Faith seeking understanding

Faith - what's the understanding we're seeking?

Holding on to faith amidst life's tragedies and traumas defies rational analysis for many, says Mark Lindsay, so he asks, how should Christians seek to understand their faith?

By Mark Lindsay

October 4 2018 

Every editor, propagandist, and (good) author, knows the value of a pithy title or a witty tag-line that catches peoples’ attention and draws them in to conversation. Apparently, so too did St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Best known for his ontological ‘proof’ for the existence of God, it is in fact Anselm’s famous aphorism, fides quaerens intellectum – ‘faith seeking understanding’ – that gives this column its title. And it’s not surprising that this short phrase of his has been recycled repeatedly over the centuries, because it does the very job that editors love; it captures the attention, and arouses curiosity. The problem is, not only have we tended to misunderstand what Anselm was on about, my hunch is that we now also need to re-interpret what his idiom means for us, in our own, very different, 21st Century context. 

When Anselm himself coined the phrase in c.1075, he intended it as a sort of methodology by which he thought it possible to come, not only to believe in God, but actually to know that God in whom he believed. For Anselm, faith was not the end of the journey, but only its beginning. To come to know, or understand – which, for Anselm, meant to come to be in a relationship with – the God of one’s belief could only strengthen that belief, not harm it. In other words, the understanding of God for which Anselm yearned was not a complex metaphysical replacement for faith, but rather a fuller expression of it. To put it slightly differently, faith should not be left behind once understanding has been gained; rather, our understanding should serve to strengthen and embolden our faith.

In the 900 years since his death, Anselm’s point – that a relational understanding of God enriches faith in God – has often, unfortunately, been turned on its head. Fides quaerens intellectum is now far too routinely hijacked by a more overtly rationalist assumption that, if faith is good, then logic is even better. Faith (so the argument goes) might make us feel good, but it’s only with the addition of logic and clear-sighted analysis that faith can help us make sense of the world in which we live. In my opinion, however, such an interpretation not only denudes Anselm’s catch-cry of its original meaning but, ironically, actually hampers our attempts to find, and to give, solace in this present age. Why? Because frankly not everything in this world is meaningful, or understandable – and neither the profoundest of faiths, nor the sharpest of logic, can change that.


The Revd Prof Mark Lindsay is Interim Dean and Joan FW Munro Professor of Historical Theology, Trinity College Theological School.

To read the full article and more articles from TMA, subscribe here.