Oct 10, 2010

Anselm's God, the Sun, and the Unfathomable Ocean

At the end of (though technically at the beginning) of weeks simply saturated by concerns of faculty development, business ethics, course design, the CLA, my three sections of Critical Thinking this semester, articles on disparate topics I committed to, and seemingly endless meetings, I want. . .  better put, I need to read, think, and write about something other than those matters.  I had hoped Sundays after mass I would make time to start reading my way piece by piece through the volumes of the writings of the Church Fathers I bought on a bargain four years back.  But, inevitably, undone work and unfinished products from the previous week intrude.

Unable to stick to my first intention, I decided on a plan which would combine some sabbatical conversation with great Christian thinkers but which would also tie in with my current projects.  I made my bones a while back as an Anselm scholar, and continue publishing articles, giving talks, and even writing a book on his thought. My Anselmian explorations have had to be placed on hold so far this semester (except to write an application for an NEH Summer Stipend to work on the book), so Sundays will provide the space and time to follow along with the great Benedictine saint and philosopher.

One of the paradoxes of Anselm's theocentric writings is that in them he tells us that God is both known and unknown, that we can have an idea of God, but not comprehend God, that in fact our language even at its most theologically precise can just barely gesture towards God.  Anselm has been called everything from a rationalist to a mystic.  Both labels do apply, in fact (if they are not understood exclusively), because in Anselm they are not opposed but complementary, and this is precisely because of the object his thought strives towards, the person he communicates with, the ultimate reality he extends his mind, human language and concepts, to grasp:  God.

One so-far-untranslated Anselmian text is the Dicta Anselmi, an account of his teachings written down by Alexander, a Benedictine fellow-monk from Canterbury, where Anselm had what he felt the misfortune of being made archbishop.   Coining and employing metaphors to provide his readers and hearers a somewhat better understanding of divine things was a standard modus operandi for Anselm.  In the passage I've translated below, that is precisely his game.  Any scholar who has wrestled with his famous argument in the Proslogion will be interested by this passage.  But, one need not be an Anselm scholar to be struck by it, or to appreciate the aptness and beauty of the metaphor.
There are three ways we grasp [sentimur] God, namely by the intellect, by love, and by enjoyment [usu].  Through the intellect we become wise, through love we are justified, and through enjoyment we are made happy.  Insofar as someone understands God, they are wise; insofar as they love God, they are just; insofar as they enjoy God, they are happy.  When we see what is right, we grasp God through our mind's intellect, for indeed it whatever rightness there is it distinguishes as being from Him.
.    .    .    .    .   .   .    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
"Now we see in a mirror" and as if in some painting, we say, whether it be a painting of the sun or of the ocean that we might see.  Indeed when we see the sun or the ocean depicted, we do not see these as they are in themselves [in se] or in reality [in re].  For if we look intently at the bright shining sun, or we scrutinize the ocean, whether rough or calm, we do truthfully glimpse the reality just as it is, even though we are not able to see it precisely how it is.  Now, nobody sees how much splendor or how much power the sun has, nor does anyone judge the breadth or the depth of the ocean.  So, in like wise the holy people of God see God in His glory, "just as he is," but they are not able to wrap their minds around [comprehendere] the greatness of His divinity or the immeasurableness of His power.  For He would not be unmeasurable, if any intellect could entirely understand [comprehendi] Him.

Thus His sublimity is of incomprehensible majesty, because no person's faculty of knowing  would be able to attain to that height. . .  .
The metaphor assumes its full power, interestingly, only when heard and mulled over by one who has spent time experiencing the natural world, who can fill it out for instance with the sorts of musing that occur when one passes hours on or by the great waters, reflecting on how little of them one sees and can take in, how difficult it would be to accurately depict even a moment's snapshot of the contours and colors of fluidly moving waves, let alone to take in even a portion of what lies beneath.

I find myself attracted more to the image of the ocean than that of the sun, the latter of which Anselm does use elsewhere in his translated works.  There are reasons partly explaining this preference, but I would rather instead mention the similar captivation by another metaphor familiar in Medieval times:  the whole of Holy Scripture as being not a set of chapters and verses to be memorized and regurgitated at the appropriate occasion, but instead an immense but not trackless forest of crisscrossing paths.  God, or the word of God as at least partly conceivable by relation to the wonderful natural world. . . .