Religious Studies Faculty Publications

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Modern Theology


If Wittgenstein is correct to assert that practice gives words their sense, then it is logically possible that an understanding of the ontological "argument" Anselm presents in Proslogion requires some level of practical participation in prayer. A close inspection of Anselm's historical context shows that the conceptual distance we stand from him may be too great to be overcome by mere spectatorship. Rather, participation in this case likely requires of the modern reader a reproduction of Anselm's conduct in prayer. If so, Anselm's case falsifies, and thus warrants our resistance of, the commonly presumed disconnect between knowledge and practice.

Fresh out of grad school, I eagerly attended a conference that featured one of the greatest minds of the academic world discussing the existence of God. To his credit, the plenary speaker had noted that Anselm’s ontological argument had taken the literary form of a prayer and that knowing this was important for understanding what Anselm was up to. At the break, I asked him whether Anselm’s context could be adequately described in words or whether one needed to join in at the practical level in order to understand the argument — i.e., the ontological argument only works for those who pray. He dismissed this. He said he was only interested in publicly accessible arguments, and surely arguments about God’s existence require no special attending behaviors to get their point. On the contrary, he assured me, “I only need a day or two of vacation and an occasional change of scenery to rest my mind enough for the concentration necessary to get a clear view of truth.”

I find this appalling. In stark contrast to this speaker's view, the assumption that knowledge and practice are internally related has a long and distinguished history. Pascal’s heart had reasons which reason itself knew not of. Luther strove to be a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. Aquinas surmounted, rather than refuted, the aporias set forth by Aristotle. Athanasius advocated imitating the deeds of the saints as a means of coming to know what saints know. Of course, appreciation of these views was obscured by the Enlightenment.

In this essay, I side with a growing number of recent scholars who are challenging the commonly presumed disconnect between religious knowledge and practice. I want to use Anselm as my point of departure. If two sorts of Wittgensteinian premises are conceded at the outset, I will argue that only those who share in the practice of prayer can be rightly said to share in the sense of Anselm’s words.

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The document available for download is the peer-reviewed version of the following article:

  • Brad J. Kallenberg. "Praying for Understanding: Reading Anselm through Wittgenstein." Modern Theology Vol. 20, No. 4 (2004): 527-46.

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