Saturday, April 10, 2010

Illuminating the Abstract (An Anselmian Reflection)

Well, I made it through March, which was about as busy a period as we've had since we've been in Ukraine. Now I'm back to writing lectures for the philosophy class that I'm teaching. It's been an amazingly rewarding process, personally, to work through all of the introductory philosophical issues—I hope that I am making it somewhat rewarding for my students, as well.

The lecture I'm working on now addresses the arguments/proofs for God's existence. After giving a general intro and explaining what theistic proofs are, what we should expect from them and why they are valuable, I will take one argument and go deeper with it. Like a true novice, I'm choosing the hardest one for this project, i.e., the ontological argument. Here's my modification of Steven T. Davis' reconstruction of Anselm's version of the argument:

1. Things can exist in only 2 ways—in the mind and in reality.
2. The Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) can possibly exist in reality, i.e., the GCB is not an impossible thing.
3. The GCB exists in the mind.
4. Whatever exists only in the mind and might possibly exist in reality might possibly be greater than it is (by existing both in the mind and in reality).
[5-8 attempts to disprove premise 5 by reductio ad absurdum]
5. The GCB exists only in the mind.
6. The GCB might be greater than it is.
7. The GCB is a being than which a greater is conceivable.
8. It is false that the GCB exists only in the mind.
9. Therefore, the GCB exists both in the mind and in reality.

Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason & Theistic Proofs, Reason & Religion series (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 21-26.

Lots of people don't like the ontological argument; they think it's either too difficult and abstract or they think it is so baldly question-begging that it isn't worth considering or they think it is just false because you can't use it to prove the existence of anything else. But there are a good many throughout philosophical and theological history who have found it sound and successful. I'm in the latter group. But, at the same time, I'm also sympathetic to the view that it is amazingly complex, abstract and hard to grasp because I myself feel that way about it most of the time.

But in this latest wrestling match with the argument, after reading through some heavy philosophical stuff about it, I went back to the source. I re-read Anselm's, Proslogion, just to make sure that my understanding of the argument bears close resemblance of that of the author, since that is what I will be presenting to my students. What I found was striking.

When acknowledging that Anselm is the originator of the argument, philosophers will usually inform readers that the proof is presented as part of a prayer to God. The entire Proslogion is a prayer, in fact. Being a prayer, the ontological argument wasn't packaged in logical form when Anselm penned it. That's why any logical form of it is only ever a reconstruction, as is my modification of Davis' above. But this is usually where philosophers leave it. They mention that it was originally written as a prayer, which explains why there are so many different logical forms of Anselm's argument, and then they move on.

But what I realized with this reading is that the conclusion of the ontological argument is foundational for almost all of the other theological reflections made in the remainder of the book (the argument is presented in beginning chapters). Rather than using the ontological argument simply to prove the existence of the GCB and then moving on to discuss the attributes of the GCB, Anselm weaves the conclusion of the argument into his reflections on each attribute. God is necessary, unified and eternal because it is greater to be those things than to be contingent, complex and temporal for the GCB. In fleshing out the implications of the ontological argument, Anselm makes it as theologically and spiritually meaningful as it is philosophically groundbreaking. Below is an example of how Anselm uses the argument to show how God has to be good to the not-so-good.

"Surely in the deepest and most secret place of Thy goodness there lies hidden the source from which the river of mercy flows. For though Thou art wholly and supremely just, yet Thou art kind even to the evil, just because Thou art completely and supremely good. For Thou wouldest be less good, if Thou wert not kind to any evildoer. For he who is good both to the good and to the evil is better than he who is good only to the good, and he who is good to the wicked both by sparing them and by punishing them is better than he who is good only by punishing them. Thus Thou art merciful, just because Thou art wholly and supremely good. And though it might be apparent why Thou dost reward the good with good things and the evil with evil things, it is altogether wonderful that Thou, who art wholly just and lackest nothing, shouldest bestow good things on those who are evil and guilty in Thy sight. O the height of Thy goodness, O God! We see the ground of Thy mercy, but we do not see it fully. We see whence the stream flows, but we do not observe the source whence it is born. Out of the fullness of Thy goodness Thou art kind to those who sin against Thee, and still the reason lies hidden in the height of that same goodness. It is, of course, of Thy goodness that Thou rewardest the good with good things and the evil with evil things, but this seems to be demanded by the very nature of justice. But when Thou givest good things to the wicked, we know that the supremely good has willed to do this, and at the same time we marvel that the supremely just has been able to do it."

Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, chapter IX, in Eugene R. Fairweather, ed., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956)
, 78-79.

Beautiful stuff. I will certainly be emphasizing to my students the fact that theistic proofs should lead to theologically joyous exaltation as much as they lead to philosophically rational justification. Thanks, Anselm. As you've been influential for a thousand years since you've passed, may you be influential for yet another thousand.

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