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Anselm’s Proslogium: Faith Seeking Understanding

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6

“You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” – Psalm 27:8

“And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” – 1 John 1:4

Preface: Epiphany

In this discourse, Anselm seeks to prove the existence and attributes of God as one thinking through what he believes in order to understand it more clearly. He sets out by trying to find a single stand-alone argument that would prove God’s existence. Having almost given up, and trying to put the endeavor out of his mind, “it began to force itself upon [him], with a kind of importunity.” Indeed, Anselm describes the argument as having “offered itself,” presumably as a gift of God, and as something he found, embraced and rejoiced over. He originally titled this discourse Faith Seeking Understanding, eventually Proslogium, a sequel to Monologium.

Having become a Christian at a very young age, I really only know what it is like to have faith. Reason did not lead me to God; the Holy Spirit did. But He has used reason to deepen my faith. Truly, my entire life has been one of faith seeking understanding. In my own contemplation of God, every time I endeavor to search out an issue, the Holy Spirit guides my research and reasoning so that it almost seems effortless. Often, it is as if I were sitting around the table enjoying a beverage and having a rousing discussion with an old friend. Of course study requires respect for the truth and for the Teacher. I must always remind myself that the fundamental posture of a disciple is prayer and a teachable spirit. For it is God’s to reveal and ours to revel in the discovery.

Chapter 1: Seeking God

Anselm begins with the premise that we were made to see God, but He must teach us to seek Him and we cannot succeed unless He reveals Himself to us. As for our part, we cannot see God unless we seek Him, and that requires us first to believe. With this aim he invites his reader to set aside the worries and cares of the world. “Yield room for some little time to God; and rest for a little time in him.” Think for a while on nothing but God. It is a call to seek the Lord.

But immediately Anselm runs up against a wall. God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). Yet, the longing desire within us reaffirms that we were created for that purpose. We have not seen Him because we have lost the blessedness of fellowship in the Fall. We are now left with only a “miserable longing” in which we are “choked with satiety” and “remain empty.” We have suffered loss, going “from the vision of God into our present blindness.” We strive for blessing but sigh in sorrow. Our sin has marred the image of God within us. We must be made new again in order to see God. Anselm, humbled in his iniquities, entreats the Lord, “Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, reveal thyself to us,” for he knows we cannot seek God unless He teaches us, nor find Him unless He makes Himself known. Thus, his heart cries to God, “let me seek thee in longing, let me long for thee in seeking; let me find thee in love, and love thee in finding.”

Anselm rightly recognizes that the longing he feels is a longing for God. Many people, including me, often mistake this longing as a desire for something other than God. Some chase after mediated experiences, cheap thrills, or quick fixes. Others try to satisfy the longing with otherwise noble pursuits. But all other satisfactions are no satisfaction at all. As Augustine attests, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Sadly, there are some who refuse to acknowledge this truth.

Chapters 2-4: God Exists

Having set aside time for and set his heart on seeking God, Anselm commences in earnest. He begins by explaining why the person who says, “There is no God,” is a fool. The concept of God entails “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Both Anselm and the fool share this concept; and both understand this concept of God to exist in the mind. However, Anselm believes God exists in reality and the fool does not. The fool understands the concept of God to exist only in the mind. Since it is greater to exist both in the mind and in reality, a strictly mental concept of God is not an actual concept of God. A true concept of God would necessarily entail His existence in reality as well as in the conception of the mind. Therefore, to say, “There is no God,” is a nonsensical statement since to evoke the idea of God is to affirm His existence. To take the argument further, “that which can be conceived not to exist is not God,” since it is greater to exist than not to exist. So again, the fool’s statement is shown to be “an irreconcilable contradiction.” Indeed, God is the only being that cannot conceivably not exist; everything else is contingent on His existence.

Lest he be accused of mere sophistry, Anselm explains the two senses in which a thing may be conceived. In the first sense, the word signifying the thing is conceived—the concept. In the second sense, the object that the word is signifying is understood. So God can only be conceived not to exist in the former sense, not the latter. In essence, it does not matter what we call God; it matters what God is—a being of which none greater can be conceived. “And he who thoroughly understands this, assuredly understands that this being so truly exists, that not even in concept can it be non-existent.”

After grasping this argument, Anselm has no explanation for the fool except dullness. “The fool said in his heart what he could not conceive.” In other words, the existence of God is inconceivable to the fool. But this should not surprise Anselm, since he has already admitted to our fallen state and utter reliance upon God for revelation. The fool’s confusion aptly illustrates the maxim of faith seeking understanding. The fool, we assume, has not begun with faith and has, therefore, not found understanding. Anselm, by God’s grace, already believed and thus was enlightened in his understanding. As he states, “if I were unwilling to believe that thou dost exist, I should not be able to understand this to be true.”

We cannot see God except by His enabling, but we must be willing to seek Him. The fool’s true folly is in the posture of his heart. His mind is made up; and he is not willing to open himself to the possibility of being taught by God. If he would acknowledge the hunger of his soul he could be filled. But, as Pascal points out, the human soul is rather good at distracting itself from contemplation of ultimate issues such as the existence of God. And a fool, who will return to such folly again and again, may need to be confronted with the consequences of his unbelief. All of us at times could stand to echo the ancient prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Chapters 5-13: God’s Attributes

At this point, Anselm shifts his focus from God’s existence to His attributes. Along familiar lines of reasoning, he suggests an overarching criterion that “God is whatever it is better to be than not be.” So he proposes a list of attributes—self-existent, just, truthful, blessed, sensible, omnipotent, compassionate, and passionless—and he begins to explain them. How can God experience sensation without a body? He senses according to His cognitive powers. How can God be omnipotent if there are things He cannot do? To say God cannot be corrupted or lie is not to limit His power but to affirm that He is not powerless against such things. How can God be both compassionate and passionless (affected by emotion)? The work of God in our lives that we experience as compassion is really an expression of the unchanging character of God. How can a just God spare or even pity the wicked? His mercy flows out of His goodness. How can God show compassion to some and justice to others? Only that which God wills is just; so, if God wills to have compassion on some, then it is just.

Concerning all God’s attributes Anselm says, “whatever thou art, thou art through nothing else than thyself.” God is life and the source of that life. He is wisdom and the source of that wisdom. He is goodness and the source of that goodness. He derives nothing from elsewhere or anyone else. All He is He is of Himself. Furthermore, inasmuch as it is greater not to be limited by space and time, and since there is none greater than God, Anselm concludes that God must be “everywhere and always.” God is boundless and eternal.

What Anselm is describing is really the holiness of God. His being and attributes set Him apart high above all His creation. He affects all, but is affected by none. We could take a cue from this sort of holiness: whatever it is better to be than not be. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of such holiness in our lives. For instance, it is better to be loving than not loving, joyful than not joyful, peaceful than not peaceful, and so on. We do not possess these attributes as God does because He is their source, not us. All we are we are of Him. And what we are sets us apart among His creatures. Since it is better for us to be in the world but not of it than it is for us to be out of the world but of it, I must conclude that holiness requires us to be agents, not objects of change. That is, we are to actively affect the world, here and now, without being negatively affected by it.

Chapters 14-17: Delightful Frustration

Anselm pauses and asks himself if he has indeed found what he is looking for. He recognizes that he has seen God, by His grace, but only in part. He wants to see more but only sees that he “cannot see farther.” He asks, “Why is this Lord, why is this? Is the eye of the soul darkened by its infirmity, or dazzled by thy glory?” He understands it is both. For not only can one not conceive of anything greater than God, but God is so great that He is beyond comprehension. He dwells in unapproachable light, which, like the sun, is the light by which we see but which we cannot stand to gaze upon. This is a sort of delightful frustration for Anselm who being so close to God feels so far. Anselm longs to sense God’s harmony, fragrance, sweetness, pleasantness, and beauty but they are hidden from him.

“I have climbed the highest mountains / I have run through the fields . . . / I have run, I have crawled / I have scaled these city walls . . . / Only to be with you / But I still haven’t found / What I’m looking for.”

These words, written by U2, do not so much express a feeling of disenchantment as of wanting more. When Anselm confesses to God that what he has apprehended of Him is not enough, it is not to say he intends to look elsewhere. It is the confession of a man at a buffet wanting more but altogether too stuffed to eat another bite. He must first digest what he has already taken in.

Chapters 18-23: One Supreme Good

So Anselm prays again to God: “Free me from myself toward thee. Cleanse, heal, sharpen, enlighten the eye of my mind, that it may behold thee. Let my soul recover its strength, and with all its understanding let it strive toward thee, O Lord. What art thou, Lord, what art thou? What shall my heart conceive thee to be?”

Anselm begins to contemplate the answer to the question. God is life, wisdom, truth, goodness, blessedness, eternity, every true good, and so much more. But none of the attributes of God are parts of Him, for God is one, not a composite being. All His attributes are unified within Himself; He is indivisible. “Therefore, life and wisdom and the rest are not parts of thee, but all are one; and each of these is the whole, which thou art, and which all the rest are.” That is, every attribute of God belongs to His entire being.

This being the case, God’s eternity exists as a whole forever and, as such, does not have a past, present and future (they are all one); He simply exists. He is outside of time and is not contained by it. All other things exist only in the present and cannot exist without the transcendent, eternal God, in whom all the ages of time are contained within His eternity. Since there is no time when God does not exist, all other beings owe their existence to Him, “the only one supreme good.” Finally, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally the “single, necessary Being, which is every good, and wholly good, and the only good.”

Anselm is making a case for the oneness of God. God is not a pie chart; He does not possess attributes in percentage. Neither are the Persons of the Trinity pieces of a puzzle that somehow give a full picture of God. Rather, each Person is eternally and fully God. And each Person possesses every attribute of God in its fullness. Both the Persons and their attributes are unified in God’s one being. Though this formulation goes beyond the historical creeds in some respects, it is in agreement with the essence of their proclamation. Thus, Anselm demonstrates the ability to have a free thinking and full theology that is faithful to essential Christian doctrine.

Chapters 24-26: Fullness of Joy

In order to grasp the great good that is God, Anselm considers the goodness of His creation. For, “if wisdom in the knowledge of the created world is lovely, how lovely is the wisdom which has created all things from nothing!” There is so much goodness to enjoy in God’s creation, how much more joy might we find in God?

Therefore, to the wandering soul searching for fulfillment Anselm exhorts, “Love the one good in which are all goods, and it sufficeth.” All that we desire is in Him. He satisfies our senses. He reveals truth. He perfects friendship and unifies His Church. He bestows power. He secures for us all goodness. “But what, or how great, is the joy, where such and so great is the good!” One human being could not contain such joy. And to share in this joy would multiply it beyond all containment!

“Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).And so Anselm finds what he was looking for. He had asked God to reveal Himself. In the revelation was joy. “For I have found a joy that is full, and more than full.” His faith sought understanding and he now understands that “they shall rejoice according as they shall love; and they shall love according as they shall know.” And if we have so much knowledge, love and joy in this life, how much more will we have in the life to come. So when we find ourselves longing for more of God we can seek Him and find Him. As Anselm prays, “Let the knowledge of thee advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of thee increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth.” All the love and joy that we now experience in knowing God is merely a taste of what is to come.

Why is the fool such a fool? It is because in discounting God he forgoes the search of Him and never finds what his heart truly longs for. There are rewards for those who diligently seek God. But how can one seek what he believes does not exist? It would seem that the fool is lost in his folly. But his understanding is not darkened beyond the possibility of faith. Even the fool has an intuitive sense of God. If it were not there he would not try to hide it by the various distractions of the world. The fool also has a basic sense of morality by which he is accountable to the very God he denies. This internal revelation of God, coupled with the external revelation of the natural world, leaves the fool without excuse and truly foolish, since faith is within his reach. The wise person realizes and rectifies the folly of disbelief.

So, while faith may seek understanding, there are some properly basic beliefs and even certain evidences that might lead a person to faith upon reflection. Then again, the heart may have its own reasons to believe. The longing for God alone is enough to disquiet a man’s heart and prepare him for faith. If the fool is not convinced by reason of Anselm’s argument that God exists, he may still believe on the basis of the result. The uncontainable joy that Anselm finds in knowing God and shares with his fellow Christians may be just the impetus he needs for faith and his own journey toward understanding.