God without givens

In his book God and Necessity, Brian Leftow stipulates as a principle of perfect-being theology that “God is (directly or indirectly) the Source of All that is ‘outside’ Him” (20). As Leftow formulates the principles:

GSA. for all x, if x is not God, a part, aspect or attribute of God or an event, God makes the creating-ex-nihilo sort of causal contribution to x’s existence as long as x exists.

Leftow goes on to claim that this principle is equivalent to the denial that there are any givens for God, or:

NG. (x) (if x is not God or a part etc., and is not an event x is not a ‘given’ for God) (21)

A “given” for God, as Leftow helpfully explains, would be “something God finds rather than helps account for, and must either accept or work around.” For Leftow, a God who is perfect and the “Source of All” must be a God without givens.

Augustine, the possibility of Anselm

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 3)

Yesterday’s post touched on the role that such conditions as friendship, conversation, and community played in motivating and shaping Anselm’s thought. Even more to the point is Anselm’s testimony in his prologue that, upon reviewing the argument of the Monologion, he was unable to find anything in the work “inconsistent with the writings of the Catholic Fathers—especially with Blessed Augustine’s writings.” If true, the harmony between his conclusions and those of his theological forebears could hardly have been the work of accident or afterthought, but only made possible by a faculty of reason that had first been trained in the school of Scripture, the fathers of the Church, and St. Augustine in particular.[1] Consistent with this is Anselm’s declaration that in the present work he has also sought to avoid teaching anything new, and his invitation to the reader who might suspect otherwise to “first look carefully at the books of On the Trinity by the aforementioned teacher, viz., Augustine, and then let him judge my work in the light of these books.”[2] It is Augustine, as Anselm virtually admits, who has made his own insights, such as they are, to be possible.[3] In the Monologion, then, the proper use of reason within theology is clearly not to stand in judgment of those things taught in Scripture or tradition, but consistent with Anselm’s later expression of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), reason’s role is instead to demonstrate after the fact the rational necessity or coherence—the “ratio fidei,” as he will term it—of those things already or otherwise received by faith.[4]

[1] On Anselm’s debt to Scripture in his reasoning, see, for example, Southern, Saint Anselm, 69-70.

[2] On the influence of Augustine’s On the Trinity on Anselm’s Monologion, see Asiedu, From Augustine to Anselm and Gersh, “Anselm of Canterbury.”

[3] As Southern writes: “the seeds of nearly everything [Anselm] said are to be found in Augustine—but they are seeds, not flowers. Anselm was not a writer of florilegia: his flowers are always his own… Just as he never uses the Bible to provide texts to prove his conclusions, but only to provide a starting point for his meditations, or a premonition of his conclusions, so it is with Augustine. He absorbed Augustine as he had absorbed the Bible: he made them both an integral part of his experience… He looked on himself as an explorer of territory opened up by the Bible and by its great expositer, Augustine. They provided the maps to the country over which he had to find his way under their guidance. He never challenged anything he found in them; but they left him free to find new experiences of the truths they contained, perhaps new proofs of their truth, certainly new ways of expressing their truth.” Ibid., 72-3.

[4] In Sweeney’s striking image of Anselm’s frame of mind, “Thus the discontent, the restlessness, and drive towards understanding is not from reason as the serpent whispering in faith’s ear but from within faith itself.” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 123. For Anselm as much for his later disciple Nicholas of Cusa, it is true that, in Dermot Moran’s words, “in faith all understandable things are enfolded, whereas in knowledge they are unfolded.” Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa and Modern Philosophy,” 185, citing Cusa, De docta ignorantiae 3.11.244.

Friendship, conversation, and the possibility of theology

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 2)

The previous post introduced Anselm’s Monologion with its method of investigating those things believed about God, not through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority, but through “reason alone” (sola ratione). Yet the rational method of the Monologion should not be confused for a modern, methodological rationalism. For our purposes, the latter error might be defined as the possibilistic presumption of a pure, presupposition-less reason, capable of discovering—independently and in advance of all that God has actually made or revealed in creation, Scripture, or tradition—those doctrinal possibilities (if any) to which faith might afterwards be allowed to give assent. On the contrary, Anselm’s Monologion, literally a “speaking to oneself,” while representing a form of rational, theological soliloquy, is nevertheless no isolated inquiry of a presumptuously self-starting, autonomous reason. The first indication and illustration of this, ironically enough, may be seen in the fact that, as Eileen Sweeney has astutely pointed out, Anselm only “undertakes this [rational] method of reflection not on his own initiative,” but on the insistence and direction of his religious cohorts at Bec.[1] In more than one sense, it is the peculiar community in which Anselm existed that made the Monologion for him possible. In his later dialogue on the necessity of the Incarnation, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm captures something of the intellectual debt he felt he owed to his conversations with others when, after professing his insufficiency for the task, he represents his friend and interlocutor Boso as encouraging him thus: “You ought not so much to have this fear as you ought to remember that in a discussion of some problem it often happens that God discloses what at first was hidden.”[2] For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of real-time, informal conversation with friends, or in the later reconstructions of a carefully composed treatise or dialogue—involves far more than the communication of ideas or arguments one already holds to be, but is often itself the means for further theological invention or “discovery.” In David Moss’s summary of the role friendship played in opening up and so making possible Anselm’s own theoretical insights, “[t] he scene of friendship then unfolds, as it were, the hermeneutical path of intelligibility and meaning—as an encounter with Otherness—and this it does as passion and in passion—as, one could say, bidding, appeal, request, supplication, thanksgiving, and precisely not in the fulfilment of any prior transcendental conditions.”[3] In this we have just one small example of the many ways in which Anselm’s thought and writings owe their origins and hence possibility to the very real, extra-rational circumstances of monastic and spiritual friendship, discipline, and devotion in which he lived and moved and had his being.[4] If Anselm came to realize, as we shall see later, that what is ultimately metaphysically possible, even for God, is a function and consequence of what God himself has already made actual, paralleling this insight was his own awareness of the extent to which his rational thought received its possibility from the very real, concrete conditions lying outside of his own self and reason.

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 117.

[2] Cur Deus Homo 1.1.

[3] Moss, “St. Anselm, Theoria, and the Convolution of Sense,” 136.

[4] For a discussion of the necessity for Anselm of not only faith (about which more anon), but also spiritual experience, humility, obedience, and discipline for proper reasoning about divine things, see Visser and Williams, Anselm, 20.

Monologion: Anselm’s rational necessities

(The Monologion’s Theology of the Possible, part 1)

Anselm’s first major theological work, the Monologion, is also the first in importance for laying the foundation of his theology of divine possibility. Composed in 1076 at the behest of some of his fellow monks at the abbey at Bec, the Monologion contains Anselm’s lengthiest reflection on the doctrine of God proper, addressing questions of his existence, his principal attributes, and finally even his triune nature. What his brothers had specifically asked him for was a model “meditation” (meditatio) on what Christians believe about the divine essence (divinitatis essentiae), yet the work was intended to be no ordinary religious or spiritual exercise, as they forbade him to support any of his views on God through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority. Instead, and in keeping with Anselm’s own established practice, they required that he found all his claims about the divine nature only on what “rational necessity” (rationis necessitas) and the very “clarity of the truth” (veritatis claritas) could show to be the case. In the opening chapter of the work, Anselm describes the strategy as one of proceeding “by reason alone” (sola ratione), and goes so far as to conjecture that even a willing unbeliever—someone of average intelligence but otherwise ignorant of what Christians believe about God—could persuade himself of the validity of his arguments. Clearly, the very first possibility taken for granted in the Monologion is its assumption of the rational explicability and defensibility of those truths about God otherwise held by faith.

God is also that than which nothing LESSER can be thought

In his famous argument for God’s existence, Saint Anselm of Canterbury began by defining and identifying God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Several centuries later, Nicholas of Cusa reasoned from this starting point that, if so, God must also be that than which nothing lesser can be thought. As he argued:

[S]ince the absolutely Maximum is all that which can be, it is altogether actual. And just as there cannot be a greater, so for the same reason there cannot be a lesser, since it is all that which can be. But the Minimum is than than which there cannot be a lesser. And since the Maximum is also such, it is evident that the Minimum coincides with the Maximum. (On Learned Ignorance 1.4, trans. Hopkins)

God is so great, in other words, that he altogether transcends the very opposition between greater and lesser. Or put differently, in God the opposed relations of greater than and lesser than come full circle and converged onto each other. This is Cusa’s famous doctrine of the “coincidence of opposites.”

What Socrates really died of

What did Socrates really die of? Stockholm Syndrome:

“Are you [Crito] so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the course and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland order, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?” (Plato, Crito 51a-b, trans. Woods and Pack)

Gandalf’s Anarchism

“Indeed he [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.” (The Two Towers, ch. 5, “The White Rider”)