Preaching Anselm: How Should We Understand God?

If this leaves you glazed, join the club. Anselm’s logic continues to befuddle philosophers even now. There are flaws. The most common criticism is of Anselm’s assertion that a definition always infers existence. Say that you have in your mind the most perfect idea of a husband or wife ever conceived -- a potential spouse so great than no greater can be thought. She/he cooks and cleans and satisfies your every physical and emotional need. She/he is gorgeous and perceptive and attentive and sensitive and a marvelous conversationalist. And stinking rich. Whatever. According to Anselm’s logic, such a greatest person must exist if you’re able to conceive them in your mind as greatest; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to conceive such a person as the greatest. For those of you out there with those elaborate relational checklists, this should give you hope!

Practically speaking, however, you know that such a perfect person doesn’t really exist. Anselm’s logic appears to based on nothing more than a philosophical sleight of hand. Accordingly, the ontological argument is defective -- God’s existence cannot be ascertained by deductive reason alone. But, ironically, Anselm never contended this was the case in the first place. If you actually read the Proslogium, you discover Anselm’s thinking to be entirely different than what Kant thought Anselm thought. The remarkable Swiss theologian Karl Barth, deeply influenced by Anselm, called attention to the fact that Anselm’s starting point was never cognitive reason but spiritual faith. Faith leads reason, Barth insisted, not the other way around.

Jeffery Pugh, Professor of Religious Studies at Elon College, explains, “Anselm had an overwhelming sense that the glory of God is inaccessible to human understanding and an accompanying belief that it is this very inaccessibility that [stretches] our minds in search of God . . . Rationality takes place most accurately and completely within the dimensions of faith . . . Reason has to believe in order to understand . . . The fact that we cannot think of God because God lies at the limit of our understanding, except as the very thought that does lie at the limit of our understanding, means that reason detached from faith cannot achieve understanding.”

So where does this faith come from? Anselm believed that it was prayer and meditation, not philosophical and conceptual cogitation, that start you toward God. Here’s what he prayed:

Lord Jesus Christ; Let me seek you by desiring you,
and let me desire you by seeking you;
let me find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.
I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving,
that you have made me in your image,
so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you.
But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults,
and darkened by the smoke of sin,
that it cannot do that for which it was made,
unless you renew and refashion it.
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe, I shall not understand.

Anselm was convinced that God cannot be known through human ingenuity or effort. Instead, beginning with a posture of prayer, the debris of human sin and selfishness must first be cleared away and room made for an understanding and relationship with God based on his terms rather than your own. Understanding comes through faith. You believe so that you may understand.

Anselm is not seeking for what possibly can be. Instead Anselm seeks only what possibly cannot fail to be, namely, almighty God. God bestows, by his grace, any ability that you might possess to approach and think rightly about him. God is the master of all means of knowing so in the actuality of knowing, God even there orders the connection between what you know and what is real. On the basis of his gracious and free decision, God sets the parameters for truth and determines the extent to which it is to be obtained.

You cannot move from unbelief to belief by way of reason. To acquire faith in a “reasonable” God is merely another form of idolatry. Instead, Anselm asserts that it is by recognizing reason’s inefficiency (a thoroughly postmodern notion) that faith emerges. It is this faith that then spurs you on toward true reason and eventual understanding. Faith is not some ethereal mind game, not at all. It finds its foundation in Scripture and creed, in community and experience -- all of which exist free from the requirement of any human consensus. The God who exists is all the consensus you need.

12/6/2010 5:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.
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