living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Speaking of God

with 5 comments

A good friend of mine recently told me that he needs to be able to conceive of God before it’s possible for him to believe in God. This got me thinking. We cannot conceive of anything apart from our ability to speak of it. How then do we speak of God? The way the situation is often put is that God is a being possessing a host of “omni”  properties (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc…). Yet as we consider language of this nature it becomes clear that terms originating in finite existence are struggling to grasp an infinite reality. This can be seen when we consider what could it possibly mean to say that a being is present everywhere (omnipresence)? What results is actually a contradiction!

But what about other language we use to conceive God? We say God is love. We say God exists. We say God is a being, is triune, has a son, desires things, punishes the wicked, saves the faithful, and so on. Does our finite language run into similar problems with these ascriptions? Or are things more straightforward in these cases? Perhaps that’s a matter up for discussion, but for the time being I hope it can at least be seen that something puzzling happens when we speak of God. My basic thesis on this point is that the “something puzzling” is due to the “infinite” nature of the “object” under discussion and the finite nature of the linguistic tools we are using in trying to grasp it. In the interest of providing a framework for speaking of God under these circumstances, allow me to propose three types of God language.

  1. Natural Terms: Terms that mean exactly what they stand for but mean a reality that transcends the finite. For example: “God is the absolute.” “God is being itself,” “God is,” “God is that which is ultimately real,” etc…
  2. Analogical or Symbolic Terms: Terms that “participate” in the infinite reality they describe, but due to their origin in finite existence lead to absurdities if taken in their natural sense. For example: “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is personal,” “God exists,” “God is love,” “God lives,” etc…
  3. Metaphorical Terms: Terms that are not literally intended in most important respects, but which point toward a single conceptual identity located within some specific attribute (which itself most likely needs to be understood analogically). For example: “This was from the hand of God,” “God is our rock,” “God is a consuming fire,” etc…

What should be noticed is that category 1. contains a single affirmation which is affirmed in multiple ways. And here is what is important: That single affirmation is all that can be said about God with the use of natural terms. Every other affirmation must be understood symbolically (be it analogically, or metaphorically).[1] The reason for this found in the nature of language and the structure of existence. God, as the absolute, grounds the categories of existence but is not conditioned by them. Our language is an expression of the categories of existence and as such is capable of dealing with objects within existing reality, but that is where its use as natural language ends. To speak of the reality that is not conditioned as an object within existence, but is both immanent in, and transcending of, existence, is to be forced to put language to a use that strains and ultimately breaks its natural role.

But it must be broken. For to the extent we insist our natural language grasps God, we force what is ultimate to play by the rules of that which is not ultimate. This can be easily seen by looking at the history of Christianity. The failure to recognize the symbolic nature of language about God has lead to innumerable conflicts, including: the conflict between God’s knowledge and will, freedom and foreknowledge, love and holiness, existence or non-existence, transcendence and immanence, power and weakness, unity and plurality, the list could go on. In each case God is being made a subject to the categories of existence, an attempt is then made to affirm God’s ultimacy, and the result is (as we saw above) a contradiction or antinomy.

There is real insight to be had in each of the above mentioned conflicts, but they ultimately reduce to analyses of existence. This is the doorway to analysis of God, but it is not analysis of God as God. God’s ultimacy assures this.

The implications of this insight are far reaching and existentially important. I have, myself, only begun the process of sorting through them. Perhaps the most deeply felt worry resulting from this discussion is the impression that God is being made infinitely remote, as in deism, or perhaps irrelevantly present, as in pantheism. There is insight in each of these concerns, but ultimately they succumb to the same problem we have been mentioning all along. So where is God? As natural language the question defeats itself. As the cry of our heart, it wells up from, and draws us toward, our origin, condition and end.

May we continue to speak of God, but may we avoid having our symbols become idols.

In our present age this term is problematic, as it now carries with it the connotation of being less real. It might be said that something is “only” or “just” symbolic. What is thought to have a greater ontological standing is language that is meant “literally.” This is unfortunate and is symptomatic of the basic problem I am addressing. On this latter scheme, either God is a being in the natural sense of the term, or God is not real. Modern atheism rightly protests the existence of such a being and accepts the latter conclusion. My point is that the dilemma is a false one. Symbolic language recognizes that all particular being participates in ultimate being. Language is one more instance of this general assertion. As such, to the extent that language is used symbolically it carries within itself its own negation. If it did not, finite reality would be capable of bearing ultimate reality, or ultimate reality itself would be subject to the tensions and conflicts essential to existential being. This cannot be so. Symbolic language dies to itself as natural language and in so doing reveals its own depth. If natural language resists this dynamic, it becomes idolatrous for it seeks to elevate something finite to the level of the ultimate.

Written by Alex

September 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Theology

Tagged with , ,

5 Responses

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  1. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote something to the effect of, “‘How do I know what he means, all I have are his words?’ I answer: ‘How do I know what I mean: all I have are my words!” I agree that an adequate vocabulary (et. al.) is necessary to conceive of something, but admitting this does not simply cut God out, but most of the world. We end in skepticism or we relax the rules of what it means to ‘conceive’.

    Greg Stoutenburg

    September 17, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    • Hi Greg,
      Help me understand what you are saying here:

      I agree that an adequate vocabulary (et. al.) is necessary to conceive of something, but admitting this does not simply cut God out, but most of the world.


      September 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  2. Alex,

    Could you perhaps predict which bit of Wittgenstein I’d quote in response to your post? Probably.


    Jonathan Jong

    September 17, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  3. This appears to be an exercise in begging the question. To even say that God is infinite, etc. presupposes the possibility of God-talk. Escaping the charge of incoherence by appealing to infinitude is precisely boot-strapping of the epistemologically unsavoury variety.

    Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by analytic philosophers, but again I fail to see how all this Tillichian metaphoricalness isn’t just anti-realist talk of God or expressivist philosophy of language more generally.

    Jonathan Jong

    September 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm

  4. Hey Alex,

    Some comments on your paragraph following your distinction of terms.

    I would say that your concern over the inadequacy of our language points less to its actual incapabilities as communication of ontological referents and more to the inadequacy of most attempts at using terms with tumultuous histories of misinterpretation and shallow exegesis. In effect, it is not language per se that we find insufficient in its consummate sense, but rather the ordinary (and typically superficial) means in which it is often employed.

    Consider this trite (and perhaps anachronistic) example: Say a man with very little education walks into a doctor’s office and complains about his stomach feeling nauseous. Upon initial investigation, the physician works with the local region of discomfort to determine what the cause of the nausea might be. Now, of course, the physician understands that the area under inspection is not simply the anatomical stomach but includes the entire abdominal cavity and human being. So, when the physician comes back to the old man and says that he is experiencing nausea as a result of a metastatic lesion in his brain, this may completely go over the man’s head. Without an understanding of the general functions of the brain, the extra-regional cause of the man’s discomfort remains incoherent…perhaps “paradoxical.”

    Similarly, it is with noncontextualized and unexplicated uses of words that we become caught up in a great manner of interpretational and conceptual difficulties. Consider the theological terms “transcendence” and “immanence”: normally when I hear these two terms used in discourse, they are pitted against each other as polar opposites or binaries. This is generally followed with the idea of “paradox” as a result of their apparent disagreement; yet, we know that they cannot both be absolutely so in respect to God because that would be contradictory (at which point we quickly move out of any system of understanding that is familiar to us). Thus, there needs to be further articulation and qualification of terms in order to get at the true concept and the correspondence to reality.

    With that, I am an advocate of artificial language and its full and precise exposition (as we see mostly in the natural sciences). To conclude that language (semantics) is unable to offer truth-status and fully explicate B/being is to give it too little credit as one side of the coin of reality (the other being ontology). Our problem is not our vehicle an sich but its misuse and misunderstanding.

    Perhaps you could go on further in regard to how you understand language’s “natural role”.


    September 18, 2010 at 4:08 pm

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