<>[New lecture: May 24, 2011.  The introductory remarks in your Bush anthology are very helpful here.  Pp. 91-144 of the Dulles book are also helpful.  Look especially at his comments on reactions to Islam.]

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To Eusebius, the reign of Constantine meant victory—victory for the Church, victory for the Roman Empire, and victory for the truth.  There final pages of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History are about as optimistic in outlook as anything ever written in human history.  And no wonder!  With Constantine, Rome seemed to be on track to peace and prosperity.  The persecutions were at an end, and Christianity was now a favored religion.  And the combination of scriptural truth with the aid of all that human reason could add made it seem like mankind had at last awakened from an era of great darkness: and, in a certain sense, it had.  Romans were freed from the superstitious beliefs and practices of the old pagan tradition: a dramatic and unquestionably positive change.

<>But the victory of truth was marred by, oddly enough, what seemed to be the pursuit of truth.  Christian thinkers and writers tried to get their theology exactly right.  What was the relationship between God the Father and God the Son?  What was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ?  Is it right or not to call Mary the Mother of God?  And what about images: useful aids to worship, or the equivalent of idolatry?  <> 

One might think such questions didn’t make any difference. Certainly when it came to daily life, it didn’t matter very much if you believed that the two natures in Christ joined together in one new nature or if you believed instead that the two natures (human and divine) remained distinct.

But one’s answers to such questions made a great deal of difference in one important area: church leadership.  Once Christianity became a religion favored by the Roman state, becoming part of the Christian clergy was no bad career track—especially for scholarly types.  For good reason, the church wanted well-educated people in leadership roles, people who excelled in their knowledge and understanding of the scripture and in their ability to expound on scripture.  And so there arose a kind of intellectual competition.  Suppose several men all want to be bishop of Antioch—a very prestigious position.  How do you choose from among them?  Well, why not the brightest, the most brilliant?  And how do you show you are the most brilliant?  Why show that your understanding of theology is superior.  Show that your rivals’ understanding of the nature of Jesus isn’t quite right.

It’s important to understand that, behind the Christological controversies, was often a competition for jobs—and good jobs at that.  Adding fuel to the fire, political rivalries.  Suppose there are two candidates for emperor, both trying to gain support.  One obvious way of attracting potential supporters is by championing their theological view over the alternatives.  And, of course, your rival may almost automatically take the opposite position in his attempts to win support from the supporters of the other side of the theological dispute.
<>What ends up happening, then, is that the two mighty weapons in the fight for truth, the Word of God and human reason, end up wielded by those whose purpose isn’t truth, but personal or political advantage—and, as a result, these weapons are badly misused: as they continue to be throughout history.  Question: can these weapons be wielded properly?  “Only by pride cometh contention,” says the proverb, and it perhaps should come as no surprise that that some of the best examples apologetic being restored to its proper use are also models of Christian humility.

I believe that I might understand: Anselm of Bec (1033-1109)

Not long after the death of Jerome (420) and Augustine (430), the western portion of the Roman Empire fell apart pretty much completely.  For centuries, the West had to struggle just to hang on to what it could of the great Christian/classical legacy.  There were few original contributions to philosophy, theology, or literature.  Books were expensive and rare, and literacy rates were quite low. Benedictine monks spent hour upon hour copying manuscripts, salvaging what could be salvages of the achievements of the past.  But around 1000 AD, Europe enters a much brighter period, the beginnings of what we call the High Middle Ages (1000-1300).

[Notice that I have just skipped six centuries here, and I have left out some fascinating stories, and some potentially important apologetic themes.  St. Patrick’s account of his endeavors among the Irish, and the Venerable Bede’s story of the growth of the church in England have important apologetic themes.  In the east, the scholars of the Byzantine Empire continued to employ the classical/Christian synthesis in their theological writings, and the confrontation with the Moslem led to the exploration of new apologetic themes.]   

<>As Europe prospered once again, literacy and learning took off, and the great thinkers of this era were able to do more than preserve the great works of the past.  The High Middle Ages added much to poetry, history, theater, philosophy, theology—and to apologetics. 

One example of Medieval contributions in this area is the work of St. Anselm of Bec. St. Anselm was born into an Italian noble family, but he traveled to Bec in Normandy where he became a monk. He was chosen to head the monastery when he was only 27.  Later, he became Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He accepted these kinds of promotions only very reluctantly: contemporaries note that because of his humility, gentleness, and kindness—as well as his brilliance—others insisted that he was exactly the right man for positions of authority he himself didn’t aspire to: yet another illustration of the principle that those most suited for positions of authority are those who don’t want or seek authority.

Anselm is most famous today for his ontological proof of the existence of God.  Anselm starts with a definition of God: God is the greatest being you can think of.  What is the greatest being you can think of?  Well this being should have every good attribute imaginable.  The being should be omnipotent and omniscient, loving and merciful, just and eternal. 

Now suppose we think of two beings, one with all those characteristics that exists, and one with all those wonderful characteristics that does not exist.  Obviously, the being that does not exist is hardly the greatest we can think of!  So that can't be God.  God must be the being with all those wonderful characteristics that exists--by definition--since the greatest being we can think of must exist--or it's not the greatest being we can think of!!!  Not only that, God must have all those other wonderful characteristics too, because a being lacking any one of them would not be the greatest being we can think of and hence not God!

[See this site for more on Anselm and the ontological proof for the existence of God]

Anselm’s proof is completely valid--at least, if one allows the correctness of Plato’s assumption that the real world is the world of ideas.

But there is a lot more to Anselm than intellectual proof: the ontological argument is only a very small part of Monologium and Proslogium.  Both books read as devotional texts—meditations on the greatness of God.  Throughout, Anselm is constantly asking for God’s guidance in exploring philosophical/theological question. Anselm begins by speculating on text, “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.”   What he is looking at is the relationship of head to heart.  If our heart isn’t in the right place, we will use our reason in the wrong way.  And if what’s in our heads is fuzzy, our heads will mislead our hearts.  Anselm gets heart and head working together, and the result is beautiful.

[Note that “humility” didn’t turn Anselm into a wimp.  He stood up forcefully to the misdeeds of William II, and suffered exile twice.  L. Russ Bush elaborates a bit on these themes in his introductory comments in your “Classical Readings” book.]

Quite a few subsequent thinkers reject Anselm’s approach to apologetics as a dead end: but equally important philosophers and theologians use Anselm’s ideas as there starting point. His  Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man) offers an exceptionally convincing  explanation of the incarnation—though an explanation somewhat at odds with that of other Christian thinkers.

The Middle Ages is rightly labeled the Age of Faith, but it was definitely not of age of blind faith. Socrates said an unexamined life was not worth living.  The theologians of the High Middle Ages seemed to think tan unexamined faith is not worth having.  A great example of a thoroughly examined faith: Peter Abelard.

Abelard was a teacher in Paris, and absolutely loved by his students—in one case, too much loved.  The student who loved him too much was a young woman named Heloise.   

In addition to his usual teaching assignments, Abelard was paid to be Heloise’s private tutor.  She was 19, he 20 years older: and they developed the kind of close relationship that the precocious student and the brilliant teacher often have.  But then the relationship got too close.  They ended up having an affair, and Heloise got pregnant. They then got married, but this was not enough for Heloise furious guardian.  He sent thugs to beat up Abelard, and they ended up castrating him as well. 

Still in love, but not with no future in married life, Abelard became an abbot while Heloise became the abbess of a sister convent. Astrolabe, their son, was raised by Abelard’s sister.

Abelard and Heloise carry on a long and fascinating correspondence, and they never lose their love for one another.  In his last letter, Abelard wrote, “I hope you are willing, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me.” 

Well, they were buried together, and on their tombstone was this epitaph:

Here under the same stone, repose, of this monastery the founder, Peter Abelard, and the first abbess, Heloise, heretofore in study, genius, love, inauspicious marriage, repentance, now, as we hope, in eternal happiness united.

How romantic!  But even this wasn't enough for 19th century admirers of the couple. In the 19th century, their remains were dug up and burned.  Their ashes were mingled together, and they were reburied.

Well, back to Abelard's teaching.  Abelard is most famous for his book Sic et Non (Yes and No), a book that deals with 156 questions on which church authorities seemed to disagree.  Here are some of these questions:

Was exploring such questions a problem, a source of doubt?  Some of his contemporaries thought so, and Abelard had to defend himself against charges of heresy.  But Abelard himself believed that exploring such questions leads to more solid faith, and I am inclined to agree. But even better, when one finds satisfactory answers for one's questions, and that's something medieval theologians did exceedingly well.  As an example: St. Thomas Aquinas.

[See this site for more on Peter Abelard]
St. Thomas Aquinas came from a privileged background.  He was closely related to the Emperor, and his parents wanted him to be (perhaps) bishop or even pope.  He chose instead to join the Dominican order as an ordinary monk. As a Dominican, he was free to study and travel.  He was a student at the University of Paris, and later a teacher there.  He ended up writing lots and lots of important things, the two most important of which are the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica.  The first is a great defense of the Christian faith, one of the best ever written.  Aquinas systematically explains why Christianity is more likely to be true than any alternative religion or philosophy.  The other, the Summa Theologica, is a great work of systematic theology, an attempt to bring all the teachings of scripture into a coherent whole and to show us how we ought to apply those teachings.

Unlike most important theological and philosophical works, the works of Aquinas are very easy to understand and follow.  He uses the method of Aristotle, stating a proposition, stating possible objections, and then answering the objections.  It's nice and clear and systematic: no wonder so many great minds ever since read these works and adopt the philosophy of Aquinas for their own.

Clear, systematic—and exhaustive. Once again, the Table of Contents is essential to seeing where the writer is going.  Here’s a very edited selection of topics from Book III:  

[More here on St. Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles]

Now all this is enormously impressive, and Aquinas would have had reason to be proud of all he had accomplished.  But, like Anselm, Aquinas stands out for his humility.  He was so quiet and humble that his classmates called him the "dumb ox," not realizing that he was probably the most brilliant man tey would ever meet.  Eventually, though, people saw his brilliance.  Kings, emperors, and  high church officials asked his advice.  But Aquinas view of all this?  "All straw," he said, all just things that would be burned up.  What counts?  At the end of his life, Aquinas was writing on the Song of Solomon which—among other things--is an allegory of God’s love for his people and the way they should return that love.  And that's what counts, says Aquinas.  Loving God, and resting in His love.
I wish I had a brain like Aquinas.  Even more, I wish I had a heart like his.