A reflection on the readings of April 23, 3023 — The Third Sunday of Easter
Almost one thousand years ago, St. Anselm of Canterbury penned his famous ontological argument for the existence of God. This philosophical proof has been debated, refuted, upheld, and studied for centuries. It has become a staple of introduction to philosophy courses and is discussed in the writings of some of history’s greatest philosophical minds. Interestingly, while Anselm is a canonized archbishop, most seminarians read the ontological argument during the first portion of their formation in their philosophical studies but likely do not encounter it in the context of theology. Why?
As a priest, I have yet to encounter an individual who has decided to embrace the faith because of a run-in with Anselm’s ontological argument. Of course, his is only one of many philosophical proofs for God’s existence, and not even the most convincing one at that. Still, of the thousands of Catholics I have served, the many conversions, reversions, and spiritual awakenings, a scant few have attributed any part of their turn to the Lord to any form of logical or philosophical argumentation. I’m talking low single digits. It’s not that these things are unnecessary or don’t have their place in our Catholic tradition, simply that this is not how people come to faith.
Human beings are rational, logical animals; it is one of the defining characteristics of our species. Yet most individuals do not make significant decisions about the direction of their lives based on logical argumentation and, in fact, sometimes make decisions in direct opposition to reason; a plethora of psychological studies and even more anecdotal examples back this up. Most of us have experienced this first-hand in our interactions with others and, if we’re honest, have been guilty of ignoring well-reasoned and logically irrefutable guidance ourselves. Our ancestors doubtless valued logic and reason while hunting antelope and avoiding lions in the Serengeti, but they were not the most important contributors to their survival. Far more important were the lessons learned from personal experience and the ability to determine which other individuals could be trusted and reliably depended upon. The often illogical nature of human decision-making can sometimes be frustrating and even harmful, but it is baked into how we have always interacted with our world.
Fortunately, the ontological argument was not Anselm’s only lasting contribution to the world. He also gave us the Latin phrase credo ut intelligam—I believe so that I may understand. For Anselm, as for us, faith is not the natural conclusion to an intellectual process, it is not the fruit of reasoning, and it is not won by assent to a philosophical proof. Faith does not come from understanding; it provides the context for it. Faith is a gift, an experience of the living God; it is an encounter with Jesus Christ. Faith allows our understanding to expand, not the other way around. Consider for a moment the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in today’s gospel. These men obtained no new information during their seven-mile walk. They were well aware of the events that had occurred in Jerusalem, familiar with the Biblical prophesies related to the Messiah, and had already heard the accounts of Jesus’ rising from the dead. What happened was not the reception of a compelling argument or logical proof. The disciples encountered the risen Christ and received the gift of faith burning within their hearts.
None of this is meant to diminish the importance of exploring, discovering, and learning more about God. Studying the mysteries of our faith is essential to growing in the Spirit. No relationship can survive without a genuine interest in coming to know the other more deeply and profoundly. In our efforts to accompany others in their relationship with Christ, we should value and encourage the study of theology. Still, we should also be aware of its proper place in the economy of salvation. In evangelization, catechesis, and ministry, we must begin by establishing trust, relationship, and experience of God through prayer. Only after that groundwork has been laid can we break open the mysteries of faith. In our personal lives, we must recognize that faith must be received as a gift of God and nurture this gift not primarily through rational discourse but through our prayerful and sacramental encounters with Christ.
Credo ut intelligam. I believe so that I may understand. Receive faith for what it is, the gift of encounter, experience, and relationship with God. A gift that burns within us and draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s salvation and love.
Image: By Unidentified painter – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the National Gallery of Art. Please see the Gallery's Open Access Policy., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81303857
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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.