on his claims and arguments here. (Numerous philosophers, as early as Aquinas, have found Anselm’s ontological argument unconvincing. Others find his arguments regarding God’s nature, along with the claims of natural theology, in general, highly speculative.) Rather, I want to focus on a prayer that introduces this work. Anselm writes:

“I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand.”

Anselm is not a skeptic demanding proof in order to believe in God. The Enlightenment thinkers would later make the impossible demand of doubting everything and suspending judgment on all matters until sufficient evidence and reasons had been attained. (Already Anselm, in the medieval ages, seems aware of the post-Enlightenment insight that every position, religious or non-religious, ultimately involves a leap of faith.) He already believes that God exists, that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal; and yet, he longs to understand in a deeper way these truths about the God he loves; he seeks to reason about the affirmations of his faith.

That’s what strikes me about his prayer: “[I]n no wise do I compare my understanding with [your sublimity]; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves.” Anselm understands that God and God’s truth transcends his understanding; yet he longs to render understandable what he can.

Compare this with the attitude of Tertullian, an early church father, who is known for his rhetorical question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem or the Academy with the Church?” (The implied answer is “nothing.”) Pair this question with another saying attributed to him–“I believe because it is absurd!”–and you have an understanding of faith all too common today. Many Christians seem to have followed Tertullian’s purported example. Their faith is one that is hermetically sealed against the irritating dust of doubt. There are no questions–“The Bible says it; I believe it.”

Others, however, find this approach unsatisfactory. Many of us were born into faith. We grew up listening to Uncle Arthur (or Dan) and Aunt Sue, attending Sabbath School, singing hymns, sitting through sermons, and eating vegetarian potlucks. Yet, the questions that arise about our beliefs are not the ones that are lodged at us from the outside; they rise from within as we live life. We seek to understand our beliefs and to reconcile them with our thoughts and experiences; the prospect of living a compartmentalized, cognitively split life seems unbearable. We seek integration and to make sense to ourselves.

This, I believe, comes from our God-given inquisitive natures.

However, all too often, we treat this aspect of ourselves as detrimental to the life of faith. Often, this desire to make sense of things, and the questions that arise from trying to satiate it, is pronounced sinful. This is understandable. Questions make us feel uncomfortable. Asking and answering them may cause us to hold the beliefs we initially held in a different way. This process may even cause us to revise or abandon certain beliefs. Therefore, we want to shut people up who ask them in church. We ignore questions, dismiss them, and stuff them when they arise.

There is a growing concern in our community about the apparent hemorrhaging of young adults from our ranks. This is a complicated issue that other faith communities are facing as well. One factor to consider, I believe, however, is the overly simplistic, might I say “unAnselmic,” view of God and faith often found in our community: our “god” and our faith is too small for our serious questions.

Having grown up in a tradition where “reasoning” about faith entailed pasting together a hodgepodge of proof texts to support a stance pertaining to eschatology or day of worship has left many young adults with an overly simplistic, and ironically unscriptural, understanding of faith–think of Job, of the father of the demon-possessed son, or Thomas. Such an understanding of faith leaves us woefully unequipped to live out our faith in the “real” world, where people’s questions have to do with basic, and but complicated, questions–questions like “Does God exist?” or “Why the Bible?” or “What makes Jesus different/special?” These are difficult, unnerving questions that lie at the heart of our Christian identity. But when we cannot give a satisfactory account to ourselves for our own beliefs, our ability to confidently live out the mandates of our faith is undermined.

We should seek, as a community, to provide answers, or at least resources–rational and non-rational–to deal with serious questions with complicated answers (or, possibly, undetermined ones), not just to provide certitude for our simple ones.

This is not to say that our reasoning abilities are unlimited, that there are satisfactory answers to every question we have, or that perfect integration is possible between the life of faith and of reason. It’s wrestling with the questions, however, that shows us, in a clearer way, the blurry boundary line of where knowledge ends and revelation begins. (Personally, I have found this line both thinner, and, paradoxically, wider, than most people think.) It also clarifies the content of that revelation.

And are there instances where our questions are a form of willful rebellion, a form of intellectual God-evasion? Sure. But not always. Avoiding and dismissing serious questions is just as, if not more, detrimental. It diminishes our understanding of our own faith (which, by the way, is not the same thing as epistemic certainty) and of the power of God (who does not depend on our cognitive prowess to save us). Ultimately, seeking to protect our faith by avoiding difficult questions leaves us with a faith that is irrelevant and powerless for our lives.

Anselm’s understanding of God and faith, in contrast, allowed him to blend a life of passionate devotion to God, with serious intellectual inquiry. We have much to learn from Anselm.


Zane Yi studies and teaches philosophy at Fordham University, where he is a graduate student seeking understanding.

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