How We Argue About God

God the Adjective, part 1

God is traditionally used as, thought of as, a noun. Last week I talked about "God the Verb." Today: "God the adjective." I should let you know I have no plans for sermons on "God the Preposition" or "God the Pronoun." You might have been particularly looking forward to "God the Expletive"!

Ah, expletives. Expletives do come up when we get to arguing about God. And when we tire of the bickering, we just stop talking about God – which is a shame. The argument about God starts ontological, then gets semantic. At root, however, it is neither ontological nor semantic, but tribal. Let me explain.

It starts ontological: What exists? Is there an entity that knows, desires, and creates?

To the question, "Do you believe in God?" many Unitarians long ago developed the habit of saying, “Depends on what you mean by God.” So then the argument shifts from the ontological to the semantic. What does the word “God” mean? Is it a legitimate use of the English language to use the word “God” to refer NOT to a person-like entity that knows and wants, but only to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the Cosmos: “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”? Can you say that there is nothing in the universe except what the scientists describe and still call THAT “God”?

Why do people get riled up over semantic arguments about the word “God” when no other semantic argument elicits much concern or passion? I think it's because the real conflict is neither about ontology nor semantics. It’s about tribe. Are you in my tribe – do you speak the tribal passwords, affirming or denying the existence of God, adopting my tribe’s definition of the word “God”? If you’re not in my tribe, then we must fight – or else avoid the subject altogether.

There are meanings of “God” acceptable within the English language that don’t mean person-like or supernatural, so I want to ask you: Do you still prefer not to use the word because of tribal identity? You don’t want anyone to think for a minute that you might be in the Woo-Woo tribe? I think, for some of us, that’s the hang-up. We’re more interested in protecting our self-identity as members of the No-Woo tribe than we are in connecting with other people through the meanings that we share: awe, wonder, beauty, mystery, source of hope and healing that we call by many names.

Let me tell you some of my history with God.

The G-word and I have had an uncertain relationship. When I was in first grade, in Pinetops, North Carolina, where there was no Unitarian Universalist congregation, the neighbor kid sometimes invited me to go along with him to his church. Several times that year, I went, and as a result of the instructions given me at that Presbyterian Sunday School, there was a brief period in my life during which I did a nightly bedtime ritual called “prayer.” “Prayer” involved asking someone named “God” to do, for various friends and relations, something called “bless.”

By fourth grade, I had left behind “that kid stuff.” I was then living in a different small southern town: Carrollton, Georgia. Carrollton didn’t have a Unitarian Universalist congregation either, but it was only an hour’s drive from Atlanta, where, sporadically, I was taken to the UU church. Soon after learning there was a word “atheist,” I decided that I was one. I made this declaration at the UU church, and no one seemed very interested. I made this declaration during lunch at my elementary school cafeteria, and a palpable buzz shockwaved through hall.

The news reached an ardent and incredulous girl a few tables over. She arose, and, flanked by a silent friend to function as diplomatic observer, came over and confronted me. “You don’t believe in God?” she asked.

“No,” I said, suddenly interested in the lima beans on my plate.

“Do you know what the Bible is?” she pressed.

I offered my considered and scholarly assessment. “Just some book by some stupid people,” I said sullenly.

She gasped. The diplomatic observer gasped. The two of them withdrew to tut-tut with others over the lostness of my soul and the rift to their social fabric that my apostasy represented.

That was the beginning of my career in theology and scriptural hermeneutics. In my remaining seven years in the town’s public school system, I ventured no further discourses on religion, but that was enough. Throughout that time I was “the class atheist.”

Back then, it was clear what “God” meant – and clear -- to me – that the universe included nothing that instantiated that meaning. Now, nothing about God is clear: there’s only ambiguity and mystery – beautiful, rich, joyous ambiguity and mystery.

The theist says there is such a thing, the atheist says there isn’t such a thing, and the agnostic says “I don’t know whether there’s such a thing or not,” – but they all pretend to know what sort of thing it is they’re talking about. The universe, however, is more amazing – life is more profoundly awesome – and the Bible’s authors, editors, and redactors were wiser and more insightful – than my fourth-grade self was prepared to comprehend.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
See also
Part 2: Thinking God an Adjective
Part 3: The God Life in This God World

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to offer a different perspective, which is that there is NO way to talk coherently about God, no matter what part of speech we take the word "God" to be.

    And yet, the God about whom (which?) we cannot talk coherently, seems to be, for some reason, very important to us. Is there not a contradiction hiding in that observation? How can it be that there's something very important which, however, we cannot discuss coherently?

    One of this year's Thanksgiving cliches was that we shouldn't talk politics at the family table, at least not if our crazy uncle were to show up, because our crazy uncle was notorious for irrationality about politics --unwilling to let go of, or even be restrained about, some controversial notion, say, "Hillary's a crook," or "Trump's a Russian agent." For the sake of peace in the family, supposedly it would be best to steer clear of such themes entirely.

    Maybe God-talk's like that too. Maybe it's just too explosive to bring up at the family dinner-table. I know that I have myself adopted the practice of steering clear of God-talk except in situations (say, a seminar with philosophy or theology students) where the discussion will be, well, academic. ("Academic," in some contexts, just means "of no practical importance"; hence, in an "academic" discussion, we can sometimes agree to put our passions aside and to pass over any assertions that in another context would drown our rationality in the juices of emotion.)

    Some clergy (Meredith Garmon for one, I've noticed) are able to construct sermons in such a way as to make their God-talk academic. That's a rare and often useful talent, perhaps especially among members of the clergy. I suspect it's a talent more often found among UU clergy than in other denominations, since we UU's, for better or worse, have tended to cultivate the capacity to talk in academic terms about otherwise feeling-laden religious topics like "faith," "spirituality," and "God." Some of us have done that mainly for self-protection. I, for example, grew up in a community of theologically conservative Protestants whose children assured me that I was hell-bound because I didn't go to their Sunday School or affirm certain details of their creed. My parents (who were academics as well as UU's) taught me the value of taking such conversations in an academic direction. Even if that move didn't succeed in draining off the emotional content of my playmates' damnation judgments, it did (with most of them anyway) tend to lead them to change the subject.

    I've noticed that most religious traditions urge silence at certain times. The ancient Hebrews dared not speak the name of God. Taoists tell us that "the way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way." Muslims approach the limits of articulation a bit differently, often insisting on the futility of translating the Qur'an, or taking the view that pictorial representations of the Prophet are blasphemous. Buddhists meditate in silence. Many Quakers eschew all speech in meetings for worship except when guided by an "inner light." I think there's wisdom in these silences. A secular statement of that wisdom comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." Having written that, Wittgenstein gave up philosophizing entirely for nine years, occupying himself in the meantime as a schoolteacher and musician.

    Is it not possible that the God notion --like, perhaps, the notion "Hillary's a crook" or "Trump's a Russian agent"-- is one of those subjects that's just so explosive that we cannot speak about it, and about which we'd do well to remain silent?