St. Anselm of Canterbury – Faith Seeking Understanding
Fides Quaerens Intellectum – Faith Seeking Understanding – is the theme of the philosophy and theology of St. Anselm (1033 – 1109). His feast day is April 21. St. Anselm is regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 11th century and set the tone for the scholastic thinking of the early Middle Ages. Anselm represents a new beginning of a new civilization that ends the Dark Ages. His thinking is very much in line with the Neo-Platonism of St. Augustine.
St. Anselm’s writing on the nature of God and his proof for the existence of God emphasize the role of reason in understanding and shaping faith. His proof for the existence of God is meant to show that we can come to a knowledge that God exists from our own reason. Belief in God and His revelation is a gift of faith. However, faith is a reasonable course to take and of itself enlightens and encourages understanding.
It is often fashionable to dismiss the Middle Ages as a pre-rational time before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, this overlooks the importance of reason and the intertwining of faith and reason since the origins of Christianity. Although many of its concepts and their cultural context are foreign to us, the content and style of Anselm’s reasoning demonstrates a critical, analytical, and logical approach to dealing with questions of faith and living the Christian life.
Anselm’s notion of atonement, the redemption of the human race brought about by the death of Christ, is based on a concept of justice that seems – well – Medieval, and that is what it is. While it might strike some of us as portraying a vindictive God, St. Anselm presents it as arising out of the will of the Father and the Son to restore the human race. While we as post-moderns might see echoes of European tribal notions of compensation for injury or damage, St. Anselm is following the lead of many preceding philosophers and theologians to place the witness of scripture in a rational context.
Most of St. Anselm’s life was spent as a scholar and abbot. As Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm had the unenviable position of being subject to two kings who attempted to exercise control over the church and plunder its treasury. St. Anselm spent years in exile.
Western critical thought and reasoning owes a debt to St. Anselm. As much as we might be inclined to relegate faith to the psychology of religious experience, St. Anselm reminds us that while the heart might claim our allegiance, our mind and reason challenge us to understand and live the faith of our hearts with the best of our minds enlightened by grace.