Faith seeking understanding. I’ve discussed this concept before, or used the phrase assuming that it was understood by my readers. However, I thought a post specifically addressing this concept was a good idea.
The 11th century writer Anselm of Canterbury became known for 2 phrases: “Faith seeking understanding”, and “I believe, in order that I may understand.” I suppose on the surface, or to a 21st century mind, that this may not initially make sense. “Faith first and then understanding? But how can I place my faith in something that I don’t understand? That isn’t logical. Wouldn’t that be blind faith?” – However, the 12th century birthed a period of Christianity that was actually very concerned with the role of reason and Christianity. A need was seen to demonstrate the rationality of Christian theology. They sought to systematically explore and arrange the tenets of Christianity so that they could be better understood.
Yet, faith was primary, and took priority over reason. Anselm’s basic insight was that even though faith came before understanding, the content of that faith was still rational and reasonable. Maybe you are still thinking, “huh?”. Let’s keep going.
Of course, you can’t place your faith in nothing or some mysterious unknown. There is a spectrum between complete ignorance and complete understanding. Think of a line, with ignorance on the far left and understanding on the far right. In order to place your faith in something you will need some understanding of it, to have moved at least a few notches up from ignorance. However, you can place your faith in something without having reached the far right side of complete understanding. That is the nature of faith. There are very few things in life (if any) where we will ever reach complete understanding! Even science reaches dead ends, has unanswered questions, and mysteries.
[For more thoughts in that direction, see this post: Without Faith?. If we always demand rock-solid proof for everything in life, we will end up skeptics on many, many issues. We’ll find ourselves unable to live, and in a paralyzing state. Faith is integral to human life! We exercise faith everyday in different ways. Despite uncertainty, we make a decision.]
But to continue. Anselm’s phrase faith seeking understanding reminds me of Hebrews 11:6 – “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
When we step out in faith, it changes us. We are rewarded, so to speak, with new vision and understanding. We can hear a tune where we previously only heard noise. I like how Alister McGrath says it:
The human mind is not replaced or displaced by faith, rather, it is illuminated and energized through faith…which leads to a new way of thinking that enables the discernment of deeper levels of reality than unaided human reason or sight permit.
Some things can only be properly understood from the inside. Yes, there are advantages to being an outsider at times. An atheist or agnostic or simply a non-believer in Christianity may offer valuable critique that we as Christians need to consider. Yet, there are limits to their understanding (ours too actually, 1 Cor. 13:12) that their lack of faith will never allow them to grasp or see. I read of a scholar who criticized atheistic methods of theological study because of their inadequate perception of the text – There are limits to how much you can usefully say about the stained glass windows of King’s College Chapel without actually going inside the building.
An agnostic friend of mine, struggling with the idea of faith, was worried about placing her faith in Christianity without enough evidence or understanding. But what is enough? No one will ever reach complete understanding. At some point, you must exercise faith – or come inside the building – and from there you will be able to move forward in understanding.
An Introduction to the New Testament by Carson and Moo, Heresy by Alister McGrath, Christian Theology by Alister McGrath.