Before becoming religious, I was a seeker trying to figure out what I believed and where I belonged. I took an introductory religions course during the spring of my first year of college, and in it, I was introduced to various proofs for the existence of God. There was one that stood out to me, and that stuck with me that summer and in the years to come: Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God.
In short, Anselm posits that God must exist for the following reasons: 1) God is, by definition, the greatest thing you could possibly think of; 2) anything that could be thought of must be greater if it also exists; therefore, 3) God exists, otherwise something greater than God (something that actually exists) can be thought of.
When I first heard this argument, and in the months to come, I would argue that the greatest thing that I could possibly think of was simply the entire universe, and that indeed does exist (or so I think). “Why,” I thought to myself, “do we have to put the name ‘God’ on that? Why can’t we simply relate to the entire cosmos and orient ourselves towards meaningful existence insofar as we participate in making the cosmos a better place for ourselves and others?”
For months, that was my question. Then, one day, it clicked. It just so happened to be the day that my evangelical grandfather, who had always worried he wouldn’t see his grandchildren in heaven one day, died. I was preoccupied, and besides, we had not been close in years. His decline had been steady for some time. Thus, I did not feel impacted by the news of his death all that severely.
That night, however, I was in my dorm room staring out the window at light flickering on the water of the Potomac, when suddenly I was overcome by emotion. Then, in the midst of a sudden rush of grief and tears, I heard the echo of Anselm’s ontological argument, and I asked myself: “Why I was so insistent on calling the greatest thing that I could think of ‘the Universe.’ Why, after all, couldn’t I call it, ‘God?'”
I called out, and it worked. In my grief, I spoke to God and it felt like there was an answer; a Presence that I had not been aware of before then. A Person that I could be in relationship with, even if I had no way of fathoming even the beginning of Who that Person might be.
That experience has led me to reflect on the impact of philosophical proofs of God’s existence, ever since. On the one hand, the “proof” on its own could not convince me. On the other hand, it created a container for me to relate to and think about God, once I wanted to. Somehow, it depended upon my truly wanting to believe in God, as well as perhaps the destabilizing event of a grandparent’s death, to enter into that way of thinking.
Regardless, today, on the feast day of St. Anselm, I remember him and am glad to share my story of how impactful his work was in my own life.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/