Talking about God Is Not (Necessarily) Incoherent [Questions That Haunt]

On Tuesday, I posted Hugh’s entry in the Questions That Haunt Christianity. It’s a doozy. Honestly, it may be the toughest question yet.

Hugh wrote in about how theologians talk about God. Basically, he leveled the charge that theologians pick adjectives out of the air, then say that God completely fulfills those adjectives. “It seems to me,” Hugh writes, “these assertions are incoherent and/or vacuous. Ransacking the dictionary for adjectives to throw at God is no way to come up with a consistent or meaningful definition.”

The God of theologians, he continued, seems to be an abstract concept, not a material entity. Abstract concepts exist outside of space and time. So how, Hugh wondered, can a human being have a relationship with such a concept?

Happily, Hugh has been involved in the comment section of Tuesday’s post, clarifying and expanding his question:

As I see it, there is a basic disconnect between the thought processes of scientists and those of theologians. The former start with evidence, and follow it where it leads. Of course you can postulate a theory and then look for evidence to support it. But if the evidence isn’t forthcoming, your theory won’t last long and another theory will replace it. Overall, the process is: start with evidence and follow it to conclusions.

By contrast, theologians start with the assumption that a god exists, corresponds to some scriptural tradition, and has X, Y and Z characteristics. Then they work backwards to rationalize this belief, even if it means redefining god radically in the process. Science is about explanation while theology is about rationalization.

Well, Hugh, you’ve raised a host of issues, so I’ll do my best to answer them.

First off, I agree with you. Lots of theologians talk about God in a way that, to you as an atheist, must seem incomprehensible and incoherent. In one of your comments, you quote two theologians to provide an example of what you’re talking about:

“God is the ground of all being.” -Paul Tillich

“God is timeless and spaceless.” -William Lane Craig

Let’s take those quotes in reverse order. Craig doesn’t actually say what you attribute to him, except to negate it. Before creation, Craig asserts, God was all there was, so God was therefore without time and space — because time and space did not exist. But from the moment of creation, God became temporal. Here’s how Craig says it:

“Once time begins at the moment of creation, God either becomes temporal in virtue of his real, causal relation to time and the world or else he exists as timelessly with creation as he does sans creation. But this second alternative seems quite impossible. At the first moment of time, God stands in a new relation in which he did not stand before…this is a real, causal relation which is at that moment new to God and which he does not have in the state of existing sans creation.” (Questions of Time and Tense, 222)

In this, I agree with Craig, and I think that it confronts your charge that theologians talk of God as immaterial — a pure concept existing outside of space and time. The problem I have with Craig’s assertion — and you might agree with me here — is that God undergoes some fundamental change in character at the moment of the creation of the cosmos. I think that raises the question: Was God “more God” before creation, or did creation somehow make God complete?

That is, it seems unlikely that God would undergo a major change (going from an atemporal being to a temporal being) without somehow becoming more or less God. Thus, I am inclined to believe that God was a temporal, material being before and after creation. Of course, I cannot prove this — but I’ll get to that.

Your quote of Paul Tillich is one that theologians love to use; it’s clever and pithy, and I think it’s a great example of the tendency among some theologians to invent a phrase (“ground of all being”) and then say that God completely fulfills that definition. Basically, he’s doing just what you like least about theologians: Tillich is not playing by the rules.

But what rules? You express a great deal of confidence in science. “Science is cumulative,” you argue, “This is its essential feature. There is nothing corresponding to this in theology, because there is no objective way of deciding between competing assertions.”

Hugh, science plays by a set of rules, but art plays by a different set of rules, and literature by a still different set. Or, another way to say it is that various fields of human endeavor have various sets of rules — you might also call these “rationalities.” Sometimes these sets of rules overlap, sometimes they do not. For instance, I’d say that the rules by which one writes poetry and the rules by which one does chemistry have very little overlap. But philosophy and theology have a much greater overlap.

So this is what I don’t get about many atheists: you ask theologians to play by a particular rationality in which you have faith — i.e., the rationality of scientific inquiry — but you don’t ask poetry or photography or music or philosophy to play by those rules. And let me tell you, Plato didn’t play by the rules of scientific inquiry.

While we’re on Plato, let’s circle back to your charge that God is a concept, and a human being cannot have a personal relationship with a concept. In that, I agree with you. If there is a God, then God is not a concept; God is a personal being.

This whole God-is-a-concept thing is Plato’s fault. Plato, unlike his contemporaries who thought that the gods were like middle schoolers who lived and argued and slept around on Mt. Olympus, said that God was an immaterial Mind (νοῦς, nous). That’s never been the orthodox Christian position (although I admit that many Christians talk that way — Plato casts a long shadow). In Christianity, and earlier in Judaism, God, though uncreated, is paradoxically part of creation, in relationship with creation.

So, let me sum up:

- I agree that it is an incoherent way to argue when theologians make up categories for God and they argue that God fulfills those categories.

- I defend theologians’ (like Tillich’s) right to play by a set of rules that is not the set by which scientists play.

- I, myself, am not very interested in doing theology that is incomprehensible to an atheist like you.

- I agree that human beings cannot have a relationship with a concept, but I do not think that God is a concept.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, Hugh, as well as the thoughts of other readers. Thanks again for your question.


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