Cookie Monster and the limits of the theological enterprise



In my Facebook feed this week, I found something that warms my brought-up-on-Sesame-Street heart: “Cookie Monster ponders the mysteries of the universe.”

“Are you ready for some mind-altering, existential truth?” writes Boing Boing’s Maggie Tokuda-Hall. “Then by all means, behold: Cookie Monster. Not afraid to ask the difficult questions, his inquiring mind is like a tour guide for the hungry.”

Cookie Monster, lost in deep thought, wanders the corridors of the Guggenheim in New York. He gazes through the windows. He contemplates Van Gogh’s Starry Night. He meditates on a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. At each station, he turns to the camera and utters an insight:

“Onion rings are vegetable donuts.”

“Your stomach thinks all potatoes are mashed.”

“Lobsters are mermaids to scorpions.”

“Lasagna is just spaghetti-flavored cake!” 

I am subject to bizarre turns of mind. So these Phylosophical Dictes and Sayenges of Cookie Monster* made me consider the noted eleventh-century theologian Anselm of Canterbury. And to get to him, I had to go through Garry Wills. No, seriously. Stay with me here.

In his 2013 book Why Priests?, Wills journeys through the theology of atonement, attempting to parse out the origins of the Mass as sacrifice–and from there, he argues, the origins of the Catholic priesthood as we know it. One of Wills’ sojourns takes him to Anselm’s argument for who ultimately killed Jesus and why. Here, I insert a dramatically oversimplified summary of Anselm’s Why God-Man?: divine justice required Jesus’ death, and also required that the Persons of the Trinity will and accomplish it in a specific, choreographed manner.

Anselm’s treatment is legendary for its minutely-detailed, rigorous execution of gee-whiz intellectual gymnastics. And Wills provides a breathtaking summary of the outcome: “Anselm faced a problem no one had summoned the nerve to deal with before in any thorough way–the idea that God killed God. But he found a way to make God guiltless of the murder that he, nonetheless, committed.”

Wills further elaborates:

In the same way, Anselm sifts through the Persons of the Trinity to determine the proper division of labor for saving mankind, by incarnating one of the Persons in human flesh. Should it be the Father or the Spirit, rather than the Son? No, because there would then be two sons of God, the Second Person (Logos) as one, with either the Father or the Spirit, whichever took flesh from the Virgin Mary, as the second son of God. Besides, the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary by descending on her, which would make it unfitting for him to be his own son. And the Father, as a son of Mary, would be his own grandson.

Anselm thought of everything. Everything. In fact, he thought of so much everything that I, like Wills, wonder if he might have better spent his time and brilliance elsewhere.

To interpret God’s will in the manner that Anselm did–as if it were a dissection specimen in some advanced research biology class, or a chemical formula in a lab–can get you into trouble. It is like peeling an onion to get to the center. There is no center, only layers. Moreover, after ripping the bulb to pieces, getting watery eyes, and blowing your nose a lot, all you’ve done is maul the original onion beyond recognition, while building a pile of Kleenex.

We do best when we stick to, and live out, the simplest and most irreducible mysteries. Such mysteries must stand as postulates: the love of God; the ability of Word to become flesh, and of flesh to become Word; the pattern of witness, death, and resurrection; rebirth in the water; the breaking of the bread; and the challenge that everyone, but everyone, be welcomed in God’s house.

We can’t get behind these mysteries; they leave clues, but have no solution. Yet they beg for engagement. And you know you are engaging when you experience the same wide-eyed awe that Cookie Monster does concerning other simple, irreducible wonders. Like spaghetti-flavored cake. Or vegetable donuts.


* In another example of the bizarre turns of mind to which I am subject, that right there is a reference to Dictes and Sayenges of the Phylosophers, the first dated book to be printed in England, presented to Edward IV in 1477. I dare you to find another blogger who’ll give you that and Cookie Monster, too.

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