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.

The Mystic St Augustine

St Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez

I recently began reading St Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity (henceforth De Trin, because why not). St Augustine, especially in Eastern Orthodox circles but amongst some Protestants as well, tends to be degraded and criticised for not being mystical enough. The good Doctor is too logical, too much the hidebound Platonic rationalist. This sort of pitting ‘mystical’ against ‘rational’ has always irked me; everything theological tradition uses reason, and Western theology is no stranger to the mystical — this includes St Augustine.1

Anyway, arguments for St Augustine’s contemplative/mystical side usually turn to his Confessions. And justly so. Nevertheless, it strikes me that St Augustine is firmly within the mystical tradition of the church even when engaging in the task of rationally describing and arguing Christian dogma.

Using the translation of De Trin by Arthur West Haddan, here are some examples:

… the highest good is that which is discerned by the most purified minds, and … for this reason it cannot be discerned or understood by themselves, because the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness of faith. (1.4)

In reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’ (NKJV), he writes:

For this contemplation is held forth to us as the end of all actions, and the everlasting fulness of joy. For “we are the sons of God; and it doth not ye tappear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2) For that which He said to His servant Moses, “I am that I am; thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me to you;” (Ex. 3:14) this it is which we shall contemplate when we shall live in eternity. … Of this contemplation I understand it to be said, “When He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father;” that is, when He shall have brought the just, over whom now, living by faith, the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, reigns, to the contemplation of God, even the Father. If herein I am foolish, let him who knows better correct me; to me at least the case seems as I have said. For we shall not seek anything else, when we shall have come to the contemplation of Him. But that contemplation is not yet. (1.17)

Later, we read:

In that contemplation, therefore, God will be all in all; because nothing else but Himself will be required, but it will be sufficient to be enlightened by and to enjoy Him alone. And so he in whom “the Spirit maketh intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered,” (Rom. 8:26) says, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord.” (Ps. 27:4) For we shall then contemplate God, the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, when the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father … (1.20)

Now, it is difficult to call someone a ‘mystic’, especially in the post-Carmelite world. How do we define the term? As I wrote a few years ago, ‘What is a mystic, exactly?‘ I won’t bog us down, but I think the working definition of a Christian mystic in this case needs to be someone who engages in the Christian spiritual disciplines, and especially ‘contemplation’ and meditation — each of them a way to set aside time within the rhythm of day to purposefully clear the mind and have a fresh encounter with the Most Holy Trinity. Christians who empty their minds and hearts to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The famous ones, the known ones, will have had experiences, like the people mentioned in footnote one.

Augustine fits this model; first, he leads a disciplined life, such as that in the rule he wrote. Furthermore, he had at least the mystical aspiration. He knew that God, as a person, was beyond mere doctrines and dogmas, and was Someone with whom the Christian can interact. With many of his age, St Augustine, as seen above, believed that the Beatific vision of the age to come was the ultimate goal (telos) of the Christian life.

As Christ says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Mt. 5:8)

All of this leads me to one of the wellsprings of western Christian monasticism and spirituality, St John Cassian. In his First Conference, Cassian discusses the goal and the end of the monastic life. Everything in life has a goal towards which one strives, and this goal often has a particular end. The goal of monasticism is purity of heart, the end of which is to see God. Most will not see God until the next life; some blessed few will experience such grace now, such as the Prophets Moses and Isaiah or St Bernard.

It strikes me that Cassian’s conceptualisation of the monastic life would fit precisely with Augustine’s views on the subject (whatever the differences between these two on the subject of grace!). We will one day see God face to face; we must purify ourselves so that we can see more clearly. Certain things can be said according to reason — such things Augustine has written in his books. But the true experience of the realities behind the writings, the Triune God signified by the signs of reasoned, biblical, prayerful thought — this is beyond reason. This is the domain of mysticism.

There is no dichotomy here. Merely two ways of approaching the Throne of Grace, one of which (the logic) is a preparation of the intellect for the other (the mysticism).


1. Other mystics firmly embedded in the Western Christian tradition: St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, Lady of Julian of Norwich, St Catherine of Siena, et al. Others who seem to have had some sort of mystical experience include St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas, both of whom are famously rational(ist?) theologians.

Tomorrow: John Calvin on the Holy Trinity

Somehow, poor John Calvin has his name associated with a certain breed of hardheaded, argumentative, internet-addicted, theological-nitpicking jerk.  This is really too bad because John Calvin (though I personally would not go so far as to say that he completed the Reformation that Martin Luther started) was a brilliant man who wrote insightful Bible commentaries and sound, orthodox theology.  Besides that, lots of people of the Reformed/Calvinist position aren’t jerks and are open to thoughtful discussion of their beliefs, including things besides predestination again.

I’m not saying I agree with everything John Calvin ever wrote, especially regarding icons, and I’m not overly committed to the mechanics of predestination, but he is worth reading.  And worth reading for more than predestination.

So if all you think of when you hear, “John Calvin,” are those hardheaded jerks and endless arguments about predestination, please read his words on the Holy Trinity here (for those with their own print copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it’s Book I, Chapter 13).

There you will find defense of the word “person” as well as a very brief history of it and its use (nothing as mind-crushing as Zizioulas’ in Being As Communion), a defense of the divinity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a discussion of how the Unity in Trinity runs down the middle course between Arianism on the one hand (only the Father is God) and Sabellianism on the other (all three are different “modes” of God’s being).

For those who are thinking, “You say The Shack isn’t really theology, but where do I turn?”  Turn here!  It is briefer than Augustine’s On the Trinity, more modern than Boethius.  Here you will find the true, orthodox doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity expounded.  It is honey and sweetness to your ears, balm to your soul!  Read it and praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit — Three in One!