Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

Let’s reinvent the wheel a little bit.  By the end of this we will have come back around to a very common, very basic doctrine of the Catholic Church.  In writing this I have in mind primarily my students, for whom connecting all the things we teach is usually very difficult.


We begin with justice, the repaying of debts that we owe.  Among all the different kinds of justice-relations we can find ourselves in, the just person above all recognizes that there are some debts that can never be properly repaid.  To be truly just is to attempt to repay those debts anyway, even knowing that it will never really be done.

By way of introductory example, consider the case of one person saving another person’s life.  It doesn’t seem strange to imagine a person feeling that they could never repay their savior, but that they would in any event constantly strive to do so.  Just because “thanks” or “a check for a million dollars” doesn’t seem to cover the debt doesn’t mean we should do nothing.  It’s not hard to imagine the indebted party gladly doing good for their savior in a variety of ways, hoping that some day they could reciprocate in some genuine way.  Anyone who shrugged and ceased to care about their debt because of the inadequacy of their efforts would be wicked. Continue reading Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

Christ and the Alien

Pretty soon my students will be asking me questions about how aliens from other planets factor into the economy of salvation.  No, seriously.  It’s one of the most common questions I face throughout the spring semester as we talk about human nature, Original Sin, and Christ’s saving work.

I first encountered this line of worry in my college metaphysics class, taught at Franciscan University by the most fittingly eccentric metaphysics professor one could ever hope to have.  Naturally, it was the delightfully weird professor himself who brought it up; I’ve been fascinated ever since.  What follows is roughly how I walk my students through the issue when they ask.

First thing’s first: despite the wonders of imagining, despite the fact that I myself am a sci-fi and fantasy nerd who hopes that all such enchanting things are real, despite the fact that pop science remains committed to it, it really must be said that there might not be any other rational creatures in the universe.  Maybe the universe really is just vast and beautiful so that we can marvel at it and never travel to see any of it.  I don’t really want that to be true but it’s worth considering.  More to our point here, maybe the universe is teeming with bizarro aliens but none of them are rational creatures.  The only way the alien question becomes theologically interesting is if there are Predators or Klingons or Goa’uld or whatever out there.

Listen, Catholics already believe in the existence of non-human rational creatures.  If you ask Aquinas, there’s like billions of species of them out there.  We call them angels.  There doesn’t seem to be any requirement that all rational creatures in the universe share biological descent.  Getting weirded out by Necromongers seems a little silly at that point. And yes, I’m going to keep flashing my nerd cred until someone is impressed. Continue reading Christ and the Alien

Cur Deus Homo Index

I’m still catching my breath from finishing up the academic year and gearing myself up to tackle the second volume of Cur Deus Homo.  To keep the ball rolling, here’s a link to a new page on my side bar that coordinates all my previous posts on the subject.  “One Day” I will take the time to clean it up and make it pretty, assuming I don’t try to convert the posts into articles for

Lots of parts still need a re-write, especially toward the end as I was straining to finish book one before the end of the school year.  Hopefully this summer will give me a few windows of opportunity.

Cur Deus Homo Collection here.

Cur Deus Homo I.19-25

(Continuing from our digression on angels in CDH I.16-18)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

What Anselm has covered so far:

  1. Sin is a problem that must be fixed.  God cannot ignore it or His plan would fail.
  2. God cannot delegate this task to another creature or we would no longer be servants of God alone and equal to the holy angels.
  3. Sin is a problem of justice.  Every injustice has a primary fault–depriving someone of their due–and a secondary fault–damaging that person’s honor.  Each of these facets of injustice cause the order of the universe to be disrupted.  Until each issue has been resolved, disorder reigns.
  4. There are only two ways to resolve the secondary damage to honor: punishment and satisfaction.
  5. The punishment of hell fails to re-order the universe because, by resolving one disorder, another is caused or perpetuated.

So that brings us to the most famous part of Anselm’s argument, wherein he addresses the problem of satisfaction.  This is why Anselm’s argument is often referred to as the “Satisfaction Theory.”

The Analogy of the Pearl

Before diving into his analysis of the satisfaction horn, Anselm returns to the idea that God cannot simply ignore the problem of sin.  He refreshes the dilemma by relating the problem of sin in the form of a short allegory. Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.19-25

Cur Deus Homo I.16-18

(Continuing from justice and order in CDH I.11-15)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

Angels.  The answer is angels!

In order to close out his discussion of punishment Anselm has to show hell’s insufficiency for restoring order to the universe.  His strong case for punishment as an instrument of order and beauty in chapters fourteen and fifteen makes that difficult.  If it works so well, why not just let the punishment of hell regulate the order and beauty of the universe and be done with the problem of justice?

The problem, it turns out, is not intrinsic to punishment itself.  Instead the punishment of hell conflicts with God’s original plan for mankind and the universe.  Anselm alludes to this divine plan way back in chapters four and five when setting the initial argument with Boso and insisting that God must do something about sin.  In chapters sixteen through eighteen, Anselm returns to that idea and makes the plan explicit.

Working from his favorite Patristic source, St. Augustine, Anselm extends the idea about the order and beauty of the universe.  As God is supremely wise, all that He does must be supremely orderly and proportional–beautiful, as we have said many times.  Part of the order and beauty of the universe, indeed the pinnacle of that order and beauty, is the City of God, the kingdom of heaven itself.  It is the signet of perfection; that anything detract from this perfection is impossible.

The supreme order and beauty of the City of God no doubt has many aspects, but Anselm focuses on one in particular: it has an ideal number of citizens.  No one can know this number save God, but Anselm commits to there being such a number.  That’s a big problem, since sin destroyed that ideal number.

No, not the sin of Adam.  The sin of the angels. Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.16-18

Cur Deus Homo I.11-15

(Continuing from the excursus on CDH I.6-10)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

The argument of Cur Deus Homo begins in earnest in chapter eleven.  It’s possible to stumble through the first ten chapters and still more or less understand St. Anselm’s book, but anyone not understanding these next few chapters will be absolutely incapable of understanding the rest of the book.  This is where the detail work begins.  Errors at this stage are fatal.  Anyone looking to take down the argument should start taking careful notes from here on out.

Anselm is going to propose a theory of justice–often called the Satisfaction Theory, for reasons that are about to be very obvious–and then use that theory to create a dilemma.  In the technical sense a dilemma is a set of mutually exclusive propositions A and B that exhaust all the possible options.  You can only choose one of the two options and you must choose.  For the rest of the book Anselm plans to exploit that dilemma to prove the necessity of the Incarnation.  The way he does this is a little strange, but we’ll comment on that as the argument goes along. Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.11-15

Cur Deus Homo I.6-10

(continuing from the initial stages of the dialogue in CDH I.3-5)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

I have mixed feelings about presenting the next block of chapters in Cur Deus Homo.  On the one hand I regard these chapters as a messy excursus that adds very little to the overall argument of the book.  As a result I don’t teach these chapters to my students, instead skipping directly to the theory of justice and satisfaction St. Anselm presents in chapter eleven.  If this series were merely a codification of my teaching, I would do the same here.

However, I’m also making the claim that St. Anselm is not particularly interested in the question of how God saves humanity from sin and death.  To skip any part of the text suggests something shifty about my claim, as if I were cooking the books.  Even more importantly, Anselm and Boso discuss Christ’s death and so at least appear to raise some issues about the mechanics of salvation.  Perhaps I only draw the conclusions I do because I skip these chapters!

Anselm and Boso do address some issues relating to my main claim as well as some useful matters of method for the rest of the book.  Rather than straw-manning St. Anselm or giving the appearance thereof, and since these chapters do have a charm of their own, I’ll go ahead and give a commentary on them here.  Keep in mind that this is “untaught analysis”–nothing like the endlessly repeated, student-questioned material from the other sections of text I have covered already or will in the future.

In theory that means this will be a shorter post! Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.6-10

Cur Deus Homo I.3-5

(Continuing from our opening salvo on CDH I.1-2)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?”

Three initial attempts to answer this question bring us successively closer to understanding it.  At each stage Boso challenges Anselm’s answer and forces him to find a more fundamental level.  The three phases of their argument correspond with chapters three through five:

  1. conveniens (ch. 3)
  2. omnipotent planners can’t fail (ch. 4)
  3. whom shall we serve? (ch. 5)

Beauty, then and now

In chapter three Boso re-introduces the question of the book as a non-believer challenge that the Incarnation is unbecoming the divine nature and to attribute such a thing to God is an injustice.  Right off the bat, to understand all that comes next, we have to look more closely at this “unbecoming” idea.  The Latin is videntur non convenire; these things “seem not to convene.”  What’s that mean? Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.3-5

Cur Deus Homo I.1-2

Cur Deus Homo, or Why the God-Man, is not concerned with the question of how God saves the human race.  Now let’s spend a few posts defending that claim and maybe walking it back a little.

St. Anselm is often called the Father of Scholasticism; the introduction to his masterpiece, Cur Deus Homo, marks him as the Father of Modern Academic Writing.  Academia is full of writing like this, with extraordinary attention to framing the question, managing expectations, anticipating and defusing objections, and generally trying to talk ourselves and our audience out of the project altogether.  Appearing in a work this old seems wildly out of place; there’s something almost neurotic about St. Anselm’s preemptive apologia in this landmark work of Christology.

St. Anselm was a philosopher-monk at heart, a man who wanted nothing better than to meditate in his cell and uncover the mysteries of the Mystery for an audience of one.  Much to his later sorrow, his intellectual greatness and association with that worldly genius, Lanfranc, conspired to draw him into the world of public disputation and argumentative theology.  In an earlier foray into that public arena St. Anselm got burned, fighting over the Trinity and defending himself against accusations of heresy.  It was simply not a mode of discourse that suited his temper.

So when, just a few years later, he sallied forth to answer the masters of Laon in Cur Deus Homo, he began his work with much greater care.  That care must be closely attended so as not to go astray in understanding his subsequent argument. Continue reading Cur Deus Homo I.1-2

Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue

One of my bright Form III (9th grade) students decided to imitate his older brother and compose his final exam essay question as a dialogue in imitation of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.  He’s nailed the tone of St. Anselm and thrown back some of Boso’s most sycophantic replies.

Somewhat like my previous Final post from my Quaestio-spinning junior, this answer format puts more focus on his argument and cuts out a lot of flim-flam.  His order of presentation is also quite nice–a good streamlining of St. Anselm’s work.  A fine project: Continue reading Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue