Look, even I think that this ↑ title sounds pretentious. I was going to call this post ‘the ontological argument as religious experience’, but then I thought that ‘religious’ didn’t quite convey what I was trying to convey. I rejected ‘existential’ for the same reason.
In the opening chapter of their mammoth Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP), William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland tell us that
The conventional wisdom says, “You can’t use arguments to bring people to Christ.” This has not been our experience.
It has not been my experience, either. Rational arguments played a significant role in my coming to faith, in particular the moral argument and the argument for the resurrection of Jesus. There is, however, one form of theistic argument featuring in that volume that I doubt has ever been used to bring someone to Christ: the ontological argument. Craig and Moreland define it (p 496) as follows:
The common thread in ontological arguments is that they try to deduce the existence of God from the very concept of God, together with certain other necessary truths.
However, I do believe that this argument can play a surprising role in the Christian life. In his journals, Søren Kierkegaard had the following to say about Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God:
Anselm prays to God in all sincerity that he may succeed in proving God's existence. He thinks he has succeeded and throws himself down to thank God: curious, he does not notice that this prayer and thanksgiving are infinitely more proof of God's existence than the proof.
If you didn’t know Kierkegaard better, you would suspect that his point may have simply been that Anselm’s argument is absolutely no good at all. It is entirely possible that Kierkegaard did think that, but I believe that that is not the only thing going on here. Nor do I think that Kierkegaard was rejecting rational argumentation in toto and advocating irrational fideism, as the caricature of him would have it. I think that there is a line of thought here that pulls Anselm’s argumentation and his prayers closer to each other than is initially apparent.
In order to try to get at this line of thought, let’s move from Kierkegaard’s journal to my own. A few weeks after I became a Christian, I made an entry in there that reads as follows:
The fact that this is such an important question means that the answer can't be meaningless. The very power to reason is based on this fact.
Looking at it now, this seems like a mangled attempt at ontological argumentation. But when I wrote it, it was not an attempt to prove that God exists; rather, it was an attempt to articulate the content of a religious experience in which I was certain of the existence of God. What was unusual (perhaps) is that the content of that experience was itself more like an argument than a felt presence – I didn’t see lights, hear voices or feel ecstatic; I was simply locked in to a certain kind of thinking.
Reading my diary entry, some readers might have thought of a particular xkcd comic:
I would say (from my own experience) that ‘getting existential’ is just a shade off of the religious experience I described above. I had ‘gotten existential’ before, and the quality of the two experiences was actually very similar. There was something vertiginous about them both. That is why, as I made clear in the very first post on this blog, I think that the instinct to ‘super soak’ people who ‘get existential’ is diabolical. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has a senior demon advise a more junior tempter that
By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.
I suspect that there is a sound ontological argument out there somewhere, although I doubt that it can be recovered from my journal, and making the case for one has not been the point of this post. Rather, what I have tried to do is explain an attraction that ontological arguments hold for me apart from their apologetic potential or logical intricacy. It was prompted by a recent Doug Benscoter post in which he attempted to turn some of his own youthful thoughts into a valid ontological argument.