St. Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St. Anselm (of Canterbury, 1033-1109) was the somewhat undisciplined son of a noble landowner in Aosta, Italy. He eventually took monastic vows and rose among the ranks to become the archbishop of Canterbury.

St. Anselm is one of the earliest and most important scholastics of the Middle Ages. He’s best known for defining the ontological argument, a theological proof for the existence of God that is still taught in philosophy and theology courses today.

Like most theological proofs, the ontological argument seems self-evident to many believers but usually fails to convince skeptics. In the Proslogion Anselm writes that God is “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

So what does this mean? Let’s try to unpack it.

To be the very greatest thing imaginable, that thing must also exist in reality and not just in the mind. Therefore, so the argument goes, the greatest thing – God – is not just a concept, fantasy or hallucination. Instead, God is the greatest conceivable being which exists by necessity.

This argument was rejected on purely rational grounds by St. Thomas Aquinas who nevertheless believed in God. Aquinas believed in God. He just thought that Anselm’s argument was no good.

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...
Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

René Descartes used a strategy similar to Anselm’s when rescuing himself from difficulties that arose from his famous ontological argument. You’ve heard this argument, no doubt. It’s the old, “I think, therefore I am.”¹ Descartes knew that he, himself, existed, but he still wasn’t sure about the outside world. He could have lapsed into solipsism had he not further reasoned that God must be fundamentally good, so would not deceive him by presenting the mere illusion of an outer world. Instead, God created a real, outer world that is perceived by the senses—again, because God is fundamentally good and wouldn’t deceive his creatures.

But to return to St. Anselm, his view of faith and understanding is noteworthy and, one could say, reverses much of the worldly wisdom we’re continually bombarded with today. Instead of believing in something because it is comprehensible in the first place, Anselm takes another approach. He forwards these two important phrases:

  1. fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding)
  2. credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I can understand).

The second statement is based on St. Augustine’s teaching that one should believe in order to understand (crede, ut intelligas).

Taken together, these statements suggest that one must take a ‘leap of faith’ to better understand spiritual truths. For many this is an illogical or non-intellectual approach but it could be seen as logical in two related ways:

English: augustine at the school of tagaste
Augustine at the school of Tagaste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First of all, when we recognize the limits of worldly reason in understanding spiritual dynamics it arguably makes sense to, at least momentarily, cede logic to faith. This approach could possibly increase our knowledge—and we would never know otherwise unless we actually tried it.

Second, when one embraces a faith position, the inherent and greater logic of God’s ways – if actual and true – should become increasingly apparent to reason as time goes by (see, for example, Isaiah 55:6-9).

However, if the hypothesized greater logic of God’s ways does not make itself apparent after adopting a faith position, we then, after a reasonable amount of time, would have a logical, perhaps scientific, reason to reject the idea that greater intellectual understanding follows faith.

But, again, we would never know for sure and arguably would not be fully scientific unless we first tried this approach.²

¹ The British rock group The Moody Blues put an interesting twist on this argument in their 1969 lp, On the Threshold of a Dream. A voice-over at the beginning of the song “In the Beginning” says:

I think, I think I am, therefore I am, I think… [last two words are slightly quizzical]

² The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was the son of a Protestant clergyman who stressed that Carl should believe and not think. To his father’s dismay Jung replied, “Give me this belief” (C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, revised, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1961, p. 43). And this spells out the difference in emphasis between the gnostic who believes they know vs. the believer who strives to know or, perhaps, know more.


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