Proofs of the existence of God have fallen on hard times. We are far from the days when Anselm could berate the Fool for his failure to see that God’s existence was inherent in the very concept of God, and even from the heyday of Aquinas’s “five ways” to prove the existence of a Creator. Anthony and I have, however, devised a new proof of the existence of God that is not only fully rigorous, but also reflects much of the thinking underlying Christian practice today — a stirring example of faith completing reason. It goes as follows:
- We see all around us that the world is awash in sinful and perverse acts.
- Now God is the only standard by which we can know these acts as sinful and perverse.
- If God did not exist, then the sinful and perverse would be completely acceptable.
- But this is absurd — and therefore God must exist.
All we need now is a catchy name like “the teleological argument” or “the argument from design.” Perhaps the “argument from homophobia”?
Previous Catholic theories [of atonement], including that of Anselm, never (if one reads carefully) suggested that an infinite God could receive any finite tribute, since this would have negated Christ’s aseity, and pre-Reformed theology was governed by principles of metapysical rigor. [Here he drops a footnote to David Bentley Hart, who is credited with a “superbly accurate” rendering of Anselm.] Rather, they all insisted that sin, as necessarily finite by definition, locks one into finitude, and so further into structures of death and sinfulness. This can be overcome only by the entry of the infinite into the finite and the paradoxical identification of the infinite with the finite. (Monstrosity of Christ, pg. 212)
How on earth could anyone read Anselm — however carefully — and come away with this summary? Indeed, what is this even supposed to mean? I would say that he is trying to prove that all of Anselm’s critics are wrong — and I must say that as a person who has spent considerable time with Anselm, written a dissertation chapter on him, and has a deep and abiding respect for Anselm, I just do not understand this desire to “save” Anselm from his mostly completely correct critics by reading him perversely — but there’s not even enough information being imparted for me to know that for sure.
But of course God can receive finite tribute! That’s what the monastic life is all about, going above and beyond the basic requirements by doing the more perfect and meritorious thing. And it’s within that framework that Anselm’s argument in Cur deus homo makes sense. That argument has, in later years, come to seem to have some undesirable consequences that Anselm himself did not perceive. People who try to “save” Anselm from his critics seem to recognize that those consequences actually are undesirable, insofar as they try to clear Anselm of any involvement with them. But why this desire to keep the name “Anselm” and attach it to the theory you’ve just made up and supplemented with a bizarre misreading of Anselm? Does he have some kind of superlative authority that I’m not aware of? I mean, I could see trying to pull this move with Augustine or Aquinas, or Luther or Calvin — but in Anselm’s case, you have to ask, why bother? Why not just come up with your own new theory and present it straightforwardly?
In the literature on Anselm, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a real anxiety to make sure that Anselm isn’t “really” trying to get all the way to the necessity of the Incarnation by “pure reason.” The reason this explanation is necessary in the first place is that Anselm certainly appears to be doing that and doesn’t seem to view the attempt as problematic on a methodological level. In doing so, he is following in a proud tradition — for instance, Gregory of Nyssa’s “Great Catechism” is able to get to the Trinity and even to the creation and fall by means of something like the common sense of the Hellenistic world, though he recognizes that the Incarnation is going to be difficult to swallow. His general principle is to use Scripture for those who respect Scripture, and reason for those who accept only reason. Convincing the former is thought to be easier (though the historical record doesn’t seem to bear that out), but there isn’t a sharp division between the two that I can see.
I think that the reason for the anxiety about Anselm’s approach is that people are reading it in terms of Aquinas’s nature/grace distinction — i.e., reason can get you to a certain point (where Aristotle winds up), and then you need revelation, which is not contrary to reason but whose contents couldn’t be predicted using reason alone. The Trinity, for example, is firmly on the “revealed” side of this distinction, yet Gregory and Anselm both appear not to be worried about the fact that their reasoned argument has gone way over the line.
The reason for their lack of concern is probably that that line wasn’t a big concern of theirs, and we don’t need to read them anachronistically as though they knew about the nature/grace problem and were really concerned not to be doing something like “natural theology” because that would be somehow impious. Instead, maybe we should read them as doing what they’re actually doing — that is, assuming that the world described in Christian revelation is actually this very world where we are. If that is the case, then of course reason should be able to recognize the inner necessity of God’s actions in the world, because God is after all acting in this very same world where our reason finds its home.
I have a bunch of things that I want to say here but can’t fully support yet. For instance, I object to Aquinas’s two-tiered system first of all because it’s so inelegant. Another thing: maybe Barth’s polemic against “natural theology” should’ve gone further and also rejected the kind of “revealed theology” that’s defined in opposition to “natural theology.” Etc. I’m aware that there are all kinds of nuances that I’m not capturing here — sorry about that.
I’m reading a study of Anselm right now, which includes a discussion of his counter-intuitive definition of freedom. For Anselm, freedom isn’t about rational deliberation or selecting among a variety of options — it’s about self-causation. If anyone remembers posts such as this one from when I was (as it turned out) working on Zizek and Theology, my point was to claim that Zizek has a similar definition of freedom and that his account of the relationship between the death drive and cognitive science is an attempt to ground that kind of freedom in the actual materiality of the brain.
This comparison would make kind of a good AAR presentation.
Does anyone know if Nietzsche read Anselm’s Cur deus homo? Obviously Anselm’s argument is very well-known and has been repeated, with variations, by many, many subsequent theologians, but I wonder if he literally sat down and read the original text.
After carefully reviewing the FAQ, I have determined that I am indeed allowed to post a PDF of my article entitled “The Failed Divine Performative: Reading Judith Butler’s Critique of Theology with Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil,” which will be appearing in the April issue of The Journal of Religion.
The easiest disproof of the ontological argument for the existence of God is to say that “existence” is not a predicate.
Another, potentially more satisfying route: go back through the Monologion and note all the times that he points out that infinite regress and mutual definition are complete nonsense, requiring every rational person to affirm the existence of God. In Lacanian terms, Anselm is proposing God as the master signifier or “constitutive exception”: God is both that which is beyond the good and that which provides a sharp boundary to that realm, both that which has no necessary relations to anything and that to which everything else is necessarily related. As Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, however, we appear to be living in a universe that actually follows the logic of the pas-tout, non-all or non-whole. A critique of Anselm in this direction wouldn’t just circle a single mistake in red — it would undermine the whole thing by pointing out that we do live in a universe of undefined boundaries and mutual definition (what people designate as a “relational ontology,” though they don’t often push very hard on it).
[People thought it was wrong when I said it a couple years ago on The Weblog, but I still think that you can explain about 90% of the function of the “God of the philosophers” as plugging the hole of infinite regress (of which mutual definition would be a subclass). At least up to Descartes — I’m not sure what’s going on with Spinoza, honestly, though I know he’s the main counter-example. He’s on the reading list.]
[When I originally came up with this idea, I was thinking in terms of undermining Anselm by means of Nancy, but I figure the Lacan stuff is closer to being common currency among readers of this blog.]
A wide array of medieval and early modern Latin texts, scanned from standard scholarly editions, can be found here. Augustine and Anselm are well represented, as are more obscure things, such as the Latin translations of Aristotle used in the Middle Ages and texts by authors I’ve never even heard of.
I’m reading some Descartes today, and I notice that he has a very calming effect. Even when he’s making what are, on the face of it, outrageous claims for his philosophy, he strikes one as humble and level-headed. This is very similar to Anselm, in my experience. Also, Descartes and Anselm share an emphasis on the pleasure to be derived from speculative thought.
Perhaps there’s something about arriving at the ontological proof of the existence of God that makes one easy-going and pleasant to be around (or at least read).