The Meaning of “God”

Joseph Minich
Friday, January 22nd 2021
Modernity, Pluralism, and Doubt

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age was the simple observationthat modern believers and unbelievers experience the world in much the same way. Whether raised by a homeschooling family who taught you to be a six-day creationist, or the child of an irreligious couple in San Francisco, to live in the modern world is to live in a world where one’s big picture beliefs are felt to be merely one option among many. Other beliefs, very different from one’s own, are held by people who show every sign of being at least as reasonable, put together, and educated as one’s self. As a good phenomenologist, Taylor is simply looking closely at what there is to see, and his central insight is that this condition cannot but affect the character of belief, the what it is like to believe.

Of course, this process can be delayed. It is possible to be raised in such an insular context that the metaphysical commitments of one’s community are absorbed very much like the air. Nevertheless, there are fissures in most modern communities that are unprecedented. The speed and range of modern transportation, modern social media, modern film, and even the extent to which one’s community is shaped by respondingto outsiders, all render “the other’s” eventual colonization of one’s imagination inevitable. Sometimes it occurs in small children. “Mommy, how do we know God exists?” “Daddy, why do the neighbors believe in a different God?” And children learn a lot from the reactions of their parents. If they detect fear or nervousness even as reasons are given, they will tacitly learn the danger of such inquiry. In any case, it is not unusual (in our civilization) for the full import of our condition to be only finally experienced in early adulthood. We eventually ask, “Now that I’ve seen so many people who believe very different things than I do, but with the same fervency that I do, and go through the same sorts of mental motions I do, and project the same confidence that I do, how can I be sure that we’re not basically the same thing: articulate gatekeepers of what amounts to mere tribal loyalty when it is all said and done?”

Unfortunately, it would appear that the typical approach to young adults is to encourage them to choose one or another path of childishness. They must choose between warring ideologies, must become “true believers” (in the Eric Hoffer sense) in this cause or that. Ultimately, they must maintain the same suspicion toward such questions—or minimally the same refusal to be fully honest with them—as they were encouraged to do in their childhood. This is what it means to “fight the good fight” of faith in adulthood. It is clear, however, that this is a path to ideology, and not to faith. It is an attempt to seize a child’s relation to being among the elect. It is a form of unbelief, which must always internalize a lie—in this case, the lie that there isn’t a part of you that feels as fragile and vulnerable and confused as the next guy. We live in complicated times (at an epochal level), and it is not of faith to pretend otherwise in those key moments. Just as it is impossible to become an adult without facing one’s fears and pains, so we fail to become mature to the extent that we refuse to look our doubts and wonderings squarely in the eye, and especially those that linger after we throw all our mental resources at them.

Of chief importance here is not so much which religion is the true or truest one, but the question of God. We sometimes wonder if He really exists. Christians who read apologetics books, of course, have their favorite arguments and perhaps some personal experience to go with it. Nevertheless, it is simply a fact that many of them—despite constant intellectual therapy—still find themselves lying awake at night (every now and again), wondering if they’ve got it wrong. Something in most modern people’s imagination can (perhaps uniquely) imagine an atheist universe. For some, it even has a peculiar charm and allure, a world where meaning is made by humans with the courage to be happy about a happy accident. And, of course, the reverse is also true. It is likewise the testimony of some atheists that they sometimes find, among their drifting thoughts, some piece of them that has the hope of a child. “Perhaps,” they might occasionally wonder, “the cosmos is fully intended, in all its parts and symmetries, and perhaps the whole is suffused with meaning and agency.” In both cases, the tendency is for the waking habits to reassure the wandering mind that it is the child, and one’s louder voices the adult. I am suggesting, however, that the opposite may very well be the case. We would all do well to ask if these moments are rather an adult, exploiting our brief moment of inner silence, and trying to get that word in edgewise that our babbling child habitually forbids.

Suspecting this, I think we can state the question rather baldly. Is belief in God still sane? Alternatively, is it possible that belief in God is the most stable in a long line of mostly discarded primitivisms? Is God increasingly out of a job, moved around in our imagination as science automates most of the places where the idea of God formerly seemed necessary? Is it possible that all of our apologetics arguments, when it comes down to it, are only so much word-salad, endlessly deferring signatures of what amounts to nonsense, extensive commentary (as one clever person put it) on the ornateness of the emperor’s clothes?

In this series, I will try to give a very basic account of how one might work through the question of God from within a headspace where these questions ring loudly. Of first importance is to define our terms. If the question is about God’s existence, then it is fitting to make sure that we understand precisely what we mean by “God” and what we mean by “exist.” What we’ll discover is that a full half of our imaginative problem is ordinarily here.

The Meaning of “God”

It is interesting to note, for instance, that the atheist and the Christian both often “imagine” God in the same way, as the final step in an explanatory chain, the cosmic pool-stick that struck all the orbs of the universe (and their inhabitants) into existence. If you believe in God, you have an “intelligent designer.” If you don’t, somehow the cosmic pool-stick just doesn’t require the properties we ascribe to God. In either case, God basically takes on the role that the modern “quantum field” takes in physics, that “largest explanation of things” on which all else depends. The difference between the atheist and the Christian is not the mental image of the universe as such, but rather whether or not the latter requires just one more member to make sense of everything. For most atheists, Ockham’s Razor would have us stop at the quantum-field, and since there is empirical evidence for the quantum field and none for God, we have no reason to go beyond this limit. For the theist, there are features of the quantum field (a sort of materialist Logos) and the emergent known universe that require a supervening mind.

Another way of saying this is that God, on this way of framing the question, is a hypothesis for which there either is or is not evidence. One decides on the existence of God very much in the way that one postulates a scientific law or theory. As we will see, while there are similar mental motions within the classical arguments, they are differently accented precisely because God is not primarily approached as an “explainer” of things, but rather as the primal precondition of explainability whatsoever. If you are thinking of God, and you are thinking of the world as a place which might or might not contain Him, your imagination is mis-framing the role of God. To speak of “God,” in the classical sense, is to speak of the unnameable Source of all being and knowing, and who has none of the limits of finite and creaturely experience. On this view—and we will see why in future posts—the entire universe and all of history within it is no more a proof of God’s existence than a single grain of sand. Moreover, a single grain of sand is just as powerful a reason to ascribe existence to God as the whole universe and all it contains. Why? Because once you grasp the role that God is taking in the classical metaphysical frame, you will see that it becomes very difficult to imagine any contingent thing, to imagine anything that isn’t obviously and necessarily self-existent, as ultimately accounting for anything. And neither the quantum field and all it contains, or the single grain of sand, are seemingly necessary in this way. We can coherently imagine their non-being. But we cannot coherently imagine (either the possibility or actuality) of non-existence as such. Something is possessed of what we might call “necessary existence.”

Though we will spell this out further ahead, it is worth framing it in one more way so that we can make sure we’re tracking. If one imagines that the evolution debate has any purchase on whether or not God exists, then one does not understand the role that God plays in the classical theistic picture. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to claim here that evolution is true. I am rather saying that it is irrelevant to the God question precisely because God is not a “hypothesis” of “how” the world looks the way it does—or at least He need not be. There is no tension between God’s supervening agency and what the old tradition called “secondary causes.” One shouldn’t think of divine acts and creaturely acts as in a zero sum game of mutual activity – drawing from a common causal reservoir (as Michael Horton once put it) such that if creation explains it 50%, then God accounts for the other 50%. Rather, like an Author of a story, the whole universe is of God’s mind, but that universe that is of God’s mind is a universe that has its own intrinsic motions, laws, and free agencies (considered within the story). There is more to say here, but suffice it to make the point for present that God doesn’t find His place in the universe where our explanations fail. Rather, His chief explanatory place is comprehensive, and therefore unlike the kind of empirical explanation that we acquire in the sciences.

When this sinks in, the common atheist barb of the Christian’s supposed need for a “sky daddy” is shown to be vacuous (at least in principle). There is also the adage that monotheists are atheists in respect of all gods except for one. We don’t believe in Thor. The atheist is simply asking us to give up one more God! Of course, this is a little like arguing that “some of the airplane’s engines blowing up” is just the same as “all of the airplane’s engines blowing up.” For the passengers trapped in the sky, that distinction makes a lot of difference! More importantly, though, it is crucial to note that the ancient Pagan notion the gods portrayed them as the emergent feature of an impersonal cosmos. The “gods” were as much “big people” as “little gods,” something like the Christian concept of angels. In any case, while Zeus takes on a more philosophical interpretation in some writers, it is crucial to note that the God of monotheism is not even the same kind of thing (already a deceptive label) as the gods of a pantheon.

So when we talk about God, we’re not talking about an object among other objects that may or might not account for them. We are talking not about what stands behind our particular actuality, but what necessarily stands behind any possibility (actualized or not). And it is crucial to point out that something (for lack of a better word) must take this place. This is a meaningful question whether or not the universe was made in six days, or over billions of years, and whether intelligent design arguments work or whether they do not. There is much more that might be said. Aquinas’ treatment of divine existence cannot be divorced from his treatment of other divine attributes. Nevertheless, we must keep within our limited purpose by clarifying next what it means to say that God “exists.” As we will see, when we’re approaching the question of God in a more precise way, the meaning of “God” and the meaning of “existence” are mutually intertwined.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

Read next: [ part 2 ] [ part 3 ] [ part 4 ] [ part 5 ] [ part 6 ]

Friday, January 22nd 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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