LiveJournal has some truly hideous layouts. I kid you not. Perhaps their designers were seeing whether the monkeys-writing-Hamlet hypothesis actually worked if you let the chimps randomly fling paint against a canvas? Or is this all a fiendish plot to get us to upgrade to a paid account, where the designs are marginally better? I honestly have no clue.
Why bring this up today? The Christian blogosphere is abuzz, as it is every year, over ChurchRelevance's release of the top 200 church blogs. It's being criticized - again, par for the course - for being majorly light on non-white, non-male bloggers. And reading the conversation it struck me: even if my blog was big enough to qualify for something like this (it's not) or even if I particularly wanted to be included on this list (I don't), my blog doesn't really have the kind of "brand" that would work there. I guess you could call it "Marta's Mathoms," which is the title I've had since LJ made me type something in when setting up this account.
But I wanted something a bit more meaningful and less generic. And I wanted a better layout, too. Ergo: the new title + skin.
My LJ username, "fidesquaerens" is the first part of a sort-of slogan you see in the early medieval period, mainly in philosophers like Augustine and Anselm. The full version is "Fides Quaerens Intellectum" - "Faith Seeking Understanding." It's also the original, rejected title of the "Proslogion," which is at the center of my dissertation topic. So it seemed as appropriate a title as any.
It's also fiendishly easy to misunderstand. As Thomas Williams notes in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Anselm:
Many philosophers have taken [the saying "faith seeking understand"] to mean that Anselm hopes to replace faith with understanding. If one takes ‘faith’ to mean roughly ‘belief on the basis of testimony’ and ‘understanding’ to mean ‘belief on the basis of philosophical insight’, one is likely to regard faith as an epistemically substandard position; any self-respecting philosopher would surely want to leave faith behind as quickly as possible. The theistic proofs are then interpreted as the means by which we come to have philosophical insight into things we previously believed solely on testimony. But as argued in Williams 1996, Anselm is not hoping to replace faith with understanding. Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead” (M 78). (For the abbreviations used in references, see the Bibliography below.) So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” (emphasis added)
Coming from an encyclopedia written by and for philosophers, it contains a lot of those technical terms that I was always having to look up when I first started grad school. So let me try to unpack it a little. A lot of people use "faith" like it's a step on the road to belief and finally to knowledge. Say I present you with some complicated math expression like this:
cos(50)*cos(40) + sin(50)*sin(40)
... and ask you to simplify it down to a single term. After some head-scratching and quite possibly murderous looks on your part I take pity on you and say it's the cos(10). Obviously! No scratch work needed on my part, and I swear in blood I didn't work it out beforehand. I have a math degree, and I seem in confident in what I'm doing. You take it on faith that I am right - this is "belief on the basis of testimony."
And maybe you leave it at that, because you don't really care and have every reason to trust me. Maybe you test me using a calculator and see that the long expression does work out to a decimal very close to the cos(10). Or maybe you get me to show you how I solved that problem (it involves a trigonometry identity I memorized back in high school). Maybe - if you're a much better trigonometrician than I ever was - you even understand *why* this identity works out to be true. Any of these things would give you a reason to believe my answer, other than just your trust in me. No faith required. And this is exactly the kind of thing philosophy seems to drive at. A good thing, right?
Only that's not what Anselm means at all. Faith isn't a starting point that we move beyond. It's something else entirely. I love Williams's definition of faith as "an active love seeking a deeper knowledge." It reminds me of one of my favorite bits of Plato, in the "Theaetetus." Socrates supposes that the boy Theaetetus must have thought about a great number of things and Theaetetus replies that he hadn't thought about things, but that he had wondered a great deal. I can almost see Theaetetus's sheepish expression, because he's sure he'll disappoint this wise man. But the Socrates in my mind just grins widely, claps his hand on his leg that this child has gotten the distinction Socrates probably wishes the "wise" men of Athens would get, and says those words I had pinned up in the logic lab where I worked at my M.A. program: "Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder."
For Anselm, faith isn't a way of knowing, a level of belief - it's the "volitional" state, the drive that prompts us to reach with all our might for something just beyond our grasp. Anselm doesn't think we can fully understand God, at least not on our own (knowing God involves something almost miraculous, though Anselm thinks it's quite common). Knowing for Anselm isn't just a matter of weighing the facts available using experiment and observation and logical analysis. At least when it comes to the things on the periphery of human understanding, it's very much a moral project.
The more I think about the things that matter to me - and this includes so much more than just God-talk - the less satisfied I become with simple logical analysis. Faith seeking understanding means I am so bothered by something I can't make sense of that I can't quite leave the problem alone. Things like the reality and pointlessness of suffering, justice vs. mercy, or what we Protestants might call "the depravity of man" - humanity's true gift for shooting our neighbor in the foot only to find out our own foot was in the way as well. I am driven to distraction by these things, I cannot sleep, I am always turning some new aspect of it over in my brain. Rational thought plays a role, to be sure, but faith questing after understanding (as the phrase is sometimes translated) means I have something inside of me driving me to focus on these things and reach for a deeper, better understanding of the issues involved untiil I nearly throw my arm out of its socket.
And really, that's what I'm trying to do here, in a nutshell. On my best days, and with my deepest thinky-thoughts. There will continue to be cute cats and political musings and fannish fun, and hopefully actually fanfic. To say nothing of RL happenings.
That's a long explanation! But I thought it might help, since on its own it might seem like I'll only be talking about religion. Or that I'm downplaying science, or think you have to have religious faith to get to understanding of any kind, or don't want to hear from my nonreligious friends or anything. Not true. It's just a useful phrase that, to me, stands for the moral side of learning and knowing.
Btw - if anyone finds a better LJ skin or wants to design me one, I wouldn't say no. The one I ended choosing isn't bad, and aesthetically it's definitely the best one I saw, but the header graphic is something of a non sequitur.