It’s been a while since I delved into another historical episode so, here goes. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) remains my perennial favorite among the ‘Church Fathers’ (I named a character after him in my first novel). For one thing the man showed such dogged persistence and devotion to duty it’s hard not to admire him. He began as something of a hermit monk who loved monastery life and lived to study and pray. His favored life though, was not to be. Recognized for his diligence, integrity and intellect he was called upon to serve beyond the monastery – ultimately becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm didn’t want the post – or any of the lesser posts that led to the greater post. But the church NEEDED him and he answered the call.
It was not a great time for a man of integrity to step up to the plate – or perhaps it was the best possible time for it. What I mean is – the times were characterized by rough and tumble power struggles, political intrigues, land grabs, financial swindles, back-stabbing, patsy making, tangled romances, etc. It was even worse outside the church!
It is difficult to explain in just a few words how charged the atmosphere was. Pope Urban II initiated the first Crusade. He secured the papacy largely because the French bishops wanted the crusade. But the church was deeply divided on the subject – and almost every other conceivable subject. The struggle became bad enough that Guibert (former bishop of Ravenna) held Rome for a time – declaring himself the anti-pope. This chaos provided opportunity for already existing corruption in the priesthood to run wild. Things were no better in the secular realm and incentive for improvement shrunk with Urban’s declaration that anyone who served in the crusade would automatically have all their sins (past, present, and future) forgiven.
In the midst of all this, Anselm was called to be the Abbot of Bec. He quickly whipped the place into shape and (remember – at heart Anselm was an academic) Bec soon become the foremost seat of learning in Europe. This (unfortunately from Anselm’s point of view) led to promotions until he was called from his native France to England as the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the plus side, this gave Anselm an opportunity to implement reforms on a much bigger scale. On the minus side – the bigger and more corrupt the institution, the more it hates and resists reform.
And corruption in the English Catholic Church was rife, partly because the English monarchy was in a huge debate with the pope over ‘homage’ and ‘investiture’ ‘Homage’ concerned whether Catholic Church officials (like Anselm) owed any allegiance and obedience to the country – specifically to the king or government of the country – in which they served. ‘Investiture’ concerned the question of whether the king of a country could seat (invest holy authority in) his own bishops and clerics or had to settle for whoever the pope and his delegates chose. To both questions, the pope said ‘no’. William and Henry (the two kings under which Anselm served) both said ‘yes’. Henry in particular quit waiting for agreement and began investing his own bishops and clerics and insisting on their loyalty. It was the kind of controversy that got people killed. It got Anselm exiled – twice. But Anselm was never deterred. In office or in exile he worked steadfastly to lead both church and state through the strife and to some kind of peace. He did this without ever sacrificing his personal priorities of higher learning and reform.
Although Anselm was not fond of politics he proved quite adept at the game, equally handy with the carrot and the stick. He was particularly good at building chutes (ideological and legal chutes rather than physical ones) slowly narrowing the walls until he had herded everyone to the end he had in mind. Neither exile nor trial for heresy nor bribery (which was tried) nor anything else thrown at him could make him cease these efforts.
Just to reference a single chapter in this episode, Anselm travelled to Rome to argue for a special dispensation for Henry and the king’s right to insist on some degree of loyalty from bishops in English territories. Whatever Anselm’s arguments on the matter, the end result was the excommunication of three English bishops ‘invested’ by Henry. Note: investment/investiture referred to investing a man with sacred authority but ‘investment’ in terms of bribes, lands, important wives (Henry thought clergy should marry) were all part of the program in Henry’s attempts to win clerics over to his side. When Henry received word of the decision he refused Anselm permission to come back. For Anselm to defy Henry’s order represented the very real possibility of execution but his bigger concern was that even if he survived a defiant return to Canterbury, it would deepen the hostility between Henry and Urban.
Anselm bided his time while Henry slowly discovered that he needed the approval of the church more than he had supposed. As more and more bishops and prelates were excommunicated, confidence in the efficacy of the rites – including marriage, baptism, confession, penance, and last rites - administered by a shrinking number of clerics willing to serve under Henry and in defiance of the pope, regardless of bribes and incentives – fell. These days we would say Henry’s poll numbers fell as well and even a king needs the confidence of his people. When Henry finally got around to requesting Anselm’s return so as to have a reliable envoy to the pope again, Anselm declined the invitation and hinted at his own willingness to work for not only the excommunication of more bishops but perhaps of the monarch himself. This resulted in Henry travelling to France to meet Anselm on Anselm’s terms where it was agreed that Henry would forsake investiture if clerics appointed by the pope were allowed to express at least some degree of allegiance to the government of England.
Back in office in Canterbury and enjoying peace for a time, Anselm was finally able to institute his reforms including that English clerics ceased to marry, tax-bribes/extortion of church officials was done away with, and several other matters that lessened the king’s power over the church. It took Anselm most of his life to accomplish these reforms but there was no quit in the man.
As mentioned earlier, Anselm accomplished these reforms and all the political steps necessary to broker peace between Henry and Urban without giving up his cherished studies. Anselm staked out a position that seems common sense to most of us today but which was unheard of at the time. He held that while faith necessarily precedes reason, once faith is established – reason can expand it. (it is necessary to point out that Anselm correctly separated ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ – something we too often fail to do. Anselm believed that any intelligent person could reason their way to accepting that there is a God. Faith – putting yourself in the hands of that God and trusting Him implicitly – is something else.) In other words – you can’t reason your way to faith in God but once having received faith from God you can strengthen that faith by means of reason. Reason supports faith once realized. There is no need for the faithful to fear the pursuit of knowledge and reason. This thought won Anselm the title – Father of Scholasticism and his work is the prelude to the broader work of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm is also the first to formulate the Ontological Argument. It must be noted that the Ontological Argument is based upon Aristotelian logic which often makes my head feel like there are snakes crawling around in it. But the argument still has force all these years later and those who think they have easily dismissed it (Richard Dawkins et al) generally manage to show that they never understood it in the first place.
*Even an atheist can imagine a being than whom none could be greater.
*However, if such a being’s attributes did not include existence, a still greater being could be imagined with all the attributes of the first – plus existence.
*Therefore, the truly greatest possible being must exist.
The third step seems too easy. But, it begins with this: an existent being is greater than an imaginary being therefore, whatever may be known as the greatest of all beings must be one that exists rather than one that is imaginary. Thus far, we go without problem. And there must be a being who comes in first in the competition for greatest. Still so far so good. The greatest being exists. Behind this lies a layer not easily included in Anselm’s simplified proof. By what standard do we judge beings to arrive at a decision as to which is the greatest? Why, by those characteristics it is better to have than not to have. Whence do we arrive at such concrete and comparative values and virtues? How can we hold beings we see to exist to a standard higher than themselves if that standard is derived from the realm of the imaginary and anything extant is greater than anything imaginary? Feel those snakes yet? To Anselm it seemed clear that the ideal which represents the standard must exist else it could not be the standard. It’s a difficult argument to wrap your head around but easily dismissed.
Based on his ontological reasoning, Anselm was the first to state that God neither invented nor conforms to the ideal standard of morality but embodies it!
Some of you may well be asking – Can’t we just go back to his political accomplishments? But I admire Anselm for his studious philosophical efforts as well and especially for his insistence that faith need not fear learning.
This is all probably all more than you asked for – since none of you asked me to write anything about Anselm – but there you are. Something more light hearted next time.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church