Thursday 17 March 2016

How the ontological argument succeeds

Anselm prays the ontological argument. Direct address to God is the perfect mode in which to argue for God’s existence. “Come now, O Lord my God. Teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you.” Anselm carefully crafts his argument, like a finely tooled machine. He then sets it within a cathedral. The wheels turn and the bell peals. In a hall already alive with the murmuring of prayers, the argument sounds. It adds its voice to petitions and supplications. The reverberations reflect off the surfaces of icons and the tombs of the Christian dead: praise to the God greater than all of our thoughts.

“This is not an argument that immediately compels assent.” (David Bentley Hart)

J. L. Mackie is unconvinced. What good is a necessary being, standing there in one of the darker corners of the universe, mocking our ontological mutability with its incessant there-ness? Such a being is only reflexively necessary, but not necessary for anything. An essence that requires existence evinces only a truncated necessity. The ontological argument is no cause for belief.

“I beseech you, Lord: let me not sigh in despair, but let me breathe hopefully again.” (Anselm)

Faith seeks understanding. Not blind, faith is a way of seeing. “I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.” Faith seeks by peering into dim mirrors and contemplating arcane texts, it places its fingers on the surface of relics, feeling out the cracks where divinity seeps through.

Anselm presumes to define God. But he does so by describing a window that opens out into an inexhaustible mystery. The argument draws its strength only from God’s greatness — a greatness apprehended by faith. God exceeds thought: “you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be thought; you are something greater than can be thought.”

“That than which it is impossible to conceive anything greater is not a being among other beings, not even the greatest possible of beings, but is instead the fullness of Being itself, the absolute plenitude of reality upon which all else depends; and manifestly it would be meaningless to say that Being lacks being or that Reality is not real.” (Hart)

The argument has no apologetic utility. Abstracting it from its prayerful setting and dissecting it as a piece of pure logic is like removing the eye of a painted portrait and treating it as an anatomical diagram. Set properly within the face of prayer, it shines out as an expression of wonder at the divine greatness. 

Anselm names and renames his book. It is first fides quaerens intellectum. With no author beneath its title, the little work goes out to converse with the world. When it returns, ruffled and marked all over with marginal notes — new thoughts gathered from abroad — Anselm lifts it up and gives it a new name: proslogion. A word that journeys forth.

Anselm’s argument fails only when we treat it as an argument. It does not seek converts, but fellow pilgrims. As it turns our minds to God’s greatness and to prayer, it succeeds.

“Come now, insignificant mortal. Leave behind your concerns for a little while, and retreat for a short time from your restless thoughts. Cast off your burdens and cares; set aside your labour and toil. Just for a little while make room for God, and rest a while in him.”


Unknown said...

Nicely Wittgensteinian: the question of the existence of God is empty, idle, tractionless if it is not inextricably related to praxis, to our "forms of life".

Even better, inimitably put by Simone Weil: "The ontological argument is mysterious because it does not address itself to the intelligence, but to love."

Steve Wright said...

Thanks, Kim. As always, Weil says it all with a single line.

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