Why Are Definitions of God Incoherent? [Questions That Haunt]

Why Are Definitions of God Incoherent? [Questions That Haunt] October 2, 2012

This week, a challenging entry for Questions That Haunt Christianity. This one is deeply theological, but also honest. I think it will give you and me a run for our money. It comes from Hugh:

It seems to me that as theologians struggle to abandon traditional notions of God as an old man with a beard in the sky, and yet retain belief in the scriptures (i.e. have their cake and eat it), they end up defining him right out of existence. We are told that “God is infinitely X” for every adjective X, that he is supremely simple and indivisible, that he “exists outside of time and space”, even that “by definition he cannot be defined”. It seems to me 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.

At best, the god of the theologians is an abstract concept. Only abstract concepts, e.g. the concept of a perfect sphere, can arguably be said to exist outside of time and space, for example. But how can one have a personal relationship with an abstract concept? To summarize my question: aren’t “sophisticated” definitions of god inconsistent and incoherent and very far removed from the sort of god any rank-and-file believer would actually worship?

Please do your best to answer Hugh’s query in the comment section. I’ll weigh in on Friday, but your responses will inform mine.

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  • Craig

    Here’s a small quibble about the question’s wording.

    If “concept” is synonymous with “idea” or “notion,” then commonsense suggests that the concept of an object is typically distinct from the object itself. On the one hand, there is the object; on the other hand, there is the concept of that object. Even if the concept of God is abstract, this doesn’t obviously entail that God himself is abstract. And though it is absurd to have an interpersonal relationship with the concept of my spouse; I could nevertheless have an interpersonal relationship with my spouse.

    • That’s because you have a spourse. A single person would only have a concept of a spouse but couldn’t have a relationship with it. At least they could look around and see that other’s were having real relationships. Someone who doesn’t have a relationship with God has to rely on the definitions given by others. That’s what the question is actually about.

      • Craig

        The point, however, is that we shouldn’t equivocate between speaking about the object and the concept of the object; we shouldn’t mention the latter when we should instead be mentioning the former.

        • The point is, there is no object in this case. There is only the relationship that one enters, by choice, and defines, by personal experience and within a cultural context.

          • Craig

            We’re probably talking past each other now. If there’s indeed a relationship, what is one related to? That’ll probably be the relevant “object.”

          • Paul D.

            If I have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, he ought to be able to pick me up and take me out for cheeseburgers. Unless we’re talking about a telepathic relationship, which is just science fiction nonsense.

    • A spouse — as with any human being — can be visibly identified and objectively defined firsthand (e.g., human, female, a certain height, a certain weight, a certain color hair and eyes, etc.).

      People can then give firsthand objective descriptions of their experience with a human being (e.g., words they spoke, pitch of voice, movement of body, etc.).

      Now, your description of your spouse to someone who has never met your spouse simply becomes knowledge to that someone, not experience. They have only the information/data you have given them as a basis of understanding who your spouse is (and even that through the subjective lens and filter of your own eyes, feelings, bias, and so on). As such, without personally meeting an individual’s spouse, I cannot objectively define the spouse or offer a true description of any experience with that spouse.

      I have only a concept.

      This goes very much to the “God” issue.

      If someone defines “God” as a he or she (as you did Craig; you referred to God as a “him” in your originating comment), and then offers descriptions of character traits, behaviors, etc., in an effort to share with me the “who” of God, then I could only trust the person’s definition and descriptions if they were based upon an objective firsthand experience. Of course, I would have no way of verifying that experience and therefore validating the definitions and descriptions of “God” that were given to me unless I was able to have a similar firsthand experience for myself.

      As such, all I would have is a concept of God, and filtered through the eyes, feelings, and bias of the individual who shared the concept with me.

      Enter the Bible.

      Many Christians express their idea of God through the lens of the Bible which, through its many man-written books, does not even offer a singularly consistent concept of “God” either in character or behavior. Furthermore, such Christians take for granted that the Bible expresses infallible truth, and therefore they presume its overall contents are without error. They therefore believe in and express a shared concept of “God” which is really only that: a concept. It is not true, independent experience.

      So do such people have a “relationship” with “God” as they perceive “him” through the contents of the Bible? The only honest answer to this question is that they have what is akin to a “relationship” with an imaginary friend, a creation of their fertile imaginations facilitated by an acceptance of data that cannot be verified as valid.

      When an “experience” of “God” is rooted in top-down presumptions and biases informed by blind acceptance of the Bible as “truth,” it is fiction, not faith.

      • Phillip Evans

        ” Many Christians express their idea of God through the lens of the Bible which, through its many man-written books, does not even offer a singularly consistent concept of “God” either in character or behavior. ”

        The “lens of the Bible” is not difficult if we reason with it Logically.

        Unless it is a person’s endeavor to commit a Composition Fallacy, contrary behavior does not make an individual “inconsistent”.

        The Text declares that (incomprehensive list):

        A: God is a “consuming fire” (Deu 4:24)

        B: God is a “jealous God” (Deu 4:24)

        C: God is “the rock” (Deu 32:4)

        D: God is a “wall of fire” (Zec 2:5)

        E: God is “a green fir tree” (Hos 14:8)

        F: God is “love” (1Jo 1:8)

        If all Scripture is true, then

        God = (A ^ B ^ C ^ D ^ E ^ F)

        If we take the characteristics of (F) “love” (1Co 13:4-8), and apply it to the whole (A ^ B ^ C ^ D ^ E ^ F), that is a Composition Fallacy.

        The only way this would not be a Fallacy is if there were sufficient evidence to support the claim. But the evidence frequently cited does not.

        “I Am That I Am” = “I Will Be What I Will Be”

        If God wants to be a consuming fire, then He is going to be a consuming fire.

        If God wants to be love, then He is going to be love.

  • I think the word “God” is one of the best words we have, and one of the most flexible. But, I think the popular uses of the word are so outside of the range of being helpful that – as more of an agnostic than a theist – I try not to use the word.

  • Craig

    Here’s another small point. Take any any particular member of Homo sapiens. The definition given by a biologist or an anthropologist will be very far removed from the characterization of the same individual offered by the spouse or child of that individual. This is understandable and, probably, it is as it should be. Things become problematic, however, if the different conceptions of the same individual actually contradict each other, or if one of the conceptions is internally inconsistent. Here’s my point: in addressing Hugh’s theological question, we should focus on the ways in which the theological characterizations of God either have an internal inconsistency or contradict the ordinary-believer characterizations of God.

  • I’m not sure where we get the idea that God, by definition, exists “outside of time and space”. Perhaps it would be better to say that God is not limited by, or not totally defined by time and space. However, the Christian doctrine of incarnation, if it says anything, says that God exists in both time and space.

    While I agree that vacuous definitions are unhelpful, any definition must be held lightly in order to acknowledge that God is beyond the ability of finite brains to comprehend completely. This shouldn’t be seen as a problem when we realise that the same can be said of the cosmos, and even of human beings – we can never really understand another person in totality, so how much should this be true of God.

    With that said, I wonder of the problem with definitions is that we tend to approach them with a scientific mindset. We are trying to establish the “facts” about God’s nature. The whole point of God-talk, for me, is to move us beyond the very real limits of this kind of thinking into an awareness of what is transcendent, beyond us and “more” than just what can be observed and defined. So, what is important is not so much the definition of God, but the act of trying to define God which moves us into a whole new experience, a whole new way of being and an engagement with truth rather than facts.

    To explain what I mean, let me illustrate. I can define love in terms of the facts – blood pressure, heart rate, chemical reactions in the brain etc. But, to do so does not really accomplish much for my experience of love. It just gives me “facts”. Love must be entered into and experienced to know its truth. Sometimes, though, the act of trying to define love (“why do I love you?”, “how do I love you?”, “what does this love mean for you and me” etc.) is helpful in leading us into a deeper experience of love. What is important, though, is not the definition, or the answers to the questions, but the act of trying to define.

    Now, to ensure that I’m not accused of trying to sidestep the question, here’s a “definition” of God that I’ve found really helpful over the last few years. It’s from Annie Dillard (and I’m probably not quoting it completely accurately): “The consciousness of the universe is what we call God.” The key here is not whether this tells us something objective about God, but how it opens us to an experience of the divine.

    I could say more, but this is already a long comment. Feel free to delete if it’s too long! 🙂

    • Jim Armstrong

      John – thank you for your thoughtful response. and No-o-oo-o, don’t encourage its deletion!!
      At the end of the day, the elusiveness of a definitive answer to this “why” question does – as you suggest – seem to point inevitably to a “how then” question, and the choices as to how to spend our bounded, but nonetheless remarkable human existence appropriately and meaningfully.

  • I think we have to live with the fact that we are using limited and fallible human language, concepts and logical processes to try to describe something that otherwise totally outside of our experience. We have enough trouble explaining and defining the things of the mortal world, but nothing else is like God, so in trying to talk about Him or describe Him we have to accept that to an extent we will always be seeing through a glass darkly.

    This is not a cop-out, because it’s really the same problem we have with everything we try to describe. It is an inherent limitation in thought and language. The idea is not the Thing and the word is not the Thing either. Just we manage to muddle along for practical purposes for the most part, except when we try to get precise and engage in high-level discussions about, well anything, really, when we inevitably wind up fighting about terminology and framework. See academia: they are not ridiculous Laputans arguing nonsense; they are struggling with the inherent limitations of human thought and language.

    It’s the same thing with God but amplified, because God is fundamentally unlike everything else we experience, and part of the way we muddle thorugh on a day to day basis is by comparing things to other things.

    That might not be a satisfying answer, but I think its the only honest one. Yes it is impossible to really define God, but that is jsut an extension of the fact that it is also impossible to really define anything else either.

  • Nick Jackson

    “It seems to me that as theologians struggle to abandon traditional notions of God as an old man with a beard in the sky, and yet retain belief in the scriptures (i.e. have their cake and eat it), they end up defining him right out of existence.”

    This confuses me. I don’t see how this is having their cake and eating it too. Saying theologians abandoning the “traditional” view of God as a bearded man, YET retaining belief in the scriptures is having their cake and eating it too implies that this “traditional” view of God is a picture from the scriptures. God has a bearded man has nothing to do with the scriptures. Moving away from that picture is actually coming closer to the ways God is imagined in the scriptures. Maybe saying abandoning this “traditional” bearded God yet retaining everything else you learned in Sunday school is having your cake and eating it too.

    That’s not really an answer to the whole question, but that first statement really bugged me.

    • So, the Bible uses a male pronoun and frequently has people looking up for God. He came down as a man with a father, so we can assume he is older. We are made in his image, so imagining that he looks human seems Biblically based. The earliest paintings, sanctioned by the church are bearded men. What “tradition” are you familiar with? What ways that God is imagined in the scripture are you talking about?

      • Nick Jackson

        I’m just saying, to say “maybe God is not an old bearded man sitting on a cloud” would not turn any heads and make anyone accuse you of departing from Orthodoxy.

  • I think GOD is to Religious people what SCIENCE is to Scientists. When I talk about religious people, I do not mean Fundamentalists; they seem to have figured out who or what God is, that is why they are fundamentalist about it.
    God is EVOLUTION; not, created evolution or, is behind evolution, BUT – EVOLUTION ITSELF.
    This definition suits me!

  • ChrisM

    Perhaps we tend to make this discussion more complex than need be. Realizing the challenge of nailing down a description of an amorphous, nebulous, can’t-explain-the-infinite-with-finite-adjectives Being, then perhaps we simply look to Christ. Since we are privileged to have a tangible, incarnate God (that would be Jesus) for whom finite adjectives are appropriate, then why can’t we extrapolate those same adjectives that we use for Christ to also adequately describe the God? Doesn’t feel necessary to describe the God in whole other terms to accommodate His lack of tangibility as long as the belief that God is Jesus and Jesus is God holds true.

    Not trying to give a cop-out answer (akin to “Let’s just call Him the Ineffable One and be done with it”) in response to Hugh’s excellent question. Just thinking that one of the many blessings the life of Christ has afforded us is that we no longer have to live under the notion that God is indescribable.

  • … how can one have a personal relationship with an abstract concept? …

    Great question. Ever since the inception of the trinity doctrine, Christians for the past seventeen-or-so centuries have been trying to have a personal relationship with an abstract concept.

    Key word: concept.

    Any definition of “God” is really just an expression of an idea, an inner perception, a philosophical notion. The definition isn’t “the thing.”

    And as thinking changes, ideas change. As knowledge progresses, perceptions progress. And so it likewise goes with definitions of “God.” Which infers that whatever is being “worshiped” is really just a projection of people’s ideas. Which means “god” tends to frequently be made in our own image.

    … aren’t “sophisticated” definitions of god inconsistent and incoherent and very far removed from the sort of god any rank-and-file believer would actually worship? …


    But remember, the “rank and file believer” has been taught through the centuries to believe in such sophisticated definitions of “god” as the trinity (which qualifies as “incoherent and vacuous”), and to worship as such. And to this day the vast majority of Christians continue to embrace this sophisticated definition (I am not among that majority).

    When you mention “the sort of god any rank-and-file believer would actually worship” in contrast with your critique of “sophisticated definitions,” this tells me you already have your own idea of what “god” is. I’d enjoy learning what that idea is.

  • NateW

    Think about the color “red.” 3 year olds can easily recognize red as distinct from other colors. For some it may even be their “favorite” color. Red is real. It exists. It can be seen in infinite shades all around the world and every person with sight could identify it. It is something ubiquitous to human experience, yet… What happens when we try to “define” it? If you had to describe “red” to one who has never seen a red object what could you say? A scientist might talk about spectrums, wavelengths, radiation, rods and cones, etc., but this wouldn’t help him understand “red”. You could say “its Vibrant! It’s Bold! It’s… Sort of bright, but… at the same time not…” But that isn’t very helpful.

    If forced to it, the best one could do would be to describe “red” using words that describe your own relationship to it. Yet words fail here too. When you think “red” both boldness and caution come to mind. Red is vibrant and beautiful, but also has a deadly side. You could compare it to a rose – flower with thorns…. but If the person had never seen a rose you’d have to change your metaphors- maybe you could describe red as a pineapple, spiny and yet vibrantly sweet.

    If you we’re overheard though, few would agree that a pineapple has anything to do with the color red. They would prefer to use other metaphors that contradict yours. In the end “red” does objectively exist and yet none of the differing metaphors can be said to contradict each other, despite appearances. They all represent a different perspective on the same reality. All relate truth from their speaker’s perspective, but none can claim to define.

    • NateW

      To follow the above up, we could say that the definition of “red” is indescribable, but its essence becomes perfectly clear when it is seen. This is what I believe happens when we look at Christ. He Himself, the sum total of his person, life, death, and resurrection, is the only true definition of God. To define God isn’t to know ABOUT God, but to experience him in a life that follows the same path as Christ’s–ending at the cross.

  • anon

    I used to love these discussions, then I went through a phase where I dreaded them, now I’m back to enjoying them. I understand this is totally heretical, but I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that people should imagine God in whichever way gives them the most peace, mostly because -this is what we all end up doing anyway-. I’m obviously not the first person to notice that whether you’re John Piper or Brian McLaren, God somehow magically ends you being…a lot like you! At any rate, part of me still feels like the whole “mystery of God” discussion is at least somewhat tedious since, as others have already pointed out, we actually do get a fairly good view of God via Jesus, so it’s not like we’re completely blind and awash in mystery.

  • Scot Miller

    While I reject Wittgenstein’s logical atomism in the Tractatus,, he makes an interesting comment about everything he’d written about language and the world:

    6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
    He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

    • Craig

      Since we should always avoid equating our understanding of an object with the object itself (whether the object is God or a peanut, the point stands), perhaps there is some further way in which you mean to say that “everything we say about God is inadequate.” What is it to grasp God? Is it like grasping anything else? If not, why describe it as a grasping?

      • Scot Miller

        Good question. God-talk probably amounts the intellectual equivalent of pointing and grunting at “something” divine. My hunch is that the onto-theological assumptions about God — treating God as a Being, for example — is a mistake. Perhaps it makes more sense to speak of God as an “event” (as Caputo does), or to the “dis-enclosure” of God as an objectless hope.

        • Craig

          Let me express my naivete: I don’t know what “objectless hope” means, nor do I have any clue why it might make more sense to speak of God as an event. This kind of talk makes me sympathize with the frustration I sense in Hugh’s questions. But do you think that speaking of God as an event, as opposed to a person, might be a better way of pointing, more effectively leading people to God?

          • I think that the “God as event” is helpful in that it allows us to conceptualize God as something that is other than an object that we know about. I don’t have any children yet, but friends that have always say that something changes in you the moment you see your child for the first time. It’s not the child that somehow changes you, but it’s the event of seeing your child that somehow rearranges the way you see and think about everything else.

            Similarly we can perhaps helpfully conceptualize God as the event that fundamentally changes us when we meet Christ, or more concretely, when we experience grace and unconditional love in a relationship with one who has previously also been shown the same.

            In such an “event” we see that nothing has changed, we know nothing more than we did previously, and yet, we see everything differently in its aftermath.

  • Old man in the sky or energy beyond infinity, Biblically based or made up by Deepak Chopra, the definition of God has changed with the times to remain relevant. Gods have come and gone because they couldn’t adapt to the culture. This is not a question about what a concept is or experiencing vs defining or what is real. It is a question that describes a fundamental flaw with theology, god IS a concept, and that’s all.

  • Elise

    I am loathe to compare myself to Deity, and I am not trying to do so via the following analogy, but I think it is salient to the argument.

    I am strange, anxiety prone, contemplative, brave, strong, forgetful, detail oriented, unobservant, meticulous, emotionally distant, and sensitive. Some of those (detail oriented/unobservant) may seem to some degree contradictory (and can be frustrating to live with) but despite the dissonance they are both valid parts of myself. However, at the same time, those adjectives don’t describe me and my essential me-ness. They are aspects of me, but they aren’t me as a whole.

    This, for me, is the heart of the descriptions of God/Deity. For a particular faith tradition, there may be descriptions of Deity that are reached via a general consensus of believers (the Catholic “sensus fidelium” if you will) such as omniscient. The collective believers of that faith are doing what I did above in describing myself, they are describing (an) aspect(s) of Deity/God. But just because God may be omniscient (omnipotent, eternal, outside of time and space, or any number of adjectives that I could list ad infinitum), that does not make God equal to omniscience (or any quality corresponding to any descriptor we’ve assigned). Deity is more than a single adjective (though if I had to posit one, I’d pick ineffable). If we, as humans, cannot be explained completely or easily by an adjective or handful of adjectives, why would we believe Deity is sufficiently explained in such a manner?

    I do think there can be relevant lessons from the practice of applying adjectives to Deity though. One can better conceptualize and relate to Deity if they have a framework upon which to build their personal perception. I think there is great unitive purpose to a community definition. For a tradition to say “We believe God to be omniscient, omnipotent, loving, and eternal” can bring people together on common belief grounds. At the same time, this does bring up the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In orthodoxy, beliefs are emphasized as important. In orthopraxy, practices are. Shared practices can be just as unitive as shared beliefs, and I don’t believe they can be discounted. So perhaps, if the collection of beliefs about the nature of God/Deity is not something you can accept as a single pill, taking what does resonate with you and immersing yourself in practices via an orthopraxy based community may be where you are called to be.

    I was once told that people aren’t going to come to any faith by logic, but because of a feeling, that gut resonance of some explanation of the universe. Logic might back it up, but the deep knowing is what drives the faith. So perhaps, for some faithful, the definitions of God that are hard to understand, or seemingly incomplete, can help to fill in their day to day experience of God, can help to share what they feel but have no words for. Maybe the theologians are giving the faithful a tool by which to flesh out Deity and to deepen their relationship/knowing of the divine.

    • Evelyn

      I think Meredith Brooks says it best in her song entitled “Bitch”:
      “So take me as I am
      This may mean
      You’ll have to be a stronger man
      Rest assured that
      When I start to make you nervous
      And I’m going to extremes
      Tomorrow I will change
      And today won’t mean a thing”

  • Evelyn

    Ok, I think I’ve got the answer: The concept of God that Hugh is protesting has it’s origins in the ontological argument for God’s existence. The ontological argument for God’s existence has been a topic of intense discussion since Anselm (1078) defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” and then Rene Descartes (1596-1650) said something to the effect that if you can conceive of a supremely perfect being then it must be God. These concepts of God are based on proving God’s existence by reason alone (not experience) and hence are necessarily abstract.

    According to the Wikipedia entry on the Ontological argument:
    “philosophers including C. D. Broad dismissed the coherence of a maximally great being, proposing that some attributes of greatness are incompatible with others, rendering ‘maximally great being’ incoherent.”
    “Bertrand Russell, during his early Hegelian phase, accepted the argument; once exclaiming: ‘Great God in Boots!—the ontological argument is sound!’ However, he later criticized the argument, asserting that ‘the argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.’ He drew a distinction between existence and essence, arguing that the essence of a person can be described and their existence still remain in question.” (N.B. the existence vs. essence argument is one that several commentators have used in response to this blog).

    Not everyone tries to base their concept of God on reason alone so the concept of God that Hugh is protesting is not necessarily ubiquitous nor one that I personally care to defend. It was a good question though.

  • Hugh

    Thanks to Tony for posting my question, and to all who took the time to give thoughtful responses. I know my question was lengthy, and to explain fully what I meant would make it even more long winded, but let me try to state my position as clearly as possible.

    It seems to me there is a huge gap between advanced theological discussions of God, and the notion of God subscribed to by the rank-and-file believer, which was what I meant by “God with a beard” – don’t take it too literally. However, theologians are still Catholic, Protestant or Muslim theologians or whatever. Despite their conception of God becoming increasingly vague and divorced from the scriptural tradition it sprang from, they still identify with a particular tradition and are quite happy for the mass of believers to go on believing in a relatively simplistic notion of that tradition’s deity. This is what I mean by theologians having their cake and eating it too.

    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.

    Now, I know many theologians take offense at the phrase, “God exists.” They respond, “God doesn’t [air quotes] *exist*, in the same sense that the Loch Ness monster may or may not exist. He is existence itself, he is the ground of all being, etc. etc.” But let’s not get pedantic. As an atheist, I tend to favor the idea that the universe is governed by impersonal forces. The Big Bang left the universe in a simple state, and complex systems such as life, intelligence etc. evolved over the eons – there was no supreme intelligence hiding behind the curtain all along, an idea that strikes me as a cop-out. So that is what I mean when I say that I don’t believe that God exists, and the converse position – that there is in fact some cosmic intelligence independent of human existence or perception – is the position that “God exists” as I understand it.

    Also, I would ask what it means to assert that (Tillich) “God is the ground of all being” or (a favorite of William Lane Craig’s) “God is timeless and spaceless”. These statements are grammatical, but do they actually mean anything? Do they convey any information? What is the difference between “God is the ground of all being” and “It is not the case that God is the ground of all being”, and how would we know which to believe? I care about stuff like this. It seems to me from my reading of theology that it is rife with confident and detailed-looking assertions which can’t even be shown to be meaningful, let alone true or self-evident. See Antony Flew’s classic paper, “Theology and Falsification”, for more on this.

    Even a sentence like “God is the consciousness of the universe” is ambiguous. Do you mean human beings’ consciousness of the universe, or are you asserting that the universe itself possesses consciousness? If the latter, how is this consciousness mediated, given that the universe is so vast and the speed of light is so limiting? If it took 100,000 years for an impulse to travel from one of your neurons to the next one, you wouldn’t be considered very intelligent! Yet this is the time it takes light (or information) to cross our galaxy.

    You might dismiss this question as nitpicking, but this is the type of question scientists ask all the time, indeed have to ask. It’s not enough to toss off assertions like “the universe is conscious”, you have to flesh out at least some of the details before you can say that what you have claimed is even possible.

    If, on the other hand, you define God as humans’ attempts to understand the universe and ultimate reality, etc, well… I can sympathize with this. But please be aware that you are turning God into a concept rather than a being which exists independently of humans, and I think it’s confusing (at best) to keep using the term “God” for this sort of concept.

    You can talk all you like about the limits of language and human understanding, but why is it that science has made such spectacular progress over the last few centuries, while theologians are basically restating the assertions of Thomas Aquinas 800 years later? Because science insists on evidence and verifiability for claims that are made. Two scientists can start off favoring different, competing theories, but each theory must stand or fall on evidence and observation. Eventually a consensus emerges around one theory, and the scientist who originally supported the other theory changes his or her mind. In other words, science is cumulative – this is its essential feature. There is nothing corresponding to this in theology, because there is no objective way of deciding between competing assertions.

    Well, I’ve gone on long enough – I hope this gives a clearer picture of where I’m coming from.

    • Thanks for this comment, Hugh. It is very helpful and it clarifies a lot. Since you mentioned the “consciousness” idea that I wrote about, I thought I would respond. As you rightly state, this concept needs a lot of further explanation. To really tease that out would take books, so I don’t have time or space here, but I’d like to briefly respond with two thoughts:

      1. We know that universe is conscious simply because we are conscious. If we remove God from the picture for a moment, we can frame this in the following way: “we live in a universe that gives rise to consciousness.” The implication here is that consciousness is not (or in the future may not be) limited to human beings. Of course, how consciousness is defined etc. must come into this picture, but for now, let me simply say that this is what I mean when I speak about a conscious universe. I am not referring to human consciousness, except as a manifestation of the far greater consciousness of the universe. There is much in scientific research that seems to be pointing toward our universe as a conscious one.

      2. You wrote: “If it took 100,000 years for an impulse to travel from one of your neurons to the next one, you wouldn’t be considered very intelligent!” This is a problematic argument for a number of reasons.
      Firstly, you equate consciousness with physical impulses like light, neurons etc. We do not, as yet, know that consciousness depends on these impulses. Some scientists are bravely suggesting that consciousness may be independent of these “physical” realities in some way (see Sheldrake for example).
      Secondly, you speak about what would happen if impulses took thousands of years to travel from neuron to neuron. This would only be relevant if the universe were human – which, of course, it isn’t. If, for the moment, we treat the universe as a single entity, then it is massive beyond comprehension. For a being like this, time and space become very different things. So, for impulses to travel for thousands of years may equate to intelligence in a universe. We have no way of knowing. It’s a bit like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – they spoke and thought very slowly because of their age and their wisdom, which had taught them that “speed” is less valuable than taking time to consider well.
      Finally, if human beings are one manifestation of the consciousness of the universe, then the consciousness of the universe may well be operating at the same speed as our own. Again, we have no way of knowing, but I think it’s safe to assume, from the evidence of evolution, that the universe has some way of “making decisions” (selecting adaptations etc.) and of giving rise to consciousness, and to environments that support life etc. This may not be consciousness in the sense that we experience it, but it does indicate a “consciousness” that is, in at least some ways, akin to ours, and which gives us a framework for understanding.

      I address this issue directly because you seemed to be asking for this kind of explanation, but also to point out that, just as theologians can sometimes hide behind vagueness, so too can those who deny God’s existence. It’s very easy to dismiss a “definition” because it doesn’t fulfill the requirements of scientific materialism, but, I would suggest that that’s coming dangerously close to copping out. And, not all scientific method requires materialism. There is still an awful lot of the universe, material and non-material that is still to be explored and measured and understood.

      I recognise that this won’t be adequate to answer your question in the end, but I hope it offers some food for thought.

      Thanks for a great conversation!

    • Hugh, excellent comment. Thanks for giving us the extra-added clarification.

      You’re absolutely right when you define the process of theology as “top-down” in that it starts with the presumption of the existence of a supreme being and then attempts to define and rationalize from there. But then, unlike scientific method, theology by its nature is not a proof-seeking exercise.

      I think the crux of your argument rested in the following two statements you made in your remarks:

      …. It seems to me from my reading of theology that it is rife with confident and detailed-looking assertions which can’t even be shown to be meaningful, let alone true or self-evident. ….


      …. It’s not enough to toss off assertions like “the universe is conscious”, you have to flesh out at least some of the details before you can say that what you have claimed is even possible. ….

      I am a non-traditional Christian who embraces “God” as the description of the all-pervasive essence of aliveness, order and structure that we behold in the world and in the universe (all of which I refer to as Creation). But my embrace of God as such is not altogether theological. It is somewhat ontological, but to the largest degree it is experiential. This is because I’m convinced that, by virtue of being an integral part of Creation (as all of us are), I am thereby logically connected with that essence; with God.

      As for my “faith,” it derives from my experience of being consciously and mindfully “attuned” to this essence, to God. My choice to define myself as a Christian came later, where my Christianity is a chosen conduit for expressing my faith (and by “faith” I mean the life-affirming “enlightenment” that came as a result of the change I experience in my “attune-ment” with God, and which motivates me to live creatively by love).

      So in overall response to your statements about the problems in theology, I would liken theology as trying to use words to describe music (such as pieces by Beethoven, who was deaf). The only way we can do it is with terms that describe effect and experience: the melodic rhythms, the joyful sounds, the energetic movements, the sad melodies, the happy harmonies, and so on.

      But words cannot capture the core essence of music, or basically what makes music music. It is more than just the sum of varying sounds brought together by the activity of instruments.

      People may hear the same tune, but their inner experience of it may be vastly different. Yet the tune itself remains unchanged.

      The music is real, not a concept. The experience is real, not a concept.

      And so it is, I suspect, with “God.”

    • Curtis

      “Science is about explanation while theology is about rationalization.”

      This may be true. But all of us are theologians, at some point in life. There is no physical evidence that love exists. Rather, we feel love, then we proceed to rationalize love, to try to figure out what love is and where it comes from. The same with god. If you dismiss god as mere rationalization of human feelings, isn’t the same true of love as well? Following your argument, would we not conclude that love does not exist?

      • Hugh

        If you dismiss god as mere rationalization of human feelings, isn’t the same true of love as well?

        No, because I do have evidence that love exists. There is no “physical evidence” because love is not a physical object. However I can believe it exists because I can look to my own experience of it, realize that it is a pretty universal experience among the human race, and at the same time look at it in terms of neural impulses, hormones, evolution etc. I know a lot of people claim that their personal experience of god is evidence that he exists, but this is not a universal experience – many people don’t have it.

        • …. I can believe [love] exists because I can look to my own experience of it, realize that it is a pretty universal experience among the human race ….

          How, though, would you define love? How would you describe it? What words would you use to express love’s identity if, indeed, it is a “pretty universal experience among the human race?”

          And would your definition/description of love — whether simple or sophisticated — be agreed upon universally?

        • Evelyn

          I have no personal experience with quarks or bosonic strings and neither does the mentally challenged person that I met at the Y yesterday but we are apparently supposed to believe that they are part of some “universal experience”. I’ll bet that greater than 90% of humans haven’t even heard of a quark or a bosonic string never mind understanding that there is a physical law that says that when they throw a baseball it will stay in motion unless it is acted on by external forces never mind naming those forces.

          There are as many ways to understand and experience the world as there are people in the world. We can find commonalities amongst these understandings and experiences and call them “theories of being” but we have to realize that there are significant subcultures of people who are built like we are but whose minds are trained to think differently.

          • Exactly, Evelyn. The universality of an experience does not translate into a universally singular understanding of that experience.

            For many, their experience with love is blissful. For others, their experience with love is painful. And yet others’ experience with love may take shape in varying degrees of bliss, contentment, distress, struggle, joy, and so on. We need look no further than poets throughout the ages to grasp this.

            Minus the biochemical stimulus/response associated with certain aspects of the love experience among humans, love can be identified as a universal reality because of its effect.

            In a similar way, I believe it is so with the God-experience, by which millions across the globe conclude, and by means of vastly unique descriptions of the effect upon them, that “God” is a reality.

            Subjective? Yes. But by no means any less real than love.

          • Evelyn said; “I have no personal experience with quarks or bosonic strings and neither does the mentally challenged person that I met at the Y yesterday but we are apparently supposed to believe that they are part of some “universal experience”.”

            I don’t know where you heard that Evelyn. No one “experiences” quarks. They are a theoretical construct used to describe the universe. The biggest difference between them and God is, if the people who say they exist find new evidence tomorrow that suggests they don’t, they will adjust their theory to match the evidence. This is not post-modernism, this is what science does, it looks at reality, experiments with it and attempts to describe it and use it to predict.

            When religion is faced with new knowledge, new evidence of how the world actually works, they continue to say that it is the same God behind it all. Some of them attempt to claim that they meant it was “energy” all along and science is just catching up with religion. Others say the 1st century Christian saw it that way, but Constantine messed it up. Others say there is some commonality across all religions and that proves it is real. The question is asking, “why can’t you see through that?”

          • Evelyn

            It’s not the “same” God, it is God. God is endlessly creative. We perceive God differently as we grow in understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We don’t know God. Science isn’t “catching up with religion”. Science is a manifestation to our consciousness of material reality and it affects the metaphors that we use to describe our spiritual reality. The way I see it, God is using science to expand our consciousness so that we can better understand him/her/it and we are motivated to do science and fund science because it appears to improve our lives.

          • Lausten, this may be a tad nit picky (and tangential I admit), but I think some could possibly argue that we do “experience” quarks, inasmuch as quarks are a key component (theoretically) in atoms, which are the foundations of all the matter by which we have experience. This generally accepts “experience” to be material interaction of compounds, via the energy of their constituent atoms, in which are quarks.

            I know, it’s a stretch. But still.

          • I suppose I could stretch this a bit further and say that “quarks are us” is a truism. This becomes a possibly unarguable assertion when we engage in reducibility arguments: humans are multicellular; cells are made of compounds; compounds are made of atoms; atoms are “made of” quarks.

            Plugging this into the “experience” discussion . . . we experience “x” because we exist; we exist as a consequence of the integral nature of quarks to atoms. We therefore cannot have experience without quarks.

            Anyway, I’m regurgitating thoughts here in real-time, and will have to tie all this into the broader argument later as I now must run to errands.

        • Curtis

          You describe love as a “pretty universal experience”. So you admit love is not universal, just as experiencing god is not universal. Many people, tragically, do not experience love in their lifetime. People who do experience love experience it in many different ways. Love is not universal. Neither is god.

          Many people dismiss love as mere sentimentality, something that has no practical value or measurable effect. That is the same argument you use to dismiss god.

          You are entitled to your notions about god, but at the same point you must recognize the validity of beliefs in god at least as much as you would recognize the validity of beliefs in love. In fact, some people believe god and love are exactly the same thing.

    • Evelyn

      “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.”

      “The real source of our theories is conjecture, and the real source of our knowledge is conjecture alternating with criticism.” – David Deutsch (an award-winning pioneer in the field of quantum computation) in “The Beginning of Infinity”

  • Evelyn

    “But please be aware that you are turning God into a concept rather than a being which exists independently of humans”
    The best way to deal with God is as a concept. We can only know that a “being” exists through grace and try as we might to channel it, we can’t know how or when that grace will be bestowed.

    “why is it that science has made such spectacular progress over the last few centuries, while theologians are basically restating the assertions of Thomas Aquinas 800 years later?” Probably because the scientific method has only been around for ~350 years so we are still fleshing out all the consequences of it’s use.

    “In other words, science is cumulative – this is its essential feature. There is nothing corresponding to this in theology, because there is no objective way of deciding between competing assertions.”
    We used to have a branch of philosophy called “metaphysics” which concerned itself with explaining the nature of our being and the universe. “Science” used to be a branch of metaphysics called “natural philosophy” and many were motivated to do science as a means to understanding God (i.e. through his creation). After the advent of the scientific method in the 17th century which lent empirical methods to our ways of acquiring knowledge, science began to distance itself from philosophy and scientists began to think of themselves as “other” than philosophers. With the advent of logical positivism, which combines empiricism with rationalism, in the 20th century, metaphysics got redefined to include anything that wasn’t empirical and hence metaphysics turned into a branch of philosophy that included only a priori propositions and rationalizations and was considered by the logical positivists, Wittgenstein among them, to be specious. So, logical positivism affected a movement in social science called “positivism” and we now think we can know things about how people will behave using empirical methods. I have even had a anxiety-ridden positivist doubt the existence of my intuition as a source of creativity that gives me ideas that can be tested (which I know exists) so I don’t think that “positivism” works which leads us back to having a large proportion of the human experience that can’t be described using the scientific method, can’t be reduced via reductionism, and doesn’t yield predictions based on empirical methods. However, there are a large number of the religious who still give credence to logical positivism and positivism and hence think that they are confined to making a priori propositions and rationalizations because that is the corner into which scientific reductionism and logical positivism have tried to push God.

    Theology is cumulative in the sense that it responds to cultural and social evolution.

    Personally, I don’t care if you believe in God or not. I suggest you take a look at Stuart Kauffman’s book called “Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of Science, Reason, and Religion”. He details the limitations of reductionism for detailing the human condition and comes as close as possible to a concept of God from scientific reasoning as I can agree with.

    Here’s a link to the youtube teaser for his book:

    • Evelyn

      I didn’t mean to make that whole last section bold – only the part about Theology being cumulative. Maybe I need to use a backslash on the second b, lets see:


      • Evelyn

        Nope, that didn’t work.

    • I believe the scientific method has been around for closer to 1000 years. This is not just to pick a nit. It is important for us to understand how the philosophy developed, how we humans once accepted what our ancestors said without question, then learned to question them with respect and the elders learned to respect the introduction of new knowledge. Since this way of approaching questions began in Baghdad at a time when the Muslim world was much more tolerant, benevolent and advanced relative to the rest of the world, it is also important for us to know this history as a way to heal the divide between Christians and Muslims.


      • Evelyn

        Yes, I agree that the scientific method may have originated in the Muslim world. However, I think they were able to assimilate it without it necessarily challenging the existence of God. They applied it where it should be applied, to the material world, and experienced God through other means. The “father” of the scientific method in the west is typically thought to be Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and he idolized it to the point where he thought it could be applied to the spiritual world and help birth the practice of “theosophy” which I have tried to study but have always find it to be misrepresentative of the way I perceive God and, quite frankly, non-scientific.

        • You miss some history again Evelyn. The idea that science can’t study religion came from an edict of the Catholic Church. When the logic of Plato oand Aristotle began to touch the God question in the Universities, the Church shut them down with Parisian Condemnations of 1277, published by Bishop Tempier. They realized they couldn’t stop education forever, so they came up with the truce; teach logic, but leave the miracles to the Church. Some say this actually helped science define itself, but it was still a directive designed to protect the church, not a logical understanding of what science is capable of.

          You’re right “theosophy” is non-scientific. Worshipping science is wrong. You can’t apply science to the spiritual world, not for the reason you state, but because there is nothing there, nothing you can experiment on. As Hugh pointed out, there isn’t even a shared experience. We can all talk about love, even across cultures, because all normal people have a similar experience. I can’t talk about the deity Shiva, because I don’t experience it.

          • Evelyn

            The Parisian condemnations came in three waves – 1210, 1270, and 1277. They applied only to the region presided over by Bishop Tempier – e.g. Aristotle was not considered heretical in England. They were enacted, in part, to snuff out Aristotle’s pantheistic teachings – namely that God is the “unmoved mover” behind all physical motion in the universe and the axioms of this claim. The logic of Plato is different than the logic of Aristotle – Plato’s reasoning is deductive, starting with his theory of forms, while Aristotle’s logic is inductive, starting with experience and observation. Plato’s work was not generally included in the Parisian condemnations although some of Thomas Aquinas’ was. Aristotelian science was different from modern day science in that he didn’t do a lot of experiments to justify his claims or test his assumptions. Most of his conjectures were based on common experience which isn’t always, shall I say, logical or rational.

            If you studied the deity Shiva for long enough to understand how it relates to human experience, you might understand how you experience it. It took me several months to get a handle on what Shiva is given that it is often described as the “destroyer” , the “transformer”, and the “lord of the dance”. The “dance” is action and interaction, coming and going – as opposed to not doing anything at all. When you interact with anything, be it a person or an object, you come at that interaction with expectations and motivations and an illusion of what that person or object is based on your interpretations of your past experiences. When you interact with something, you learn about it and those initial expectations and illusions are changed. Those changes can include loss (destruction) or transformation and lead to new understanding. This is what Shiva means to me and I hope you experience this kind of transformation in your life as well.

          • Evelyn; Your level of knowledge is admirable, but obviously we draw different conclusions. I don’t know how much further we can take this in this format. I was able to maintain a similar belief system for about 3 years, but I am a logical person first and I had to drop the “spiritual” or figure how to lie to myself. I know that’s not what you feel you are doing, but that’s how it went for me.

            You are using the term “experience” differently than me in the Shiva example. I can and do study myths and stories, sometimes in a community setting. They help me understand the human experience and to find ways to speak to young people or people who are struggling with life’s difficult questions. But I can discuss the experience and feelings of those stories right along with a discussion of the history of it, who wrote it and why. I never consider (anymore) the characters in those stories to be real. I can do that and still be transformed.

    • Hugh

      Thanks for the link, I just watched it and found it very interesting. For the record I am on board with the idea that you can be an atheist (or secular humanist or whatever term you want to use) and still feel a sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the universe. In fact when I stand outside on a starry night and think of the vastness of the universe, or stand on a mountain and think of the millions of years it took rain and wind to carve its cliffs and canyons, I think it’s a far more awe-inspiring picture than the narrow, petty god and just-so stories of religious literalists. However I disagree with Kauffman about using the word “god” for this kind of experience. I think it’s counterproductive because your use of the word “god” will be seized on by the fundamentalists, who often have an agenda I want no part of. Witness how Einstein is often used as a big stick by religionists even though he made it plain in his writings that he didn’t believe in a personal god, and used the word “god” metaphorically. I think it’s more honest to say, yes, we live in a universe that is profoundly beautiful and complex – and also ugly and dangerous at times, and at heart impersonal and indifferent to us. If we screw up this planet, nobody will come down from heaven and save us – all we have is each other. We can’t afford to be at each other’s throats over ancient tribal myths. Using god-talk doesn’t unify, it divides, because people project their own, often radically different ideas onto “god”.

      • Evelyn

        Kauffman says in some of his lectures (on YouTube (the UVM one is pretty good)) that he realizes that the use of the “God” term is loaded but he decided to use it anyway for the sake of discussion. You’re right, God-talk often does divide. People are very passionate about their beliefs and get rather emotional about their delusions.

        You don’t have to look at it this way but the “sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the universe” is considered a form of ecstasy which, to me, is a form of union with the divine.

        If we screw up this planet the tardigrades will survive, the planet will re-equilibrate, and new species will evolve to inhabit it. Who knows if the new species will be conscious the way we consider ourselves to be.

        • Evelyn

          P.S. I didn’t make that comment about ecstasy to try to rope you into believing in some God that I believe in. e.g. If you’re willing to swallow the fact that your feeling of the sense of awe and beauty is connected to “God” then you should believe that God killed his only son because his pride was hurt and that somehow enables you to feel this ecstasy. I’m just trying to show you an example of how what you feel is considered by some religious to be an experience of God.

  • I come at this question as a long-time Sunday School teacher. Jesus’ concept of God as heavenly father is a wonderful concept that is comforting to children, especially to those who do not have a caring father in their lives. The Fatherhood of God should not be discarded as simply an artifact of patriarchy. I’m not saying that this is the only idea of God that we need entertain. I have nothing against the Motherhood of God, the great I AM, or other ideas of God. No doubt, God encompasses many images and it’s good to explore them. However, I totally agree with the concern expressed in this question.

  • Scott Gay

    The attitude of a man to the universe is like an attitude toward one of his fellow men( this was impressed upon me in war in 1970, when depending on him was somewhat intense). We may think of his character, in great amounts of time, as a matter of routine and gives no indication of what is really in the man. How much does he live in a reality like me, whether he is for me or not. But there are brief moments when what is in a man is flashed out( searching for descriptive word), in some act or word or look. A trust unshaken is based on a few crucial moments when two spirits touch in a reveal of harmony. Or, when life is more day in, day out, I often revert to thinking of him differently, the apparent indifference of his conduct, in the predominant tracts of time, as showing what he is.
    I was an atheist in 1970 and was good at war. I could keep composed when others had trouble and was followed when all hell broke loose. I’ve since had what I believe to be direct perception of the Divine. Now I live rurally where I’m not particularly good at day in, day out, not a leader, and actually perceive that all heaven is breaking out.
    Bottom line is I hold the reality behind phenomena to be Spirit and see the character of that reality in manifestations of the human spirit. There is a scale involved in spirit, a higher and lower aspect that is more complicated than it first seems. In fact, the full range of the Spirit of Christ could not be confined to Jesus of Nazareth( even though it is the highest example), but it is being worked out in the spirit of some people.

    • That was really beautiful Scott. I could argue with it on technicalities, but the sentiment you expressed transcends that. This is a type of expression that modern minds can deal with. Thanks for the post.

    • Evelyn

      The way I see it, the “flashing out” is the Spirit acting through the other person to show you that IT is there or to attract you to the other person as someone you can learn something from or someone you can relate to. Usually, what we perceive of other people is an illusion of what we think they are and if we look deeply enough we start to see that their rationalizations and intentions are often selfish and bestial (at which point we can try to forgive them and when the forgiving gets too hard it is time to leave them). So I don’t give much credit to human character. I rely more on the everpresence of the Spirit and it’s ability to guide me through life.

  • Luke Allison

    Again, I’m going to highlight the historic materialism of Christianity. The Apostle Paul lifts up his toga and gets naked in 2 Cor 11:23-25, showing us his body, his scars, his very “fleshy” spiritual reality. You think you’re crazy in love with Jesus? Look at this. Think you’ve offered your body as a living sacrifice? Look at this. For early Christians, love of God was something you got tortured and slaughtered for. No one got thrown to the lions for having a personal spirituality. That is not dangerous to Caesar and the powers that be.

    So the picture of God which consists in categories, concepts and philosophical treatises doesn’t do it for me anymore. Even categories like “omnipotent” and “omniscient” don’t encompass much of anything having to do with God, in my honest opinion. These are merely somewhat silly, somewhat impressive ways that smart people have tried to somehow put scaffolding on the bridge of life with the divine.

    The only picture of God I want at this point is the very human, very fleshy picture of Jesus and the very human picture of Christ in me, and you, and other members of the body. We are such gnostics in our conceptions of God. Time to get back down to earth!

  • Sven

    The reason definitions of God come across as incoherent is because theologians are performing mental gymnastics to reconcile faith in “God’s” supposed existence with the fact that “God” is intangible, invisible, unobservable, untestable, and most importantly, unverifiable.

    “God” is, in any practical sense, indistinguishable from nothingness.

    • Evelyn

      Luke 23:3 “You say so”

      • Sven

        So… “God” is only “God” if we say so?

        • Sven

          And if that’s the case, then can “God” even be called real?

          Reality is that which continues to exist, even if you don’t believe in it.

  • Davdt

    Why is the term God incoherant?
    Because the women are incoherant. The new testament is a fertility story, its about rape. It’s in the narratiive itself. Well I suppose it could be about the intellectually dominate MAN GOD doing the lucky subservient female mary, who’s cuckold husband joesph counts his
    Lucky stars, and mary is the MOMMY, to the superior MAN GOD, and his
    Holy child HIM…

    I have no idea why the term god isnt why the above is petfectly clear. Funny, the authors wrote the story out exactly how an aspergers understands themselves sexually!!! Amazing!, since aspergers didn’t write it.

    Until the ladies get their shit together, I am going to guess the NT isn’t
    About supernaturalism but about nature itself. Of course all atheists would disagree, but why would I care…. Who the hell is joseph ladies? Right now you ladies have him as some nice loser to your fantasy of a divine lover. I blame the female for this mess, this is her religion, get it right ladies…

    • I don’t like your tone and I don’t like your blaming attitude, but this topic is very interesting to me. How exactly do people with asperger’s syndrome understand themselves sexually and how does this relate to the new testament?

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  • Phillip Evans

    Specifics with regards to what the theologicans do are insufficient. I am not attempting to Negate the claim, but as a follower of “the Way”, I am concerned only with Textual analysis. The claim is therefore immaterial.

    “aren’t “sophisticated” definitions of god inconsistent and incoherent and very far removed from the sort of god any rank-and-file believer would actually worship?”

    I am encouraged to “to perceive the words of understanding.” Pro 1:2

    The “No true Scotsman Fallacy” is like… words on a page.

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