Sunday, December 4, 2011

I believe...

“I believe in order that I may understand.”

This famous statement by Anselm is understood and used by many to show that one “must first force one's mind to accept blindly a host of incomprehensible doctrines” (Armstrong, 132). That is, one must lend full intellectual assent to a set of dogma or doctrines, however unsupported, before one can understand how credible they actually are. Fault then is on the individual who rebelliously refuses to forgo reason and accept belief.

This interpretation of Anselm misses an essential meaning of “believe.” The Latin verb for “I believe” is credo which literally reads “heart to put,” that is, to apply oneself to something as in a discipline or course of action. Anselm's statement might better be read as “I involve myself in order that I may understand.” Armstrong summarizes Anselm's meaning well, “...religious truth [makes] no sense without practically expressed commitment” (p. 132).

Etymologically, the words for “belief” and “faith” in Hebrew, Greek, and in English are rooted in the meanings of action, fidelity, faithfulness and less in the notion of intellectual assent. “I believe” meant “I am engaged/committed/loyal.” To believe something is to live something, to embrace a truth that dwells at the level of mythos and not always accessible to logos or reason (Armstrong, p. 115). Allow me to borrow from Armstrong's example with the doctrine of the Trinity:

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” is inaccessible to rational analysis. It was a meditative device to counter the idolatrous tendency of people like Arius, who had seen God as a mere being... (p. 115).

Trinity was an activity rather than an abstract metaphysical doctrine. It is probably because most Western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd” (p. 117).

Though no doubt there was a metaphysical component to the Trinity, Armstrong emphasizes the practical, discipline of the Trinity as a meditative or sacred pathway away from logos/reason into mythos and truths not necessarily identifiable by logos/reason. According to Armstrong, Arius' error was making God into “mere being” and a subject of rational analysis.

For me God is a call to action—an expansion of vision, a set of circles that encompasses more and more of the world around me. I believe in God as a discipline, a sacred pathway and as a vehicle for meaning making. God for me is not the monarch of metaphysics but a dimension of my own existence.


Jeremiah Bannister said...

This is an excellent post! Your last paragraph is quote-worthy. One for the books, my friend!

BTW - Sadly, I was unaware that you blogged.

Peter said...

Thank you man! Really appreciate your comment especially with your high-church background.