Posts Tagged ‘Fideism’

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?