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Teaching Anselm’s Proslogion

February 12, 2010 16 comments

Reading Brian’s last post brought Anselm of Canterbury to mind.  He’s a medieval who has often been read as a philosopher.  He is the supposed inventor of the “ontological argument” for the existence of God: an argument which would later be polished up by Descartes and spawn centuries of debate regarding its logical validity (see Alvin Plantinga’s helpful little book on The Ontological Argument).  More recently Anselm has been approached as a spiritual writer: a person of prayer and deep existential faith.  Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, can perhaps be given some credit for getting the ball rolling on this more pious line of interpretation.

And yet, the question remains open: How are we supposed to teach Anselm now?  As rigorous philosopher or pious monk?  I faced this problem directly last semester, when given the opportunity to lecture on Anselm to a group of undergraduate theology majors.  I tried to strike a balance, but I think I ultimately slid more toward the pious reading.  In retrospect, I’m not sure this was ideal.  A real balance seems important, if only as a way of being honest about what’s in the text.  Yes, most of it is composed as a prayer, an address to God as “You.”  But the second and third chapters are an argument, in which God is not “You” but “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

In the future, I might try something like this: Anselm’s argument is a real argument.  He thinks you should be able to know with certainty that God exists provided that you understand that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.  But we won’t be able to judge the validity of Anselm’s logic unless we grasp that this understanding is a lofty goal.  It’s not enough to have the words in your mind.  You’ve got to understand, deeply, what they mean–and what it means in particular for something to be “greater” than something else.  Anselm seeks this depth of understanding through his contemplative and petitionary prayer, in which he allows scripture and his own experience to shed light on the contours of human desire, which both reveal and conceal our intuition of greatness.  In this way prayer–or something like the contemplation it enables–is necessary for us to test the validity of the argument.

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