Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek,
because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how,
nor find you unless you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you;
let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.”
– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, 1 (1078, in Bec)
I am revisiting the historical explanations of the atonement during Lent. So I dug deeper into the life and work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who lived through one of my favorite European centuries. Why don’t you use his prayer (above), which is very characteristic of him, and see if you can feel it the way he might?
I took up a lot of my spiritual director’s time talking about Anselm this week, and I am tempted to go on and on with you because I feel full of revelation. Previously, I pictured Anselm as a stuffy, rule-bound academic who made life hard for Abelard. As it turns out, he is a super influential revolutionary attempting to integrate a tsunami of new thinking into his faith and life. If that is not enough, he is a church leader living in the center of one of the most tumultuous political actions in history: the Norman Conquest of England, and made some significant, gutsy moves that got him exiled a couple of times. What’s more, he opposed the First Crusade (1096-9) on moral grounds, even though he was a staunch supporter of the pope. I asked my wife, “Why isn’t there a movie about this guy?”
You live in a time of change, too
In the 11th century an intellectual and spiritual revolution began to burn in Europe and Anselm helped light the fire. So much change has happened in our world in the last four years, you must feel something burning, too. Anselm’s era is supercharged with change. What will become capitalism is taking root as European towns form. Universities begin to develop. Foreign trade increases and foreign ideas come with it. Foreign wars are fomented.
In the church, the dominant “Augustinian” traditions are challenged by the rediscovery of the works of “The Philosopher,” Aristotle. In Anselm’s time, teachers were astonished when Europeans became aware of over a thousand documents from ancient Greek writers, notably Aristotle, in Arab libraries throughout Spain. They had been lost after the Roman Empire went Christian and a wide-scale destruction of “un-Christian” books and libraries occurred. In many places there had grown a contempt for learning, free inquiry and rationality itself. (Some things just keep happening again and again!) Anselm was basically writing in the spirit of a 1619 Project on behalf of overlooked, unjustly dishonored ancient philosophers who rose from the vaults of the heathen Moors in Al-Andalus.
Aristotle presented a version of rationalism which was so compelling teachers in the gestating universities scrambled to recast their disciplines in light of it. It was change as big as the advent of the personal computer, the cell phone or A.I. Anselm was the first and foremost thinker to apply Aristotle’s rationalism to Christian faith. He thought of it as using reason after attending to the primacy of faith. He started a way of thinking and teaching about God (later called “scholasticism”) which gave birth to an “Age of Reason” later on (See Aristotle’s Children by Richard Rubenstein).
The “Platonic” side of Greek philosophy, represented by Augustine (354-430) dominated the Early Middle Ages. It taught that truth resides in God’s mind and is generally beyond our complete understanding. (Plato is Socrates’ disciple and Aristotle’s mentor, all in Athens about 470-322 B.C.). Contrary to Plato, underlying all Aristotle’s works — whether on politics, poetics, ethics, logic or natural science — is the conviction that human beings are rational creatures capable of making reasonable choices. They can use their intelligence to examine the world, discern patterns in nature and figure out how things work. Aristotle’s common-sensical, nonmystical, and optimistic view of the world enters the culture at a time it can flourish. Anselm helps knit it into a new common sense.
Even though Anselm was obsessed with learning and teaching, his exploration of all this newness is always about seeking to know God better. He wrote,
I do not seek to understand, in order that I may believe; but I believe, that I may understand. For I believe this too, that unless I believed, I should not understand (Proslogion, 1).
In this, he is following Augustine. But as Proslogion continues, his writing shows the innovation Aristotle brings to reasoning which will reorganize all further philosophy in Europe. God gave Anselm a daring, inquisitive brain and he considered it his calling to use it, even though his monasteries kept calling him into leadership.
How did Jesus save us?
For the rest of Lent, maybe you could follow your best feelings and thoughts — even if they make you a rebel against your prevailing way of life or the constraining intellectual laziness of your church and culture. Anselm could be your guide in this. He meditated on the cross and the atonement it promises, and came up with a new way to see it — theologians call it the “satisfaction theory.”
I used to see Anselm’s “proof” of why Jesus (the God-man) is crucial to our salvation as some petty, stale philosophy. But now I see it as being way out front of the zeitgeist that was about to envelope his continent. He uses a newly-rational process, to offer a somewhat-capitalist view of Christ’s work, which contradicts what almost everyone thinks about the Lord. His focus on God’s honor matches how his Norman overlords see their honor. But Anselm is not locked in his era. He posits a theory that calls his context into humility before God, both church and kingdom, daring to go against entrenched teaching backed by powerful people.
Anselm’s philosophizing generally starts with a question which has come up during his meditation. Much of his atonement view evolved from pondering what is owed to Caesar and what to Christ, as well as the role of obedience in the redemption of humanity. Cur Deus Homo is the result. It has been called a defense of God’s actions in the face of the evil of the world. But I am not sure Anselm is being defensive. I think he sincerely wants to come up with the best answer for himself and everyone else. Why did God become human? Why did the incarnation occur? You can read a nice summary of the whole argument, here, and see of variations of an answer, here.
Anselm thinks the incarnation is a gracious way to protect humanity from bearing the requirement to honor God — since we don’t meet the requirement and God is loving, but also just! You might say it is a worship-based argument, which would be appropriate, since Anselm had devoted his life to building it on a foundation of meditation and worship. Unlike the popular “ransom” theory which prevailed at the time, the way Anselm reasons it, Jesus is not bait to trick the devil, since God doesn’t need to make deals with the devil (way beneath God’s honor), and Jesus is not sent on a mission where he is predestined for sacrifice (there is no compulsion, no murder by God, humanity does the killing). Jesus dies because he has lived a life for humanity that honors God. The powers-that-be kill him for doing it. Jesus must be human to offer God the honor due and must be God to endure the infinite punishment due humankind for not doing it. Humanity owes a debt of honor to God which they cannot pay (Forgive us our debts…).
God wills to create a humanity that honors him and attains blessedness. Therefore, God must necessarily become incarnate and redeem humanity when it falls. What follows from all of this is that redemption, while it is achieved by Christ, is entered into only through being joined to Christ through the Spirit. Participation in Christ as the one who obeys and the one who undoes the consequences of not honoring God is indispensable. Jesus “satisfies” the need to honor God and so do we by participating in his work.
Does this mean anything personal?
I also told my spiritual director that I did not think many people would want to read this piece but I really felt like writing it. As I meditated on “why?” I came back to my admiration for Anselm’s timely influence. Right now, the church seems neutered by politics, TikTok, and self protection. We are submerged under mistrust. The present world is awash with climate change, scientific beauties and monstrosities, newly authoritarian governments, the unknown ramifications of the pandemic, and much more. It is a crazy place where faith in Jesus has almost no influence spiritually or otherwise. What should we say and do?
I am inspired by Anselm’s example. His life and writing are an exercise in trust. He calls people to honor God through Jesus Christ, in his own crazy era, with the gifts he has. He takes the core doctrine of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and dares to use his power and influence to change the subject and undo the moribund thinking of the church, which has been more afraid of wrong thinking than producing Spirit-inspired thinking.
I think Anselm’s argument style and some unprocessed influence by his background and context, make his argument less than fully satisfying. But it is still a great argument and it is way better than the prevailing, somewhat superstitious, teaching that dominated the church in his day. He’s fresh, he is alive, he is listening to God. Aren’t we all a bit too anxious, occupied, insecure and afraid to listen to God these days?
Plus, I think Jesus pictured as an uncoerced, obedient person who gets killed because of his uncompromising trust in God is very attractive. He despises the shame. Maybe Anselm’s “life verse” was from John 8, where Jesus says,
But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (John 8:45-51)
I still think John 8 is one of the most interesting, funny, and relevant chapters of the Bible. It is all about lies. And in the middle of it, Jesus is defending his honor, and God’s. He accuses his detractors of being on the father of lies’ murderous side. By the end of the argument, they pick up stones to kill him. They did not succeed then, but they will before long.
Lord, have mercy! We are small boats tossing on a sea of lies. We have to keep finding ways to deal with our anxiety as the earth and society fall apart around us, as the church is clearing out, and as its voice is overtaken by liars. I think Anselm was moved by the Spirit to follow Jesus in honoring God, no matter what. As we realize we can’t really do that effectively or completely, we have the God-man who can and did do it and continues with us to do so. Jesus welcomes us into the transcendent reality of life in the Spirit and the hope in God’s ongoing creative work.
I hope we think that truth into the language of our new era as we respect the old era, and rest in how Jesus satisfies the demands we feel to make the world right. With that hope, Anselm might add to the prayer with which we started:
Help me to honor you as I stand in Christ
who has satisfied the consequences of how I have not honored you.
Teach me to honor you
as you as you honor me with your loving and true presence.