Midweek Medieval Blog: Anselm of Canterbury and Understanding Your Faith


In continuing our Medieval Blog series (see posts on Hildegard of Bingen and St. Bonaventure), I wanted to post about Anselm of Canterbury. He is an intriguing figure from the Medieval Church largely because of his role in the development of scholasticism (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. Baker Academic, 2006, 105). Often you will hear Anselm’s contribution to Church History as forwarding a position of “Faith Seeking Understanding” (Lane, 105). This simply means that one ought to deepen his or her faith through an exploration of various positions/ doctrines within Christianity, i,e. to begin with a foundation of faith and to seek a more profound understanding regarding the beliefs/ teachings contained therein. Anselm wrote many works on faith, monasticism and theology, but my favorite work of his is Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).

As someone who has now spent the last 7 years at 2 different seminaries studying the Bible, theology, and (most of all) Church History, I naturally gravitate towards a teaching which advocates a more intellectually-focused study of one’s faith. However, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo frames many deep questions about Christian faith, and the Incarnation specifically, through an ongoing dialogue with one of his monks, Boso. For example, Anselm uses the analogy of a rich man holding a pristine pearl in his hand, “and no one can else can take it out of his hand unless he allows it.” Anslem asks Boso, “What if he himself, although he could prevent it, allows some envious person to knock the pearl out of his hand into the mud, and afterward takes it from the mud and stores it, dirty and unwashed, in some clean and costly receptacle of his, with the intention of keeping it in that state?” (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Book 1, Chapter 19).

Anselm uses such an image to answer the question of whether or not God could simply restore humanity to paradise without having to make satisfaction for sins. The powerful picture shows the need for Christ’s purifying and cleansing humanity. Anselm’s willingness to engage Christian beliefs on such a level, even asking why Christ had to die at all for humanity can instruct us today. I have found that the most profound moments of epiphany in my own faith journey have occurred during times of questioning and prodding my previously-held conceptions of Christianity, God, and faith.

In my experience, being willing to engage your own faith-traditions on such a level will not only allow you to re-encounter God in a new way, but will allow your faith to be deepened through it. While I want to provide a word of caution that seminary and intellectual cross-examining of one’s faith is not for everyone, I do think that healthy spiritual guidance by a trusted mentor or pastor can be a great place to start.

I close with this: How do you see the principle of faith seeking understanding as relevant/ not relevant for today’s church? What systems/ paths have you taken in the past to move your faith into a deeper level?

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