Feast of St. Anselm of Canterbury, Spring Assembly, Daughters of the King, St. George’s, Nashville

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matt. 11:25).

Can you prove the existence of God? I think most of us would say that God is not like a mathematical proof, where two and two must equal four. God can’t be “proved” like that, or people convinced through logic. Nor is it enough to look around us at the visible world and simply read God off from the evidence of creation, even on a beautiful day like this. The existence of the material world and beauty itself is important for our understanding of God, even if not conclusive, though we will let Canon Andrew say more about beauty later.

Yet even though the existence of God can’t be proved logically or from evidence, it’s not unreasonable to believe in God. “Believe” is an important word here because it reminds us that in this context belief is a matter of faith. Yet belief is also based on evidence and on human understanding; it’s not opposed to reason or to empirical evidence.

For instance, as we’ve heard this Eastertide, when the women got to the tomb on Easter Day they saw that it was empty. That’s evidence that the Gospel writers believed was important enough to pass on to others. The women and the apostles were not confronted by the dead body of Jesus and an angel insisting that he really was alive! Reasonable people believed then and they believe now.

The saint we celebrate today has something to say about all of this. St. Anselm of Canterbury was born almost a thousand years ago in the shadow of the Alps, in the Valley of Aosta in what is now Italy, but which was then a French kingdom. He was a well-connected young man with a call to the religious life that (like St. Francis) his father did not want him to answer.

Eventually after some years of travel on the other side of the mountains he was able to become a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Bec in Normandy. He was a man of prayer and a scholar who was quickly pressed into service in the day to day affairs of the monastery, serving as prior and then as abbot. Then, like his teacher Lanfranc, prior of Bec before him, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King William II of England.

Anselm had a stormy time as Archbishop, but his lesson for us today has to do with his prior life as a scholar and person of prayer. Anselm was struck by the line from Psalm 14, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”, not as an instance of how foolish it is not to believe in God but as evidence for the existence of God. Thus, even people who reject the existence of God have to be able to conceive of the notion of God, a being by definition greater than any other that can be conceived. In other words it’s a reasonable category, intelligible to thinking people, even those who reject the notion. Anselm then pointed out that being greater than any other being required actually existing outside the human mind, so therefore God must exist.

Whatever you make of this “proof” of God’s existence, you should know that Anselm the scholar and person of prayer believed that God had to be greater than anything we could imagine. In other words, he no sooner puts forward the proof before he pulls the rug out from under it. God cannot be contained by our notions of God but has to be bigger than any box we can put him in, including Anselm’s own “proof” of God. The Apostle John says something like this in his First Letter, “We know that God is greater than our hearts” (1 Jo. 3:20). Anselm would add not just our hearts but our minds as well.

St. Anselm believed that “faith seeks understanding” not the other way round: the original title of one of his works. “I do not seek to understand that I may believe but believe that I might understand. For this too I believe since, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” But faith also seeks understanding. “To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.”

After all, it’s faith that brings us here today. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants *(Matt. 11:25). Our understanding will only carry us so far. Like the women at the tomb, we won’t be able to be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ unless we believe. Belief requires commitment of the self, and a going forth to others. But it also requires us to deepen our understanding so that we can speak of the things we have come to believe and know. That is why we are here today in this Eastertide, at this Spring Assembly of the Daughters of the King, to deepen our faith and to encourage each other, as witnesses of his resurrection.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee