St. Anselm lived in the 11th century and was born in Aosta in the Italian Alps. He joined the Benedictine Abbey of St. Stephen at Caen, France. He rose to become Prior of that monastery and latter became the Archbishop of Canterbury. While he was Prior at the Abbey of St. Stephen, the monks asks St. Anselm to write a meditation on God using pure reason and not relying on Scripture or Revelation at all. From this came two of the great works of medieval philosophy, the Monologion and the Proslogion.
In the second, St. Anselm gives a sort of argument for the existence of God, today called the Ontological Argument. Most arguments for the existence of God start with things in the world and seek to prove God’s existence from them or from their qualities and attributes. For example, in the Monologion, St. Anselm seeks to prove God’s existence through the reality of justice. The Ontological Argument is different because it begins with a meditation on faith in God and how faith might move to a deeper understanding of God. His argument was accepted by some, including St. Bonaventure, and rejected by others, like St. Thomas Aquinas.
The main point is that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived.” God is the greatest possible being, because He is the source of all perfection. God does not simply have justice, and goodness, and beauty; He is the source of all justice, goodness, and beauty. God isn’t another thing in the world; He is existence itself. God is infinite, which means without limit.
Do you think of God in this way? We tend to anthropomorphize God, to give Him human qualities, emotions, and we even picture Him in art as a wise old man. However, God is more farther beyond us than we are beyond a pebble. Since He is infinite, we have more in common with the pebble, which is finite, like us, than we have in common with God. Yet, God has condescended to become one of us in the incarnation, but without losing anything of what He Is. Through the Cross and Resurrection, God has even made us His adopted children. God is so far beyond us that we can’t even properly imagine a being as great as God.
“But surely,” says St. Anselm, “that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality—something which is greater [than existing only in the understanding]. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought were only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this [conclusion] is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality (Proslogion, 2).”
I’m not sure this actually proves the existence of God, or would be convincing to someone who doesn’t already believe, but thinking about this can teach us something about the God that we do have faith in. He is necessary! God must exist. We are not necessary. We are important, and have dignity, but we don’t have to exist. God didn’t have to create us, and we can imagine worlds where we never existed. If God truly is Existence itself, then He is necessary, and must exist in any possible universe for anything to exist at all.
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Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.