Front St. Arts
Preface & Reader Response
It revealed the deep influence of religious culture even on those with a mind to reject conventional thinking about religion.
Concessions of Faith
AN ANSWER TO ANSELM 
A Last-Minute Entry in the Great Debate
by Jerry Murley
Companion Essay: A Theology of Hope
Two years ago I decided that I should start documenting some family stories and personal thoughts for my descendants. In particular I was thinking of my 25-years-old son, engaged in studies of his own far from home, in hopes that one day he will be prepared, inclined and have time to fully appreciate the world views that his parents have struggled to develop and articulate over long years. These are views that continue to evolve as we breathe life.
In that vein, I wrote two essays, or personal position papers, about my thoughts on God and prayer. Primarily I wanted my son and wife to have an understanding of my views at the time – views that are difficult to express coherently around the dinner table or driving in the car or sitting on the patio looking at a fire or at the stars. I have joined the essay about God to this introduction. Though I grandiosely entitled it "A Theology of Hope," it might just as easily, but perhaps more controversially, be entitled "The Concept of God IS God."
In 1970, when I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, I was taking a philosophy survey course at Memphis State. Having been a life-long practicing Baptist until that point, I had already made numerous adjustments in my views about religion based on exposure to science and trusted school teachers since 1959, political events and the social atmosphere of the 1960s, and a geology course that I was taking that fall semester in 1970 that introduced me to the theory of plate tectonics. I was trained to enjoy participation in lively debate about religion in the context of real life while in church classes over the preceding decade. I don't think the teachers perceived how much I enjoyed the engaged critical thinking or why. I was struck in that philosophy course by an excerpt by Anselm that we read; I was interested, in an undeveloped way, in the implications of his intensely logical and abstract arguments about God's existence.
Even today I recall the enjoyment of reading a segment of Catch-22 around the year 1968 or 1969. The dialogue featured two characters arguing about the nature of the God that they did not believe in. It demonstrated something simple but essential about the concept of God held by "non-believers." It revealed the deep influence of religious culture even on those with a mind to reject conventional thinking about religion. It presented the issues of pervasive suffering and hope in an appealing wrapper of absurdity.
Dear reader, I hope that you will try to read my essay and, if the mood strikes you and time permits, that you will try to determine where your ideas and mine stand in the historical continuum of this discussion: where these important personal ideas are on the spectrum of thinking about things divine. Perhaps I am much less agile and have a much more primitive technique than Anselm and haven't advanced the collective thought at all in terms of his place on the spectrum – so much for human evolution, modern education, and contemporary ways of passing time and living.
Back just before the last national elections of 2008, I started a personal online journal. I didn't intend for it to be entirely personal – it certainly is not a blog – but I have yet to entice many friends and family to contribute stories or essays to it. I guess there is just too much out there to digest and it is too hard to distinguish one form of opinion from another.
I have given long thought about posting the attached essay on theology in some form on my Web site, but I am more reserved on this point than usual. Most of my friends and family read the stories and essays on a regular basis. Some few of them are put off by any discussion of divinity. Others might be less appalled at perceived heresies in my thought than concern about the omission of familiar Biblical beliefs and doctrine in my writing. However, I think those who care most for me will enjoy seeing my thinking more clearly revealed – if one can describe abstruse amateur philosophy as clear. In their late years, I think even our older living parents want to better understand their children – as do we all.
Yet, I pause. I do not for a minute desire to undermine, blunt or corrupt the joy, comfort, guidance and sustenance others derive from their own religious or spiritual perspective, especially my friends and relatives and their children. I would not appreciate someone thoughtlessly darkening my joyful and rational view of religion and life. To tell the truth, I long for the day when anyone's spiritual life can be enriched by safe contact with the earnest – no, let's say lively – articulate seeking of others, no matter what the supporting doctrine and mythology. I would qualify that broad statement of acceptance by requiring that the shared seeking provide at least some of the basics of a practicable earthly ethic, and that its adherents not be overly eager to see the majority of humanity consigned to eternal damnation. In these times, I would think that older relatives and friends would be relieved that we of a succeeding generation, their intellectual heirs though bathed in advancing modernity, even think and talk about these subjects at all – though unconventionally. From their response to my previously posted essays and our occasional conversations on the matter, I think they are – somewhat. But being observed more closely and with some respect by one's family members gives one considered hesitation, for the burden of responsibility in terms of passing forward or translating cultural inheritance, especially religious doctrine and practice, is particularly grave.
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1. As I first unleash my theological ruminations on an unsuspecting world, I introduce them with this companion essay entitled "An Answer to Anselm," which is exactly what my theology is and more. However, who today knows who Anselm was or what his thoughts were? In many ways I am fortunate in that I live mentally, in part, in the Middle Ages. Living in a rural environment brings the best and worst of the Middle Ages back to mind on a daily basis. I still argue with minds of that time and with the minds of men since. Though mine is a minor mind itself, those minds at a minimum taught us not to be afraid to ask questions and pose answers to test in our everyday lives. I think the point of such thinking is participation in a continuing, living dialogue – a dialogue that is not necessarily between living beings in the conventional sense.
Anselm's significant contribution, as far as my thinking is involved, is the idea that God is that which no greater can be conceived. It is a difficult proposition to refute. It also opens a door for me in its reliance or focus or acknowledgement of the central role of reason in spiritual and ethical dialogue. I think we can have faith in a process as well as in reflected opinions, facts and received revelations. Where I differ most from Anselm is in the idea I forward which postulates that there can be (and are) many such conceptions and none will ever (because of debateable prespectives) capture or fully describe God. Perhaps I misunderstand or trivialize Anselm's thought, but that is not significant, because beyond question his idea, translated well or mistranslated, helps generate questions and answers many generations later. I have little doubt that many of the best and worst ideas of mankind have been earnestly constructed on misunderstandings about the respected or contested ideas that spawned them.