God is Not an Explanation

Ian recently wrote a post on his blog, “Why God Doesn’t Explain Anything.” It reminded me of a post I wrote quite a number of years ago, and reposted a couple of years ago, with the title “God is a Mystery, Not an Explanation.” It starts off like this:

The world we live in is full of mysteries. When we envisage the self-replicating molecules that drive life on this planet, we wonder how they could have arisen, and we seek explanations. Likewise with the very fact than anything exists at all, we wonder why there is something rather than nothing.

To say “God did it” is not an explanation. To suggest that an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being is somehow self explanatory and a way to eliminate mystery is misguided. This doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to talk about God when talking about these mysteries. But God is part of the mystery, and to speak of God is to affirm that beyond these tangible mysteries we perceive there are even greater mysteries regarding which we may not even yet be asking the right questions yet.

Click through to read the rest.

I think a distinction that it is important to make is between (1) whether it is reasonable to conclude that our universe points beyond itself to something else, and (2) whether, by positing that something else (be it “God” or “a multiverse”) we have thereby wrapped things up and provided an explanation that brings an end to mystery.

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  • Ian

    The key question raised by the post is what you mean by ‘universe’ in your point (1). If you mean our physical universe, then the question is sensible, but what it points to is as likely to be as banal as some other universe, or quantum effect or so on – hardly a religious question. If you mean our ‘everything’, then the idea that it points to anything beyond itself is simply a meaningless linguistic trick. Of the same kind as asking what number you get if you add one to infinity. The question can sound like it makes sense, and might be profound, but ultimately it is a silly and meaningless question.

    That’s the key issue. Is the seeming coherence of the question simply a function of not understanding it properly?

    Perhaps not for you, but it seems to be for many of the people who I interact with who have this kind of panentheist model of God: it is still a God of the gaps, its just the gap they want to fill is the one beyond infinity. “God is all the numbers greater than infinity.” – okay, sure, that might sound cool, but its just sloppy thinking, right? The idea of something ‘beyond’ the universe (when the universe is interpreted as everything, not just our manifold of accessible space-time) is similarly meaningless.

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

      If I’ve understood you correctly, then I have to disagree. It may be that the universe points directly towards some other universe, or some quantum effect, or a multiverse. But it certainly remains the case, in my opinion, that even those things (which are not necessarily themselves “banal”) point beyond themselves, not to some further explanation, but to a mystery – why is there something rather than nothing. And so I’d say that, if God is thought of not as the ultimate explanation but as the ultimate mystery, then panentheism gets our situation precisely right: that which we comprehend is situated within a wider mystery.

      • Ian

        I follow you some way. If your response to ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ begins ‘because of …’, then you’ve misunderstood the question, I agree. As you say, God is not an explanation.

        But if your question involves the phrase ‘beyond the universe’ (universe understood in an everything way, not in the limited cosmological sense), then the question is meaningless. Not just unanswerable, but strictly as meaningless as asking about the numbers greater than infinity or the mass of middle C.

        So you’re left with what amounts to a Koan: God is the sound of one hand clapping. God is what is beyond the universe. God is a person who died and is now living. God is greater than infinity. God knows the shape of your face before you were conceived.

        Koans use language to induce a particular mental state. God is, therefore, our response to meaninglessness, absurdity and category error. By meditating on God in the face of meaninglessness, we induce a sense of profundity and awe that (hopefully) proves useful and pleasurable.

        You can call that a mystery. But I think ‘mystery’ tricks people into thinking God is a solution to the mystery, so the term might not be helpful. Perhaps koan is better. “What is the answer to the unsolvable riddle?”

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

          Well, if people mistake “mystery” for “explanation” it is hardly the fault of those who use the former terminology! Mystery is mystery, solution is solution.


          • Ian

            I think you misunderstood what I was saying about mystery. Though it was the least significant part of my response, so I’m loathe to flog that horse.

            What about God as Koan, do you recognize my characterization? Does that fit with what you are saying? God as affect rather than as external reality?

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

            Horse-flogging is one of my hobbies. Especially dead ones.

            I both like and dislike the idea of God as koan – no seriously, that’s not just an attempt to do the koan “both/and” thing! The main thing that makes me hesitant to talk about God as koan, as opposed to God as a mystery which human beings explore through koans, is precisely that it could be construed as pinning down the mystery. “Here’s what they mystery really is: it is a koan.”

            Perhaps it would be an appropriate progressive Christian koan to replace the conservative “Jesus is the answer” with “God is the question”?

          • Ian

            ” is precisely that it could be construed as pinning down the mystery” – funny how we’re each sensitive to the unwanted connotations of our own language, but are fine with unhelpful connotations pointed out by others!

            Yes, you’re right. Though I wasn’t trying to use Koan in an essentialist way, much less to mean the pithy-one-liner stereotype we have in the west. I think there may be lots of correspondence between the real Chinese and Japanese Koan tradition and progressive Christianity. But that’s not really what I meant.

            I just meant that, if you give a question, there is an implication that the question has an answer. That is the purpose and function of questions. But what some Koan forms teach us is (a) many questions don’t have answers (some there is no answer, others the question itself is meaningless), and (b) pondering such answer-less questions is a fruitful religious practice.

            It was those features I was trying to draw out. God is a question without answer, God is a mystery without solution.

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

            “God is a question without an answer. God is a mystery without a solution.” I like it, and am tempted to stick those words on a Hubble image and share it! What do you think, and what do you want the attribution giving you credit to say?

          • Ian

            :-) How do you attribute someone’s paraphrase clarification of someone else’s position? Dunno! Feel free to leave the author as a mystery. Or, since I was trying to figure out your views, claim sole ownership :)

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

            I made the images. Perhaps it would have been good to stick a watermark connecting them with this blog on them?


            UPDATE: I went back and inserted “Exploring Our Matrix” in the bottom right to at least indicate where they originated, even if the origin of the words remains mysterious… :-)

          • Ian

            They look good. Cool.

        • David Evans

          “But if your question involves the phrase ‘beyond the universe’ (universe understood in an everything way, not in the limited cosmological sense), then the question is meaningless.”

          Clearly if “universe” = “everything”, then there is nothing beyond the universe. But if “universe” = “our universe, plus any larger reality to which it is linked by physical laws”, does not that leave room for something outside the larger reality?

          • Ian

            Yes David. And that was my point in the original article.

            If you define universe in the cosmological sense you can ask what is beyond, but if an answer were available, it probably wouldn’t be mystical enough for some people.

            If you define universe to contain just all the things you wouldn’t consider to be God (e.g. things linked by physical laws), then it makes sense to ask what is beyond. The answer might be ‘nothing’, but at least the question is valid.

            If you define universe to contain all the things that exist, such that you can ask “why is there something rather than nothing?”, then to ground an answer in what is “beyond” is nonsensical.

            So my objection is really rather specific, I think.

  • Orc Orchard

    Yeah, I don’t accept ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ as a real question. It seems to me like something crafted to sound profound and evade easy answers but essentially meaningless and empty. It’s like a puddle looking with wonder at the hole in the ground *miraculously* shaped just fit to fit it.

    Or else it’s a kind of St. Anselm-y crypto-solipsism: Like you can imagine something and so you’re sure the answer must somehow involve what you have imagined.

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

      Why is it not a real question? And why is it invalidated just because some people who ponder it work in their own pre-existing concept of God as their proposed solution?

      (Nice Douglas Adams reference, though!)

      • Orc Orchard

        Well, let me put it this way: Can you imagine any possible answer for the question? (Or, to be cynical, is there any answer you would accept other than “Jesus of Nazareth, the one true and unbegotten Son of God, who lived, died, and was reborn upon the third day and who shall come again in glory” etc, etc.?)

        Questions without even *imaginable* answers are not real questions. They’re just fetishes or intellectual bludgeons or stumbling blocks placed in the way of honest discourse.

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

          Why does the fact that a question is unanswerable make it uninteresting or unimportant? And what makes you think that I would accept “Jesus” as an answer to the question?

          • Orc Orchard

            *Why does the fact that a question is unanswerable make it uninteresting or unimportant?*

            Yeah, and *that’s* from exactly the same family of questions as ‘why is there something rather than nothing’?

            Again: Give me a sample answer to this question. ‘Cause we have a term for that: When you ask a question to which there can be no real answer–not even one you yourself care to venture–then that’s called ‘begging the question’. Or at least some variation thereof.

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

            No, begging the question means assuming what needs to be demonstrated. That isn’t the same thing as posing a question which is interesting but unanswerable. And asking me to provide a possible valid answer to an unanswerable question makes me wonder whether you and I are on the same wavelength, and whether you are assuming things about where I am coming from that are off target.

          • Orc Orchard

            Well, you do seem pretty ready to dismiss any answer that points to More Science rather than Something Numinous. (“But it certainly remains the case, in my opinion, that even those things (which are not necessarily themselves “banal”) point beyond themselves, not to some further explanation, but to a mystery – why is there something rather than nothing.”)

            You somehow just *know* it’s Mystery under all those turtles of science, huh?

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

            I don’t posit turtles, and I don’t think you are using the word mystery in anything close to its normal sense.

          • Orc Orchard

            I will not continue with this if you’re just going to tap-dance and dictionary-twit me. Bye

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

            I confess I do not know what “dictionary-twit” means, and I am not skilled at tap dancing, either literally or metaphorically. I am not sure what brought about this reaction on your part, but you are under no obligation to discuss something you do not wish to, and you are free to return at any point you wish.

          • Orc Orchard

            *No, begging the question means assuming what needs to be demonstrated.*

            Yeah, no: That still seems to apply in this case–you assume that there must be a comprehensible answer to ‘why is there something rather than nothing’. Like Something is an adequate term for the universe or that Nothing was an alternative option.

            And again, you seem pretty sure the answer isn’t ‘infinite compression of singularity-states’ but rather something else.

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

            I don’t think you are grasping what it means to suggest that the question is unanswerable, or why. Why is there an infinite compression of singularity states rather than nothing? Why is there a God rather than nothing? You seem not to grasp why many think that the existence of something, anything, rather than nothing at all, is inherently mysterious.

          • Orc Orchard

            *You seem not to grasp why many think that…*

            No, I don’t. Not at all. But by all means, please WallOfText me: I’m sure lots more words will somehow solve my problem. Sprinkle on some condescension too: That always helps. And when I disagree with what you say, by no means actually answer me: Instead tiresomely lecture me on how I’m using words all the wrong. I fucking LOVE that.

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

            I’m not sure why you think vulgarity will help get to the bottom of this. I suspect that you have misjudged where I am coming from, and are approaching this with an animosity that has to do with previous experiences of discussing topics like this one which have nothing to do with me or this blog. It would have been nice if, instead of being hostile, you tried to understand what I am saying and where I am coming from.

          • Orc Orchard

            You really are just *genetically* condescending, aren’t you?

  • bob green

    The best answer I have found so far is in the book “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed”. Google and download it. The answer makes sense.

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

      If a self-published book by someone who isn’t an expert in the field in question is the best book you’ve read on the subject, then I strongly recommend branching out more in your reading.

  • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

    In the comments, the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” keeps coming up. I wonder if anyone knows what the meaning of “nothing” is?

    There was a time when humans believed that the space between two objects on earth was “nothing”. The movement of invisible air was a mystery.

    There was a time when the vacuum of space was considered “nothing”. Humans postulated angels or gods to move the planets, since they had no concept of space-time and general relativity.

    We used to imagine the great “nothing” of interstellar space between galaxies, but now we know that what we think of as a vacuum or space is filled with virtual particles, dark energy, and dark matter, all interacting with we know as the visible universe.

    In fact if we imagine “nothing” as anything that is, in any way, “spatial”, then we’ve probably misunderstood “nothing”. My guess is that, as far as defining terms, we have a much better understanding of the nature of “something”, and absolutely no concept of the nature of “nothing”.

    Here’s an unanswerable but important question: Is a state of “nothing” even possible or definable?

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

      Nada. Zilch. Rien. :-)

      Can’t nothing be defined as the absence of any substance, thing, law, or framework of any sort? As distinct from say a vacuum?

      • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

        But absence is just a semantic definition for a concept that we have no experience of. What I’m trying to say is that, every time we examine what we think of as “nothing” or the absence of something, we seem to discover that there is, in fact, no such thing.

        We could postulate why is there a Beau rather than no Beau, because my absence doesn’t imply a blank space, a Beau-shaped vacuum, or a mini-blackhole standing in my place. We can make sense of the question, because we understand that my absence would not create a hole in the universe.

        But asking, why is there something rather than nothing, implies that a state of nothing is even possible, much less imaginable. In fact real “nothingness” is so unimaginable, that the question seems like nonsense to me – as though “something” and “nothing” were somehow equal probabilities even though we have constant evidence of something all around us, and no concept of what nothing could even be.

        When humans imaged nothing as all the empty space around the stars and planets, it’s easy to imagine what that empty space might be like without all that matter. But now that we know that empty space itself is vibrantly “something”, the concept of “nothing” has become somewhat meaningless.

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

          Perhaps nothingness is indeed unimaginable and ineffable, since the use of words or thoughts can only involve the saying or imagining of something.

  • steve finnell


    Did you ever notice that secularists accept historical writings as fact, unless they are about God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    Have you ever heard a secularist proclaim that the following men did not live and that they were not who historians said they were?
    Confucius 551-479 B.C.
    Plato 427-347 B.C.
    Alexander the Great 356-323 B.C.
    Julius Caesar 100-44 B.C.
    Socrates 469-399 B.C.
    Buddha 563-483 B.C.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
    Homer 700-800 B.C.
    Isaac Newton 1642-1727
    Galileo Galilei 1564-1642
    Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519
    Marco Polo 1254-1324
    John Locke 1632-1704
    George Washington 1732-1799
    Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

    Secularists do not question the historical fact, that these men lived and died. They do not deny the role these men played in history. They believe this, by faith, that the historical accounts are accurate.

    Secularists do deny the historical accuracy of the Bible and all other accounts that proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. They deny the historical accounts of God the Father resurrecting Jesus from the grave.

    THE RESULTS OF A SELECTIVE VIEW OF HISTORICAL FACTS.(2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.)


    To read more, google search: Steve Finnell a christian view or Steve Finnell blog.

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

      This comment is bizarre, as well as inaccurate. Secular historians accept that there was a historical Jesus just as there was a historical Socrates. They view neither as having divine parentage, not least because they know that the tools of historical study cannot demonstrate the inherently improbable to be probable. Perhaps you should read about historical study before commenting on it? And given how much attention is devoted on this blog to historical Jesus studies, your posting here suggests that this is a random troll comment. How is trolling supposed to make your case seem persuasive?