Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wherefore Anselm?

There's just something about Anslem (1033–1109), that early Scholastic theologian and archbishop of Canterbury who gave us, perhaps, the ultimate rejoinder to the "new Atheists." For many Christian thinkers today, his most famous essay, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human) is a foil for debates about substitutionary atonement. But, as important as such questions are, they are not what's vexing me right now.

Philosophers of religion, I think, mostly know Anselm as the source of a curious defense of the existence of God known as the ontological argument (See this article for an overview). This argument, as best I can summarize it, goes like this: 1) It is impossible for the mind to conceive anything greater than God. 2) If God is conceived as nonexistent, then an existing entity is greater than God, but that contradicts principle no. 1. 3) Therefore, God must exist: A denial of God's existence is impossible. This kind of theistic proof has been roundly trounced by philosophers and theologians ranging from Thomists to Kantians to postmodernists. (You can read a clear and concise exposition of the argument by Peter Kreeft here, no. 13 among his 20 types of arguments for God's existence.)

Karl Barth thought Anselm's argument in the Proslogium I-V was fundamentally important for Christian theology. And if Barth's reading is correct -- my understanding from Professor Bernard McGinn and other folks is that medievalists tend to find Barth's interpretation kind of weird -- the philosophers are missing the main point of this treatise. The key issue here, one might say, is not the elaboration of an abstract argument for God's existence but, rather, the particular character of the understanding of the divine reality that stems from the nature of faith itself. A conceptual grasp of God's reality, if that's the right way to put it, is preceded by and determined by the believer's invocation: Lord, please help me know you. In other words, Anselm is explicating God's existence from within the inner logic of faith itself rather than trying to present a convincing argument from some supposedly neutral standpoint.

Barth, in fact, claimed that his own book on Anselm (1930) was pivotal to how he came to understand and elaborate the Christian knowledge of God in his Church Dogmatics. The tendency of earlier Barth interpreters (including, famously, von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance) was to stress this study of the Scholastic thinker as the pivotal point in Barth's transition from a more "dialectical" theological method to a more "analogical" approach -- from a way of negation to a way of affirmation in claims about our knowledge of God, if I may be allowed to oversimplify a bit. Barth's own comments on the matter abetted this older reading of the genetic development of his thought. Nowadays, in the wake of revisionist scholarship from Germany that masterfully introduced into Anglo-American Barth studies by Professor Bruce McCormack, interpreters tend to see the real story as a bit more complicated than Barth himself and his earlier interpreters would have it. (A fairly recent book by Keith L. Johnson, discussed over at the DET blog, apparently deals in some depth with Barth's reading of Anselm. The book has gotten some pretty good press, but I admit -- alas! -- I haven't read it yet.) But now I'm starting to get a little far afield.

My main point is this: There's something about Anselm's "ontological argument" -- something that Barth found quite important. But just what is that? And why is it so easy for contemporary thinkers to misunderstand what the great Scholastic thinker was trying to do? These are the questions stirring today in my quasi-caffeinated brain. Barth's Anselm book, despite its deceptive brevity, is actually a pretty difficult text to analyze (at least I find it so), and I have never worked on it with the care it deserves. In part this is because the argument clings very closely to the primary texts, which he quotes copiously, and (alas) I don't (yet) read Latin.

But...aha...I do have fine English translations of Anselm's works, so maybe I can start there and try to sort out some of these questions afresh for myself. The Proslogion does strike me as a pretty unusual text. But I had better save my thoughts on this for later.

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