Quote: "I believe in order to understand."
As one of the early proponents of scholasticism, Anselm (1033 - 1109) exemplifies the theological mindset of the eleventh century. Even as he develops his philosophical approach, he does not challenge the given wisdom of the age. His monastic theology grows out of his spiritual underpinnings: "I believe in order to understand" is his motto, and his best-known philosophical writing—his ontological proof for God—is presented as a prayer.
Born into landed nobility, Anselm is encouraged by his mother to become a monk at a nearby monastery—a calling delayed until he is twenty-seven because of his father's objections. Anselm blossoms at the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy, under the scholarly leadership of Lanfranc. At thirty he is selected to succeed Lanfranc, who transfers to another monastery.
The emotional bonds formed amid monastic living are often closer than family ties. In a letter written in his mid-forties, Anselm reveals pain comparable to that of a spouse forsaken by the other:
Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved lover . . . sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness, but they cannot begin to console my desolate heart for its want of your love. . . . But you have gained from our very separation the company of someone else, whom you love no less—or even more—than me; while I have lost you, and there is no one to take your place.
Despite such pain—or perhaps because of it—Anselm focuses his attention on God and on spiritual exercises and rigorous asceticism, writing devotions and prayers and songs. For him, meditation and prayer open minds to an understanding of God. His poetry captures visual images of God:
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us,
and with pure milk you feed us.
The most difficult problem Anselm tackles is Does God exist? His ontological argument for the existence of God is still discussed today by theologians and philosophers. God's nonexistence is inconceivable, he argues; therefore, God exists. One cannot speak of God and then claim he does not exist. But his "proof," according to critics, is tangled in circuitous arguments. Almost immediately another theologian writes a response, and Aquinas likewise rejects Anselm's argument, as do many philosophers of the Enlightenment and since. But his proof has had an astoundingly long shelf life, and a history of philosophy textbook would not be complete without it.
In 1092 Anselm journeys to England, is named a bishop, and later is appointed archbishop of Canterbury. After a clash with King William Rufus, Anselm is exiled. His exile allows him time to complete his writing on the atonement that is still widely referenced today. In Cur Deus Homo (Why a God-Man?), he argues that there is a rational explanation for the incarnation directly tied to Christ's death on the cross. He asks why it was necessary for God to send his son to die for sin. He answers that sin robs God of his honor, and for God's honor to be preserved there must be either satisfaction or punishment. Satisfaction for sin requires far more than an individual can render. But man's sin must be satisfied by a man. Thus, in the incarnation God-man offered satisfaction for man's sin.
Protestant Reformers draw on Anselm in explaining the atonement, although John Calvin emphasizes God's holiness and justice over his honor. Of all the theories put forward, the one that draws the most attention is set forth by a young upstart more than forty years Anselm's junior, Peter Abelard, who comes of age just as Anselm is finalizing his atonement theory.
After the death of King Rufus, Anselm returns to his post as archbishop. But the new king creates even more problems for him. Once again he journeys to Rome and is vindicated by the pope. Considered a saintly man in his lifetime, Anselm is still honored as a saint by both Catholics and Anglicans today.