I recently discovered an essay written for the Saint Anselm Journal by Fr. Emery de Gaal of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. In this paper, he looks at how Fr. Romano Guardini, troubled by the excessive Kantian rationalism of the early twentieth century, turned to Saint Anselm of Canterbury for inspiration. He saw the eleventh century of Anselm’s time as suffering from a similar crisis in theology, and Anselm’s method as the means by which that age was able to restructure its approach to the Faith. Thus he believed that the Anselmian approach could be applied to the chaos of his own time.
The crux of Anselm’s (and also Guardini’s) position was that revelation and faith are indispensable for knowledge, and that knowledge is not just a collecting of information about God, but something that involves the whole person, so that moral praxis and intellectual formation are intertwined, and inform one another. De Gaal summarises the position here:
‘The aim of theology is sapiential insight. This entails more than merely the logical stringency of an argument and the clarity of its presentation. The aim is far more than mere cognitional insight. The recognised truth wants to be loved by the human will, tested by the human intellect and savoured by the human soul. Theology thus intends to address the full and whole human being. As a consequence, theology, according to Guardini, must be understood as a synthesis of theory and religious praxis. Therefore, more must occur than exclusively rational verification on the part of the thinking subject. The will must become good, the heart pure and the whole human person must be transformed into the proper condition.’
St. Anselm of Canterbury and Romano Guardini, The Saint Anselm Journal, 2.1 (Fall 2004), p.34.
The key point to emphasise here is that ‘cognitional insight’ is not to be removed from the equation – it is still part of the process of belief, but it remains only a part, not the sole means of believing. Guardini saw in his own age an overly intellectual approach to religion, which seemed to undermine the affective and volitional aspects of belief, and led to a truncated and bloodless religion that lacked the involvement of the whole person. In Saint Anselm’s theological method, he found what he saw as an antidote to this problem:
‘In Anselm, Guardini sees the foundation for this synthesis laid down. Guardini believes that for Anselm this foundation was not achieved in a merely extrinsic and eclectic manner, but rather through an organic combination and reciprocal penetration of both approaches. This was not something that came about accidentally, merely because of Anselm’s acute mind. Rather – and this is significant for Guardini – Anselm’s whole personality was rich and creative, precisely because it was embedded in the whole of the Catholic faith. He lived with a strong “original awareness” of the supernatural realities within a believing community…
…Theology, as Guardini interprets Anselm, is never something subjective or individualistic; it is communal, always oriented towards and rooted in tradition, namely that of a “community of thinkers”, the Church. This is illustrated when Anselm himself declares the content of his own Monologion correct only insofar as it is in agreement with the “Catholici patres.”’
It is precisely because Guardini (and Anselm) saw faith as inseparable from praxis, that they also saw the idea of theology as an individualistic enterprise as being impossible. The life of a Christian is a shared experience, embedded not only in the regular participation in communal worship, but in praying, thinking and trusting with the whole Church. Guardini saw that Anselm was only able to initiate the creative theological revolution of his day because he was thinking and living as a Catholic, with the rest of the Catholic Church.
This means that not only is it important for one doing theology to be rooted in tradition and prayer, but that proper conduct is important for clarity of theological vision – if one is not living well, not striving towards and making progress in holiness, then one’s perspective will become clouded and the theology will suffer for it. Either way, the focus here is on a recognition of the organic nature of the Body of Christ, and the consequent need to live, think and believe in and with the Spirit of Christ that lives within that Body. This means getting one’s life in line with that Spirit, and allowing one’s mind and will to be formed by the voices of ages past and present therein. Two phrases of Anselm’s could sum up his approach here: credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), and sentire cum ecclesia (to think with the Church). Both of these require:
‘a.) being consciously a member of the Church; b.) having one’s individual faith embedded in the believing community of the Fathers; and c.) allowing theology to trust the Church’s auctoritas as final arbiter. This attitude prevents exegesis from being mere linguistics or a literary study of Scripture, and liberates theology to go beyond personal conjectures and idiosyncratic judgements…
…Dogmatic formulas are coordinates wherein individual thinking fits into the organic thinking of the Church. Only by understanding itself on the basis of its ecclesial dimensions does theology gain genuine authority.’
Countering the two extremes of a rationalism that would reduce theology to the natural sciences and thus undermine revelation, and a fideism that keeps its head firmly in the sand, Romano Guardini found in Saint Anselm a paradigm for doing theology that engages the whole person, and expands our theological projects beyond the chaotic network of competing hypotheses that characterises much of what counts for dialogue in theology (both academic and ecclesiastical) today.
This however requires humility on our part, and a willingness to recognise that there is a larger horizon – the truth of Christ embodied in His Church – which we must involve ourselves in if we are to become authentic in our theological projects. This is not to renounce the freedom of individual thought, but it is to renounce a certain wilfulness that thinks it knows better than the wisdom revealed to the saints throughout the ages, and cannot conceive of an authority greater than its own. Furthermore, if we are to think more clearly about and enter deeper into the mysteries of our Faith, we must endeavour to cultivate holiness in our lives, so that the whole of our being may be aligned to God, and we may better receive His grace to enlighten our minds.