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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On the ontological argument.


I have always liked Saint Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. I don’t remember when or where I first learned of it, and I can’t remember a time when I did not know all the usual objections to it as well—it has the quality of being both beautifully simple and incomprehensible at the same time. The argument runs like this: God is understood as that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Furthermore, that which exists is greater than that which does not exist. If you can conceive of God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, but He does not exist, then you are not conceiving of Him properly: something greater still could be conceived which does exist. But it would be absurd for God to be both that-than-which-nothing-greater can be conceived and that-than-which-something-greater-can-be-conceived, so God must exist in order to be God. Therefore God exists.

I am not a trained philosopher, and even if I have represented Anselm’s intricate argument correctly here, smarter people than I have objected to it; indeed, as I experienced myself, it is almost impossible to learn of the argument without learning the standard objections to it. There is the Perfect Island objection, the Kantian objection, and of course Saint Thomas Aquinas’s objection: he agreed that if we could truly know God’s essence, we would know that He must exist; but we cannot know God’s essence in this life, and must demonstrate His existence through knowledge of things that we can know. Some of these objections are strong, to be sure, and I am convinced by Saint Thomas’s objection in particular. But still I like the argument.

Anselm’s mottos, too, I have always particularly liked: his Augustinian faith-seeking-understanding, fides quaerens intellectum; his anticipation of Descartes, credo ut intelligam, too often cut short: “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that ‘unless I believed, I should not understand.’”

Anselm is quoting Isaias, of course. The light of faith illumines our reason. The Bible itself illustrates this; the wide disparities and intense disagreements in biblical interpretation after the Protestant Reformation resemble nothing so much as the tower of Babel. If we do not believe, we will not understand Scripture. (For an example of faithful exegesis, see Father Ambrose Dobrozsi on plagues, page 21.) The same is true in a broader sense not only of the study of scripture, but of universities too, and learning generally. Catholic universities exist for a reason. Confessing the Catholic faith should mean something distinct in education, not just when it comes to the teaching of theology but in all subjects, and the mind of the Church should inform the attitude of the student and scholar. (For Matthew Briel’s proposals for Catholic universities, see page 36.)

And if we must believe in order to understand, then belief has its own habits, too. Pascal, in his Pensées, draws our attention in particular to the external habits that accompany our faith, not as a requirement for faith, but as an aid that only pride could cause us to despise:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.) Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that our soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus (Psalm 118:36).

The external effects of any faith or culture mold the men who inhabit it as much as their internal ideas change their surroundings. (Alberto M. Fernandez offers us beautiful examples of this in Belle Époque Cairo on page 8.) We should expect even more, then, to flow from the external aspects of the one true faith. Our faith is “incarnational,” physical, lived in the world, attended by sacramentals as well as sacraments; it gives us not just the deposit of the faith and true theology, but liturgy, holy places, and relics. (Emma Mutch tells how both these internal and external aspects brought about her conversion, page 17.)

To assume that the faith will flourish without these customs, habits of prayer, and external inducements to faith is to ask reason to do the work of faith. With God all things are possible, but we should as little expect to live our faith independently, without the aids of a Christian culture, as we can expect to understand it without believing. (Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley discuss this on page 27.) And the ways that Christ uses the world to bring us to Him are not limited to the specific actions of His bride, the institutional Church (which can act well or badly: see Urban Hannon, page 31, and N.M. Gwynne, page 14, on the legacies of two very different of Christ’s vicars on Earth). Every part of our culture can help believers to return our focus to Him (see Aaron James’s appreciation of Poulenc for one example, page 51; or, in a more humble way, Justin Redemer’s trip to Holiday World, page 25).

After all, all God’s creation, as Anselm well knew, was made to give Him glory. Anselm’s biographer, Eadmer, relates an incident from his childhood, before he had left his home in Lombardy to begin his mission in England. The innocent child Anselm, who first learned to love God from his mother, looked around at the mountains surrounding his home. Surely God, the little saint thought, Whom Mother says rules all things from on high, must live in Heaven atop these cloudy summits.

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