Christ’s death not commanded by God, yet willed by him–not necessary, but free

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 11.

For Anselm, then, Christ’s suffering and death were not commanded by God, but this does not mean that they were not willed by him. As has been said previously, because of his perfect obedience as a human being, there was nothing in Christ’s specifically human nature that required his sacrificial death for the human race, yet the latter was nevertheless something which Christ willed to undertake as an act that went “above and beyond,” as it were, his mere human obedience. And like all proper acts of will, Christ’s will to suffer and to die came from God. God gave Christ the will to suffer and to die, in other words, not in satisfaction of his created human nature per se (for his human nature needed no such will for its perfection or completion), but simply as an act of Christ’s free will unnecessitated or uncompelled by his or any other created nature. The resulting paradox is that only as a free, uncoerced choice, absent of all moral duty or divine command, could Christ’s suffering and death be (as Anselm shall explain more fully later) a sufficient or suitable repayment of humankind’s debt of sin, and so fulfill God’s own uncommanded wish that the human race should be saved.

Intending the Necessary

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 10.

If Anselm’s account of the merely hypothetical or conditional necessity of Christ’s death for his exaltation gets us a step closer to the much more comprehensive and unconditional necessity at the heart of the Christian account of salvation, it is only a step. For as Anselm’s further explanation of this conditional necessity reveals, an important and illuminating difference remains between it and the kind of necessity he will go on to identify with the Incarnation itself. Summarizing the general principle involved in Christ’s post-mortem exaltation, Anselm asks us to “Suppose that we intend to perform some action (intendimus facere aliquid) but that we decide to do beforehand another action by means of which the intended action will be done.” Under such a circumstance, Anselm avers, “the intended action (fit quod intendimus) is rightly said to be done because of the fact that the preceding action, on account of which the intended action was delayed, has occurred…” The situation, then, is one in which an agent, in a two-step process of deliberation, first decides to perform a particular action (in God’s case, the act of exalting Christ), and afterwards chooses a second, preceding action (for God, the death of Christ) by which, or at least after which, the originally intended action will be achieved. Anselm further illustrates the point with the example of a man who wants to cross a river, but who also decides that he will only cross it by boat, even though he could also cross it by horse. Thus, the man may truly be said to have crossed the river “because” a boat was made available, even though there were other means for crossing it at his disposal. What is important to note is that in none of these cases is it the originally intended action itself—the end—that necessitates or requires the means or occasion upon which the end is brought about, but merely the fact that the agent in question happened to decide that the end should be brought about by this means and no other. This is important because this is basically the situation Boso—mistakenly, it will turn out—believes to be the case with the Incarnation. As we have seen, the question raised by Boso, in effect, is why God, given his first-order intention of saving or forgiving the human race of their sin, did not choose a more economical or felicitous means for doing so, implying that, for Boso, the end of human salvation did not, in and of itself, require or necessitate the means of Christ’s Incarnation and death. Anselm’s initial response, as we saw, was to counter by saying that the Incarnation is not so much inefficient as it is costly, precious, and fitting. From this point forward, however, Anselm’s larger purpose in the Cur Deus Homo will effectively be to argue that the end of human salvation, properly understood, while temporally and conceptually distinct from the means of the Incarnation, is nevertheless so logically and metaphysically bound up with the Incarnation that there really is or was no other possible means for accomplishing it. It is as though the original intention of the man in Anselm’s above illustration was not merely the generic goal of crossing-the-river, only to be followed later by a subsequent intention to cross the river in a particular way, but from the very beginning comprehended the more determinate and complex action of crossing-the-river-by-boat, making the specific action of using a boat not incidental, or even a mere condition of, but in fact essential to the particular action or end in view. Anselm’s strategy in the remainder of the dialogue, accordingly, will be to show that, however differentiable and hence separable the Incarnation and human salvation may seem to the finite, human mind, careful attention to and exegesis of the inner logic and “hidden necessities” of the whole problem of human sin and condemnation reveal a different story: that the entire means-end structure of human salvation comprises on God’s part an inherently undivided, organically interconnected, complex and con-created divine intention in which the very meaning and possibility of the end is lies precisely in its means.

The Conditional Necessity of Christ’s Death for His Exaltation

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 9.

While Christ’s suffering and death may have been accidental to his obedience, they were not on that account accidental to his exaltation. Boso had previously cited the Apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:8-9 about how Christ “humbled Himself and became obedient to the Father unto death, even unto death on the cross; for this reason God has also exalted Him” (ch. 8). In saying this, Anselm now explains, the apostle did not mean to imply that Christ could only have been exalted through his obedience unto death (for as Anselm had just argued, Christ’s obedience did not require his death), or, therefore, that his exaltation could only be awarded for his obedience unto death. As Anselm points out, even prior to his death there was already a kind of exaltation of and reward given to Christ, as when he says that all things had been given to Him by the Father (Luke 10:22) and that all the Father’s possessions were His (John 16:15). Just as Christ’s obedience without his death was possible, at least so far as his obedience alone was concerned, so also his exaltation without his death, so far as his exaltation alone was concerned, was also possible. Nevertheless, unlike Christ’s suffering and death, which remained entirely accidental and therefore extrinsic (albeit divinely ordained) to his human obedience, even while being necessary and intrinsic to human salvation, Anselm asserts that there was a hypothetical or conditional sense in which Christ’s death was necessary for his exaltation, namely insofar as God had freely determined that, of all the ways in which it was in fact possible for Christ to be exalted, his exaltation would principally be achieved through his death. As Anselm puts it, “the Son, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, had decreed (disposuerat) that He himself would manifest to the world, in no other way than by dying, the loftiness of His omnipotence.” It is in reference, finally, to this divine determination that Christ be exalted through his death, as opposed to all the other possible ways in which he might have been exalted instead, that Anselm says Christ’s death is “not unfittingly said to occur because of His death.” From the entirely accidental connection between Christ’s obedience and his death, to the merely hypothetical or conditional necessity of Christ’s death for his exaltation, Anselm has moved us a step closer to what he will show to be the much more comprehensive and unconditional necessity at the heart of the Christian account of salvation.

Christ’s obedience the per accidens cause and possibility of his death

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 8.

Even if we grant Anselm’s outsourcing of Christ’s labor and lowliness to his human nature, this comes with its own set of problems for Boso, principally how God could be just in commanding a good and innocent man to suffer and die. Much as he had previously denied that it was Christ’s divine nature that underwent his human suffering, Anselm now answers Boso by denying that Christ’s human suffering was in fact commanded or required by the Father, at least so far as Christ’s human obedience was concerned. As a human, what God required of Christ was nothing more than what he requires of every human being, namely their complete obedience and rectitude of will (ch. 9). As suffering and death are punishments for disobedience, because Christ himself was perfectly obedient, it follows that God did not and could not require suffering and death of him as a condition of his properly human obedience. Thus, while the ultimate argument of the Cur Deus Homo is that Christ’s suffering and death were necessary to accomplish humanity’s salvation, Anselm’s point here is that his suffering and death were nevertheless not necessary for, but were in fact the mere accidental consequence—even if divinely foreseen or ordained—of his obedience. His obedience, in other words, happened to lead, under the particular circumstances in which it was lived out, to his suffering and death, but these were not on that account at all logically required or necessitated by his obedience. (To use the distinction introduced by Aristotle and revived by later scholastics, Christ’s obedience, and prior to it, God’s command of that obedience, were only the per accidens rather than the per se causes of his suffering and death. Whereas a per se cause is one that has the production of a given effect as its proper intention, operation, or activity, a per accidens cause is one that does not normally, naturally, or necessarily produce a given effect, but just happens to do so in the course of producing those effects that are normally and per se attached to it.) Thus, as Anselm puts it, “God did not compel Christ to die, for in Christ there was no sin. Instead, Christ willingly underwent death—not by obeying a command to give up His life but by obeying the command to keep justice. For He persevered so steadfastly in justice that He incurred death as a result.” So far as his mere human obedience was concerned, therefore, Christ’s not dying was in fact possible, but so far as God’s purpose (and Christ’s purpose as the God-man) to save mankind was concerned, only here did Christ’s death become necessary. Not the Father’s prior command, accordingly, nor even the Son’s obedience in the abstract, but the Son’s actual obedience in a fallen world in which his perfect justice could and would lead to the jealousy, hatred, and reprisals of sinful men—this was the unique circumstance and possibility of the latter’s suffering and death.

Impassibility, or ‘Suprapassibility’? Christ’s Divine Nature as the Possibility of His Human Nature

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 7.

After an interlude in which Boso mounts an effective criticism of the Ransom Theory of Atonement (ch. 6-7), when Anselm presses him to state what it is precisely that people find in the doctrine of the Incarnation to be contrary to reason, Boso reiterates the earlier aesthetic objection with now an additional, economic twist: “that the Most High descends to such lowly things, that the Almighty does something so laboriously” (ch. 8). This time, surprisingly, instead of countering with an argument for the fittingness of God doing such things, Anselm responds by conceding the objection, all the while denying that it was the divine nature rather than the human nature of Christ that endured such labor and lowliness. According to Anselm, “For without doubt we maintain that the divine nature is impassible—that it cannot at all be brought down from its exaltation and cannot labor in what it wills to do… Therefore, when we state that God undergoes some lowliness or weakness, we understand this to be in accordance with the weakness of the human substance which He assumed, not in accordance with the sublimity of His impassible nature.” Anselm reprises here his position on divine impassibility from Proslogion 8, where he had argued that, because God has no passions and hence can have no “heart sorrowful out of compassion for the wretched—the very thing which being merciful is,” it follows that while God may be merciful “from our point of view” and in our experience of his “effects,” he is not merciful in himself or in his own “experience.” Yet Anselm’s argument may be set in contrast with his own discussion of divine sense perception only two chapters earlier in the Proslogion. Although God does not have a body, Anselm reasons, because sense perception is ordered towards knowledge, and “whatever in some ways knows is not unsuitably (non inconvenienter) said in some way to perceive,” and because God knows all things, God may be said not to lack sense perception so much as to be “supremely able to perceive” (Pros. 6). If so, then by the same reasoning we might conclude, contrary to Anselm, that insofar as creaturely passions such as mercy and vicarious suffering are ordered towards love, and God is love, neither should it “unsuitably be said” that God is merciful or that, in the Incarnation, there is a sense in which even the divine nature itself “undergoes some lowliness or weakness.” If it involved a created perfection, after all, for Christ’s human nature to experience these things, and if all created perfections preexist in the divine being (as Anselm argues, for example, in Monologion 9), then at some level we must affirm that all the goodness and sacrifice involved in the course of Christ’s human experience preexisted—albeit in an eminent and impassible, or as we prefer to say, superpassible fashion—there as well. On Anselm’s own theological metaphysics, in sum, it is what the divine nature of Christ is that is the foundation of every creaturely possibility, including the possibilities of Christ’s human nature.

Is Aesthetic Fittingness at Odds with Rational Necessity?

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 6.

To Anselm’s list of the ways in which the Incarnation is fitting, Boso responds by invoking once again Anselm’s theology-as-art metaphor, stating that Anselm’s account amounts only to so many “beautiful pictures, as it were” (pulchra et quasi quaedam picturae suscipienda sunt), but that without “a solid foundation upon which they rest, they do not seem to unbelievers to suffice for showing why we ought to believe that God was willing to suffer these things of which we are speaking” (ch. 4). Instead, Boso insists that “first of all we must exhibit the truth’s firm rational foundation, i.e., the cogent reasoning which proves that God should or could have humbled Himself to undergo those things which we proclaim,” and only this has been done should such “considerations of fittingness … be set forth as pictures of this body-of-truth.” According to Boso, showing the aesthetic fittingness of a belief is one thing whereas demonstrating its rational necessity is something else entirely, a view that some scholars have interpreted Anselm to share in and therefore as determining the structure of the subsequent argument of the dialogue.[1] As we have already seen, however, the aesthetic perspective of the Cur Deus Homo is one that Anselm commits himself to before the fictional framework of the dialogue even begins, and as I further argued, the whole criterion of aesthetic fittingness is one that is indissociably bound up with his view that such theological investigations can at best approximate an otherwise unfathomable truth and therefore only ever attain an at most provisional kind of necessity or certainty. Corroborating this interpretation, moreover, is that in his reply to Boso, Anselm says nothing that would concede to Boso the validity of his distinction between mere theological word-pictures on the one hand and putatively more “rational” considerations on the other. Instead, he merely reasserts his principle that fittingness comes with it its own form of necessity: “Do not the following considerations,” Anselm rejoins, “seem to constitute a very cogent argument for why God ought to have done those things about which we are speaking?: viz., that the human race—His very precious work—had utterly perished; and it was not fitting that God plan for man should be completely thwarted; and this plan of Gods’ could not be carried out unless the human race was set free by its very Creator.” In the following chapter, finally, it is not Anselm who yields to Boso’s distinction between necessity and fittingness, but in his plaintive question as to whether there was not a “much more tolerable” (multo tolerabilius) way in which this liberation might have been accomplished, it is Boso who yields to Anselm’s identify of necessity with fittingness (ch. 5).

[1] Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams express this view in their critique of Brian Leftow’s interpretation of the argument of the Cur Deus Homo along aesthetic lines when they argue that, for Anselm, “appeals to what is fitting are superfluous from a strictly philosophical point of view; Anselm does not use them to establish the truth of the Christian account of redemption, but to show the attractiveness of that truth once it has been established. Indeed, Boso insists from early on in Cur Deus Homo that Anselm not appeal to considerations of fittingness as though they could serve as independent philosophical considerations in favor of the Christian account of redemption. Anselm tries to use such considerations in response to Boso’s initial statemnt of unbelievers’ objections to the Christian account, but Boso immediately rejects them as unpersuasive… In deference to Boso’s complains, Anselm does not raise the ‘poetic parallels’ that Leftow cites from Cur Deus Homo until after he has established that it is necessary for God to become incarnate and lay down his life as recompense for human sin.” Visser and Williams, Anselm, 219. Counter to Visser and Williams’s latter claim, however, and in addition to the argument I make presently, Anselm continues to appeal to considerations of fittingness throughout the remainder of book one of the Cur Deus Homo.

Cur Deus Homo: A Tale of Two Aesthetics

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 5

Anselm’s stress on the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement is fitting for a further reason, which is that, as Boso goes on to indicate, much of the case against these doctrines turns on a similarly aesthetic objection to them. In Boso’s words, “The unbelievers who scoff at our simplicity raise against us the following objection: that we dishonor and affront God when we maintain that He descended in to the womb of a woman, that He was born of a woman, that He grew, being nourished by milk and food for human beings, and—not to mention many other things which seem to be unsuitable for God (multa alia taceam quae deo non uidentur conuenire)—that He experienced weariness, hunger, thirst, scourging, and (in the midst of thieves) crucifixion and death” (ch. 3). Anselm’s response to Boso’s aesthetic objection to the Incarnation, however, is to posit an even more insistent counter-aesthetic, as he ticks off a litany of ways in which the salvation accomplished through the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ perfectly corresponds to the story of humankind’s original rebellion and fall. As Anselm protests, “We do not at all dishonor or affront God,” but instead praise him for his manifest mercy, goodness, love, and grace in saving us in a manner so “appropriate” (convenienter) and “proper” (oportebat), and concludes that what we have here is “manifest a certain inexpressible beauty (inenarrabilem pulchritudinem) in our redemption’s having been accomplished in this manner.” Fundamentally at issue in the Cur Deus Homo, in other words, is two conflicting and irreconcilable theological aesthetics or visions of what is and what is not fitting for God to do.

Bad Theologians as Bad Artists

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 4

In his argument for the necessity of the Incarnation in the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm describes the subject matter of the present inquiry as “Him who is beautiful in appearance above the sons of men” and so “adorned” with a divine “rationale which exceeds human understanding.” For this reason, he confesses to feeling a certain burden that the form of his own argument should appropriately approximate the beauty of God’s own reasoning manifested in his accomplishing so marvelous a salvation. Anselm’s “fear,” he says, is “that just as I am accustomed to become indignant with untalented artists when I see the Lord Himself portrayed with an uncomely countenance, so it may happen to me that I provoke indignation if I presume to explore such an elegant topic by an inelegant and contemptible discourse.” The incompetent theologian, in other words, is like an inept artist, depicting what is beautiful beyond compare as something ugly and base. Anselm’s interlocutor, Boso, building on Anselm’s metaphor, seeks to allay his concerns by noting that the latter has already given license to those who can “to say these things better,” and reminds him that neither has he forbidden anyone who “does not like your discourse from writing more beautifully” himself. It is at this point that Anselm makes his caveat, stated earlier, that although his purpose is to prove the Incarnation “rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully” (ch. 2). As the artist-theologian, in sum, Anselm’s task is to represent the beauty and intelligibility of the faith as best he can, all the while continuing to wait in humility and hope for an even greater—both logically and aesthetically—representation of the “deeper rationale” (altiores rationes) yet to be unveiled. For Anselm, the reason the “rational” necessity of the Incarnation is only ever at most an aesthetic or “fitting” necessity is that, given the finitude of human reason, it is for the present always at most a “provisional” or “possible” necessity.

Cur Deus Homo: Anselm’s Theological Sub-Creation

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 3

Connected with Anselm’s increased attention to the aesthetics of reason of the Cur Deus Homo is his choice of the dialogue form to convey the “fitting necessity” or “necessary fittingness” of the Incarnation. In the Monologion Anselm had represented his method of proceeding by “reason alone” (sola ratione) as sufficient to persuade even an unbeliever who was either ignorant or skeptical of what Christians believe about God (ch. 1). Yet in his prologue he had also indicated that the “unbeliever” from whose vantage point this meditation was conducted was in fact none other than his own self as he donned “the role (sub persona) of one who by reflection alone investigates, and disputes with himself about, points which he had previously not considered.” As Eileen Sweeney has aptly summarized the purpose behind Anselm’s pious dissimulation, in the Monologion we have an author who “crafts a persona in whose voice he writes… a voice not exactly the same as his own…. [but] of a somewhat naïve beginner as Anselm tries, by taking an unexpected perspective, to invigorate and enliven the meditation, making fresh insight possible.”[1] Not unlike the substitutionary model of the atonement Anselm will defend in the Cur Deus Homo, accordingly, in the Monologion it is as though Anselm presents us with an almost vicarious form of unbelief, one in which reason, conducted under the silent yet watchful tutelage of Anselm’s own faith, is defamiliarized so that it might be recovered again in its proper theological role as faith’s possibility. That having been said, in the Cur Deus Homo we find an Anselm even more conscious of, or at least more candid about, the artistry or sub-creation involved in his own theological reasoning. In contrast with the Monologion’s direct meditation on God, for example, in the Cur Deus Homo Anselm opts for the mediation of a “question-and-answer” (per interrogationem et responsio) dialogue which he condones for its being “clearer, and hence more acceptable, to many minds—especially to minds that are slower.” Aside from its pedagogical effectiveness, however, is the way in which the dialogue form allows Anselm to re-enact the kind of give-and-take of many of the real-life conversations upon which the fictional exchange in the Cur Deus Homo was no doubt based. Thus, after the commencement of the dialogue proper, when Anselm represents himself as fearful that the present undertaking will prove beyond his abilities, his interlocutor Boso encourages him by saying that “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 a first was hidden.” For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of informal conversation with one’s friends or pupils, 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 true, but as a veritable art form can itself be the means for genuine theological disclosure and discovery. In keeping with this is Anselm’s concession to Boso in the following chapter that, “to the best of my ability, and assisted by God and by means of your prayers, I will attempt not so much to exhibit the solution you are seeking as to seek it with you” (ch. 2).

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 116, 118. For a related discussion, see also Adams, “Anselm on Faith and Reason,” 51.

From Necessity to Fittingness: Anselm Goes Aesthetic

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 2

Another similarity to the Monologion is Anselm’s explanation in the opening chapter of the Cur Deus Homo that the impetus behind the present investigation was the request made by others that he should provide the “rational bases (rationes) of a particular problem of our faith,” viz., the problem of the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ. Yet a subtle but important difference between the method of the Monologion and the approach he will take in the Cur Deus Homo quickly emerges. In the Monologion, the criterion for demonstrating what Christian’s believe about God was simply what “rational necessity (rationis necessitas) would tersely prove to be the case, and truth’s clarity (veritatis claritas) would openly manifest to be the case.” At the same time, Anselm had also conceded that, even if his conclusions followed as “a necessary consequence of reasons which will seem good to me, it is not thereby said to be absolutely necessary, but is said only to be able to appear necessary for the time being” (Monol. 1). Anselm reiterates precisely this point, moreover, in the Cur Deus Homo when he says that, “even though I seem to prove [the Incarnation] rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully.” New to the Cur Deus Homo, however, is the unprecedented way Anselm now casts this whole notion of a provisional, “possible” necessity in more overtly aesthetic terms. He mentions, for example, how his acquaintances, more than merely finding his arguments logically compelling, also “say that these rational considerations please (placere) them; and they regard them as satisfactory (satisfacere),” and that they “make their request not in order to approach faith by way of reason but in order to delight (delectentur) in the comprehension and contemplation of the doctrines which they believe” (ch. 1). As for the present topic concerning the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement, Anselm deems that the solution, while difficult, is nevertheless one that is “intelligible to everyone and is commendable (amabilis) because of the utility and elegance of the reasoning (rationis pulchritudinem).” For Anselm, as it will turn out, inasmuch as God is the inventive creator of his own possibilities—and therefore also of his own necessities—so proving the truths about God will inevitably involve considerations of beauty and aesthetic “fittingness” (convenientia) as much as those of pure logic or rational necessity.

The Possibility of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 1

In his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm sets forth his argument for the necessity of Christian view of redemption. Yet the first question Anselm feels the need to answer concerns how it is even possible, after a full millennium of Christian reflection on this topic, to say anything that has not already been said before. To this end, in his prefatory “Commendation of This Work to Pope Urban II,” Anselm rehearses many of the methodological notes with which he began the Monologion and the Proslogion. While the present work, on the one hand, aims “to confound the foolishness of unbelievers and to break through their hardheartedness,” on the other hand he recognizes that this kind of undertaking is only really possible for those “who, having hearts already cleansed by faith, delight in the rational basis of our faith—a rational basis for which we ought to hunger once we have the certainty of faith.” But what is not possible, Anselm is eager to make clear, is that either now or in the future anyone should ever surpass those things already laid down by the holy Fathers. That having been said, it is equally clear, Anselm takes it for granted, that neither was it possible for these same Fathers to say everything that could have been said on any given subject, which is what makes it possible for us in the present to build upon their insights and extend their arguments into areas left unexamined or undeveloped by them. More than this, the nature of the truth itself is “so extensive and so deep” that no amount of expertise, time, or consideration could ever succeed in plumbing such depths anyway. Finally, it is the Lord himself who, through his gifts and his promise to be with his Church, and through his command in Scripture itself, has given both the ability and the divine sanction for our searching out by reason those things once and for all delivered to the saints.

Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

Athrabeth as Sub-Creative Theology

So I’ve been characterizing Anselm’s understanding of his own philosophical theology as a kind of “sub-creative theology,” a theology, that is, that at once seeks to provide an internally consistent, logically cohesive, and to that extent “necessary” account of the otherwise objective, universal truth about God and salvation, all the while recognizing the finitude of the sub-creative theologian’s own perspective and the fallibility of human reason, no matter how carefully conducted. I’ve also made some vague gestures that somehow Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth might also be seen to belong to this theological sub-genre. What do I mean by this?

Set in the “Elder Days” of the history of Middle-earth, the Athrabeth is a dialogue and at times debate between the Elf-lord Finrod and the mortal woman Andreth. As Tolkien summarizes the conversation in his commentary on the work, the Athrabeth represents “the attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarmë Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama'” (Morgoth’s Ring 329). He explains that it is

not presented as an argument of any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be), though it may have some interest for Men who start with similar beliefs or assumptions to those held by the Elvish king Finrod…. There are certain things in this world that have to be accepted as ‘facts.’

In Anselmian terms, we might say that the argument of the Athrabeth involves an exercise of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” Beginning with certain “beliefs or assumptions,” in other words, Finrod is attempting to discern and understand the inter-connectedness and internal consistency of these beliefs. Tolkien allows that the resulting argument may very well be without “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one [i.e., situation] in which they believe themselves to be),” though “it may have some interest”–and hence some cogency–for Men who start with similar belief or assumption to those held by the Elvish king Finrod….” As Tolkien views it, the argument of the Athrabeth does not involve the Enlightenment myth of a pure and autonomous reason, but presents a case of rationality operating on the basis of certain pre-rational commitments. Somewhat like Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, therefore, the Athrabeth offers us not a neutral, “unbiased” argument, but a kind of “possible necessity,” a necessity that is real but which is only going to be fully accessible to and appreciable by a mind that humbly accepts those deliverances which are prior to and the foundation of the proper operation of reason.

(To be continued….)

Dialogue as Sub-Creation and Revelation in Anselm and Tolkien

At New Saint Andrews College where I teach, one of our pedagogical distinctives is our small group recitations: at the end of the week, each class breaks up into groups of six to eight students for hour-long meetings with the instructor to discuss the assigned reading. Although time-intensive, in addition to the obvious benefit to students, I’ve personally appreciated the small group recitations for the opportunity they provide me, not so much now as a teacher, but as a fellow inquirer with my students. For me, the most enjoyable (and I suspect effective) recitations are the ones in which I’m able most fully to participate in (as opposed to merely observing and directing) the process of purposeful discovery. Without taking anything away from the importance of the orienting lectures that typically begin our class week, in such moments of more formal, prepared instruction, the teacher, for his part, is largely limited to imparting existing knowledge and already achieved insights. It is in the more unpredictable, personal setting of the small group recitations, by contrast, when I find my ability to creatively adapt, marshal, improvise, and apply what I know to be truly put to the test; which is to say, it’s often in these recitations that I often learn what (if anything) it is that I really know.

It’s something like this process of discovery-through-dialogue that is the theme of yet another parallel that might be drawn between Tolkien and Anselm. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), Anselm stages a dialogue between himself and his friend and student Boso, in which Anselm attempts to show “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the world.” As Anselm implies, however, his choice of the dialogue format is no mere literary artifice contrived for the purpose of expounding beliefs already held by him. Rather, for Anselm there is a sense in which his fictional dialogue, like the real-world conversation or conversations upon which it was no doubt based, is even for its author a heuristic device of authentic discovery. When Anselm remarks in his preface, for example, that he will “undertake to make plain to enquirers what God shall see fit to reveal to me about this subject,” there is a discernible air of genuine inquiry and innovation to the proposed project. Anselm hopes to make clear not just what God has revealed to him, but what he hopes and anticipates God will reveal to him in the course of crafting the dialogue itself. (It occurs to me that Tolkien’s distinction between allegory, in which elements of a story have a fixed, premeditated meaning, and fairy-story, in which the “application” for both the reader and the author are more free and unpredictable, might have some corollary here.)   Boso’s encouragement, moreover, is in keeping with this theme: “it often comes about in discussions of some issue that God reveals what was previously hidden” (1.1). A little later, Anselm once again tells Boso that their discourse will have “the form not so much of a demonstration as of an enquiry undertaken jointly with you…” (1.2). Finally, and bringing the discussion around to what I argued the other day to be the “sub-creative theology” implied in the Monologion’s method of a “possible necessity,” Anselm emphasizes how “even if I seem to be proving it [i.e., the “necessity” of the Incarnation] by means of logic–it is to be accepted with only this degree of certainty: that it seems to be so provisionally, until God shall in some way reveal to me something better” (1.2). The explanation Anselm gives for this tentativeness or sense of provisionality is illuminating: “whatever a human being may say on this subject, there remain deeper reasons, as yet hidden from us…” (1.2).

In a forthcoming post I hope to examine some of the ways in which Tolkien’s own version of the Cur Deus Homo, his dialogue Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, reflects a related, Anselmian appreciation of the sub-creative and revelatory dimensions of theological discourse.   

A Possible Necessity: Sub-Creative Theology in Anselm and Tolkien

In his Monologion, in which he attempts to demonstrate by reason the things that Christians otherwise hold to be true about God through revelation, Anselm advises his readers that

if I say something along the way that greater authority does not teach, then I wish it to be taken in the following way: it is, indeed, reached as a necessary conclusion from reasoning which seems right to me. Nevertheless, it is not thereby asserted as necessary without qualification. Rather I assert it as possible–for the present at least. (Harrison trans.)

This is curious: Anselm believes that his philosophical, rational, logical arguments for the truth of the Christian doctrine of God possess a certain “necessity,” but he admits that it is a qualified, provisional necessity. What qualifications to his rational theology does Anselm seem to have in mind? I’m not entirely sure, but his phrase “reasoning which seems right to me” may contain at least a partial answer. Although Anselm intends and believes his arguments to be persuasive for an unbeliever, and that they formally do not rely on any revealed premises accessible only by faith, it would be wrong to suppose that Anselm sees himself as operating under the Enlightenment myth of a “pure reason,” i.e., reason without any pre-rational commitments whatsoever. Rather, and as he puts it in his later Proslogion, his philosophical project is a matter of “faith seeking understanding” and an uncovering of the rationes fidei, the “reason” or “rationality” of faith, but which we might with equal justification also identify as the fides rationionis, the “faith of reason” or “reason’s faith.”

More than this, however, because he knows that the rational arguments he is putting forward are not themselves revealed in Scripture, Anselm seems to recognize a sense in which his demonstrations, for all their aspirations to universality and objectivity, are still very much his demonstrations, and should be understood as such, and not just by unbelievers, but especially by his fellow Christians. Anselm hopes and believes his arguments to be rational and true, but this does not absolve his readers of the responsibility of scrutinizing the consistency of his proofs with the authority of revelation (and if and when they should be found to be out of conformity with Scripture, neither should his readers naively criticize Anselm as though he were not acutely aware of that distinct possibility). Thus, while on the one hand excluding any kind of skepticism or relativism in his quest for “necessary” demonstrations, on the other hand Anselm seems to recognize the equally necessary provisionality of reason the moment it ventures (and that by divine permission) from the safe shores of what has been expressly revealed in Scripture.

Another way of characterizing the “possible necessity” of Anselm’s rational theology, I submit, is to see it as an instance of what I have elsewhere referred to as a “sub-creative theology.” In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that human art in general and fairy-stories in particular are “sub-creative” in the sense that, like God in his act of primary creation, they strive to produce “secondary worlds” that nevertheless possess the “inner consistency of reality.” He writes:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.

Similar to Tolkien’s sub-creator, Anselm’s goal in his philosophical theology–whether rationally demonstrating the existence and nature of God in his Monologion and Proslogion, or showing the “necessity” of the Incarnation in his Cur Deus Homo–is to provide an internally consistent and compelling account of Christian truth that at the same time truthfully approximates (if not in fact coincides with) the logic of reality itself as God has made and revealed it. It is in this sense that his theology achieves a “possible necessity”: “necessary” because its own internal, narrative logic leads–with an inexorability that is as much aesthetic as it is “rational”–to the denouement of a Q.E.D.; “possible” because it recognizes reason’s own contingency and fallibility to speak where Scripture itself is silent or at best suggestive.

(It is, incidentally, this recognition of and commitment to a reality that we may asymptotically approach if not exactly capture and reproduce that I suspect differentiates my understanding of “sub-creative theology” from the anti-realist tendencies Francesca Aran Murphy has identified in the 20th and 21st century narrative theologies of “grammatical Thomistis” such as Fergus Kerr and David Burrell and the “story Barthianism” of Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck. See God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited.)

Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

Tolkien’s “Athrabeth” and Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’ve almost finished reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, and here are some (rough) notes and questions that I’ve jotted down so far in connection with Tolkien’s Athrabeth. 

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a philosophical argument for the necessity of the Incarnation, or “why God became man.” Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is a similarly philosophical dialogue between an Elf and a mortal woman addressing the Creator’s purpose in making these two distinct races of rational yet embodied beings, a purpose, we learn, which also has to do with God’s redemptive designs for the world of Middle-earth.

Some possible comparisons and related questions:

  1. Anselm’s and Tolkien’s respective arguments for the “necessity” of the Incarnation; how both Anselm and Tolkien construct (Anselm on behalf of the “real” world, Tolkien for his “fictional” world) a logic of God, creation, fall, and redemption that necessitate, in different yet related ways, the same conclusion, namely God becoming a man.
  2. According to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” one of the primary functions of fairy-stories is that of “Recovery,” of using fantasy to regain a clear view of the primary world. If so, given their similarities, Tolkien’s Athrabeth might be seen to function as a “Recovery” of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (much as Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is a “Recovery” of Genesis, and the Silmarillion of the Old Testament as a whole). But to what end? For what purpose? Part of the answer might be to see Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, not merely as a quaint yet antiquated work of early medieval theology, but as itself a scholastic exercise of “Recovery,” that is, of uncovering in a fresh way truths that were becoming stale in Anselm’s day (just as Tolkien—through his fairy-story—was ostensibly trying to uncover the enduring relevance of the Incarnation in his own day). And if so, how might this “hermeneutic of Recovery” affect our reading of Anselm?
  3. At many points in his argument for the “necessity” of the Incarnation, Anselm makes an appeal to what is “fitting” and what is “beautiful,” and he likens his argument in places to that of a picture he is painting. All of this suggests that the “validity” of Anselm’s argument has as much to do with aesthetics and poiesis as it does with logic and demonstration. For Tolkien, art and poiesis are ultimately a matter of what he calls “sub-creation” whereby the artist or story-teller crafts a “secondary world” having the “inner consistency of reality.” Is there a meaningful sense in which Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a case of “theology as sub-creation,” of crafting a coherent world or intellectual framework into which one must “enter,” “suspend disbelief” (or rather exercise “secondary belief”), and accept on its own internally consistent terms? And if so, is the argument of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo no less “fictional” than Tolkien’s Athrabeth, and Tolkien’s Athrabeth no less “real” than Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?
  4. Related to the above is the shared concern for and awareness of the problem of “plausibility structures” within Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and in Tolkien’s prefatory remarks to the Athrabeth. Both authors, in addition to presenting the arguments of their respective dialogues, in their own way touch on the issue of what is believable and why. How are their treatments similar and yet different?
  5. Tolkien’s Athrabeth focuses on the two species of Elves and Men; Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo on the two species of Men and Angels.
  6. Both works compare the world in its fallen (“marred” in the Athrabeth) to its restored (“unmarred”) state.
  7. Both works portray man as having a divinely assigned redemptive purpose for creation prior to the fall of man; in both works the secondary character (Anselm’s Boso and Tolkien’s Andreth) despair over man’s post-fall inability to carry out this redemptive purpose.
  8. Both works address the issue of human mortality.
  9. There is a “metaphysics of Mary” operative in both dialogues, explicitly in Anselm but implicit in Tolkien (note the references to bodily “assumption” in both the Athrabeth, Tolkien’s notes thereon, and in his Letters, and all references to the Virgin in Anselm).
  10. Something like Chalcedonian Christology is presupposed in both dialogues (hypostatic union: Christ being both God and man, in Tolkien, simultaneously transcendent and immanent).
  11. Similar argumentative structure in both Finrod and Anselm: both characters presuppose the purposefulness and non-vanity of God’s creative plans.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to explore and develop these further at some point.

Is it possible to be human without being a descendant of Adam?

According to Anselm, the answer might be “No.” In Cur Deus Homo (“On Why God Became Man”) 2.8, having just argued for why man’s restoration from sin could only be accomplished by a God-Man, Anselm explains why it was further necessary that the human nature assumed by God in the Incarnation should be descended from Adam.

But if he creates a new man who is not from the race of Adam, this new man will not belong to the human race which is descended from Adam. Consequently, he will not have an obligation to give recompense on behalf of this race, because he will not be from it. For, just as it is right that it should be a human being who should pay recompense for the guilt of humanity, it is likewise necessary that the person paying recompense should be identical with the sinner, or a member of the same race.

For Anselm, Adam’s race can only be redeemed by “one of its own,” and so for the atonement to be effective, it must be accomplished by God becoming incarnate in someone actually born of Adam’s race. Anselm’s argument, however, is fascinating as much for what it might say about the possibility of being human as it is for what it says about the possibility of the atonement. Anselm denies that any “new man” who is not a biological descendant of Adam can be of the “same race” of Adam. It’s possible that by “race” (genus) Anselm simply means Adam’s genealogical line, and not the species of humanity itself. If, however, we take “race” to mean the human race, the philosophical and theological implications are nothing short of explosive.

If being either Adam or a descendant of Adam is necessary for being of the same species as Adam, it means that the only way to be human is to be related to Adam. Being a genealogical descendant of Adam is the very possibility of being human. If so, then the problem with Anselm’s hypothetical “new man” is that, by not being a member of Adam’s race, he is not really a man at all, but an alien, something other than man, a kind of “non man,” whatever his biological similarities to man might be. (This, incidentally, might give us another perspective on why, according to Aquinas’s later argument, every angel is its own, distinct species: not being individuated by matter, angels must belong to different species in order to be differentiated from each other. If we take our cue from Anselm, not just material embodiment, but also genealogical kinship, is necessary for two things to belong to a common species.) According to Hellenistic metaphysics, a thing’s genealogical pedigree was accidental to its being, to its whatness. In Anselm we see the possibility of a more Hebraic metaphysics, one in which genealogy is not accidental, but essential. Much as you being the son or daughter of your specific parents is necessary for you to have been at all (there is no “possible” you, even for God, except as the child of your parents), so it might turn out that there is not any possibility (even for God) of being human except as a descendant of Adam. This wouldn’t be because of some kind of limitation, necessity, or constraint on God, but rather because this would be simply what God himself had determined what it means to be human (just as he determined that what it means to be you is to be a specific child of your parents). For God, there is no such thing as being human without being either Adam, his wife, or one of their progeny. (Here we also seem to have part of the metaphysical significance of Eve being taken from Adam’s side, so that she also might be a “member of the same race.” Adam is the possibility of Eve–no Eve except as the one taken from Adam’s side–and Adam and Eve together are the possibility of every subsequent human being.) What this would further mean is that there is no absolute, abstract, Augustinian “divine idea” of man-as-such for God, or if there is, Adam himself is that idea: God doesn’t know or determine “man” as a possibility except as a member of the race of Adam. Adam, therefore, is not just the father of the human race, he is the very archetype of the human race. When he fell, the very possibility of being human fell along with him. This is the modal metaphysics (or at least part of it) behind original sin, but also behind our salvation. For the human race to be restored, it would need to receive a new archetype, one who was at once a member of the “old” human race and the very possibility of a new one. It turns out, consequently, that when we say that Jesus is the “new humanity,” we are actually being as literal as one can possibly be. As the Second Adam, Jesus, not figuratively, but literally and metaphysically iwhat it now means to be human.

“Athrabeth”: Tolkien’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’m presently working through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) as part of my “theology of the possible” project. One of the things, however, that I’ve wanted to do for some time is a study comparing Anselm’s work with Tolkien’s own Middle earth version of Cur Deus Homo, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (in Morgoth’s Ring, vol. 10 in The History of Middle earth). Both texts make the case for the “necessity” of the Incarnation as the divine means for dealing with evil in the world. David Herlihy gives this summary of the central argument of Anselm’s dialogue:

Anselm attempted with with still greater boldness to show the logical relationships linking three fundamental Christian beliefs: the infinite nature of God, the fact of original sin, and the incarnation of Christ. Anselm argued that the degree of an offense was measured by the dignity of the one offended. Original sin was therefore an act of infinite evil, as it offended God himself. But the worth of an apology or act of atonement was measured by the dignity of the one conferring the apology. Man, therefore, while capable of a sin of infinite magnitude, could not as a finite creature offer equal atonement. Only a man of infinite worth could do this, i.e., a man who was also God. If God wished to save man, argued Anselm, the only suitable way for him to do so was to allow his son to become one of them, to offer atonement for the human race. (Medieval Society and Culture 162)