Belief and understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU

St Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum, ‘Credo ut intelligam’ — I believe so that I may understand — appears at the end of chapter 1 of the Proslogion. The context looks like this:

I confess, Lord, and give you thanks, because you created you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might contemplate you, I might love you. But it [the image] is so decayed by the wearing down of vices, so darkened by the smoke of sins, that it cannot be of service for that which it was made for, unless you renew and reshape it. I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate your height, because in no way do I compare my understanding to it; but I desire in some way to understand your turth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I also believe this, that “Unless I shall believe, I may not understand.” (my trans.)

Throughout Proslogion 1, St Anselm is setting the groundwork for how we are to approach the unapproachable light, to contemplate the invisible, transcendant God. How can we, sinful humans with clouded sight, draw near to God and see Him? Then comes this paragraph. Thus the context for the famous dictum.

St. Augustine's pears, St. Sabas' apples & genreSchmitt’s edition gives us St Augustine as the inspiration:

For we believe in order that we may know (cognoscamus), we do not know in order that we may believe. (Tract. in Joh. XL, n. 9 [PL 35.1690])

Believe so that you may understand [plural you]. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. CCXII, n. 1 [PL 38.1059])

But so that we may understand, first let us believe. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. LXXXIX, n. 4 [PL 38.556])

Therefore since we wish to understand the eternity of the Trinity, we must believe before we may understand. (De Trin. l. VIII, c. V, n. 8 [PL 42.952])

I have not checked the contexts of all of these, but the last is pretty clear — trying to understand the Most Holy Trinity.

Anselm lived 1033-1109, before some of the unfortunate incidents in mediaeval theology that started the now-accepted separation between intellect and belief. A few decades later, this marriage of faith and reason — of faith seeking reason — would still be visible in William of St Thierry (1085-1148), who turned up in my Lenten reading this year (The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso):

It is not reason … that leads faith to understanding; rather, through faith it looks for understanding from above, even from you, the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift. This is not that understanding which is acquired by the exercise of reason, or results from intellectual processes: it is drawn in response to faith from the throne of your greatness and formed by your wisdom. In all things like its source, on entering the mind of the believer it embraces reason and conforms it to itself, while faith is quickened and enlightened by it. (Meditation II, p. 113 in English)

William’s context is also the apprehension of God. He is discussing contemplation and the feeble attempts of his own mind in seeking the face of God — how dark it seems, how far he feels from God, how much like a beginner at all times, how difficult the ascent, how quickly any illumination seems to fade away. How like the experience of us all.

Reason is all well and good.

But how can we attain to understanding of the Divine Person(s) with our frail, human reason — itself clouded by sins and weaknesses and mistakes?

Credo ut intelligam is not a rejection of reason. It is not an abandonment of all rational attempts to consider the Triune God. It is, rather, an admission that rational intellect alone cannot attain to the understanding of Someone Who is simultaneously beyond all of this and nearer to us than our own breath — the Creator of quarks and quasars and the cosmos, the One Who Is Three but One (William in particular admits to his difficulties with properly thinking about the Trinity), the God Who became a Man.

How could understanding God ever precede believing in Him?

Indeed, what these three men — mystics and theologians, all — demonstrate to us is that, even once we believe, still do we struggle to understand.

Let us be of good cheer, then, as we trust in our God Who loves us and made us and remakes us.

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3 thoughts on “Belief and understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU

    • Well, that looks like it’s the way ecumenical conversation should happen — taking each other at face value and finding actual agreement instead of watered-down compromise or statements that avoid anything controversial. Maybe something beautiful will come of it in the future!

      Re apologetics — an important but dangerous job, eh?! I liked something I read somewhere once, that our doctrine of the Trinity is NOT God. No matter how well we might be able to express the logic of homoousion theology, God will still remain an unutterable, sublime mystery.

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