What Is Ultimate?

The conversation has been joined by Abnormal Interests, who views the language of religion as extra baggage that makes the trip less enjoyable. Now as someone who has lugged multiple pieces of very heavy luggage on trips from one country to another, I definitely don’t want to drag along unnecessary dead weight – it does indeed spoil the trip.

So why not just do away with the metaphors and speak in plain language? Because I don’t think we can speak about the ultimate except in metaphors.

I’d like to introduce into this bloggersation the question “What is ultimate?” For me, this question is in one sense unanswerable except in vague terms such as “mystery”, but to say anything further, we will inevitably (1) give expression to our deepest concerns and highest values, and (2) use metaphor.

An atheist may say that “nothing” is ultimate. The universe, or the multiverse, simply is. But there is simply no evidence for that, nor is there any sense in which this claim solves logical problems, unravels the mystery of existence, explains anything at all, or does anything more than affirm a conviction: that there is no guiding hand supervising history, no supernatural interferences, no miracles, and (for many who follow this train of thought) no meaning, no purpose other than to pass on our genes, which may ultimately be meaningless too since we have no certainty that our species will survive its own tendency to self destruction, or the death of our sun, or the big crunch or endless expansion of our universe.

The conservative theist is no better off in terms of offering an explanation. A God who simply is does not have logical advantages over a universe that simply is.

But the liberal religious believer is different from both of the above. Such a person is aware that all we are doing when speaking about the ultimate is not explaining the origin of that which exists, but giving expression to our values and what is important to us.

Many such religious believers opt for other metaphors than classic theistic ones. They do so because they see that there is something deeply problematic about attributing good things that happen to God while just appealing to mystery or God’s inscrutible will for all the bad that happens. They do so because they themselves often had such an anthropomorphic concept of God, and have as they matured come to realize that they projected onto this God their own sense of self-importance, their own sense of being the center of the universe, their own desire that their enemies “get what’s coming to them”.

But progressive religious believers of various sorts and various traditions find that if they try to cast aside metaphors and symbols altogether, their worldview is flattened and impoverished in the process. Their are things that are part of our experience, part of our values system, that cannot be expressed in reductionistic or mechanistic terms.

We also find that the emphasis on being encompassed by a reality greater than ourselves, it helps affirm the importance of humility and our committment to viewing ourselves as not ultimate, as not the end all and be all of existence. Abolish all notion of God and that truth seems to us to be too easily forgotten.

Neil de Grasse Tyson speaks of his own sense of being “called by the universe”, the place of pilgrimage in astronomy, the happiness or otherwise of photons, how highly we think of ourselves, poetry, majesty, and the similarity of his language to that of people who have revelations of Jesus or make pilgrimages to Mecca. Can we really do without metaphor?

I’m happy to discuss what the best metaphors are, and how we assess them, and why we prefer some to others. But those who suggest that we can do without this sort of language, I would suggest, are missing something important in their lives.

For more that is relevant to this subject around the blogosphere, see Truth and Tradition and Mystical Seeker’s latest contribution to the discussion, internetmonk on the God of Job’s complaints. If you’re looking for a more conservative Christian perspective, try Parchment and Pen, while Science Avenger affirms that atheists don’t need religion. See also Science and Reason on morality and the brain, John Pieret on dumb fundamentalist comments on an article about a cosmologist-theologian, and Scotteriology on seminarians who deny being theologians. Henry Neufeld asks whether science education leads to atheism.

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  • As soon as you make the mystery concrete, you lose something in the translation. I think, though, that it is an inevitable result, and it is unavoidable because we humans are finite and cannot really completely conceptualize the mystery. John Hick’s contribution to my thinking on this led me to realize that this is why there are many religions in the world. Each religion represents an effort, born out of specific cultures and time periods in history, to capture the mystery by giving it some kind of concrete meaning.Ultimately, we have to use metaphors because that is the only way we can approach the mystery.Some people, of course, don’t see the value in all the metaphors and poetry. Some people don’t see the poetry that others see in this pursuit. But for many of us there is a longing to relate to the ultimate in some fashion.Some people are so attached to their own metaphors that they become intolerant and dogmatic and fundamentalist in their approach; they think their religion is the only true one and all others are wrong. They are making the mistake of confusing metaphors with what the metaphors represent. And some who say there is no ultimate and who thus can’t be bothered to concern themselves with such matters are so intolerant towards those who do address the ultimate that they write books with titles like “The God Delusion.” Intolerance comes in many forms.I’ve really enjoyed what you’ve been writing on this subject over the last several days. You’ve really expressed some important points very well.

  • James,I hope you don’t think I am somehow don’t believe in metaphor. I actually think all words are themselves metaphors in at least one meaning of the word. The issue is the target or tenor of the metaphor and not the source or vehicle. Tyson certainly uses metaphors but its hard for me to see how the targets of his metaphors are very close to the targets of Christian metaphors. I am among those who wonder at the mystery of what is without thinking in terms of an ultimate whatever that might be.

  • Bad

    I’ve never understood the view that “meaning” is based on existing forever, or else isn’t “true” meaning in some sense.I’ve written quite a lot about the concept of meaning, and I think this is a basic and fatal error in understanding what a word like “meaning,” well, means. Put simply, talking about meaning in the abstract, without specifying to whom what is meaningful, is incoherent communication, imho.I’m also still mostly baffled by this debate, because I’m not sure what the stakes are. I don’t have any problem with people using metaphors to express how they feel about what is meaningful to them. I also don’t see anything objectionable about being in awe of the great and possibly forever unanswerable mysteries of existence. I think the basic problem is a suspicion that under the poetry and metaphor are being smuggled truth claims that go beyond subject impression. I don’t see any here I can identify, but that’s the sense I get from most cases in which atheists clash with liberal Christians.To take it a bit out of the realm of Christianity, consider skeptics facing “liberals” like Deepak Chopra. There’s a lot of poetry and metaphor in his ideas, but then these seem to get punctuated with batty assertions about quantum mechanics and endorsements of various alternative medicine hucksterisms. And so the skeptics become skeptical of such things.There’s also, I think, a deep hostility amongst many liberal atheists to anything that seems vague and incoherent. And this hostility actually comes in part out of a sort of “policing our own” role: we feel burned by post-modernist “theory” and the fashionable nonsense that it used to bedevil and embarrass the left intellectually. We see its roots, or even hints of it, and we smell blood.

  • I think the basic problem is a suspicion that under the poetry and metaphor are being smuggled truth claims that go beyond subject impression.I think you’ve put your finger onto something. I have to admit that I am also baffled by this debate for similar reasons (as you point out, what is “objectionable about being in awe of the great and possibly forever unanswerable mysteries of existence”?), but I think you are right that some may just take it for granted that all religion is about making certain types of truth claims (and it is true that a lot of religion in fact does just that), and so there is a basic suspicion that progressive faith is also doing that as well, perhaps through the back door.The vagueness issue is another matter, but I think it relates to the truth claims issue. If you think that someone is making truth claims, then you would find tolerance for (or even celebration of) ambiguity, such as is found within progressive faith, pretty annoying. But, on the other hand, poetry is just chock full of ambiguity.

  • qetzal

    Following on bad’s and mystical seeker’s comments, I think attempting to use the term “God” metaphorically only exacerbates the problem. Like it or not, that word carries a lot of baggage. If you want to talk about the ulimate, call it the ultimate. If you want to discuss mysteries of the universe’s existence, or the nature of love, or our purpose, use those terms.As soon as you start labeling those things with the word God you risk implying more than you intend. Furthermore, lumping some or all of these together under the label God implies they are all part of the same thing (i.e. all part of God, whatever God actually is). But that’s an implicit truth claim in itself. The existence of the universe and our purpose needn’t be directly linked, for example.In any case, I suspect Prof. McGrath’s is indeed engaged in some ‘claim smuggling.’ For example, he describes atheists as having the conviction that there is no guiding hand supervising history, no supernatural interference. Then he says that liberal religious believers are different. But if the difference is merely about expressing values using religious metaphors, why is the atheist’s rejection of a guiding hand relevant? It leads me to suspect that Prof. McGrath does in fact harbor some idea of a traditional God that guides the universe.

  • I’d say religious believers would say that, at the very least, there is no hand manipulating us. I suspect you’ll find a range of opinions about whether and to what extent there is any overarching purpose – for instance, I think many would be inclined to see something providential, in some sense, about the universe being life-friendly.But your objection to the use of “God” simply will not do. The perception that this word has a single meaning, that of a personal supreme being of a theistic sort, is an artifact of the predominance of a particular sort of Christianity in Western society. Unless one is limiting oneself to modern English rather than the underlying concept, then the notion of “God” is much broader and more polyvalent.

  • qetzal

    Yes, I am referring to the English word “God.”I understand and accept that there are various underlying concepts being discussed, and that they aren’t congruent with simplistic anthropomorphic notions of a personal God. I still don’t understand why you want to call any/all of them “God.”As you use the term, is God love (or a metaphor thereof)? Is God the ultimate? Is God the universe? Is God our purpose? Is God just an expression of our values and what is important to us? Is God all of those?If God is all of those, what’s your justification for thinking they’re all sufficiently connected to deserve a single label? Doesn’t that imply something about the nature of God that’s more than simply metaphorical?If God (to you) is only one or some of those, why do you want to use the term God? Especially since you admit it means different things to different people? Doesn’t that just create needless confusion?I hope I don’t seem rude here. I’m genuinely trying to understand where you’re coming from.And please note that I “get” the desire to use metaphor and religious imagery in discussing these topics. Although I’m an atheist, I do experience wonder and awe, and I understand (I think) why you find religious metaphors useful in this context. I just don’t understand why you find theistic metaphors useful.(I also note that one can be atheist and religious, right? An atheist may not accept God as a useful/true concept, but that doesn’t automatically mean s/he rejects all religious concepts.)You say:The perception that this word [God] has a single meaning, that of a personal supreme being of a theistic sort, is an artifact of the predominance of a particular sort of Christianity in Western society.But isn’t the atheism/theism issue the whole crux of this discussion? If you’re ruling out a theistic God, doesn’t that mostly eliminate the apparent conflict? Larry Moran, for example, has already said he has no particular objection to panentheism.Regardless, I find your statement above hard to accept. You’re the theology professor, and I happily grant that you’re the expert here. But what about Judaism, Islam, Greco-Roman mythology, Egyptian mythology, Aztec & Incan mythology, & so on? Isn’t the notion of (a) God as a supreme and/or supernatural being much more wide-spread than you’re suggesting? Isn’t it really the norm, not the exception?Now, I can imagine you might say this is akin to a creationist saying evolution is “just” a theory, using the common meaning of theory as “guess.” The scientist replies that “theory” means something else in science. That’s fair enough, except as a scientist, I can explain fairly clearly (I hope) how a scientific theory differs from a guess/hunch type theory. So far, I haven’t seen you present a clear explanation of what “God” means to you, and how it’s different from the conventional supernatural theistic definition.Or if you have, it’s sailed right over my head. In that case, I would sincerely appreciate it if you would try to explain it again, using simpler terms that a non-religious atheist such as myself might grasp (absolutely no sarcasm intended).Thanks!

  • But those who suggest that we can do without this sort of language, I would suggest, are missing something important in their lives.I think you’re exceeding your ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything important.

  • Qetzal, thanks for your extended comment. I think the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a good job of highlighting the diversity of meanings “God” has in the Western tradition, as well as how far the philosophical and theologican concepts (such as simplicity) differ from those in more popular thought.The question, as I see it, is whether those of us who think of (and use the term) God in a different way than conservative Christians should simply surrender the term and speak of something else – and presumably surrender the term “Christianity” along with it. Personally, I feel like it is worth fighting for the inclusion of other defitions in relation to both terms, because I regard fundamentalism as an aberration and a dangerous one at that, and as soon as one cedes to that sort of viewpoint the right to determine what God and Christianity do and do not mean, one has essentially surrendered.Certainly you are right that in various mythologies, gods are depicted as persons. And as long as one recognizes such stories as mythological, I’m not sure there is a problem. Larry, if I understood him correctly, basically said that anything that doesn’t take mythology as a statement of literal fact and treat God or gods as personal beings is a form of atheism. One could argue for that, I suppose: atheism means anything that denies the truthfulness of “theism” as traditionally defined. But then you end up in the strange situation of having atheists who continue to talk of God!As a scholar of religion, I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t even know what “religion” means, and the same applies to “God”. If one tries to define either, what one finds is that there are a range of beliefs, practices and systems of thought that seem to intuitively fit what we mean by “religion” or “God”, and yet are very different. And so my tendency has been to treat as religion anything that people consider a religion, and to accept that God has a similar plurality of uses and meanings in the context of different viewpoints and traditions.I wonder whether you’d agree that giving up fighting fundamentalists over the definition of God and Christianity would do more harm than good…

  • I’d like to come back to Mystical Seeker’s remark about truth claims. Is it possible to operate *without* any? [Okay, I’m new to this discussion, and actually the blogosphere on the whole, so please bear with me, a newbie.]Obviously, individual experience and ultimate truth are far from being equated. Would you at least put them on the same cline, however?Finally, is C.G.Jung any authority among scientists? Are his studies into cross-cultural archetypes (as part of common human evolution still influencing individual evolution) accepted as “scientific”, or rather regarded as “psychological hogwash”?Just trying to get to grips with some ultimate grounds for common experiences which might explain why truth claims are so human.

  • As a scholar of religion, I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t even know what “religion” means, and the same applies to “God”. If one tries to define either, what one finds is that there are a range of beliefs, practices and systems of thought that seem to intuitively fit what we mean by “religion” or “God”, and yet are very differentI think you have identified something that is not just characteristic of religious terminology, but human language in general. If one wants a language in which each word has a single, precisely delimited meaning, and in which every shade of meaning is expressed via a brand new, different word, that is more likely to be found in computer languages–but human languages are something different. I think that this quality of human language is precisely what gives it its flexibility. It may be frustrating at times but it is also what makes language so adaptable, and it reflects the ways that humans construct relationships out of meaning, and the ways that those meanings can evolve and respond to different conditions over time.Part of that means that a lot of words (like “God” or “religion”) describe concepts that are family resemblances and are thus difficult to reduce to a single concept. Wittgenstein compared this phenomenon of human words to the strands of a rope, in which each individual strand represents a single concept but no single strand defines the rope per se. The concepts intertwine, and the rope could not exist on just a single strand alone. (He cited the ostensibly simple word “game” as an example of a word that ought to have a single, clearly defined meaning–and yet it doesn’t!)It is a rigid and impractically literalist conception of language that suggests that the entire English language will collapse into a heap of meaningless babble unless we carefully restrict words like “God” or “religion” to those meanings which a few self-appointed atheist guardians of religious terminology would decide. There is a sort of fundamentalism that lies behind this sort of slippery slope argument–that either God must have just some limited meaning that someone insists upon, or else all human communication is impossible. This kind of binary thinking is typical of many forms of fundamentalism in general. That certainly doesn’t exactly leave much room for a practical middle ground, but in fact the practical middle ground exists in everyday communication and is quite solid. Perhaps one reason for this is that human communication provides the tools for clarification.If a person of faith asks me if I believe in God, I might say, “Yes, but my conception of God might not be yours.” I could go on to say that I do not believe in a supernaturally theistic God with omnipotence as a Divine attribute. I might go further and talk about my interest in process theology. The more we might talk, the more we would clarify the details of my theology. Maybe my interlocutor is familiar with process theology, and maybe not; either way, after a few short sentences I will have painted in broad strokes the outlines are of the God I conceive of. I might even go further and say that my God-concept is admittedly provisional and that I believe that God is ultimately beyond understanding (this sort of relates to Oliver Stegen’s question about truth claims.)What this means is that words and sentences often don’t exist in isolation; they instead exist within a context, and part of the role of clarifying sentences is to define the context in specific instances of communication. In reality, when dealing with complex concepts, a lot of words are shorthand for concepts that often require considerable clarification. Until you get to know someone’s religious views, you might not know whether their concept of “God” is Trinitarian, Jewish, Hindu, or Platonic. The shorthand in this case is just a first step.As you’ve pointed out, there is a huge list of theologies that involve the word “God”. To just name all the “-isms” and “-theisms” associated with these different concepts would be exhausting. As concepts evolve and develop, at which point do you suddenly decide to coin a new word? Why do that? The word God functions in broadly similar ways for these various theologies. It can describe one’s ultimate concern, an object of worship, the ground of being. The Trinitarian God is not the unitarian God; a panentheist God is not a pantheist God; a Hindu God is not a Jewish God. People find it useful, despite these various theologies, to use the word God to capture these various concepts. That is part of the great human adventure of trying to make sense of the ultimate depth and ground of being in the universe.