Faith Seeking Understanding Essay

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The most striking theme in Anselm’s Proslogion, or faith seeking understanding, is the idea that in order to prove God’s existence one must first have faith in Him, and only then will one be able to truly understand and appreciate God’s existence.

Anselm argues for this eloquently, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand” (Ch.1 Proslogion). Let us now investigate what Anselm means by this, what led him to his line of reasoning, why we should believe him that this is the right way of going about proving God’s existence, and finally, raise some serious objections against his thesis and any possible responses that can be given to them.

One will better understand the thesis by first examining the factors that led up to it. Anselm begins by arguing that human beings cannot properly be said to foster the image of God due to their sins. In order to reach a proper understanding of God one must undergo the restoration of the intellect. The purpose of human life, Anselm believes, is to see, love, and understand God. Anselm puts it this way, “Lord, I acknowledge and I thank thee that thou hast created me in this thine image, in order that I may be mindful of thee, may conceive of thee, and love thee…” (Ch. 1 Proslogion).

When reading the beginning passages of Proslogion one is almost awe struck by the passions and thoughts tormenting Anselm‘s mind. Here is a philosopher, a man, seeking the highest purpose and understanding to his life. Anselm obviously has the image of God in his mind, and believes in it, and now is ready to understand it through reason. Rather than allowing reason to guide one to the truths about the world before embracing an idea on mere faith, Anselm does the exact opposite. Anselm has complete faith in God’s existence and then goes about examining a rational argument for it.

Traditionally, one begins with premises and leads to a conclusion. For example, traditional arguments follow the form: premise X, Y, and Z lead to the conclusion of God’s existence. Anselm’s investigation begins with the conclusion that God exists, and then attempts to come up with a justified reason for it. This line of reasoning would be utter absurd if it wasn’t for the important caveat Anselm includes in his assertions, namely, “unless
I believed, I should not understand”.

So at first glance the thesis that for one to prove God’s existence seemed absurd and backwards, after close analysis is seems less so. We can see whether or not the argument is valid and sound. Breaking down the general form of the argument we get the following premises and conclusions:

1) Premise: I believe in God’s existence; 2) Premise: For me to understand God’s existence I must first believe in Him; 3) Premise: I believe that unless I believed in God’s existence, I should not understand; 4) Inferential premise: since I believe in God’s existence (premise 1), I have the capacity to understand God’s existence (premises 2,3), therefore, 5) Conclusion: God exists (premises 1,2,3,4).

The conclusion by no means follows from the premises listed above. The general argument seems to beg the question. Nowhere in this argument are we shown how the existence of God can be derived from the mere belief of God.

Anselm of course then goes on to subsequent chapters attempting to prove the existence of God. But if we are to take his general form of reasoning seriously, it seems the entire argument collapses without ever really getting off the ground. Should we then just stop at this point and ignore the rest of his reflections and arguments? Absolutely not.

As mentioned in the opening of this paper, what is striking most about faith seeking understanding is the fundamental assumption it makes, but more importantly, the implications and unique perspective the follow from it.

Anselm’s thesis changes the way we view the relationship between reason and faith. Just as an effect always follows a cause, we are liable to think that faith always follows reason. But the relationship between faith and reason, Anselm implicitly argues, does not necessarily have to abide by this one-way directional line of thinking. In fact, is it not the case that most philosophers and people in general start out with an intuition about something, and then try to work backwards and see if they can justify it?

Anselm is simply doing what most of us already do, but in his case he is being intellectually honest and brave by explicitly stating such an approach, especially when it comes to a sensitive and important topic like the existence of God. Faith, Anselm wants to argue, is the principle driving force and origin upon reason is founded upon. Reason is simply a tool, that is, a means to an end, to understanding God’s existence and infinite grace.

Though I find Anselm’s argument unique for its bold and intriguing perspective, I do not agree with his approach. It is one thing to be personally satisfied of one’s faith simply on the basis of their own faith, but it is quite a different thing to make it your primary support to produce a proof for an existence of God.

It is essential that when making such a proof, one must employ the most rigorous of standards. Faith in itself, simply does not qualify as a substantive contribution to any serious argument by any standards. Nor should it be included in any of the premises of an argument. That being said, may one not question what a rigorous proof should consist in? Is an argument about God’s existence flawed if it does not include faith as one of its core ingredients? Anselm’s thesis raises these provocative questions that we seem to always take for granted.

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