Yesterday I kicked off a new mid-sized environment at Stonecreek Church called The Great Stories: More Than a Bible Study. We had 30 folks there seated at round tables. They listened to me talk for about an hour, and then they discussed the material for another hour. We covered the first couple of chapters of Genesis, and, in the course of our conversation, I introduced them to a sentence written by a French monk from the Middle Ages named Anselm. I'd like to provide some more biographical information here and unpack his sentence a little.
Anselm (1033-1109) was born in Aosta, Piedmont — in modern-day Italy. He entered the Benedictine monastary of Bed, in Normandy, when he was 26. He went on to become the Prior and finally the Abbot there, before being named the Bishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). Though he remained Bishop until he died, he spent the majority of that time in exile because of his constant bickering with kings over the balance of power between church and state.
He was the first great theologian of the medieval period and founded a school of thought known as Scholasticism. The Church was gaining political power and momentum, but Anselm brought theology back to the foreground and restored it to its place of prominence by allowing philosophy to play a distinct role in theology. During the centuries after Roman rule had crumbled throughout Great Britain — The “Dark Ages” — monasteries became great centers of learning and culture.
Anselm was once asked by the monks in his monastery if he could prove the existence of God. He set out to provide a “proof” that would work by reason but which would line up with his Christian faith: “The rational mind alone of all creatures is able to mount an investigation of the supreme being.”
Eventually, he produced the Monologion in 1071. It was a huge book that basically asserted that since we can see degrees of goodness in the world, these forms of goodness must ultimately come from an Ultimate Form of Goodness — which we can call God. Sounds a little like Plato. Unfortunately, the book was so difficult to read that the monks asked him if he could sum it up — preferably in one sentence.
This stumped him for some time until one evening, during Mass, it came to him. A year after the publication of his enormously unreadable Monologion, Anselm produced the Proslogion (originally titled “Faith Seeking Understanding” -- an homage to the influence of Augustine). There he defines God as “that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought”.
Basically, the argument goes like this:
- Whatever the greatest thing you can imagine is, we can call that “God”
- It is greater to exist in reality than just in our imaginations
- Therefore God must exist
It’s a frustrating argument, isn’t it? One critic said it’s like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. You don’t exactly know how the rabbit got in there, but you’re pretty sure the magician had more to do with it than magic or the rabbit did.
So, what do you think? Did Anselm express the obvious? Or did he just define God into existence?