This time around I gave myself two weeks of hardcore Anselm in the medieval class, and it’s going really well. I always enjoy teaching Anselm because he’s so thoroughly “discussable” — he has relatively clear argumentative steps, uncluttered by scriptural citations or other appeals to authority (which many students view as prima facie evidence that an author is a fundamentalist or something, so that they don’t really view a text with a lot of citations as an actual argument), and yet he comes to really strange conclusions. Simply walking them through the argument in a Socratic way usually works fine to make sure we’re all on the same page, and along the way there’s always plenty of oddball claims that they want me to follow up on.
The ontological argument, for instance, is basically custom-built for interesting discussion, because of the sensation that (a) it can’t be right and yet (b) you can’t figure out where exactly it went wrong. It’s not as easily dismissable as the various arguments based on using God to plug the hole of infinite regress, and it manages to smuggle more “content” into the idea of God than those ones tend to. And Why God Became Man is a perfect prism for the distinctive concerns of medieval culture and how they present an inflection point between the patristic age and modern times — while at the same time providing the idiosyncratic weirdness we expect from Anselm (for instance, the whole notion of the “heavenly city,” the emphasis on God saving face, the fact that Christ’s death isn’t a vicarious punishment but a massive influx of “extra credit,” the total lack of discussion of God’s love, etc.).
Basically, I find that Anselm is perfect for convincing students of two non-negotiable baseline points that are essential for understanding theology:
- Theology at its best is about actual arguments that you can analyze, not simply about arguments from authority.
- Theology at its best is way weirder than you would expect — not always in a good way, but usually at least in an interesting way.