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.

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One thought on “Friendship, conversation, and the possibility of theology

  1. Pingback: Augustine, the possibility of Anselm | The Flame Imperishable

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