A Reflection on the Ontological Argument

This is one of three blog posts discussing the major proofs for the existence of God: the Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological. This first post begins with the discussion of the Ontological argument and attempts to reconcile its reasoning with our own Christian faith.

Though it wasn’t the first argument to appear in Christian literature, the Ontological argument is by far the simplest and most comprehensible, and therefore, it is fitting that I begin my exploration of proofs for the existence of God here.

Anselm of Canterbury, a devout theologian and the founder of scholasticism, first posited the Ontological argument.[1] Anselm lived by the motto fides quaerens intellectum, translated to “faith seeking understanding,” and his works, which mainly focus on theistic reasoning, reflect that tradition.[2]

The simplest definitional Ontological argument is the following:

P1: God is the most perfect Being

P2: By definition, that means a Being “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”

P3: To exist in reality is better than merely to exist in merely our thoughts/​imagination

C: Therefore, by its very own ontology, God must exist in reality.

While theologians have complicated this line of reasoning to a great extent, the essence of the argument is the following: by acknowledging the possibility of God’s existence, and hence his ontology, one can’t help but conclude God’s existence because to exist is better than to not exist.

Regardless of whether the Ontological argument still maintains its merit in the face of criticisms and refutations, the Ontological argument still offers a new way of gauging the complexities of our faith. As Christians, I think it would behoove us to take the Ontological argument as another way to appreciate God’s kingdom on our world.

First, I think that one of the greatest obstacles within the Christian tradition is grasping the truth behind Anselm’s definition that God is truly “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Christians are meant to be the servants of God, to understand and deliver His message onto this world. But looking at the world, it is often difficult to appreciate and comprehend His embodiment of perfection.

For example, as Kristen wrote in last week’s post, events such as natural disasters bring so much misery and sadness into this world. Even at times of one’s own pain, it seems very difficult to fully appreciate the fact that there is nothing greater than God. But by focusing on the distressful and sorrowful events in the world, we often overlook the good, the miraculous, and the inexplicable. Rather than consistently asking “why is there so much evil in the world?” I think a question that Christians should often ask is “how is there so much good and happiness in this world?” When we begin asking those questions, it’s easier to come into terms with God’s perfection.

Second, wrapping our heads around the idea that “to exist is better than to not exist” is critical to our faith. At least for me, the trouble I had with understanding this premise was contextualizing “existence” with respect to God and our material world. Existence is pretty straightforward in our world: it means to be present and to possess a certain entity.

But what does it really mean for God to exist? Is to say that God exists saying that there exists some Father sitting in His throne in heaven? Does God exist as that gentle, bearded man that some portraits depict him to be?

In my Catholic high school, it was tradition that we pray before every class facing the cross. My math teacher, one day, decided to pray looking out the window instead. She explained, “God doesn’t just exist near the cross. He is everywhere.” It was strange at first, but our class started to adopt it. We’d look at the floor, the ceiling, our desk, and at each other. It might sound strange but that almost made the entirety of the room feel “holier,” like God really was everywhere.

To this day, I am not sure what it means to say God exists. But I think that that is beside the point. The fact that God’s presence lives with us everywhere is a constant reminder of our innumerable blessings. I am satisfied with knowing that God exists, and of course, what God’s existence entails will forever be a mystery to man.

Lastly, I think that Anselm’s motto “faith seeking understanding” is a key component of our faith. To say that reason makes up the majority of faith would be an overstatement, but I believe that reason does offer a nice balance to the emotional component. Reason is one of the many tools we can use to understand God’s words in the Bible.

We are inherently reasoning creatures. Whether we like to admit it or not, we find more satisfaction in the things we know. When we don’t fully know something, it tingles us, and it makes us strive to better understand it. To suppress reason and to deny any importance to the Ontological argument would be, in my humble opinion, suppressing a great utensil we have to better connect with our faith.

When we reason, we question. When we question, we begin to doubt. But when we doubt, God offers us answers through His workings. That, I think, is critical to spiritual growth.

 

Notes

[1] Descartes offers his own unique version of the Ontological argument, but for simplicity’s sake, I intend to focus on Anselm.

[2] Williams, Thomas, “Saint Anselm”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition).

 

Image by Alvimann from morguefile.com.

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