Fides Quaerens Intellectum

A paper by a Jesuit presbyter from the Philipines, Ruben "JR"
(Posted 29 March 2007)

I would like to begin this paper by stating very short introductions about these two “philosophers” who contributed much to the thought and reflections of the medieval era. These two are very helpful in our search to understand the “ineffable” Being who is none other than GOD himself. Dionysius (also known as Dionysius Areopagita) wrote the work Mystical Theology, a corpus that most commentaries would describe as the shorter version of his treatise on the Divine Names. He is believed to be a Syrian Monk, and he is known for his “philosophizing” for the service of the Faith. Since his real identity is contestable, he is labeled then as Pseudo-Dionysius. Saint Anselm of Canterbury on the other hand is a Doctor of the Church. He had a number of writings and works as well, and because of the contributions of his work to both philosophy and theology, he is given the title of Doctor of Scholasticism. He is considered to be among the last of the patristic era and among the first in the scholastic period. He was a Benedictine monk who was later elected Abbott of the monastery at Bec, and later on appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. The whole philosophical (and even theological) project of St. Anselm was to seek an understanding of one’s faith. Hence, he is well – known for the phrase Fides quaerens Intellectum (faith in search of understanding); this phrase is the motto of the Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo, an academic institution named after his honor as a way of giving him tribute for his intellectual scholastic contribution. This paper seeks to present then the points offered by the Pseudo-Dionysius in his Mystical Theology as a tool to better and deeper understand the points of Saint Anselm in his Proslogion.

Both the Mystical Theology and the Proslogion can be seen as “prayers.” They are both colloquies to the Divine Being and an address to the self (Man). It is quite apparent then that these two works are more than just mere philosophical endeavors, but theological as well (and vice versa, if you wish). The Mystical Theology has three basic points which will serve as a key to unlock the wealth of meaning presented by St. Anselm. The first point was that of Theosis, primarily understood as the process of divinization. This is perhaps inspired by revelation notably from the New Testament. The First Letter of John and the First Letter of Peter talk about our being children of God and our being sharers in the divinity of Christ Jesus. This point then focuses on the “process”, as it were, of our becoming like God. It is a dialectic of sorts of becoming what we truly are (being from God) and what we are not (not God). It is perceivable that the Pseudo-Dionysius got this from the neo-plationists particularly Plotinus. Plotinus’ “metaphysics” of Exitus – Reditus, the One radiating itself as a matter of nature, of necessity, and in the process, goes back to itself. But of course he gives a Christian flavor to this by “reconstructing” it as God radiating Himself (the Good) as a matter not anymore of nature but of freedom. In a way God gives, and the creature receives, and in the process goes back to God. In the end, we become like God, we become true and faithful to our being.

The second point was on the triple process of katharsis, photismos, and henosis. The first process of Katharsis (purgatio) is the purgation and purification of the “soul.” It is the removal of all that is not God. It is the Self’s process of “self-emptying” for the Divine being to “enter in.” It is the phase of utter receptivity and openness. It is “clearing the ground” for the next process to be possible. The second process of Photismos (illuminatio) is the attainment of the awareness of the presence of God. It is a higher phase for once the soul is emptied of all that is not God, the soul becomes keen to the presence of God. God is seen as the Light, the Light that sheds its light to the soul, and the Light that manifests its light to the creature. Though this is a higher phase but it is not the end. If we may say, it is only the beginning. The third and the ultimate process is that of Henosis (unio). It is the ultimate union with God. This is the end, the completion, the perfection. The Pseudo-Dionysius apparently stresses the centrality of these processes. For the soul to truly reach its “perfection,” to fulfill its telos, the “what it is made for,” the soul has to be rid itself of all that is not God for it to be open to receive God; it must reach the level of being aware of the presence of God; and finally, it reaches its ultimate goal – union with God.

And the final point was on an epistemological approach to God – the cataphasis and apophasis. The Pseudo-Dionysius posits that we can talk about God (a certain knowledge of God if one wishes) in two ways. The first is that of Cataphasis (via affirmativa). It is based on sense experience. We can put attributes to God based on how we “experience” Him and His presence in our lives. If I may put it, it is a certain spiritual/theological phenomenology. We say that God is good, and this “judgment” is based on our experience; and we can say more about God – loving, kind, merciful, etc… In a way this is perceivable but on a deeper level it is deficient. We cannot articulate God’s attributes based primarily on our sense experience. And this is the realm of the second way, the Apophasis (via negativa). The Pseudo-Dionysius states that not only is God above and way beyond our sense experience, He is also above and way beyond all intelligible perceptions. We can only “negate” God’s attributes. We “negate” not because the Divine attributes are less, but precisely because He is MORE, though not in terms of quantitative quality. In this third point, the Pseudo-Dionysius only drives at one basic assumption – in reality we do not know God. All we can know about Him is precisely resolved by the fact that we cannot know Him. That the most apt and the fullest knowledge of God is unknowing, that God is neither is nor is not. That God is beyond all affirmations and all negations. The via negativa then is a liberation from all that is not God (including my pretentious knowledge of the Divine) so that I may be lifted up to the realm of the Divine Darkness, the point of sheer and utter receptivity.

This drives us then to conclude that this corpus Areopagiticum is a discourse about God and a discourse addressed to God. To realize that God is semper maior, the One who is beyond and above all beings. Finally, this discourse about God hopes that the ultimate finality of henosis is reached, the union with God, the becoming one with the One. In the end, this union establishes in the soul the Silence which fully expresses its praise, the certain level of fullness to the point of excess, a fullness that cannot be contained.

Having explicitated these points from the corpus Areopagiticum, I will now attempt to articulate my personal reflections and understanding of the Proslogion having some of those points as background or key. Saint Anselm’s Proslogion is a project that seeks God, and in a manner, understand/reach God. We can better appreciate the Anselmian points in Chapter I through the Dionysian point of Katharsis. St. Anselm begins by inviting the possible reader to escape from the tumult of human thoughts, to put aside worldly cares and to free one’s self for God; to turn to the inner chamber of one’s soul and to shut out everything save God, including all those which can help you in seeking Him. It is helpful and it will earn spiritual gain if we focus on the phrase shut out everything save God for this will help us focus on God alone. But the second phrase including all those which can help you in seeking Him may appear absurd for the common thinker. Why would one shun even those that can help us reach God? It is inconceivable to consider that we let go of those “information” that we have, those which we can consider pedagogical tools that will help us in our quest to understand/reach God. But the Dionysian notion of Katharsis (purgation) will bring into context and will clarify this. St. Anselm invites the reader to shun before him everything – even our preconceived notions (pretentious knowledge) of God. It is only upon “clearing the ground” of our souls can we reach the state of openness and receptivity. For St. Anselm, it is only upon emptying our very selves can we be open and docile to receive freely the grace that we are asking – to understand aliquatenus of God’s truth, the truth that the heart believes and loves. In the same manner, it was only when Our Lady emptied herself of everything – fear, apprehensions, “buts and ifs”… that she became free to receive the Ultimate Truth, that she became worthy to bear the Eternal Word.

Saint Anselm presents in Chapter V another “philosophical name” of God. In Chapter II, he posits a certain “philosophical” name of God – “That greater than which nothing can be thought,” and in this chapter he proposes two other names – “ Summum Omnium” (Supreme Being) and “Quidquid melius est esse quam non esse” (whatever it is better to be than not to be). This definitely is a revelabilia, a truth that God chose to reveal though it can be logically demonstrated. The Anselmian claim of God as Summum Omnium who exists through Himself alone and who made everything else from nothing is a “demonstration” as it were, of the Dionysian point of photismos. To realize the presence of the Divine in the world, in one’s life, leads to a deeper realization of the greatness of this presence. The Presence who makes all other “presences” possible is the Summum Omnium. And the other name Quidquid melius est esse quam non esse could be seen as a demonstration of the Dionysian notion of cataphasis. As expressed earlier as a spiritual phenomenology, one arrives at a certain definition/attribute of God. We could appreciate then this philosophical name better if we understand the via affirmativa of the Pseudo-Dionysius. St. Anselm apparently can claim that God is just, truthful, happy, and whatever it is better to be than not to be, a demonstration that our experiences, though may hint as at God, yet cannot exhaust the reality of God. In a way we may talk about God but He transcends above and beyond our “talk.” Hence, this moves St. Anselm to posit that God, may be experienced by us in Faith, yet He is Quidquid melius est esse quam non esse simply because He is Summum Omnium. We may call Him as such simply because our limited and finite human comprehension cannot grasp His reality.

Jumping off to Chapter XV, which could be considered as the “center” of the whole Proslogion, St. Anselm once more reaches a point where he gives another philosophical name of God – “Quid maior sit quam cogitari possit” (greater than can be thought). St. Anselm presents that He can not only be conceived as the one greater than which nothing can be thought, and as the one whatever it is better to be than not to be, but he is greater than can be thought. We had a demonstration of this in the Dionysian notion of apophasis. As pointed out earlier, we can never really give a definition of or an attribute to God because the reality of God is greater than can be reached by the finitude of our understanding. Hence, the Pseudo-Dionysius assumes that our best knowledge of God is unknowing. We can never really think about God. A point that St. Anselm precisely presents in this chapter. In a way yes, we can think about Him but our thinking of Him in reality is not Him. Simply because He is Quid maior sit quam cogitari possit. This, I believe is the best Anselmian definition of God.

The Dionysian concept of unknowing will explain further the point stressed by St. Anselm in Chapter XXV. This chapter for me, is the heart of the Proslogion. This chapter expresses what St. Anselm and all of us truly desire – UNION WITH GOD. Saint Anselm here supports the affective inevitability of not desiring God. All of us desire God. That is our purpose, which in fact is our telos. St. Anselm looks for God, seeks to find Him, and he desires to love Him once he finds Him. Ibi est, ibi est quidquid amatis, quidquid desideratis. We may not know it yet whatever it is that we pine for, whatever it is that we look for, whatever it is that we love, God is there. The Pseudo-Dionysius calls this the unknowing. We do not know God. In the same way, we can say that in deepest reality, we do not know that we love God. But even if we do not know, Saint Anselm assures us, it is God – it is He that we desire, that we hunger for, that we truly love. It could be liken to the story of this Korean Jesuit who entered the novitiate, professed his vows, studied for the priesthood, and finally ordained a presbyter. Yet, even after a couple of decades in the Society, he still cannot truly say that he loves God. But he loves to be with people, he loves to minister to the poor, he loves to administer and celebrate the sacraments. In the mind of St. Anselm, those very things that he loves… God is there! Ibi est, ibi est quidquid amatis, quidquid desideratis. And in a way, we see the henosis of the Pseudo-Dionysius. For me, it is in loving that which we love can we be united, “conjoined” to the beloved.

Saint Anselm ends the Proslogion in Joy. Saint Anselm may not have fully attained that which he desired – to be ultimately united with God, yet he ends in joy because he knows that in this joy, the joy which could be considered as a participation in God, he will attain to the fullest that which he partially experiences now. It is this joy that spurs him to hope, to hope in the Lord. We could appreciate more this Anselmian notion of Gaudium Plenum in the context of the Dionysian Silence. The silence which expresses fully the praise of the creature. The silence that is the attainment of a certain fullness to the point of excess, to the verge of being uncontained. St. Anselm ends by addressing the Divine Majesty:

God of truth, I ask that I may receive, so that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it, let my soul hunger for it, my flesh thirst for it, and my whole being desire it…

In a way, it expresses the soul’s desire to be totally wrapped up in the divine Silence, in the Lord’s promised gaudium plenum.

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