God, Part 2: The problem with pronouns

(This is the second piece of my response to Tony Jones’ “Challenge to Progressive Theo-bloggers.” The first piece is here.)

Whenever possible, I try to avoid gendered pronouns for God. Admittedly, this can sometimes make for clumsy syntax, but that clumsiness is a feature, not a bug.

Because the main point of this exercise is to force myself to be conscious of that word, “God,” and not to use it casually and thereby to risk forgetting or confusing or failing to account for the fact that this God I’m referring to is not your run-of-the-mill antecedent.

There are good feminist reasons to avoid gendered pronouns for God, and that’s also a big part of why I try to do so. But my main concern is not patriarchy, but anthropomorphism.

Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is a beautiful painting, but a problematic one in that it reinforces our already extreme tendency to think of Yahweh as Zeus, or as Moses, or as Charlton Heston portraying Moses.

That tendency is far older than Michelangelo. I’d bet that when the book of Job was originally staged and the machine lowered God onto the scene in the third act (chapter 38 in our copy of the script), the actor playing God wore a bearded mask.

“God is not man writ large,” Karl Barth said, but we are always tempted to think of God in exactly those terms — as a man writ extremely large, bipedal, bearded, robed, sandaled and tossing a thunderbolt down from Olympus.

That leads us astray in our thinking about God and in our attempts to understand God. It leads us astray in ways that we will not be able to see until we begin to cure ourselves of the habit.

We can see this problem at work in many of the theologians who speak loudest and most often about the “sovereignty” of God. The assertion of God’s sovereignty is almost always immediately followed by an explanation of the rules governing said sovereignty — the rules that bound it, circumscribe it, hem it in and limit it. Thus “God is sovereign,” but also unable. God can do all things, except for

And then off we go, defining the infinite and reducing God to He and Him as though discussing just another churlish Olympian. From there we end up with a God subject to wrath, or subject to a fierce allergy to all that is unholy or impure. A subject is not a sovereign.

Our tendency to anthropomorphize is both unconscious and inevitable. It distorts our thinking about God just as it distorts our thinking about all sorts of other things — about all creatures great and small, about the weather, even about inanimate objects sometimes.

Think of all those awesome YouTube clips of animals at play. The crow snowboards down the snowy roof, then flies back up to the top to do it again. We perceive, and project, human motive and emotions onto what we see. We leap to conclusions.

In a way, this is an admirable quality — a kind of empathy — but it’s also misleading. It makes for bad science. And it’s no less a danger in theology than it is in ornithology.

A crow is not a small, feathered human. And God is not man writ large.

When we yield to the temptation to anthropomorphize God — consciously or unconsciously — we inevitably reduce God, projecting onto God limits, constraints and boundaries that we, as humans, cannot help but introduce.

This, I think, is a greater epistemological concern for theology than any consideration of certainty. Pascal saw both problems as related:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.

We are “incapable of certain knowledge” not just because certainty is elusive, but because we cannot grasp or comprehend the whole of what we wish to know. It overflows our capacity.

All of our God-talk and God-thinking — our creeds and constructs, our teachings and tomes, even our scriptures — are up against this limited, finite, human capacity. God is more than we can know. God is more than we are capable of knowing.

We name and label attributes of God, sometimes convincing ourselves that this is the same as comprehending them. We thus pretend that our little Flatlander brains have thereby grasped what we have actually only pointed at, boggling and reeling away to the best anthropomorphic approximation we can manage.

This isn’t to say that our partial approximations are wrong, necessarily, just that they are always partial and inadequate. Koko watched the video of the earthquake and signed, “Darn floor, big bite.” She wasn’t wrong. Given her limited vocabulary and her limited primate brain, I think she was eloquent, poetic even. But those four words only begin to point toward all that could be said or known about earthquakes.

Here is a remarkable thing that I love about that ancient play about Job, when the God in the first act finally goes off in the third. Part of what the character of God says there is typical of what the Gods always say to us mortals in ancient plays: “Who are you, a mere mortal, to judge me, a God?” But the God in Job also makes another point, affectionately explaining to Job that he is incapable of grasping the explanation he seeks — the explanation he properly demands.

God does not say this as a defense, nor as a condemnation. God is a bit testy about all the nonsense Job’s friends have been spouting, but God delights in these humans even more than God delights in ostriches and Orion.

Poor Job is, like all of us humans — including the humans who wrote Job — a finite, fallible, fragile creature. We humans have limits. Our primate brains are large and wondrously capable, but they are not infinitely capable. We cannot know everything we want to know and we cannot express everything we want to express. We cannot know everything there is to know or even grasp the scale of the difference between all that we can know and all that we cannot.

This limitation is part of our identity, our creatureliness. It’s not a flaw, just a limit. And God — or, at least, the heavily anthropomorphized God of Act 3 of Job — loves us humans as humans, as limited, fallible, fragile little creatures with our vast-but-not-boundless potential and capacity.

And but so, this is something we must always keep in mind — that God is more than can be kept in something as finite as our minds.

Our best ideas and approximations, our creeds and constructs, formulas and formulations, scriptures and systematic theologies are, at their best, still inadequate. “Darn floor, big bite.” “Trinity.” “Homoousios.” Our limited vocabulary and limited primate brains can be eloquent, but we can never comprehend comprehensively.

The danger of forgetting that is the danger of making our constructs into idols.

And so, partly as a discipline to force myself to remember that, I try to avoid pronouns for God. If that sometimes trips me up over clumsy syntax, then the pain of that stubbed toe is a helpful reminder.

We cannot know all there is to know about God. But I believe that we can know all that we need to know about God. That’s what I intend to discuss in part 3, wherein I will utterly fail Tony’s God-blogging challenge by violating the “not about Jesus” rule.

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  • aunursa

    As a Jew, I’m amused whenever I see Christians warn about the dangers of trying to anthropomorphize God.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    “It”? If God is not human or even related to any sexually dimorphic species on Earth for that matter, there is no reason for God to have gender.

  • Morilore

    Fascinating.  Your thoughts on the effect of pronouns on our perception of God sort of resemble my atheist thoughts on the effect of the idea of God on our perception of the universe. 

  • Pat B

    I’m not an expert here, but doesn’t the “built man in his own image” thing imply a humanoid male deity? 

    Not to knock the Jewish people’s imaginations, but Genesis reads like any other contemporary creation myth. Is it a huge stretch to say the god they envisioned was basically a powerful human or human-like creature, like those of the Egyptians and Babylonians?

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

     I have seen suggestions that the “image of God” is meant as a mental or spiritual image, that reason, the soul, or something like that is the image. What is fiction but the act of Creation in miniature?

    And of course Genesis 3:5’s famous line states that “knowing good and evil,” i.e., possessing a conscience and a moral sense, would make humans like God.

    Of course, my source for this is A Canticle for Leibowitz and its brief mention of a debate over whether mutants had the imago Dei when they lacked a fully human intellect, or major deformities, or were cannibals. And I’m mostly an atheist, so it doesn’t really mean much to me either way.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     Genesis reads like any other contemporary creation myth. Is it a huge
    stretch to say the god they envisioned was basically a powerful human or
    human-like creature, like those of the Egyptians and Babylonians?

    That’s basically how it looks.  The further you get into and from Genesis the less anthropomorphic god gets.  But throughout the various early stories you get the image of a human-ish god: walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, covering Moses with his hands because mortals cannot see god’s face and, as such, should only be allowed to see god’s backside, etc.

    Throughout time the Jewish concept of god became less and less anthropomorphic.  Christians didn’t have any problem with an anthropomorphic god until relatively recently.  Trying to de-gender and de-anthropomorphize god seems to be a recent invention based mostly on the wishful thinking of more recent theologians.

    There’s a precedence for it from past theologians, but I don’t think it’s a mainstream conception of the Christian god, nor do I think it’s a historical conception of the Christian god.

  • Nathaniel

    Genesis era Yahweh is basically Zeus with a bad temper. 

  • Tricksterson

    That’s because he had a lot less sex, all that divine testosterone had to go somewhere.

  • Shane

     Virtually no Patristic or Medieval theologian would characterize God anthropomorphically.  Aquinas talked about God being Being-Itself, the essence of Being, things like that.  Occam talked about God being Pure Will (Which had the unfortunate side effect making God arbitrary in a way).  The notion that God is a guy in the sky like Zeus is a caricature and those theologians would know that. However, most talked about God with analogy, i.e. saying God was good was not saying God was good in the human sense, but of a higher, infinitely different good that is only being grasped analogically.  Scotus came along with his uivocity of being, meaning that the goodness that someone describes a human with means exactly the same as the goodness of God, separated by only by degree, so you do get a bit of a anthropomorphism there.

  • Beleester

    I think it’s a question of where you fit on the theodicy triangle – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, pick two.

    If you go with omniscient and omnipotent, then the anthropomorphic “old man in the sky” is as good an image as any. You can talk, as the Bible does, about God being wrathful or jealous and it makes sense, because those are human emotions.

    If you go with omnibenevolent but not omniscient or omnipotent, then you have to believe in a God which is emotionally and physically unlike anything we know. You can’t describe this God as angry or hateful or any other emotion we routinely experience. This God has no hands to smite evildoers or even a voice to persuade them to change their ways. The best description you can manage is some sort of nebulous but nice “presence”.

  • AnonymousSam

    Exodus has its share of transformation (God as a burning bush, a volcano, a tornado), but also features God sitting at a table, eating bread. So yeah.

  • Sqrat

     I’m not an expert here, but doesn’t the “built man in his own image” thing imply a humanoid male deity?

    When Yahweh was married to the goddess Asherah he would have had a more obvious use for man parts.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    I’m not an expert here, but doesn’t the “built man in his own image” thing imply a humanoid male deity?

    Actually, and this is one of those cool pieces of bible trivia, the word used for “man” is the gender neutral one, except in phrases like “Male and female, He created them.” 

    One can be Man (‘ADM) all on one’s lonesome, but being a man (‘ish) is to be in certain kind of relationship to others.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m not an expert here, but doesn’t the “built man in his own image” thing imply a humanoid male deity?

    FWIW, that passage in Genesis explicitly includes both men and women.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    In the Bhagavad Gita, the great warrior Arjuna mourns in the middle of a battlefield. He doesn’t want to fight any longer, and doesn’t see a point to all the killing and dying. Krishna has been instructing and debating with Arjuna. Arjuna demands to know why this is the world, and why he has to fight.  Krishna says, “because this”, and reveals his true form (or one of them*) to Arjuna. And that’s all the answer Arjuna gets to “why”.

    This can be read in many different ways, of course, none of them necessarily wrong. Divine revelation. Metaphor for all we can understand of the divine. Parable about how we control very little in life, and have to do the best we can with the lots we’re given. Propaganda encouraging the warrior caste to continue killing themselves and others for reasons of imperialist expansion and greed. Propaganda by the priest caste to control the warrior caste. A really cool story.  And etc.

    But here’s my point. I do not think that when one shapes one’s entire life around a concept, right down to being willing to die for it, that “why” is a question that can be set aside. I never understood why the “why” was a question that I was told not to ask, or that was shunted aside as “we can’t know.” In all my big and small steps away from Christianity, I think this was the biggest one. Every time I asked “why” I was told “because, that’s why.” 

    My grandfather changed his belief in God at the end of his life, when the tsunamis in Indonesia happened. He didn’t understand how a merciful God could allow this. He had been Christian his whole life, and now his wife, who had also been a Christian her whole life, didn’t remember who he was. “Because, that’s why” isn’t any kind of answer. And many people do indeed need to know more. I found my “why” only after leaving Christianity. I don’t know if my grandfather ever found his.

    *Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, who has lots of avatars. The illustration in the version of the Bhagavad Gita I have shows him looking mostly like Ganesha when he reveals his true form.

  • AnonymousSam

    From both my perspective and what I would assume is the prospective of an older race, having a man transform into an inhuman creature in response to such a question would invariably lead me to the conclusion, “AAHHHH! AHHHHHH!!!”

    … Followed shortly by, “Oh, Lovecraftian horrors. That explains everything.”

  • seniorcit

    Because the Bible says so, that’s why.  Or…..God said it, I believe it, that settles it!  The older I get….and I’m pushing 70…..the less I believe in an all-powerful God, at least when it concerns our world and human affairs.  Madeleine L’Engle said at one point that she got  a lot of her theology from physics.  I feel the same way when I watch a NOVA program on PBS.  That tells me more about God than a series of sermons on the characteristics of God ever could.

  • Sqrat

    It might also be worthwhile to stop calling it “God.”  That’s more of a job title (“the god”), not a name.  It says in the Old Testament that its name is Yahweh.

    Or, if you lean towards Christian orthodoxy, I guess you could call it “the Trinity” if that’s what you mean.  That might be a very good idea, in fact, because when Christians talk about “God” their actual meaning slides back and forth so quickly between “Yahweh” and “the Trinity” that even they seem to become confused.   Or perhaps they merely mean to befuddle their listeners.

  • AnonymousSam

    Part of this occurs because the name used isn’t just Yahweh, it’s also Elohim, Shaddai, El and numerous other names, all flattened into “THE LORD” in modern translations. They did it partly to not confuse people and partly to cement monotheism into the religion.

  • Sqrat

     And of course “Lord” is another word that is a title, not a name (although I can at least imagine a member of the British nobility called “Lord Lord”).

  • AnonymousSam

    And Elohim is a plural word which has, at various times, been interpreted to mean “those who came from the sky.” ~_^

  • Sqrat

     So maybe we should be using the term, “the god(s).”

  • AnonymousSam

    Speaking purely theologically, perhaps. “The forces” might be more accurate to include secular perspectives. ^^

  • Sqrat

     The physicist Alan Guth has long argued that we might some day know how to create universes in a laboratory.  If that’s plausible, then we have to allow for the possibility that our universe was itself created by scientists in another universe.   And if by “the Lord” we mean “whoever or whatever created our universe”, perhaps we might substitute “the Principal Investigator” (or, for the Trinity, “the Research Team”).

  • Tricksterson

    Doesn’t elohim usually refer to the  lesser gods angels?

  • AnonymousSam

    Short answer: No.

    Long answer: Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets. Veha’arets hayetah tohu vavohu vechoshech al-peney tehom veruach Elohim merachefet al-peney hamayim. Vayomer Elohim yehi-or vayehi-or. Vayar Elohim et-ha’or ki-tov vayavdel Elohim beyn ha’or uveyn hachoshech.

    Otherwise known as Genesis 1:1-4.

  • christopher_young

    I don’t think there’s a Lord Lord, but the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Lord Judge.

    I don’t personally have a dog in this fight, but I’m not sure how useful it is to refer too much to the way YHWH is described in Genesis in a discussion about the god worshiped by modern Christians or for that matter modern Jews or Muslims. The people who originally developed the Genesis stories were polytheists, though they may have practiced henotheism; for them YHWH probably was pretty Zeus like. The much later person or people who wrote Job were already rejecting that system of belief. Fred and other theologically literate Christians aren’t henotheists in any sense, and the God they worship is very different from anything that could have been encompassed by bronze age imaginations.

  • Sqrat

     I don’t think there’s a Lord Lord, but the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Lord Judge.

    On the western side of the pond we’ve had at least one Judge Lord.

    Fred and other theologically literate Christians aren’t henotheists in
    any sense, and the God they worship is very different from anything that
    could have been encompassed by bronze age imaginations.

    I suspect that “theological literacy” means “our god must be the very bestest god there could ever possibly be” and that “doing theology” is to a great degree simply a matter of trying to work the logical kinks out of that notion while still trying to keep it consistent with the facts of the observable world and life as we know it.

    Not that it can actually be done, of course.

  • Randall M

     I don’t think there’s a Lord Lord, but the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Lord Judge.

    Well, I can’t top that, but I did once work in the Nursing Office of a major metropolitan hospital, and one of the nurses that worked there was Nurse Nurse.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Urthman

     “Father” is the name Jesus used and invited his followers to use.

  • Sqrat

     “Father” is the name Jesus used and invited his followers to use.

    What a coincidence — that’s my name too!

  • Stealth

    If you believe in the Christian god, then you base information on said god comes from the Bible. The Bible is consistent in using such pronouns as “he”, “him”, and “his” when describing this god. Furthermore, when using Hebrew terms in the Tanach (Old Testament), they are all masculine (El, Elohim, Adonai,  El Saddai, etc). Hebrew has very clear masculine and feminine nouns (both for singular and plural).

    You may not like “god” being described as a man, but that is what the “holy book” says. I, personally, don’t believe in any god, but I find it amusing how so many decide they don’t like what they read in the Bible and try hard to change it … all the while claiming to know god.

  • Sqrat

     I, personally, don’t believe in any god, but I find it amusing how so
    many decide they don’t like what they read in the Bible and try hard to
    change it … all the while claiming to know god.

    It’s as if, in the tale of the blind men and the elephant, the blind man who thought that the elephant was like a rope didn’t want the elephant to be like a rope and so said that the elephant was like something else entirely.  And actually there’s no elephant, just a rope.

  • Twig

    Sorry to jump tracks on this post, but I’ve never seen how assigning emotional states to animals is somehow inaccurate when we can record multiple accounts of similar behaviors that seem to imply some correlating mental state – stress, happiness, etc – in many different species.

    I wasn’t even aware this was really being argued anymore.  I understand what you’re saying as it relates to God, but I think it’s been fairly well established that certain animals, at least, have identifiable feelings.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     I wasn’t even aware this was really being argued anymore.  I understand
    what you’re saying as it relates to God, but I think it’s been fairly
    well established that certain animals, at least, have identifiable
    feelings.

    They do have identifiable feelings.  The problem is that we tend to anthropomorphize their motivations and reactions.  As such, if my dog licks my face I might assign human motivation to that and say, “My dog loves me and is giving me a kiss.”  In reality she probably does not love me and is most certainly not kissing me.  Her behavior is probably social pack based, so she’s engaging in grooming or a show of her subservience to me in the pack structure.

    Alternately, she could be trying to figure out what I’d taste like with barbeque sauce.

  • http://www.facebook.com/l.andrew.spencer Leonard Andrew Spencer

     And this is about a crow. Corvids are damn clever birds, so I’m happy to interpret them as doing something for “fun”

  • Robyrt

    The more egalitarian and monotheist your society, the more you have the luxury of leaving off the pronouns. God is referred to as male primarily to denote his role as owner and ruler, and to distinguish him from Astarte/Ishtar/Asherah.

  • Isabel C.

    This is a lovely post, and thank you.

    I keep thinking, lately, about the positive interpretation of Lovecraftian concepts (not in the Brian Lumley sense, although I admit to liking that, although I also like circus peanuts, so that means nothing): beings that are so great, or so outside the realm of perception, that we can’t comprehend them and retain either our minds or our humanity, even if they’re ultimately benevolent. 
    And also of how light takes on different attributes when seen through a lens. Is the sky really blue? Well…

    I also like the take on this from Gaiman’s Death, faced with a bunch of “Why does the universe suck?” questions: “They aren’t stupid questions, but they could just as well be “When is purple?” or “Why does Thursday?”, if you see what I mean.”

    Job per se always bugs me a bit, because the bet structure gives it a humanity that then takes away from any “…um, I *can’t* explain in a way you’ll understand, OSTRICH,” later, and makes things seem petty.  But that’s collected narrative for you, I suspect. 

  • Sqrat

    Her behavior is probably social pack based, so she’s engaging in
    grooming or a show of her subservience to me in the pack structure.

    I don’t know about you, but when I kiss my significant other, it is a show of my subservience in the pack structure.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     I don’t know about you, but when I kiss my significant other, it is a show of my subservience in the pack structure.

    I seem to have opted out of the pack system altogether.  Or the pack system opted me out.  I’m not quite sure which one it was.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Why are you assuming your dog probably doesn’t love you? I see no reason to believe that many non-human animals do not experience love except that humans are somehow special that way, which I find a pretty silly idea. Many other animals (including wolves) form close relationships, including lifelong monogamous sexual relationships, play, and mourn. When my cat kisses my nose, it’s because I’ve shown her that I like that, and I have not trained her to do that by giving treats:  I can encourage her to do so, and sometimes she’ll do it a lot, and sometimes she won’t do it, and often she’ll do it all on her own. Just the way humans give affection. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Yes, precisely this.

    Though I will admit to telling my dog when she licks my face that I’m not actually going to vomit up any food for her.

  • aunursa

    Yes.  Anyone who assumes that dogs cannot love their owners should take a look at these videos…

    Seeing my dog

    Dog (Molly) Sees Mom

    Military Reunions with Man’s Best Friend

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I just note that pretty much everything written here is true about The Doctor of “Doctor Who.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    So, I realize that Fred doesn’t generally engage directly with questions from the commentariat, but I have this question nevertheless. Others are free to engage with it as well, of course.

    Does referring to God as a singular entity incur the same psychological costs as referring to God as a gendered entity?

  • Isabel C.

    Excellent question. I’m not sure, but that may be one of the reasons I don’t use the word when describing my personal beliefs. I’m hesitant to use “gods”, too, at times, depending on whether the baggage seems appropriate or not. “Powers” or “Entities” or “Beings” all kind of work, but I usually default to “I believe in Stuff” an waving my hands around until I knock over a glass.  

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    …until I knock over a glass.

    Well, libations are traditional.

  • Isabel C.

    Yeah, but Wild Cherry Pepsi? 

  • http://gramina.dreamwidth.org/ Gramina

    Dave — I don’t think the risk is simply in considering the Godhead in the singular, or in considering the Godhead in specific form(s).  I think the risk is in considering the Godhead in singular (or limited) form — that is, it’s fine to think of the Divine as the Old White Guy In The Sky, as long as you also are able to recognize the Divine as the Young Hispanic Mother, or in any of a multiplicity of other images.  If you are not someone who can comfortably think of the Divine in many different images, then I think it’s safer to consider the Singular Godhead in as close to no-image-at-all as you can get.  (I like Zenna Hendersen’s “The Power And The Presence” from her “People” books.)

    The risk in having a limited set of specific “approved” images of the Godhead is that you are, at that point, insisting that God is limited to these ways of being experienced by people, and that seems pretty close to idolatry to me.

  • Sheepnomore

    So, uh, what was that whole Jesus thing about then again?

  • lowtechcyclist

    “wherein I will utterly fail Tony’s God-blogging challenge by violating the “not about Jesus” rule.”

    Hell, yes.  There’s no way we can understand God-as-God.  But we can at least make some sort of  reasonable attempt to understand the slice of God that could fit in a human life.

    It’s worth trying to talk about God-as-God if only to understand how completely we have to fail in such a venture.  Once we’ve done that, it’s time to talk about Jesus.

  • MaryKaye

    Dave writes: 

    Does referring to God as a singular entity incur the same psychological costs as referring to God as a gendered entity? 

    It’s a problem for me, as a person in a Pagan tradition where some participants are arguably monotheists (Dion Fortune “All the gods are one God, all the goddesses are one Goddess, and there is One Initiator”) and some are clearly polytheists, and some are pantheists, and some are atheists who regard the gods only as symbolic and therefore one-versus-many is not really a question for them.

    I say “the Divine” when I want to preserve number ambiguity–it’s not at all perfect,  but it’s better than “God” or “the Gods”.

    CS Lewis notes a Middle English poem that says “ane godde omnipotent” (if I recall correctly) and says that the whole force of the passage it appears in requires the ambiguity between “a god” and “one God” and it is therefore not translatable into Modern English.

    (Myself, I am inclined to the view of (some) Hindus that if there is a One behind the Many, it’s not an aspect of the Divine that I can interact with, so on a practical level it doesn’t much matter.  I can’t get my head around the One being anything other than the author of all good *and* all evil, the union of all characteristics the Divine can have, and as such, flatly incomprehensible to me.  I am a lot more likely to be able to relate to my patron god, who is *not* all things in all.)

  • http://newpillowbook.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/friday-fictioneers-lunacy/ esmerelda_ogg

    I really don’t have time to even look at the comments today. So I’ll limit myself to saying, Yes, Fred. Yes, yes, yes.

  • caryjamesbond

    So, if God is beyond our comprehension, then whats the point of theology?  God likes helping the weak and downtrodden AND hates the gays.  To us, thats contradictory. To It, its not. 

    A dog has no idea that destroying others property is bad.  We do- we find it to be pretty objectively wrong.  You break my CD on purpose and refuse to replace it or apologize or anything- that is a Bad Act on your part.  But when your dog chews your CD, it is literally incapable of understanding that what it did was wrong.

    So for all we know then, the anti-gay parts of the Bible are like that.  Homosexuality IS wrong, but on some sort of divine soul level that we LITERALLY cannot comprehend. 

     A dog doesn’t understand WHY its ok to chew a frisbee but not a CD.  A dog activist might argue that, hey, why does Master say its ok to chew THIS round object but not THAT round object?  We know Master is kind and loving. We know Master gives us round shiny objects to chew, does it make sense that a loving Master would say some circular toys are ok to chew, but other circular toys are BAD to chew?  That makes no sense!  

    In other words, I see what Fred is trying to do here-  remove God from our anthropomorphic worldview, show us that It is a greater and more majestic being than we could imagine, and that projecting our petty little human flaws onto It is missing the point. But when you remove God from an anthropomorphic perspective, you remove It from the good and the bad. If God is operating on a totally different level from us, AND It sent us The Book, then there is no way to argue ourselves out of things like “no gays, no bacon, no mixed cloth, no working on Sunday,” because we are not mentally capable of understanding the arguments God makes.

    God says gay is bad? Why? Whats  wrong with homosexuality? WE’VE thought about it and we can’t possibly see how it does any harm. Well, it does.  It floojems the bizzlebrf. 

    Whats WRONG with chewing the shiny frisbee? It destroys the embedded data, making it impossible for the laser to read the information that is music. 

    Actually, China Mieville has a fantastic example of what a truly incomprehensible, multi-dimensional being might be like.  In his books, “Weavers” occasionally show up. They’re giant multi-dimensional spiders who are dedicated to protecting and fixing The Web- the infinite multi-dimensional expanse of reality with all its choice and complexity.  A Weaver might tear down a building and then plant a tree across town. A Weaver might  only respond to you if you give it scissors, or it might change its mind and only respond to bananas tomorrow. It might talk nicely to you while tearing the guy next to you into bits and artistically arranging his gizzards. It might take the right eye of  half the people in the  room, and give a pound of gold to the others.  Why?  We not only DON’T know- we CAN’T know. To know “why” would involve seeing the universe the way a Weaver does, and we are physically incapable of that.

  • Pat B

    The problem here (from my limited mortal perspective) is twofold;

    1. All powerful beings who get their CDs chewed are not worthy of the title. If an omnipotent being creates anything, it will be created exactly according to their preferences with no possibility of breaking down, by definition. The whole “I designed Physics and can see the future, but can’t stop you from cooking up some bacon on Saturday” issue.

    2. Why should we follow a morality we cannot comprehend? Isn’t it better to stick to your principles and create your own Right and Wrong rather than relying on some outside force? If you can’t be bothered to explain why not to do something, why should I bother not to do it? 

    If Man-on-Man sex weakens the cosmic barrier against the Shoggoths or something, just say so. Or, heck, use a vision; transcendent stuff is allegedly explained to people in visions all the time, just hit every gay guy with one when they turn 12. Or don’t design such shoddy cosmic barriers, or servants so incapable of understanding what they are and aren’t supposed to do.

  • Mark Z.

    1. All powerful beings who get their CDs chewed are not worthy of the title. If an omnipotent being creates anything, it will be created exactly according to their preferences with no possibility of breaking down, by definition.

    There’s approximately* no theistic religion that describes the Divine as “omnipotent” by your definition. Something about this world of ours does not effortlessly conform to God’s desires. The Christian God, for example, is demonstrably capable of being murdered by an angry mob. The Muslim God made unbelievers and then went to a lot of trouble to try to make them into Muslims, with only moderate success. The Jewish God created a huge number of people who hate Jews.

    How this happens when God is notionally in charge of the whole thing has several explanations which we could talk about at some length if you want, but I’m not sure you’re interested in that.

    * Maybe some extreme predestinationists, but even they tend to introduce loopholes, where God entirely planned on getting his CDs chewed but he’s still justifiably angry at the dog when it happens.

  • Tricksterson

    If a Creator is telling me to do something and It’s orders and the reasons behind them are incomprehensible to me I see no reason to obey It.  Probably won’t surprise you that I’m a cat person.

  • caryjamesbond


    Why should we follow a morality we cannot comprehend? 

    Because among the strange things God wants us to do, It tells us if we do the strange things, we will be rewarded for ever, and if we don’t, we’re punished forever.   Because Fizzkins and threeblewarps, that’s why. 

    Ultimately- Because the Giant Incomprehensible Thing said so.  Why are gays bad? Why should we follow you if you don’t answer us?  Because the GIT said so.  Fred is trying to argue his way out of one of the fundamental theological problems: assuming the Bible is the actual word of an actual God that actually loves us-  why does It alternately tell us to do (apparently) good things like “help the poor” and (apparently) bad things like “stone your child to death for backtalk.”?

    Fred has repeatedly argued that the “bad” parts of the bible are NOT godly, they’re human prejudices that were sneaked in there.  Which implies a fundamentally human-but-better sort of God-  god likes the same good things we do, like helping the poor, but doesn’t have the same silly hatreds.  

    But now Fred says God is far beyond human comprehension.  Ok then- in that case, all his previous arguments go out the window. This isn’t Super-Gandhi loving everyone but not falling prey to meaningless hate.  This is an  alien being on a different plane who sees the world not more clearly than us but in a completely different way from us, to a degree that Its view is incomprehensible to us.

    Fred is not arguing that god is moral or immoral.   Fred is arguing that, from our limited perspective, god is TRANSmoral.  God is beyond our morals.  Gods morals are as far beyond us as ours are beyond a dogs.   

    Which is basically what Fred is saying.  In a cosmic sense- we’re more like Gods pets.  We do things, we’re told things, things happen to us- they don’t make sense to us, but if we could see it from the Owners perspective, it makes perfect sense. Dogs probably think its strange that we get mad when they eat their own poop. From our perspective,  knowing what we know about the world, its clearly a wrong act, but wrong in ways they have no hope of ever understanding.  T0 explain “Why you shouldn’t eat your poop” to a dog, you first need to explain germ theory to them. To explain why eating bacon or being gay is wrong, God would have to explain fiddlewuzz to us. What’s fiddlewuzz? Something we can’t even comprehend. 

    Or you could go with my preferred explanation- we’re a bunch of limited monkeys doing a pretty damn good job with what we’ve got in a universe that is governed by physical, not spiritual laws.

  • Pat B

    OK, yeah that makes more sense. I was coming at this from a “Wow this is a pretty stupid argument someone is seriously making” rather than “Wow this is a particularly clever satire of a very stupid argument.” 

    So; 9002 points for eloquence and for highlighting the weird implications. One point deducted for trying to be satirical about religion on the internet. I can’t tell you the exact total right now because I have bits of scouter embedded in my palm and need to go to the hospital.

  • Ben English

    This is just getting back to Fred’s main point. If there is a God and He/She/They made the Universe, then it is by definition unknowable and incomprehsnible to us. The power and skill it would take to build something like everything is beyond our capacity.  And if that’s the case then, as you say, how do we know God’s moral reasoning? This is why you can’t, from a Christian perspective, say anything substantive about God without talking about Jesus: Jesus is the Logos. His teachings–love, justice, mercy, and self-sacrifice–are the moral framework of God. The Resurrection is not just Christ victorious over death but the stamp of approval from heaven, the thing that lets us put our faith that Christ was right instead the myriad other religious and secular moral pontificators.

    Of course, this is meaningless if you don’t believe in the Resurrection. I’m not going to speak to Jewish reasoning, but if you’re an atheist you obviously don’t believe in Leviticus, so the point is somewhat moot.

  • Sqrat

     This is just getting back to Fred’s main point. If there is a God and
    He/She/They made the Universe, then it is by definition unknowable and
    incomprehsnible to us. The power and skill it would take to build
    something like everything is beyond our capacity.

    I don’t see how that would make God unknowable and incomprehensible “by definition.”  See my previous comment about physicist Alan Guth’s claim that scientists might some day be able to create universes in a laboratory.  Were that to happen, it would immediately invalidate Fred’s main point (if that was indeed his main point).

    The physics involved in creating a universe might indeed be unknowable and incomprehensible to the vast majority of us poor schmucks, but it would mean that it was no longer a power that passeth all human understanding.

  • caryjamesbond


    If a Creator is telling me to do something and It’s orders and the reasons behind them are incomprehensible to me I see no reason to obey It.

    Which is  the main reason I’m an atheist.   Religion doesn’t seem improbable, or not fitting with the scientific worldview.  Religion seems silly.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     … And that is why your dog should ignore you and just go on eating poop.

  • aunursa

    Ultimately- Because the Giant Incomprehensible Thing said so.

    Why should we assume that God is not a malevolent deity?  Or alternately, should we do whatever a malevolent deity demands in order to get on the deity’s good side and hopefully avoid a very, very, very bad punishment?

    [^^^^ = another example of playing devil’s advocate]

  • Tricksterson

    Problem is is that, at best we only have  Yaweh’s word that anything in the Bible is true.  At worst we have the word of an elite group who have a vested interst in our believing what they tell s.  Which is why I’m a Naytheist.

  • friendly reader

    So many thoughts to so many interesting posts!

    On why, as a Christian, you have to include Jesus… how does the litrugy put it? “[T]hat beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see”? First, I can’t type that without hearing my pastor chanting it. Second, that is how Christianity has typically viewed the second Person* of the Trinity: it bridges the gap between the utterly transcendent impossible-to-know Father/Lord/Other and humanity.Jesus is the second Person in human form, but it’s also Wisdom, or the Word, through whom the world was created. In a way, the whole world participates in the incarnation. That’s why it’s not contradictory to say that bread and wine are the body of Christ – everything is, we just get to experience it ritually in the Eucharist (yes, I’m from a sacramental tradition, why do you ask? ;) ). Jesus’ life is, in part, the corrective to how we’d used nature to understand the unknowable God. We saw God only as all-powerful, a distant demiurge, a smashing thunderstorm titan. Jesus says “God is all-loving, God is with you, God dies.” That’s also why, if you’re going to interpret the Bible from a Christian perspective, you use Jesus as a filter.On pronouns and number modifiers… another reason I like the Trinity as an analogy is that saying God is three-in-one helps screw up our attempts to thingify God. God’s plural but also singular? Maybe even numbers, the most rarefied of all language, can’t hold God down.Also, using no pronouns is frequently used as a copout to not use feminine pronouns with God. While the Bible mostly uses male imagery, God is called a mother, Wisdom is female, why don’t we get to call God “she”? I say, switch your pronouns up randomly when you talk about God. Throw in “they” once in a while for good measure.”It” is okay as a gender-neutral pronoun, I suppose, but it tends to be used as noting something lesser. Ask an intersexed person whether they want to be called “it.”On metaphor in general… Paul Tillich, that guy who said God was the Ground of Being, or Being Itself, and that anything else is a metaphor, even personhood, also said that you should never say “just a symbol.” Metaphors and symbols are how we understand the world. Even with science, once you get into higher levels, has to turn to analogies to let us comprehend what the heck it’s talking about; our brains are too constrained by our four-dimensionally developed brains. Language itself is not, save with a few onomatopoeia, directly related to the objects it describes. The measure of a metaphor is the effect that it has on human life, from my perspective. If God as a King gives you a sense of protection and structure, good. If God as a King makes you feel oppressed and over-burdened, ditch the metaphor. But I do agree with Tillich that God as a person can be necessary because people are what we are best able to relate to… well, in general, at least.*”Person” is the Latin, and might be better understood with the modern English “persona.” It referred to the roles that actors played in theater. One actor, three distinct roles. The older Greek is hypostatis, or “sub-stance.” One Being (ousia), three substances. This is all really out-dated Hellenistic philosophy vocab and seriously in need of an update, though obviously I like the general idea.

  • friendly reader

    Oh bloody hell, Disqus, you turned that all into one monstrous unreadable text wall? I had neat paragraphs! (weeps)

  • AnonymousSam

    This is why I not only have a Disqus account (so I can edit my posts), but I’ve taken to copying my post into Notepad with word wrap disabled, then copy/pasting it from there back into the post field. That usually makes it turn out properly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    As a non-Trinitarian panentheistic Quaker, I find this post and the ensuing discussion very interesting.

    I was going to post something about Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” and “God-Beyond-God,” but friendly reader beat me to it.

  • PJ Evans

    I’ve read one series of novels where God is referred to with both genders in the same sentence (‘Mother’ and ‘him’, for example). It’s difficult to follow at first, but it makes a weird kind of sense. there are archangels, and they’re mindbending also.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I wonder if God is like the gamer who uses cheat codes to make bizarre shit happen in order to make the player-characters win the game.

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    From the Joan of Arcadia pilot:

    “Okay, so, let’s say you’re God.”
    “Thank you.”
    “I want to ask you some questions.”
    “No.”
    “No?”
    “No, as a general rule, I ask the questions.”
    “Are you — are you being snippy with me? God is snippy.”
    “Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this, I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize, you see… I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m snippy, it’s because you understand snippy.”

  • Anton_Mates

     

    I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to
    you. And if I’m snippy, it’s because you understand snippy.”

    Course, that only makes sense if Joan doesn’t also understand “helpfully informative.”

  • Dan Audy

    Course, that only makes sense if Joan doesn’t also understand “helpfully informative.”

    I always interpreted God being evasive about providing Joan with ‘helpful information’ was the fact that she didn’t internalize the knowledge just by being told.  The experience of discovering whatever it was God wanted her to do (and often the failures at that) was what caused her to grow as a person and towards (the implied) way God wanted her to be.  I always felt the show had a very strong ‘The destination is valuable but the voyage vital’ vibe to it.

  • Tricksterson

    IIRC God in answer to her nagging about the afterlife gave her a tiny peek at it rendering her unconcious.

  • arcseconds

    I rather like ‘they’ as a pronoun for God, because:

    – it’s a perfectly serviceable and acceptable English gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun
    – it’s also a plural pronoun, thus can emphasize:
    — the Christian trinity
    — the neoplatonic trinity, which Christianity cribbed
    — all those crazy henads that the neoplatonic godhead also has
    — the inifinite aspects of Spinoza’s God, of which we can perceive only two
    — et. al.


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