A Substantive Post About God

Tony Jones offered a much-needed challenge to progressive theobloggers. We liberals and progressives often spend more time indicating what we don’t think about God (or Jesus, or Christianity, or whatever else) than what we do think, and this is probably more true when it comes to God than in any other case.

There is a theological precedent for this, of course. Aquinas’ via negativa articulates the view that we can only say what God is not, never what God is, since human language can never do justice to the reality that is God. And Tony himself offered a qualified appreciation of this approach.

Several blogs have begun the process of responding to Tony’s challenge, and Tony has set up a Storify page to gather them all. I particularly like Fred Clark’s statement that he plans on failing this challenge, and doing so in several parts! Adam Cleaveland has described how his substantive statements about God have evolved over the yearsTony has referred to some of what has been offered as “throat clearing.”

I would like to begin my own reply by emphasizing my own appreciation for and connection with the already-mentioned apophatic tradition – that which asserts that God defies description, and thus emphasizes what God is not, recognizing that positive language can never do justice to God. Here are a couple of statements, with links to fuller treatments of the topics:

God is not an object. God is a mystery, not an explanation. God is not a giant person (as Fred Clark puts it in a follow-up post). We use personal language because we are the most transcendent things we can directly experience in the universe. But projecting human personhood onto the divine is no less mythological, and no more does justice to God, than any other sort of language. Taking such language – indeed, taking any human language about God – literally would be to engage in idolatry.

But once we emphasize sufficiently that all religious language is metaphor, symbol, and myth, then we can begin to articulate symbols and even stories that communicate something of what we mean – signs that we believe point in the right direction. As I have sometimes said, the praise song “Indescribable” illustrates the point well. If we really wanted to be consistent, we would sing “Indescribable” and say nothing further. But if we are to speak about our faith at all, then it must be through the cautious use of symbols, or not at all. Merely being silent has proven not to be an attractive or viable option, even for the mystics who emphasize divine ineffability.

For me, influenced as I am by theologians like Paul Tillich, God is the ultimate, the Reality that transcends and encompasses everything else. God is not a being within the universe. God is Being itself. And so for me there is no real debate about whether there is Reality, it is about the nature of ultimate reality, the highest level of transcendence or the infinite (my perception doesn’t allow me to say which), and the ways to best do justice to our existence within and in the midst of that Reality.

For past generations, God or gods were seen at work in forces of nature. While it is still possible to take this view (Pat Robertson does so regularly, if selectively), thanks to science, it still ends up being a view of God intervening in an otherwise naturally-functioning order – basically Deism with occasional miraculous interventions. Others find a sacredness in all things which is essentially pantheism, and Richard Dawkins rightly or wrongly views that as basically atheism. Some of us are not entirely happy with these options. Some of us are not happy with them at all. But what alternatives are there?

Here I’d like to focus on one, proposing it as a model or extended metaphor for thinking about God. I suspect that one major reason why progressives are often quiet about God is precisely because, having emphasized that we don’t think God is a powerful but limited deity who tosses tornadoes and hurricanes at sinners with imperfect aim, we don’t know where if anywhere it makes sense to talk about God “doing” anything or being directly involved in our lives.

Some time ago I discussed radically emergent theism (in conversation with Philip Clayton, who himself interacts with those ideas online). I continue to find that an image that is useful. If we take seriously the depiction of God relating to the world as we do to our bodies, then assuming we consider personhood an emergent property rather than something inserted into us as a separate substance, there is no place where we can pinpoint our “self” if one removes the entirety of our bodies. The human person is a reality that emerges from the organization and interaction of the constituent parts that make us up, and is not to be found somewhere tucked in between the cells. And so, if we think of God as the highest order of emergence out of all that exists, then we can truly say, in good panentheistic fashion, that God is everywhere, and all things exist in God, and yet none of them simply is God. And when we think about the connections that come to exist between us, and emerge as something transcendent from the interaction, then we may say things such as “God is love” and really mean it.

In the past, I have used the analogy of two cells in a human body talking about their existence. One, an “atheist” or perhaps “ahumanist” says that it looks around and sees nothing but cells – they are born, they die, and that is it. The second says that sometimes it thinks that they are all part of something greater, like one big Cell. The latter is projecting its own image onto a transcendent reality that it cannot fathom. But it is intuiting something about the nature of existence that the first denies, and so is not entirely wrong, and is perhaps correct in important respects even though a cell can never have concepts or language to talk about what a human person is like.

And so this language points to a sense of being part of a Reality that connects and hangs together in ways that I cannot fathom from within the midst of it, but nonetheless intuit and affirm and believe. And of course, talking about the cosmos as akin to God’s body is not at all a new idea.

This approach is a model that I find useful. But to take these as literal statements about God would be to mistake the way religious language functions. It is a pointer towards transcendent realities that we cannot speak of directly. But what these metaphors offer are ways of relating to and pointing to that transcendent reality we refer to as God, in ways that make sense in light of our current understanding of the cosmos and of ourselves. The symbols I am recommending will have a limited duration of usefulness. All human symbols do. But we cannot simply use older symbols when our understanding of the world has radically changed. We have no choice but to find new ways of thinking and speaking – being prepared to jettison them when the time comes.

The key question Tony’s challenged raised for me is whether one can write substantively about a reality that words cannot express. I was tempted to respond with a piece of music and no words. (I am in fact writing a song on this theme, and if it is ever finished, I might just share it here. But I can guarantee that if I do, it won’t do justice to its subject matter. Nevertheless, like Fred Clark, I have plans to continue failing spectacularly at attempting to speak about God, repeatedly, for the foreseeable future).

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  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    I searched in vain for a meaningful reference to Jesus Christ. How does a Christian of any stripe go on for 14 paragraphs about God without mentioning Christ? (Outside of the first paragraph I counted 32 references to “God” and none to “Jesus Christ.”)

    I thought you self-identified as a progressive Christian. Do you actually prefer to distance yourself from Christ?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      You might want to click through amd read Tony’s post. The challenge was to not just take the option of writing about Jesus and saying, “See, there, I have written about God,” as though there were nothing more to be said. And so if yo find the notion of talking about God without focusing on Jesus objectionable, even in a single blog post, then by all means register a protest with Tony.

      Jesus might or might not have agreed with you, depending on whether you think the Synoptics or John more faithfully recount his teachings. :-)

      • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

        Followed your suggestion and read Tony’s post. Wow. I’ll forego asking why you chose to follow such an absurd rule (“Explain your view of liberal Christianity without reference to Christ”). Instead, I’ll just predict that if your post is indicative of others he’ll receive, then Progressive/liberal/mainline Christianity will continue to have what he calls “a PR problem.” Of course, it’s obvious the problems run deeper than that.

        As for whether I go to the Synoptics or John, they’ll both indicate to me that thinking about Christ is the very best way to think about God.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

          Do you have the impression that Jesus never ever spoke about God without focusing at least some attention on himself as well? I really don’t get your objection. The challenge was not to leave Christ out of one’s theology in general, but to address God and God alone in a single blog post. What, pray tell, is objectionable about that?!

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            I don’t think of it so much as “objectionable.” Rather, it strikes me as odd.

            Tony is right about one thing: you progressive Christians do talk a lot about what you don’t believe (mainly stuff that conservative and fundamentalist Christians do believe). You also talk a lot about social issues, culture, and society – but when you do that, you don’t sound any different than political liberals and progressives. That doesn’t leave much time left over to talk about God. It’s much easier to see where “liberal” and “progressive” fit into your self-identity than it is to see where the “Christ-ian” fits in. Yet it’s your social identity that’s in view here, so far be it from me to define it.

            I agree with you on this: when determining a blogger’s views, not too much should be made of any one blog post. Rest assured I do not do that with you…or with anyone.

            As far as me, I am for Christ. I am always interested in seeing His name proclaimed, and always disappointed when I see an opportunity to proclaim His name missed..

          • Jeff Carter

            Not that Theology is Mathematics – but doesn’t the reflexive property hold true? Talk about God is talk about Jesus…

            And further… haven’t Christians been ‘finding’ Jesus all through the pages of the Old Testament -(far more than 14 paragraphs) yet he’s never mentioned by name in any of it.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Yes, but since Jesus comes to reveal God doesn’t explaining God without regard to Him sort of miss the point? Without Jesus we’re relegated to “a piece of music with no words.”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            What’s wrong with music without words?

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            What’s wrong with the Old Testament without the New?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            My Old Testament has words, so I don’t get the analogy.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            God had given many, many years of wonderful music. The world was ready for lyrics by the time Jesus brought them. As one of your favorites (and mine, too) said, “No man has at any time seen God; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained him.” – John 1:18

            Why should I listen to an instrumental of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” when I can hear the Andrews Sisters sing it?

          • Jeff Carter

            I think (think….) that I understand what you’re saying – but I think you have it backwards.

            I think that you’re focusing on Jesus as the end rather than the means (and in that you are not altogether wrong).

            But Christ didn’t come to reveal himself. He came to reveal God the Father. If we talk about God (with or without reference to Jesus) then we are doing exactly what Jesus wanted – looking for God.

          • arcseconds

            There’s nothing like singing to ruin a perfectly good piece of music.

        • arcseconds

          What Tony actually said was that ‘Progressive/liberal/mainline *theology* … has a PR problem’ (emphasis mine).

          I sort of had the impression from Tony’s post, even though he doesn’t say as much, that he stipulated ‘talk about God rather than Jesus’ to draw out theology, rather than Jesus-is-a-nice-guyism, which is another thing of which liberal Christianity gets accused.

          Seems it’s tough being a liberal Christian! Someone’s going to bring you up on how much you talk about X no matter what you do.

          • arcseconds

            What Tony appears to mean by ‘PR problem’ is that out there in the great wide world, no-one knows what liberal Christian theology is like.

            I think he’s right about this. It’s hard not to get a reasonable idea of what the fundamentalist God is like, and there’s a strong tendency amongst the not especially religiously engaged to think that all Christians believe in a god a bit like that.

            Also, I’ve always had the impression that liberal Christians are often reluctant, if not actually embarrassed, to discuss God in public, possibly because they don’t want to cause offence or something.

            I’ve always assumed that I’d have to entice one into a cosy discrete corner, possibly with a bottle of wine and some chocolate, before I’d get an open discussion, so I’m thankful for Tony for setting this challenge, even if Fred thinks its silly or Mike thinks it’s reducing the Jesus ratio unnecessarily.

            So, while we’re all dictating content terms to James, I demand more straight-up theology!

            (Also, there’s not enough Doctor Who references in this post. )

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            Maybe I should offer a challenge to theobloggers to write a substantive post about Doctor Who. Should I stipulate that they cannot mention Jesus? “The Doctor is a Christ figure” is the bane of superficial treatments of religion and Doctor Who… :-)

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            You keep defending yourself. When will you defend Christ?

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Tough? I’ll tell you what’s tough: what the New Testament disciples faced when they refused to talk about God without reference to Christ.

            If you don’t want to confuse people about the identity you seek for yourselves, stop calling yourselves “liberal Christians” and start calling yourselves “liberal Somethingelse-ians.”

            Fortunately, when Christ taught about God he wasn’t so stumped that he sang wordless music – otherwise the gospels would be much shorter.

            In the label “liberal Christian,” “liberal” is a modifier. Maybe you should consider changing it to “Christian liberal” as that appears to be more reflective of your focus.

            Of course, I’ve been thinking that your self-identity of “liberal Christian” was a reference to Christ. Maybe you didn’t mean it at all that way. Maybe you simply meant that you were part of social group of churchgoing people – not Jews, not Muslims, etc. But is it really fair to hijack someone’s name for a group identity and then complain when people expect you to talk about that someone?

            Giving you the benefit of the doubt and saying that maybe there is some valid purpose in liberal Christians talking about God without reference to Christ, could you not even talk about Christ’s view of God? That is, could you not take his ideas and articulate them, without making reference to him personally? Wouldn’t that have satisfied the rule? You are like a kind of Jeffersonian who not only eschews talking about Jefferson, you eschew talking about Jeffersonian principles. Who has ever met a Jeffersonian like that?

            If you’re not wedded to Christ, why carry His name?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            Does that mean that if I had begun this post with “The Kingdom of God is like a body, within which two cells spoke to one another…” you would find it less objectionable – sorry, odd?

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Had you done so you would have at least hinted at the loyalty implied by your chosen self-identity.

            I’ve learned from this experience. Henceforth, I will have to generally think of self-identified conservative Christians as those who merely give lip service to Christ and liberal Christians as those who won’t even give Him that.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            Well, that seems a remarkably sweeping judgment based on this blog post, written by one individual and focusing on one specific topic for the purpoose of this post alone and not more generally. If you were new to this blog and did not have the opportunity to read other things I have written, I might find your reaction less bizarre.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            The common thread of all my comments – on this blog, my own, and any others on which I comment – is that I love Jesus Christ and want to see Him honored to the highest possible degree that any context will allow. Since the context of this particular post is how liberal Christians think about God, I’m expressing surprise at the omission of references to Him and His thinking – and all the more so because the post was written by someone who has studied extensively and written on the Gospel of John. If I can’t expect you to take advantage of an opportunity to talk about Christ (for example, you could have titled your post “Tony, how can you expect us to talk about God without talking about Christ?”), who can I expect to do so?

            Nevertheless, I remind you that I am expressing puzzlement at your stance, not an objection. If you are not personally devoted to Christ and to his view of God, I would not want you to write as if you were. I would not want to push you beyond that about which you have a conviction. When you call yourself a “liberal Christian,” however, it leads me to expect that you will care about Christ’s name. If there is a “PR problem” it is because you guys are sending a mixed message.

            Looking beyond this specific post, I find that you do fit Tony’s description of his like-minded colleagues as talking a lot about what you dislike in other branches of Christianity (you couldn’t even refrain from taking at shot at Pat Robertson in this post), standard progressive and liberal causes, and last of all about God. The other topic which you cover, and for which I do heartily applaud you, is that you will stand up against the Jesus Mythicists. That crowd is doing great harm to the cause of Christ, even if only among themselves.

            I also commend you for engaging with those who disagree with you. And in that regard, I am very grateful to you that you have been willing to engage with me on this topic.

            My fervent hope is that everyone in the world will talk frequently and devotedly about Jesus Christ. However, until they do, I will expect more in this regard from those who use His name to identify themselves than from those who don’t. It’s only logical to do so.

            As far as sweeping generalizations, I did say “generally,” and with did so with much thought, in my comment. I do my best to see people as individuals and not as members of categories – even when those categories are proclaimed by the individuals themselves. Therefore, in the end I don’t really care about the welfare of liberal Christianity or conservative Christianity. Rather, I care about the welfare of those whom Christ loves – and that’s everyone. Everyone.

          • arcseconds

            Just so you know, you’re not really coming across as someone who’s all about honouring Christ and the welfare of everyone.

            You’re coming across as a curmudgeonly busybody who’s all about browbeating other people into writing about what *you* want and in the *manner* you want on *their* own blogs.

            Which I, for one, think is hilarious! It would never have occurred to me to rock on up to someone’s personal blog and demand they write it according to my tastes. I must try this out for myself more. Demanding more Doctor Who references is just the start!

            Of course, I’m under no illusions that I’ll actually change anyone’s behaviour by doing so, which is something else you might want to consider.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            Hmm. Now I guess I have to avoid Doctor Who references for a bit, lest I seem to undermine your point…

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Who chooses to blog and what they choose to blog about is their business, not mine. However, blogging is a public activity and once a blog post is published it awaits public reaction – unless the blogger has disabled the comments section of the blog software. Just as the blogger posts according to the blogger’s interests, the commenter responds where the commenter’s interests intersect with the blogger’s interests. In other words, the commenter owes it to the blogger and the readers to stay on the topic of the post. For this reason I do not comment on James’ Dr. Who posts as it is not a topic on which I care to engage.

            In this post James was writing to show what liberal Christians think about God. I am keenly interested in Jesus Christ, who, if words have any meaning, is at least peripherally related to this topic. (Surely you don’t think the label “Christian” is completely disconnected in meaning from Christ.)

            I believe Jesus Christ is the light of the world. I believe that our reaction to Him determines the course of our life. While I believe that everyone is going to heaven, I also believe that it matters greatly how we live on this earth. Moral excellence is the goal which God has given us and Jesus Christ exemplifies that standard. Western civilization is in moral decline. Only repentance before God will heal the rot that pursuit of our lusts has produced.

            If I can remind people that Jesus Christ is here, that He loves us, that He teaches us how to live, and that He came to teach us all about God then I have achieved my purpose. I took issue with James because I felt he was missing an opportunity to testify to the one for whom he, ostensibly, claims to have an allegiance. In turn, James took issue with me. And you have as well. Let the chips fall where they may. I don’t see how any of us have done wrong to the other. Presumably, we have all acted in accord with the truth as we see it and in the best interests of our fellows. God will judge and we will live with the consequences. May His will be done.

          • arcseconds

            Who is “you” in your post?

            You’ve hit ‘reply’ to me, and the first paragraph directly references what I said, but the rest of it doesn’t sound like it’s addressing me at all.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            You spoke up on behalf of liberal Christians. My comments were to those who self-identify as liberal Christians.

          • arcseconds

            No, I didn’t :]

            I corrected your misquote, agreed with Tony that liberal theology has a ‘PR’ problem, and said one or two other things that were vaguely critical of liberal Christians. I suggested they are embarrassed to talk about God! If that’s speaking up for them, then you’re speaking up for them more than I am :]

            I did point out there’s a catch-22 situation here, that by avoiding your criticism by talking more about Jesus would invite criticism from other corners who think liberal Christians don’t talk enough about God.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Woe to us when all men speak well of us. If we are criticized for talking admiringly about Christ, we are blessed.

          • Rob Davis

            This is very strange to me. I am a former pastor, then former atheist, now agnostic finding my way back to “God.” This post of Dr. McGrath’s is one of the most hopeful, and helpful, that I’ve read in a long time. It seems like you evangelical types (I used to be one) have as one of your primary missions to actually push people away from Christianity – unless it fits into the package that you have created for it. This is one of the main reasons why people like me disbelieve in your “god.” Keep tightening your fist. I’ll keep trying to find people with open hands.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            You’ll find God in Jesus Christ.

          • Rob Davis

            Mike, respectfully, I have no idea what that means.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            That’s an answer I can respect.

          • Rob Davis

            To clarify, I guess, I know what you probably mean, but what you mean doesn’t “make sense” to me – personally – any more.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            Jesus Christ is the baby in the bathwater of Christianity. Alas, so many people are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

          • Rob Davis

            I’m not saying that you’re accusing me of this, but I, personally, have not “thrown” Jesus out. I try not to put boundaries on Christianity because it has always been diverse. But, I’m not sure you can even have a Christianity without Jesus. Where people differ – within Christianity – is in understanding who Jesus was, is, etc. And, I don’t think anyone has THE absolute, objective, indubitable answers to these questions.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            He does.

          • Rob Davis

            And how am I supposed to get those answers from him? Reading a text? Praying? Being in a room with other people? If any of these are true, why do people have different answers to the same questions (while following the exact same methods)? Why doesn’t Jesus speak more clearly, or reveal himself more clearly to everyone? Why are some people more enlightened than others? Your answers sound very simple and clear. But, they just create more problems for people who refuse to chunk their intellect and experience.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            For most people, the problem is not in finding Jesus – it’s in staying with Him. The dozens of little compromises we make in our in the course of a day lead us away from Him. These compromises involve selfish interests, lusts, greed, worries, and so on. How can unrighteousness walk with righteousness?

            Thus for most people, the issue is returning to the Jesus they know – not finding a Jesus they never knew.

          • Rob Davis

            So, for you, “staying with” Jesus means unilaterally obeying him? Is this how you believe he “reveals himself” to you? So, if you submit to him, obey him (like a slave to a master) then and only then can you “know” him? If you’re disobedient, then you are rejected by him?

            I know there are verses to support what you are saying. But, I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you want it to be. A “plain reading” of the gospel accounts will only lead you to countless contradictions as exactly to what you should or should not be doing – if you are honest.

            For me, I find that I am totally willing to commit myself to the overall trajectory of what we find in the stories we have about Jesus – the WAY of love. But, not about all the particulars. It’s about being pointed in the right direction, rather than a list of actions or thoughts that I am or am not doing right. That only leads to guilt and anxiety, two things of which I refuse to live my life by anymore.

            As far as the particulars go, I think we can gain a better understanding of what this way of love may have looked like in the first century. But, that doesn’t usually – or maybe ever – mean there is a direct implication for exactly how to do this in our individual and communal lives today. The way of love is BEYOND duty. Saying “I love you” to my wife without owning and meaning it each time is not love. Extraction and repetition are robotic.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            You have obviously thought about these issues a lot.

            The most basic point of agreement between the two of us is that catching the spirit of how Jesus lived and what he taught is infinitely preferable to ‘robotic extraction and repetition.”

            Our biggest point of disagreement is that I have honestly found that continued study of the Scriptures, while trying to put into practice what Jesus teaches there, has led to my encountering fewer and fewer contradictions and more and more coherence.

          • Rob Davis

            “Catching the spirit” – I can get on board with that. Improvisation.

            I think we all deal with a little cognitive dissonance. Earlier in my life I saw the Bible primarily as a devotional tool – so I was able to pick and choose which parts I liked and which I didn’t (and was free to ignore the latter). But, I think if you want to look at the Bible with any kind of modern lens, you will not end up with a unified whole. My point, though, is that I don’t think you actually SHOULD look at the Bible in that way for the purpose of making decisions. There is a lot of wisdom in there, but there’s also a lot of junk.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com/ Rebecca Trotter

    One of the most interesting things about my faith journey thus far is how my experience and understanding of God and the spiritual has moved from “out there” to “in me” (as in Christ in me) to “in and through and around me and all of creation”. The closer I get to God, the more grounded in the here and now and the reality of creation God and love and spirit seems to be. It’s a very hard thing to explain and frankly, I think you’re brave to even try. When I try, I end up saying things that have been said a million times and misunderstood almost every time.

  • ED

    As someone raised as evangelical and fundamentalist, I have a great deal of difficulty wrapping my brain around the etherial, mysterious and incomprehensible God who reveals himself in a book …… interpreted differently by people depending upon their education, culture, as well as their time and place in history. However, in my journey I am also at the place where the God of the evangelical fundamentalist group seems totally absurd as well. It’s not that faith is abhorrent to me. It just seems to be a very unreliable of understanding reality. I’m still seeking.

  • arcseconds

    Did you see that 80s sitcom *Perfect Strangers*, the premise of which involves a man (Balki) from some fictional easten european (possibly balkan) state arriving in New York to stay with his second cousin, an everyman American?

    There was an episode where they were organising to go duck hunting, and Balki, normally a kind and sensitive soul, was shown to be quite bloodthirsty when giving an opportunity to shoot ducks. At the end of the episode he’s revealed to be quite distraught at killing ducks – he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It turned out that he thought ‘duck’ meant pterodactyl, which apparently carry off small children in his homeland.

    Now, imagine that there’s a whole group of people all dedicated to hunting vrucks (not wanting to prejudice the issue by using a real word with a commonly understood referent). They buy vruck-hunting books, attend meetings about vruck-hunting, talk about their previous hunts, etc. Occasionally heated debate occurs as to what really is the best equipment for vruck season, and occasionally someone’s vruck-hunting story is denounced as lies.

    Then, on talking to them, you discover that there’s a lot of extremely divergent views on what a ‘vruck’ is and why you should kill them. Some of them are talking about ducks, others pterodactyls, others still locusts, others aren’t sure what a vruck is but are keen on killing them nevertheless, and others maybe turn out to think it’s kind of a shared fiction game and don’t think ‘vruck’ refers to anything in
    the real world. Some think they’re dangerous human-devouring predators, others think they’re delicious in orange sauce, still others think it’s just fun to shoot them.

    There’s maybe some commonality as to how ‘vruck’ is used, like everyone agrees that they’re flying creatures of some kind and they can be shot. But other than that, their views are so different that it’s tempting to conclude that they’re not at all talking about the same thing.

    How analogous is this story to Christianity (or theism, more broadly)? Because I’m thinking: very analogous. Your post reveals a very different understanding of God to the traditional view of God as a being that stands outside the universe, whilst still being omnipresent within it, who existed prior to the universe and created it. And both are very different from the picture of God as a giant ghostly man with a white beard who understands English through telepathy, common amongst children, but not unknown amongst adults.

    At what point do you say you’re actually talking about different things? Is there anything that somehow constrains you to talking about the same thing, despite the very different conceptions (there are some possibilities here)?

    Not talking about the same thing has some interesting consequences. A debate between you and someone with a more traditional theology would actually be a semantic debate. Really, you deny their god exists, and they deny your god exists, so you’re really both atheists to one another. This would seem to really break down the atheist/theist distinction, because any given theist with a given theology agrees with any atheist against all theists with a different theology that the later’s god doesn’t exist.

    It also makes worship services rather interesting phenomena, as the participants are all (say) singing the same hymns, but not to the same entities.

    To push the notion a little further that you’re not actually talking about the same entities, note that it would actually be possible for both conceptions to be true. Maybe you’re right and the Universe has an emergent property of personhood, and maybe there’s also a being that created it that stands outside it (you can find such a notion in Plato’s *Timaeus*).