fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

Why everything you were ever told about God is wrong (but you should believe some of it anyway)

A while back, Christian author and blogger Tony Jones challenged "all progressive theo-bloggers" to "write something substantive about God. Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God." He rattled off a whole list of well-known bloggers about religion working from a more or less progressive protestant starting-point, like Fred Clarke, Rachel Held Evans, and others.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. I know a lot of people reading this are atheists or not particularly religious. That's fine, and I think what I'm talking about is interesting even for you. (Or I hope it is!) But in this post I'm doing what I consider "inside" work - theology rather than apologetics or evangelism. So when I say "you" ought to do a certain thing before, I'm talking about what I think theism, and in particular Christianity, requires. I just don't want to confuse anyone, because it's a bit different than how I usually write.

Anyway, I don't know that I count as a "progressive theo-blogger." I do write about God a fair bit, but I'm nowhere near in the league of the people mentioned above. I don't also write solely about God or even about theological concepts (though it seems like that some days!) And as I explained back in June, I don't necessarily think of myself as progressive in the way that most people use that term. I'm progressive in the sense that I think religion is supposed to get closer to the truth as history progresses, not in the sense that I think my religion or any other should be defined by a liberal or progressive political agenda. As my friend Ellen Haroutunian once put it, my God is neither red nor blue, but purple.  Still, the company is flattering and the challenge was interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Here's the problem, though. Tony Jones wants me to write something substantive, and I am at heart a medievalist. And to a student of medieval philosophy, substance means substantia, essence – think transubstantiation, having been one substance/essence and now being something else entirely. And, also probably because I'm a student of medieval philosophy, I'm just not sure I can answer his prompt. Not because I don't read my Bible (there's that thing I'm not supposed to be talking about), or because I haven't been touched by Christ (that other thing) or the Holy Spirit or even what Christians might call God the Father.

Think about it this way. Language typically aims to describe something, and when we get to the level of statements, the statement is true if it accurately reflects the thing being described. We can quibble over just what's being described, whether there's a one-size-fits-all definition to terms and the like. For instance, to a toddler I would seem quite tall (I'm around 5'6") but to an NBA player or someone leaning out of a third-story window I would probably seem pretty short. However, once we settle on what a certain person means by a word, this typically means we should be able to work out whether the statement is true or not. At least in principle. If I would describe anyone whose height is six feet more than mine as tall, and you're only 5'9", then my statement that you're tall is obviously false.

And that's how language seems to work. We have a concept, we observe something and decide that the concept applies and say so. It's also how we communicate. Say I set you up on a blind date and tell you that the girl you're meeting will be wearing a red flower I picked up for her this afternoon. You walk into the decided-upon restaurant and see two ladies sitting along at different tables, one with a dark pinkish carnation and the other with a crimson rose. Who do you go up to first and ask if they're waiting on you? A good place to start is to think: what did I have in mind when I described the rose as red? If I've called that pink-ish color pink with other things in the past, it's not a bad guess that I would have called it pink again this time. In that case it's not a bad first guess to start with the lady wearing the crimson rose.

This is what philosophers refer to as univocal language – two words used in different contexts but in the same way. What's the problem here? Aquinas notes in the Summa Theologica (Ia.13.5), when we say that God is wise, this statement "is not confined to the meaning of our word [wise] but goes beyond it. Hence it is clear that the word 'wise' is not used in the same sense of God and human beings, and the same is true of all other words, so they cannot be used univocally of God and creatures." Put another way, we can't mean that God is wise the same way a favorite teacher or a parent is wise because this doesn't come anywhere close to the mark. God is so fundamentally different from the things we normally describe, the kind of things our words are suited to describing, that those same words simply can't function in the same way if they're going to describe God.

So what's the problem? Just say we mean one thing by "wise" when we're talking about our parents and another thing when we're talking about God and be done with it. (This is the equivocal view of language.) Again, Aquinas doesn't think this will work. I have precious little direct experience of God, and I don't think I'm alone in this. Even religious people learn most of what they believe they know about God indirectly. We're told that God loves us like a good parent, or is a protector, or a king, or a teacher, or a shepherd, or… the list goes on. But here again Aquinas sees the problem. When I say God is wise, I can't mean his wisdom is just like the wisdom of the wise things I'm familiar with. But if not this, what do those words mean, exactly? Or even approximately? Again, Aquinas has the problem pegged here: if the way I say God is wise has nothing to do with the way I say a parent is wise, "we could never argue from statements about creatures to statements about God." If there's no connection between the two types of language, what exactly do I learn when someone tells me God is wise? God is unique; either I know this God-wisdom (in which case I must know God has it!), or else if I don't know what this God-wisdom is like I don't really have any way to learn.

Obviously this isn't a great situation to be in, since most medieval philosophers operated in religious context. They wanted to be able to say something meaningful about God if only because you can't criticize God – even to say God doesn't exist – if words are impossible when it comes to God. So this isn't just a religious problem; atheists should care deeply about it as well, if they care about saying God is cruel or simply doesn't exist. And medieval philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, John Scotus Eriugena and Maimonides were keenly aware of the problem. (Those links point to Wikipedia articles – not the best sources for philosophers in general, but in this case not bad starting points for those completely unfamiliar with their thought.)

Approach #1 has a fancy Greek name apophemi, literally "to deny." It's slightly better known by its Latin label of via negativa: the negative way. We can't say anything substantive about God, or more properly we can't say anything about God's substance. I can tell you about God's actions and God's relationships, but not what God is in His own nature. What I can say, according to Maimonides and others, is what God isn't. To take Aquinas's example, when we say God is wise what we really mean is that God isn't not-wise. It would be inappropriate to think of God as weak, so we describe him as strong; to think of others as having authority over him so we call him a king; and so on.

I find this approach quite attractive, personally, if only because it comes so close to how the Bible presents things. Think of the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, where God only says "I am that I am" – no further description necessary, or even possible. I also think there's more going on than simple coyness when Jesus asks the disciples "Who do you say that I am?" Throughout the Bible, particularly at those points where people were trying to work out just what God was, God or his closest representative seemed to be quite mum. The problem is, as a Christian I want to say something substantive about God – and when people who I disagree with get it wrong, I want to be able to tell them why.

Then there's approach #2, John Scotus Eriugena. He's close to Maimonides in a lot of ways, but he seems to provide more of a bridge for folks that want to say something that's actually true about God. Eriugena is a panentheist, meaning he thinks that the whole material (and for that matter immaterial) world is a reflection of God but that God also exists apart from nature. So Eriugena thinks you really can learn a thing or two about God by looking at the world around you, but that it's wrong to think that the picture you're getting is the whole picture – because there's more to God than what's reflected in the towering rock face or the majestic soaring eagle or the human intellect. According to Eriugena, though, we shouldn't say that God is all-powerful if by "power" we mean the same thing a fortress or a tank has. God's power is still far beyond what we see, even to the point that you can't really imagine what it's like. But powerful things at least give us a direction to extrapolate from.

Finally there's Aquinas himself, who thinks language about God is analogical – a kind of middle-ground between univocal and equivocal language. Wittgenstein explains this approach well in a famous passage having absolutely nothing to do with God:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call 'games'. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don't say: 'There must be something common, or they would not be called "games"' – but look and see whether there is something common to them all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! – Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. […] And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

Wittgenstein's point isn't so hard to grasp if you think about it. When we say that a flower is red and an apple and a fire-engine are red, we are saying they're all red by virtue of having some property in common. But not so with games; rather, we say games are games because they're similar to most other games (but not all). There's a family of relationships, and the more of those relationships are true, the stronger the analogy. At least that's my understanding; I'm no expert, and my blood sugar's a bit low just now so I may be getting this wrong. But as I understand it, this means that when we say God is wise, we don't mean this univocally (the word wise means precisely the same thing in all contexts) or equivocally (the word wise means radically different things). Rather, there's a connection but it's only an analogy. Just as a parent's wisdom is like a sage's wisdom but not precisely the same, God's wisdom is like all these kinds of wisdom. Similar, but not exactly the same.

This suggests to me St. Paul's famous statement in 1 Corinthians 13, that now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. We cannot know God as truly as we can the kind of things we describe all the time, but we can have a vague kind of appropriate belief. Maybe it's knowledge, maybe it's not; maybe it's true, maybe it's not. I'll leave it to the epistemologists to work all that out. But the big point is there's something you can believe about God, and though it may be seen through a glass, darkly, it's still good to believe it.

The obvious problem with analogy, though, is that it assumes the things we're talking about can be similar. That's obviously not a problem (well, not as big of a problem) with checkers and chess and badminton – these are all games, and they break down to properties in a similar kind of way. But with God and humans? My own religious tradition says that God is so radically different, we can't draw a connection between the human king and God the King. The two are just so different, there isn't the kind of similarity analogies latch on to. When I think of God I think of something roughly like a king. But isn't that just my own way of thinking about God, not how God actually is?

Here's where I think my own research interest, Anselm, can be really interesting and useful. People who have studied the whole "faith seeking understanding" project in Anselm (I'm thinking mainly of Marilyn McCord Adams here) point to two different kinds of hurdles when it comes to talking about God. First, there's what Adams calls our "ontological incommensuration" – the radical difference in natures between humans and God. When I think of this I always think of the Genie's line in Aladdin: "Phenomenal cosmic powers… itty-bitty living space." God as God really is – the whole picture of God – isn't ever going to fit inside the human mind. It never was, and whatever you think of as God probably won't do the real thing justice, either in terms of scale or even more fundamentally. As Adams puts it, "the divine nature is permanently partially beyond our cognitive grasp, in some aspects fundamentally incomprehensible to us and inexpressible in human language." But on top of this humans suffer "the damage done by human nature as a result of Adam's fall." We might never have been able to understand God completely, but now we really can't.

Believe it or not, this is actually good news. "Ontological incommensuration" is unfixable; we're just not good enough. But sin, that at least isn't part of human nature. It can be fixed (if not easily). As Anselm puts it at the beginning of the Proslogion:

I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that You have created your imagine im me, so that I may remember You, think of You, love You. But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless You renew it and reform it. I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves.

Even on Anselm's view, we're in a tough spot. But this is our ace in the sleeve: we were designed to love God, and since we are rational beings, that requires that we know God is worthy of our love. As Anselm puts it: "[the rational nature] cannot love the supreme essence unless it strives to become conscious of and to understand it. So it is quite clear, as a result, that whether the rational creation ought to do, is to put all its power and all its will into becoming conscious of, understanding and loving the supreme good." We can talk about God meaningfully because we do have a leg to stand on, as a kind of gift from God. We can say something true about God, but only because God gave us the words to begin with. But it's the kind of truth we can't understand passively. Anselm's picture requires us to reach for God's nature with all our will. He certainly doesn't take the route suggested by later philosophers, that we can understand the kind of thing God is by looking at things that really aren't so like God after all.

Personally, I think all of these different approaches help us out quite a bit. If you're going to say something meaningful about God, you can't start with words that suit everyday things (creatures, in Aquinas's words). But Maimonides's, Eriugena's, and Aquinas's approaches all give us tools that help us stretch with all our will to really come to terms with what we have inside of us but don't know just yet. Thinking about what God can't be, or what God must be like, help prod us as we reflect on that inner image of what God truly is. The trick is to keep in mind this simple truth: none of them can really tell us what God's really like.

That means a bit of humility's in order here. It's also why I always buck against people who say "The Bible says it, that settles it." Because while the Bible may say it, I don't understand it – not really, or at least not totally. It doesn't mean I should stop talking about God and explaining why I think some peoples' views of God is wrong (sometimes disastrously so). But it does mean I shouldn't think I've got it all figured out myself, either.

P.S.: Credit where credit's due. The Aquinas and Wittgenstein quotes, and the reference to the Exodus story, are taken from Fr. Brian Davies's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, mainly because I loaned out my Summa of the Summa (which has the text in question) so don't have it on hand to give you guys a readable translation. I recommend it if you like philosophy of religion. The Anselm quotes are from the Charlesworth translation in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. With Anselm in particular I've only scratched the surface and really want to say a lot more, but given it's past midnight and I'm rounding 3,000 words here, I should probably leave that for another post.

Tags: philosophy, religion, theology

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