O.K. Bouwsma’s essay, “Anselm’s Argument,” is vintage Bouwsma: playful yet deadly serious; delightfully idiosyncratic yet provocatively incisive; irreverent, but only because it is infused by a deep faith. Bouwsma is never interested in making things easy for us. Consider this his Kierkegaardian spirit. Indeed, the epigraph to this essay is a wry line from Kierkegaard’s Fragments: “For why do we have our philosophers if not to make supernatural things trivial and commonplace?”
Lost in Translation
What does Bouwsma see in Anselm’s exercise? In some ways, you could say that Bouwsma blames Anselm for being the first analytic philosopher: by transposing the language of prayer and praise to a concept, Anselm “has lifted out of the shouting surroundings ‘with a great shout,’ a shouting sentence. But now there is no shout.” Instead what we get is “praise on ice.” Thus, for Bouwsma, Anselm’s exercise is rooted in an “original misunderstanding,” a wrong-footed step before the argument ever gets going. The first half of his essay is like an archaeological dig to discover just where this original misunderstanding lies.
Where, exactly, did Anselm’s definition of God (“that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought”) come from? “Out of what context did Anselm lift that phrase?,” he asks. Anselm’s exercise arises from an “us”: “Now we believe that You are…” he begins. So who is this “we” that knows what God is like? And how did we come to think like that? Bouwsma starts digging, wondering, imagining: Where have I heard this before? What does this definition sound like? Where could we imagine it arising from?
In pursuing this, Bouwsma is following through on a Wittgensteinian intuition that meaning is bound up with use—that what a word means is a factor of the community of practice in which we use it. Of course, this is to challenge just how Anselm’s argument has been received and deployed. Those who have some enthusiasm for Anselm’s argument think they have hit upon a distinctly a priori—and therefore universal—understanding of God. But if Bouwsma is right, the original source of this definition is far from universal; it is, rather, “a slightly altered fragment of the language of praise,” particularly as found in the Psalms. In other words, what operates as an a priori concept in the argument tracks back to a very different language game (in Wittgenstein’s terms).
But what happens when you take a phrase from the context of worship & prayer and transpose it to the context of a “proof?”
This is where Bouwsma locates the “original misunderstanding.” By lifting the language of praise from its context, Anselm unhooks the superlatives from their context in a people’s history with a God who acts, where praise is bound up with remembering. In doing so, Anselm misunderstands the “use” of praise and changes the kind of speech act involved. “When removed from their surroundings and cooled for the purpose of proof, they maybe be mistaken for sentences about God, as though they furnished information or descriptions,” as he puts it. “Now the words of praise are going about in the guise of a description.” When that “alteration” happens, then “God” is transposed into the ontological universe as a “comparable” being–the greatest and most perfect, to be sure; but even the superlatives locate God as a being on a continuum; and as soon as that happens, Bouwsma points out, the gig is up: God has been domesticated. (Cue Heidegger on “onto-theo-logy.”)
Sympathy for the Fool
The most beautiful part of Bouwsma’s essay, however, is a remarkable attempt to enter into the psyche of Anselm’s “Fool” (“who says in his heart, ‘There is no God’“). This really needs to be read first-hand, and I worry that a summary of it does a disservice. But let me risk it with the hope of enticing you to read for yourself.
The fool is not a philosopher, Bouwsma emphasizes; the fool is not a Sam-Harris atheist or someone who demurs from the inferences of a syllogism. If the seedbed of all of this is the psalms and the world that bequeathed the psalms to us, then we have to reimagine the fool. This is where Bouwsma’s imaginative powers come to life with an empathy we don’t often see in philosophy. The fool is not someone who refuses to believe because the logic fails or the evidence is insufficient; the fool is more like someone who can’t believe because of what he’s witnessed, what he’s endured, maybe even what he’s seen “believers” do.
“If the fool is a Hebrew fool,” Bouwsma muses,
who has as a boy been taught out of the Scriptures and has every year taken his part in the Passover feast and has asked the ceremonial question, “What mean ye by this service?” then he would understand a great deal. But even though he did understand the psalms and had once taken part in the singing and been one of the musicians, it would not involve his understanding Anselm’s “a being than which one greater can be conceived.” Even if we assume the fool understands it, it is clear from the argument that he did not understand it in the same way Anselm did. And what fools among us understand it?
The fool has a past, a history, a set of experiences. His unbelief is conditioned by his experience of believing communities and broken people. He has witnessed the horrors, lived through the captivity. It’s not that he doesn’t understand; he understands too much. And there are even days when he wishes he could believe–could sing the songs the way he did when he was young. “He is desolate, tender with memories, but without hope. God, too, is only a memory.” Bouwsma imagines the fool hovering at the back of the congregation, half-hidden in a doorway, with a look that is a mix of longing and disdain. “[T]his must not be taken as a reaction to God,” Bouwsma concludes. “It is a reaction to men who believe.”
All these people in the congregation are like people who are devoted to an unseen king, a government in exile or in their exile, and the fool understands that. But the fool has said in his heart and at the door, “The King is dead.”
Whence Bouwsma’s imagined empathy for the fool? What if it comes from this truth: that there are days and seasons in even a believer’s life where they find themselves such fools, lingering at the back of the sanctuary, heartbroken and outraged?
We don’t need your proofs, Anselm. We need you to sing for us. Make room for us on the portico of the synagogue; let us linger. Who knows if even our faith might be raised from the dead?