God & Atheists: They were made for each other.

God is not love. God is not great. God is not wisdom. God is not strength. God does not exist. No, I am not an atheist.

How does that work? It all comes down to an understanding of God. God is none of these things, nor is God anything else. God is the source of all things.

As the source of all things, God is also the source of our understanding and our definitions. Thus, God defies all definition. God is a being without definition. Definitions create boundaries, and God does not have boundaries, for if God had boundaries there could be more than one.

God is not love, because God is the source of love. God does not exist because God is the source of existence. Without God there is no love; neither is there existence – not even in concept.

A source is different from its product. Take speech, for instance, as a necessarily imperfect analogy. Speech is a set of sound waves, which we then perceive as words. But what is its source? Speech goes back to our brains – our thoughts, emotions, etc. Our brains are not sound waves, nor are sound waves contained within our thoughts and emotions. Yet our brains are still the source of our speech.

And so it is with God – yet how much more so. While God is the source of love, beer, rocks, humans, time, strength, thoughts, wisdom, words, indeed existence itself, God is not a conglomeration of these things, which then somehow emanate forth from God. If God were simply a collection of all things, God would require some sort of boundaries in which to contain all things. But again, the boundaries would require definition and God is indefinable because God is ultimately the source of the definition. Furthermore, God would also be the source of the boundaries, and thus could not be contained by them. Ultimately we see that, like speech and our brains, the products of God are unrelated to their source; they do not share common characteristics.

So, God is not wisdom, for God is the source of wisdom. God is not great, for God is the source of greatness. There is no duality within God between God’s essence and God’s attributes. God is a perfect unity (although that isn’t precisely accurate either), and is neither God’s attributes nor any element of creation – neither does God contain any element of creation.

For these reasons, God, in God’s true essence, is ultimately unknowable. God’s true essence is on a plane outside of existence. Where God’s true essence is nothing exists. Indeed, God does not exist. God cannot be said to exist because an existence requires a definition. In addition to the other reasons God cannot be defined, any definition of God would necessarily limit God, rendering what ever was actually being defined as not God. Furthermore, an existence must be brought into existence. So, God is not an existence, and thus, by definition, does not exist.

How then do I disagree with an atheist? It all comes down to this understanding of God – The Source of All Things. My conception of God can be always malleable and perfectly consistent at the same time. If I am convinced that God does not exist, my perception of God has not changed. If, however, I were convinced that God does exist and can be known and that some thing is god, then my perception of God would indeed have changed. But for me such a god would be no God at all. Only the Source of All Things is God, and no thing is God. So, if that is true, which prospect is more concerning: seeking to prove God does not exist, or seeking to show us a defined god and how we can (or should/must!) know that defined god?




Filed under Grant

48 responses to “God & Atheists: They were made for each other.

  1. Is God hate? Is God average? Is God foolish? Is God weak? Does God not exist? If God isn’t these things, then God is definable. That’s not to say that our definitions are not in someway inadequate, but it is to say our definitions may be headed in the right or wrong direction because God has revealed Himself to us (at least to some degree). If God isn’t definable at all, then what is the meaning and significance of repentance? There would be no more right or right way to turn, for there would be nothing to define as the right or wrong direction – more righteous or unrighteous in relation to a righteous God. Even if we can say God is a righteous God, then God is at least definable in being righteous. No? Just because we cannot fully define or fully understand God, it does not preclude us from defining and understanding a false god, nor does it make God undefinable or understandable at all. We are limited in defining and understanding God, but we are not so limited to defining and understanding God that we cannot define or understand God more fully as He is – a God who is beyond our inadequate definitions and understandings.

  2. GCC

    Thanks for commenting early, T.

    I’m not sure how you arrive at the conclusion that if God is “not” something that God “is” something else. That’s drawing an affirmative conclusion from a negative premise and does not work logically.

    I’m also not sure what the connection between defining God and repentance, right, wrong, etc. is.

    As I understand God, God is not definable as being righteous. God is a being without definition.

    The fact that we can’t fully define or understand God makes it exceptionally easy to define and understand a false god; anything that is definable is a false god. However, the fact that God is indefinable has nothing whatsoever to do with our ability – or lack thereof – to define or understand God.

    This is my understanding of God. I don’t assume that anyone else must share this view – although many do and many have. For me it’s quite simple: a definable god is no God at all.

  3. Hmm… that’s too bad. I guess I’m not surprised how you’re “not sure” about what I’m saying. We’re not on the same page, we’re not even in the same book.

    If God is The Source of All Things, wouldn’t that in itself define God, at least as The Source of All Things?

    Do you believe in righteousness and unrighteousness? If you do, then how do you define one from the other?

    If God is undefinable, as you suggest, then why are you a Jew? Or, is this your proclamation of some new hybrid-Judaism, or an official conversion to atheism?

  4. Holly

    In the Christian tradition (and in most peoples’ conceptions, I imagine), God is not *fully* knowable, but He is knowable. I know my friends, even if I don’t know everything about them. I think it’s incorrect to say that just because something isn’t fully knowable, we aren’t able to define it or assign it attributes.

    That said, even though Grant’s full viewpoint strikes me as heretical and unconventional, he does make a good point that it is wrong for us to create God in our own image. We need to be careful about the attributes that we are assigning to God; if we falsely assign attributes to God, Grant is right: God becomes a god.

  5. John

    If one believes in revealed religion (Christian, Islamic, or Jewish), then God is defined as the Creator. Following that, he defines himself over and again in the Old Testament, saying what he is and what he is not. This is sufficient evidence to construct a definition in the human tongue, albeit an incomplete one.

    I think your argument, Grant, is quite postmodern (as alluded to by Holly) and only works if one rejects the notion of divine inspiration.

  6. GCC

    Thanks for commenting, all. Let me respond and further elucidate my thoughts. I suppose I’m not surprised this is somewhat confusing. This stuff is not easy to discuss in any language, let alone English. If one uses too many words, the meaning is lost entirely and it becomes contradictory. But if one uses too few words in explaining this stuff, the intention is not conveyed. But that’s one reason why I wanted to post this; it’s great for discursion.

    First of all, it seems to me that the idea that all of our definitions, understandings, and knowledge of God are incomplete, insufficient, etc. is halfway to admitting that we cannot define God. It is a more pronounced realization of the “otherness” of God that brings one to the point of realizing that all definitions of God’s Essence aren’t just incomplete, but wrong.

    More specifically, that God creates in no way tells us what God is in God’s Essence. The same goes for referring to God as the Source of All Things. All those “definitions” do is help us understand how God relates to the universe. They are not definitions of God Godself. All of the thinking that we can do about creation ex nihilio, etc. can lead us to conclude that there is indeed a creator, but it does not tell us anything about who or what that creator is. Creation is an act of God, or even a manifestation of God. But God is not God’s acts and God cannot be accurately described by God’s acts. Understanding how God relates to the universe is not understanding what God is.

    There are things that we perceive and can understand that tell us of God, and we understand that there are things about God that we cannot comprehend. But there are not these two distinct elements of God, the comprehensible and the incomprehensible. Rather, God in truth is an absolute unity and our perspective prevents us from comprehending God’s true essence. This is one of the reasons – that we cannot comprehend God from our perspective – why we cannot define God.

    To me, seeing descriptions of God found in the Bible as literal descriptions of God’s Essence is, at best, to miss the forest for the trees. And then there are the places in the Bible where God is described as totally other and indefinable. (I am curious though about the places where, over and over again, God defines Godself. I’ve yet to read the whole thing word for word (though I’m working on it), but the only absolutely consistent message I can find thus far is God’s unity, which is the source of all this thought. So, in any case, please let me know where those spots are. I really enjoy “Bible difficulties.”)

    If we can’t even fully know our friends, how much less can we know God, a fully “other” being with that has nothing in common with any element of existence? We can, to some degree, understand God’s relationship to and with the universe, but again, while important, that is not God.

    We can certainly assign attributes to God. For instance, God creates. But those attributes are not God. Another example: God is righteous. We can only say God is righteous because, as Source of All Things, God is ultimately the only judge. We may perceive things to be righteous based on our perspective, but God’s perspective may be different. And, as the Source of All Things, God’s perspective is ultimately the only one that matters. God decides what the perspective is, and the idea of righteousness (just like any other idea, e.g. gravity) is fully arbitrary. So it is only logical to say that God is righteous, because righteous is what God decides is righteous. Or, if God decides, the concept of righteousness can cease to exist.

    What about post-modernism? As far as I know (which isn’t very far) this sort of thing, in written tradition, goes back to the 12th century. But, those writers would tell you that they were not writing their own ideas, but rather that which they learned from their teachers, who learned it from their teachers, who learned it from their teachers, and so on, all the way to the revelation at Sinai, and so, theoretically at least, to God. That to me is pre-modern. Then again, something that goes back to God is really neither pre- nor post-modern.

    What about divine inspiration? If one makes the argument – which history’s leading proponents of these ideas would – that this sort of thinking finds its source in the Sinai revelation and thus in God, it seems obvious that this thinking is not a rejection of divine inspiration. In fact, one might even consider this kind of thinking to be divinely inspired. Not to mention the fact that, while not necessary for the realization, to concept of the oneness of God from which all this thinking extends and upon which it depends was specifically confirmed by divine revelation. To suggest to that this kind of thinking only works if one rejects divine inspiration is to misunderstand what the thinking is. This sort of thinking can only come from a monotheist.

    I think it’s possible though that the confusion about the rejection of divine inspiration comes from a mistaken understanding of what has been revealed. God’s Essence has not been, nor could it ever be, revealed. God’s Will could be revealed (indeed, I think it has been), but even a full understanding of God’s Will (like everything else) does not provide us a definition of God. So, the problem is not a rejection of divine inspiration, it’s the conflation of God’s Essence and God’s Will.

    Finally, this kind of thinking is just about the most Jewish thing I can think of. As I said, this sort of thinking can only come from a monotheist. So, the realization that God is indefinable is precisely the sort of thing that drives someone toward Judaism. God in Judaism is indefinable. When Jews speak about God they are speaking in metaphor. So the question above about religious affiliation would be better asked this way: “If God is definable, why are you a Jew?” And indeed, if I thought God were definable, I would reject Judaism.

    Please remember that when I say things like “God’s essence has not been, nor could it ever be, revealed,” I am only talking about the Essence of the God that I know. For me any god whose essence could be revealed is no God. That in no way means that others can’t think that a god may very well be able to reveal that god’s true essence. It doesn’t even mean that such beliefs are bad or fully untruthful. But in that case, I find myself clinking glasses with the atheist saying, “I don’t believe in that God either.” Here’s an example of what I mean, a kind of litmus test of deity (this isn’t my own thought, but I agree with it): “If you can define it, it is not God. If there could be more than one, it is not God. If it could be denied, it is not God. If it can be proven, it is not God. If there could be anything else, it is not God. If it will not allow anything else to be, it is not God.”

  7. GCC

    Thanks for stopping by, iblase. I was wondering if someone would bring up that subject.

  8. Joseph

    Wow Grant. Compare this:

    “If you can define it, it is not God. If there could be more than one, it is not God. If it could be denied, it is not God. If it can be proven, it is not God. If there could be anything else, it is not God. If it will not allow anything else to be, it is not God.”

    to this:

    “The way that can be told
    is not the eternal Way
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

    Yet mystery and manifestations
    arise from the same source.
    This source is called darkness.

    Darkness within darkness.
    The gateway to all understanding.”

    There seem to be a lot of congruities between your provided first quote (and a large portion of what you’ve put out here) and the first lines of Lao Tzu’s seminal text.

    So I suppose you and Lao Tzu are only hung up on the names you use to describe this perceived reality – you use the word God, Lao Tzu uses the term “the way.”

  9. GCC

    Awesome, Joseph. Thanks for pointing that out. The quote I gave above is from a Hasidic Rabbi. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the Tao Te Ching. “Turn the other cheek” comes to mind right away. It’s on my reading list.

    What does this parallel in the conception of deity tell us? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems reasonable to speculate that our natural impression that the true God is truly known – whatever that means – to many people in a variety of contexts is actually correct.

    In any case, I don’t think we should be surprised at all at these similarities. I think many Muslims would agree with the thinking here too. The Quran states that nothing can be compared to Allah.

    Ideas of Absolute Oneness, Complete Otherness, etc. of God seem to run through many – though not all – world religions.

  10. Peachey Carnehan

    I am sure that I am probably missing the point of this discursion (as usual, right?), but I feel compelled to throw in my two cents. I have to say that I have never seen anyone use Deism to attempt a proof of the non-existence of God.

    On the outset, I disagree with the premise that God cannot be both a thing and the source of that thing. At the risk of sounding like an Agnostic (in the traditional sense) how can your natural mind comprehend the workings of a supernatural entity? Why can’t God be both Love and the Source of Love? How can you in your natural state put limits on a supernatural being? I think that you were on the right path when you stated that “God’s true essence is on a plane outside of existence,” but then you sort of lost the plot. If God does exist on a plane outside of our existence, then how can YOU define that existence?

    Grant, perhaps this is being looked at from the wrong angle. The issue of righteousness was brought up, and this was what set my mind turning. You state that God is not definable as being righteous. But what if we turn it around and say that righteousness IS definable as being God? We use these words like Love, Justice, Righteousness, without ever examining the source of those words. I would propose that we get our definition of those words from the Character of God. God is those things because God defined those things. Or rather, God defined those things WITH his presence. Love, Justice and Righteousness cannot exist without the presence of God. Is this making any sense?

    Finally, I would say that we CAN define and know God because God gave us two things with which to define and know. The first is the inspired Word of God, which in several places defines the character of God. The second, and probably most important, is the Incarnation. God became man and lived on the earth for about 33 years, during which time we were able to learn a few things about God’s character and God defined himself constantly. Interestingly, the Incarnation and its consequences are one of the main things that separates Christianity from other world religions.

    On a similar thread, Holly posted that it is wrong for us to cast God in our image, but isn’t that sort of an occupational hazard of humanity, or at least Christianity? If you believe that God created mankind in their own image, then it stands to reason that mankind would reflect the characteristics of God and that our understanding of God would begin with ourselves. (Wow, I’m not sure that I like the conclusion I came to there.)

    But I think in this discursion these points are really all subordinate to my previous point about the supernatural qualities of God preventing us from knowing or defining God fully. I am reminded of something I read recently about the consciousness of insects. Apparently they operate on a level akin to a machine and lack any sense of self. How difficult it would then be for an insect to comprehend my level of existence and consciousness.

    (I just realized that with my third paragraph I have stumbled upon the concept of Divine Simplicity, which is where I think this discursion might be headed. I’ll need to do a bit more reading before I fully endorse this idea.)

    (Also, this may come as a shock, but I have to agree with Terrence’s posts. I know, I never thought it would happen either.)

  11. Joseph

    I may be missing something from a theological standpoint here, so help me please. Why is there a negative reaction to the assertion that God cannot be defined by man?

  12. Holly

    When I said that we ought to be careful that we don’t make God in *our* image, I was referring to the idea that sometimes people construct a god that suits their interests and tastes — e.g., a “big, jolly, gift-giver-in-the-sky” type of god. Of course our ideas of God will always be somewhat flawed (don’t they usually stem from how we perceive our fathers?), but I think that if we remain grounded in the revealed revelation of the Bible and its interpretive tradition, we’ll be in good shape.

    I agree with Peachey — because we are made in God’s image, we DO know something about His roles as creator, as thinker, as lover, etc. This is not revealed religion, per se, but because we’re relational beings, we know something about God’s desire for relationship too. If we can’t know God, we can’t have a relationship with Him; if we can’t have a relationship with Him, then what on earth are we here for?

  13. Joseph

    All I really think Grant is saying is that humans are unable to fully describe God’s majesty, and all attempted definitions fall flat. I don’t think he is implying that one can’t know God – only that one cannot adequately define God. I would think Christians would jump at that language and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more of a thumbs up. Where does this miss the mark?

  14. GCC

    Thanks for commenting, Peachey. I think you’re quite on point here. The only thing I really don’t see in this is Deism, although the concept of Divine Simplicity’s not really off base.

    I don’t understand what you mean when you ask about changing the position of God and the description of God when it comes to righteousness. For me, saying God is righteous or righteousness is God is saying the same thing. The reason is that I see it as an equation, like this: A = B is the same thing as B = A. Can you clarify for me how you understand this differently?

    Another thing I don’t understand is when you say, “we CAN define and know God” and then later say that “[your] previous point [is] about the supernatural qualities of God preventing us from knowing or defining God fully.” Are you really hanging it all on the word “fully?” Or is this a contradiction and you meant one and not the other? Or am I just misunderstanding something?

    You ask a good question too, Peachey. It’s one that seems to lean heavily on the idea that “God can do anything,” it’s worth asking, and it deserves an answer. So, why can’t God be both love and love’s source? There are at least two components of this. 1.) For God to be love’s source, God must “exist” before there was love. Yet, for God to be love, love must “exist” simultaneously with God, that is before creation. So, for God to be both love and love’s source, love must simultaneously exist and not exist. (One could suggest that love was a creation of God, but not part of our creation to get around this. But if love is not a part of our creation, we couldn’t know what it is. In that case, we’d be trying to say that one thing we cannot know is another thing we cannot know, sort of like a deaf person trying to describe A-4 vis a vis C-3. One could also say that after creating love with the rest of creation God changed to become love. I think that would cause some problems though, and especially in the case of “revealed” religions.) 2.) If love is a part of any creation it, by definition, has boundaries. So, if God is love, then God has boundaries. God cannot have boundaries, so God cannot be love.

    I think your thought about getting ideas from God’s character is important. I largely agree (I think). I’d use different terminology though, saying we get ideas of things like righteousness and love through God’s relationship with creation. As character is perceived through relationships, it feels more accurate to me to use that term. And, as I said before, understanding how God relates to creation is not understanding what God is. In any case, it is very important to understand that your insertion of the word character is important, especially in reference to what “The Word of God” reveals – God’s character, not God’s essence.

    It seems we agree on God’s “otherness” and that we can’t comprehend it. (I really like the analogy of the insects, by the way.) For me it simply boils down to this: whenever we talk about God, we are talking in metaphor. That is, whenever we say God is (or is not) something we are not right. (To that extent, Joseph is correct about what I am saying.) Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t talk about God. It also doesn’t mean we can’t have a relationship with God. But it’s worth pointing out as a simple fact. And, of course, not everyone thinks this is the case. As you point out tangentially, many Christians, for instance, don’t really hold to this conception of God. That makes perfect sense to me. Indeed, it seems to me that a literal incarnational religion must by definition reject this conception of God. I think the explanation above of why God can’t be love and love’s source makes the reason why quite clear. That explanation obviously does not only apply to love. Rather, it applies to every single element of creation, be it physical, spiritual, conceptual, or not even yet discovered by humans, or even incarnation(s).

    I don’t think for a moment that everyone holds this view of God that I do. And I don’t think I think anyone has to. But I would point out that if someone does not hold this view of God, then we do not believe in the same God – or we at least have ultimately different understandings of that God’s essence. But hey, no matter what we say, none of us is exactly “right!”

    Holly, you reminded me of another Rabbinic quote: “God made us in God’s image, and we’ve been repaying the favor ever since.” And I think you’re right. We know a lot about God’s role in creation, etc. I’ve not suggested (or tried to suggest) otherwise. I think it’s clear by now though that I draw a distinction between God’s role in, or relationship to, creation and what God is. I also think this is where we find the understanding of the relationship(s) we can have with God. It’s a lot like our most intimate human relationships. We don’t love the 6’4”-ness of a person, or her brown hair, or things like that. That would be a superficial relationship. What we love is what we perceive of that person through their relationship to the world and us. We love people’s generosity, their creativity, their own love for others and us. And so it is with God. We don’t love God’s “otherness” that we can’t comprehend. (Though we may be in awe of it.) Rather, we love God’s relationship to the world and us. And, is possibly even more awesome that God’s “otherness,” so it works out quite nicely. Indeed, when it comes to our relationship(s) with God, we don’t actually need to comprehend the “otherness” of God’s essence.

    So based on that, it seems reasonable for someone to ask what the point is of making this distinction at all. Well, truth in identity is important. Think of a family whose child goes missing. A child then returns to them who looks and acts just like their missing child, but in reality the returned child is not their child. In the event they were made aware of the mistake by a DNA test, would the family go on just fine thinking it’s not big deal, they got something just as good? I think the obvious answer is, No. And so it is with God. If something exists that seems to relate to the world like God, sounds like God, feels like God, etc., yet does not match “God’s DNA” (so to speak), while this thing may be very nice and pleasing to us, it is still not God and ultimately unsatisfying. No matter how much something seems to relate to creation as God, and no matter how much it feels to us like God, if it does not match “God’s DNA” it is not God. Like the family with the lost child, we are fooling ourselves to believe otherwise. Not only that, but a “profile” (again, so to speak) of God such as this gives us the ability to know when we are dealing with things that are not God. With this concept of God, it is essentially impossible to find oneself mixed up in idolatry, no matter how good it feels. This concept of God is simultaneously completely malleable (because it allows us endless metaphor) and completely fixed (because it cannot even change), and thus actually liberates us to get to know more fully how this God relates to the world and us, and to work on our relationship with this God and this God’s creation.

  15. John

    Grant, I think you misunderstand what I mean by postmodern. The term refers generally to a branch of critical theory that regards truths as ultimately unknowable. To wit, however studied we may be our knowledge of any subject/idea is always incomplete; thus, while we can approach truth we can never nail it down. Postmodernists argue that because we cannot ascertain truth there *is* no truth—and because the search for truth is futile, it is therefore pointless to even try.

    The retort of revealed religions against postmodernism is that there *is* knowable truth (with a big “T”): God. This is because of divine revelation: whatever their failing of comprehensiveness Scripture tells us innumerable things about who God is, what he is like, and the dimensions of his mightiness. Once one accepts that men were inspired to author true texts it no longer matters whether or not they are wholly sufficient because any information of the divine is useful in the quest to know Him.

    Your position, then, is postmodern because you address the question of God in a similar fashion. Scripture provides characterizations of God telling us who God “is”: these you either dismiss as metaphor or find insufficient because they don’t define the “essence” of God. As a result, you claim that all definitions fail and “a definable God is no God at all”; if one tries to define God one will fail, so why even try?

    If I understand the other posts here, what folks are saying is that revelation has told us certain things about God that we can hang our hats on, thus disputing your claim that, “whenever we say God is (or is not) something we are not right.” If Scripture is indeed inspired, when one says “God is love” (1 John 4.8, 16) then one *is* right—the only way to dispute this is to argue that the line is not a revealed truth.

    But it seems to me the Talmudic tradition is not to reject metaphors or invalidate the possibility of definition. Rather, the faithful are to investigate revelation for truths: “Formerly it was said: The books of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes were hidden, because they are only parables, and do not belong to the Hagiographa; the men of the Great Assembly, however, came and explained them” (Book V, Tract Aboth, I).

  16. GCC

    Thanks for your thoughts, John.

    Why try to define God? That’s a good question. I’m not convinced there is a good reason. Theology may compel some, but I don’t think having an accurate definition of what God “is” is terribly relevant to how we live our lives in relation to God.

    I might be wrong (by which I mean I’m more inclined to think that we actually agree with each other and just aren’t quite understanding what the other is saying), but it seems the problem of understanding is not post-modernism, but rather literalism. I think it should be clear by now that I don’t deny the existence of Truth. I think it’s clear that I believe such a Truth (God) does “exist,” although on a plane that is quite literally beyond existence. That last bit is why it is accurate to argue that God does not exist; God simply cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence. That does not mean, however, that there “is” no God (Truth), just that we cannot accurately say that it “is.” Recognizing the complete and absolute “otherness” of Truth is not the same thing as rejecting that there “is” Truth – quite the opposite in my mind. (For this to fit your – nice and succinct – definition of post-modernism, I would have to take that last step which I do not.)

    We can, and do, say that God exists (and lots of other things), but it is a metaphor. Metaphor is not meaningless. That’s why the Talmud is full of it. But it is understood as metaphor and not literal truth. (The same goes for much of the Written Torah, by the way. For instance, the word “day” is widely and generally understood to mean something other than a literal 24-hour period in good ol’ Genesis 1.) I don’t dismiss metaphor at all. I do, however, recognize metaphor for what it is and thus experience its intended value rather than misunderstand it as literal truth. I do not see metaphor as inherently insufficient. It does what it is intended to do – convey certain truths that transcend literal description. In contrast, forcing metaphor into literal truth makes metaphor insufficient, because metaphor was never intended as literal truth, and thus cannot accurately convey literal truth.

    This seems to be precisely the problem with the quotation from 1 John. Forcing the statement “God is love” to be understood literally forces anyone who shares my conception of an indefinable God to reject the inspiration of that particular text. (Alternatively, one can accept the text as inspired and on that basis reject the conception of an indefinable God. But, without a set conception of God, it seems difficult to determine what is or is not inspired text. So, it seems that in reality one would have already rejected the conception of an indefinable God for other reasons that then allowed them to accept the text as inspired.) On the other hand, understanding that statement as a metaphor for God’s relationship with creation and not a blunt statement of literal fact about what God “is” fits in perfectly well with the conception of an indefinable God. Additionally, saying that the statement “God is love” is not literally true is not a rejection of truth of the metaphor. I’m again reminded of the Oral Torah – it fully embraces metaphor, and it understands metaphor, it more or less rejects a literalist approach, at most accepting it as a mere part of interpretation. People are free to see these things as literal (but to be consistent they must also think God is literally a rock, must literally have arms, etc.), but in doing so they are not seeing the God I know, the God of the Torah Shebichtav and the Torah Sheba’al Peh.

    As I’ve indicated, everyone is free to dispute my claim that God is indefinable or that we cannot accurately say anything about what God is. No one must agree with me on this. Quickly though, I’ll reiterate again (one of the various ways of explaining) why God must be indefinable: Definitions create boundaries and limitations, so to be definable God must have boundaries and limitations. If God had boundaries, it would be possible for more than one to exist. If it is possible more than one to exist, it is impossible for it to be God. If something is at all limited it is not God – primarily because it cannot create ex nihilo.

    Also see again above why God can’t be both love and love’s source.

    And again, whenever we talk about God, we are talking in metaphor.

    Everyone, please feel free to disagree. I would be very interested to read your own conceptions of God and see how they differ.

  17. Just because God is not constrained by boundaries or limitations in what He thinks and does, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t constrain Himself in covenants and definitions. If God is “The Source of All Things,” then God is not necessarily bound or limited, for whatever reason, not to create covenants that define things, or covenants that define Himself, or definitions of the things that He sources, or definitions of Himself. God is “The Source of All Things,” but He also defines all the things that are sourced.

    Just because none of knows definitively whether or not one is right, it doesn’t necessarily mean that none of us are exactly right. In fact, one may be right without even knowing it. And, in the case of being right, it is not to say that “it” is right because “one” is right, but it is to say that “one” is right because “it” is right. This is one of the things that perplexes me greatly about postmodernism. Why argue that there is no Truth just because Truth cannot be known by the human mind with 100% certitude?

  18. GCC, I think if you’re going to claim something to be patently jewish, then you should go to their key texts. (The Shema Deut 6:4) and (God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3 and 34) Certainly you could never tell a jew that “God is NOT one.” The “I Am what I am”, or perhaps tranlated, “I will be what I will be”, shows this revelation to be progressive, never static, nonetheless, present reality in the world.

  19. GCC

    Thanks for commenting, Paulo. It’s always great when more people join the discursion. It’s interesting that you bring up God’s apparent naming of Godself. I find it very telling that God is essentially as vague and ambiguous as can be when it comes to that. “I will be what I will be.” One might infer from such a statement that God recognizes there is nothing within creation that can encapsulate God – that is, that God recognizes that God is indefinable. (There’s also an interesting historical element that comes into play. Apparently, many ancients believed that if you could name or define a god you could somehow control it or otherwise have power over it. God, obviously does not play that naming/definition game.)

    Given that The Name for God (if there really is such a thing) is actually just a conjugation of the verb “to be,” it seems clear that any attempt to describe beyond that God is futile. I once heard it described that God is “is” (or is-ness, or the is-ifier). The interesting thing though is that he saying that God is “is” goes beyond all of our conceptions of reality because the conjugation of the verb “to be” which is The Name encapsulates both the past, present, and future tenses. Actually, in Hebrew, if you lay all three of those conjugations of “to be” physically on top of each other, the image you’re left with is The Name. Fascinating.

    The Shema is also hugely important. And I’m glad you brought that up too. The unity of God, as expressed in the Shema, is really the root of all of this thinking. The belief in a complete, unadulterated unity of God more or less requires this sort of thinking. Could you tell a Jew that God is not one? Maimonides would tell us that. He would also say that God is an absolute, transcendent, and perfect unity, the true nature of which is beyond our comprehension. So, is God one? Yes. Is God the same concept of one that God created? No. This highlights again how important is to understand that when we to the necessity in understanding that when Jews speak about God they speak in metaphor.

    Terrence, can you give an example of a covenant that constrains (or defines) who or what God is? How could a covenant define God at all? For that matter, how can a covenant define anything other than its own terms? It might be possible for God to define Godself, but only in the context of Godself. And even then, it would really be called a definition, because the whole concept of definition is part of creation, and therefore not part of God. And it’s for that reason that I am more apt to say though that God cannot define Godself. There are two extensions from that. First, there would be no way to communicate that definition to us. Second, it’s important to understand that God cannot be not-God.

    I really share the same sense of wonder (not the good kind) about that element of post-modernism. In fact it seems to me that suggesting truth can’t be known with 100% certitude is precisely an admission that there is indeed truth. So, to reach the post-modernist conclusion, it seems one may actually need to dismiss the post-modernist premise – strange indeed.

  20. If God can do whatever He pleases and enters into a convenant (aka agreement, commitment, contract, promise, etc…), then God is constraining Himself. You asked for an example. The first one that came to mind is the covenant God made with every living creature of the earth in Genesis chapter 9, which also explains how a covenant can define God and how there is more to His name than just a name.

    Genesis 9:8-17: “And God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, ‘And, as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ark, every beast of the earth. Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ And God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.'”

  21. Holly

    Grant, I agree with your point about God’s name, and how “I AM” doesn’t relinquish any of His power to us. In the book of Revelation, there’s a passage about those who overcome receiving names written on stones that are only known to God and that person; again, this shows that the only one who has power over them now is God Himself. In ordinary life, I’ve noticed that whenever someone speaks in a condescending way to make him or herself feel more powerful, he or she frequently uses my name. This always makes me want to say, “You have no right to that part of me. It’s mine, not yours.” God does reveal some of His many names to us (Yahweh (“I AM”), Jesus (“Jeshua, or ‘God saves'”), Emmanuel (“God with us”), etc.), but He does not need to reveal His core identity to sinful humanity; He does not cast His pearls before swine.

    As elegant as your thoughts regarding God’s name are, I scratch my head at your following comment:

    “God simply cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence.”

    What a priori knowledge or empirical evidence do you have to make this statement? I believe that it stems solely from your idea that to define God in any way is to place limitations upon Him.

    A priori reasoning would lead us to conclude that there are three categories of existence:

    1. Real existence
    2. Imaginary existence
    3. Non-existence

    Real existence is something that exists in reality, whether physical reality, spiritual reality or both. You might even argue that something that exists in conceptual reality that has practical applicability also has real existence; hence 2 + 2 = 4. But this gets fuzzy because Newtonian physics have practical applicability and were once thought to have conceptual reality. Eventually, mankind was to discover that they really had only imaginary existence.

    The category of imaginary existence includes things like abstract ideas, political philosophies and literary characters. Harry Potter doesn’t really exist, per se, but he does exist as a literary thought. He has a set of characteristics that can be defined, and he is different from, say, a literary character that was never invented. His imaginary existence has made possible things that would have never otherwise existed: books, movies, action figures, etc.

    Non-existence is pretty straightforward: something doesn’t exist physically, spiritually, conceptually or even in the mind’s eye.

    There is a chance that there’s a fourth category of existence as you posit; one that’s reserved for only God. In fact, as the uncaused Cause, it’s plausible that we don’t understand the existence of God. That said, it cannot be stated with any kind of certainty (because we’re not authoritative on these matters) whether God exists in the #1 understanding of existence or in the #4 incomprehensible understanding of existence. In fact, we don’t even have incontrovertible proof that God doesn’t exist in the #2 understanding of existence; that’s where faith must come in.

    As a Christian, I believe that God exists in our common-sense understanding of that word (#1) or else as you say (#4). However, I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to say, as you do, “God simply cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence.” That statement needs to be qualified because you are not the authority on God’s existence. Can we at least agree on the following?

    It is likely that God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence.

  22. czf

    “God simply cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence.”

    “God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence.”

    I see very little difference in these two statements. What’s really the dispute, here?

  23. GCC

    Thanks for continuing the discursion all.

    Of course, I am and was aware of the “Rainbow Covenant,” yet still maintain(ed) that no covenant defines or restricts what God is – least of all the Rainbow Covenant. So naturally, I think the assertion that “Genesis chapter 9…explains how a covenant can define God” is unsupported, neither by reason nor by the text itself. However, I am interested to learn how – even if we could make up a covenant and define all the terms ourselves – any covenant could possibly define any of its parties – especially God. So please do elaborate on this assertion if you like.

    Here is why I think a covenant does not and cannot define God: As has been correctly pointed out, a covenant is essentially a contract. Contracts are about behavior, not identity. Furthermore, contracts are only actually binding to the extent that each party chooses to maintain his/her obligations under the contract (how much more so when one party to the contract is the ultimate arbiter of is-ness!). The contract in no way affects the parties’ inherent ability to perform their obligations under the contract, nor does it affect the parties’ ability to not perform their obligations. It seems obvious that a contract in no way whatsoever defines the nature of either of the parties to the contract, but rather only has the ability (to the extent they willingly participate) to affect the behavior of the parties and their relationship to each other.

    In order for a contract to define – even partially – its parties, it would need to be something like this: The covenant of marriage makes it physically impossible for a husband and wife to be unfaithful to each other. Obviously, the real covenant of marriage does no such thing. Now let’s apply this to the Rainbow Covenant. Does the existence of the covenant mean that God since that point has been unable to destroy the world? I would suggest the answer to that question is, No. Indeed, I want the answer to that question to be, No. The reason for this is that a covenant that creates literal and “physical” limitations that make a party unable to break the covenant is no covenant at all. A covenant has also been described as a promise, but an agreement that quite literally forces one or more party by restricting the parties’ essence and being is no promise at all – a man is not faithful to his wife merely by the fact that he does not stray if he is locked in his house with no visitors for his entire marriage. If the Rainbow Covenant rendered God incapable of destroying the world, why would we even concern ourselves with remembering it – or more directly, what would be the need for the promise? (As a side note, if God were incapable of destroying the world I would argue that is no God at all.) It has been stated that by entering into a covenant God is constraining Godself. This is simply mistaken. God may very well choose to enter into a covenant that restricts God’s behavior or relationship with/to creation, but that in no way constrains what God is and what God is capable of. This distinction between what we understand as God’s relationship to creation and God Godself has been key throughout this discursion.

    I really appreciate your observation about how we use peoples’ names within a context of condescension, etc. I know I would do well to bear that in mind more often, and I assume others would too. Thanks for bringing that up, it’s really something worth contemplating.

    I probably haven’t been as clear as I could have been about this, but it is important to understand that when I say things like, “God cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence,” I am referring to my conception of God – a limitless God that, necessarily cannot be defined. (The Fourth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language contains the following definition of the word “definition”: “a determination of outline, extent, or limits.” Obviously, that does not fit a limitless God.) Yes, my conception of God as limitless is part of what leads to my statements like the one mentioned above. Another part is my conception that God is the creator of all things, and that existence is one of those things.

    Based on the fact that I’m openly working off of my own (although by no means limited to me, nor dreamed up by me) conception of God, I’m not sure how it is possible to be intellectually dishonest when I say, “God cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence.” I am fully aware that there are people who think God can be defined. And, as I’ve mentioned before I’m interested to learn about those people’s conceptions of God. One reason why I’m interested to hear about this sort of thing is that to disagree with the above statement one must really disagree with the premises – i.e. God is limitless and creator of everything – and it’s fascinating to me to think of people seeing God as otherwise.

    Based on what you’ve just written here, it seems like you think that God is a part of creation (i.e. God exists as your #1 – real existence). But that is difficult to reconcile with the notion that God is non-created. How could something non-created be a part of that which is created? (Also, see above about God not being love and love’s source, and the metaphor of speech as it relates to the difference between source and product.) Alternatively, you might believe that existence is not a part of creation, and thus God can exist as your #1 without being a part of creation. But in that case, God would not have created everything. And, if God did not create everything, it seems that God can’t really be the God of everything. And, if God is not the God of everything, it seems this God of yours is undeserving of worship.

    Now, I expect you would agree with me, and go further to say that is not your conception of God. This might then lead you to talk about how “God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence.” And that would be a description of God as, in the words of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge.” It seems to me that would include the experience and knowledge of existence. So, if God “transcends our understanding [– that is our experience and knowledge –] of existence,” how can God “exist in the sense that we understand existence?” I echo CZF here, are you really saying that my statement is intellectually dishonest and then making a virtually identical statement, suggesting we can agree on it? In fact, I do think we agree. So, what’s going on here? What am I missing? Is it that you’re treating the names you suggest belong to God above as more than metaphor? If someone were to see them as more than metaphor, I can see why they would have trouble with contention that God cannot be defined. Or, as was mentioned by someone else above, if we say that God walked the Earth for a certain number years, we have defined God. Indeed, any participation as a part of creation (be it a name, incarnation, etc.) defines – and thus limits – God. I recently read that it was reported in 2001 that a group of Baptists separated themselves from the Texas Baptist Convention based on their belief that God is a gendered (male) being. I suspect those folks might have some trouble understanding God as indefinable. The last example is obviously extreme, but it illustrates the point that when we move away from understanding our statements, literature, etc. about God as metaphor, we seem to be moving away from that which is truly God.

    Finally, you correctly point out that I am not the authority on God. Obviously, no one is an authority on the identity of God, let alone the authority. Indeed, my contention is that it is actually impossible for anyone to be such an authority because the requisite knowledge and experience is outside creation. As Rabbi Joseph Albo famously said, “If I knew God, I would be God.” And that’s largely the thrust of this post, as indicated by the last line in the question: Which is more concerning, saying God does not exist, or saying I know this particular thing is God?

  24. Grant, there are at least two central pieces of a covenant: the agreement itself that includes the terms and conditions, and whether or not the contract is upheld. After all, what good is a covenant if it is not upheld?

    You’ve given a lot of attention to ability of one to enter a contract, but little to no attention to the significance of whether or not a covenant is upheld. If a covenant is made, then whether or not one upholds the terms and conditions says a lot about their thoughts and behavior, which is the manifestation of their character, which ultimately defines their identity. If one chooses to enter a contract, the act itself doesn’t define them (“obvious” as you mentioned). However, whether or not one upholds the terms and conditions of the contract – the agreed upon constraints promised not to be violated – define them.

    In regard to this matter, I think I understand what it is that you believe, but I’d argue that you’re ignoring the ways in which God has revealed Himself, and their implications – as has been previously mentioned by various others. By choosing to establish the Rainbow Covenant, God gave all the living creatures of the earth His word that He would constrain His capabilities. It is a covenant God has upheld, which reveals and defines God’s character and identity, at least to some extent.

    Also, are you suggesting the God isn’t Godself in relation to His creation? Are you suggesting dichotomy in the identity of God?

  25. GCC

    OK, I see what you’re saying. This is the same thing as all of the other things mentioned as having ben revealed in certain religions. And, far from ignoring them, I’ve addressed them as probably accurate reprsentations of God’s relationship to creation. Behavior (e.g. entering into or keeping a covenant – which both tell us equally but different things about behavior) is an example. And, in the case of the Rainbow Covenant, I’ll say again, that knowing how God relates to creation or behaves is not the same thing as knowing what (or even who) God is. Not at all.

    Still though, it’s clearly possible to think that God can be defined, and apparently specifically by this covenant. So, based on the Rainbow Covenant, how would you define God?

    I’m certainly not saying that God isn’t God. There’s no reason why one can’t accurately say God is God. And of course, that’s not a definition.

  26. Terrence

    You say, “And, in the case of the Rainbow Covenant, I’ll say again, that knowing how God relates to creation or behaves is not the same thing as knowing what (or even who) God is. Not at all.” So, again, are you suggesting that God is not Godself in relation to His creation? Are you suggesting dichotomy in the identity of God?

  27. GCC

    No. I don’t know how you’re getting to that. Maybe I’m missing something. What do you mean by God not being Godself in relation to creation and how that would suggest dichotomy? I’m not following your thinking. Can you clarify?

  28. Holly

    Quoting CZF:

    “God simply cannot exist in the sense that we understand existence.”

    “God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence.”

    I see very little difference in these two statements. What’s really the dispute, here?


    Chris and Grant, I wanted to reply to your assertions that I was merely restating Grant’s position while arguing his point. First off, I said, “It is likely that God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence,” but I now want to qualify that statement even more: “It is possible that God’s existence transcends our understanding of existence.”

    There’s a difference between stating something with 100% conviction, as Grant does when he says, “God simply cannot exist in the way we understand existence,” and my statement that it’s possible that we don’t understand the essence of God’s existence. The way Grant puts it, he is saying that he KNOWS that we don’t understand God’s essence of existence; all I’m saying is that we don’t know that we know what God’s essence of existence is. In fact, God may very well exist as in my #1 understanding of existence.

    My #1 understanding of existence does not only apply to created things; all it means is that something is real and not imaginary.

  29. Grant, how could God be Godself independent of humans and then not Godself in relation to humans? If God is Godself, then it doesn’t matter who God is in relation to what, it matters what God is Godself indeed.

  30. GCC


    I think you’re right. God is Godself no matter what. God is God even without creation.

    I’m not saying and haven’t said that God is not God in relation to creation. I’m not totally sure how you’ve come to that conclusion, but I think it might be from my statement that the way in which God relates to creation is not what God is. That is not at all saying that God is not God as God relates to creation. Specifically, saying, “knowing how God relates to creation or behaves is not the same thing as knowing what (or even who) God is.” Is not saying that God is not God in relation to creation. (I don’t know how it could be.) It is simply saying that the fact that God does things (e.g. creates) does not tell us anything about God’s essence or precisely what God is – it does not define God. An earthly example of this would be this: I do things (e.g. talk), but similarly the fact that I talk does not tell anyone else anything about what I am. Talking doesn’t make me human, just as creating, loving, judging, promising, etc. etc. do not make God God. In any case, saying that God is indefinable, cannot be defined by God’s interaction with creation is not at all to suggest that God is not God in any sense, at any time, or in any context. Quite to the contrary, it underscores the true “otherness” of independence of God, because it does not attempt to force creation into a definition of God.

    This brings me back to my question. If God is constrained by and can be defined by a covenant, what is the definition? The Rainbow Covenant is a fine example (but any other would be fine too), so how, with that as a starting point, would you define God?

  31. What does it mean that God could flood the earth?

    Why did God flood the earth?

    Why did God save Noah and his family?

    Why did God make the Rainbow Covenant?

    What does it mean when God upholds a covenant?

    What essence of someone is not revealed by what they think, say and do?

  32. GCC

    OK, so again, based on all that, how would you define God?

  33. I usually don’t ask others questions so that I can answer them, but I’ll humor myself. Although these questions could yield a non-exhaustive list of descriptions, I’ll just provide one word descriptions for each question in the order that they appear: All-powerful. Jealous. Righteous. Gracious. Faithful. None.

    Now, I understand that it could be asked from where did these things come from and who or what gave them definition. My answer would be God, which would be saying something like God is God. And, that may beget the question who is God or how is God defined, which may beget the answer God is “The Source of All Things” (obviously this could be disbelieved). But, that doesn’t mean God is all-powerful, jealous, righteous, gracious and faithful before or after God is “The Source of All Things.” God is the same yesterday, today and forever (obviously this could be disbelieved), which means God’s essence is unchanging, which means God’s character is unchanging. Saying that God is “The Source of All Things” is the same as saying God is all-powerful, jealous, righteous, gracious and faithful – it is a definition of God, but with more vagueness.

    Ultimately, the way character is revealed or manifested – the way it exists – defines the essence of its master. The only reason people are able to ascribe any definition to God (which we all do in some fashion) is through way we believe and interpret what God has done and not done – the way God has or has not revealed Godself, the way God has or has not manifested Godself, the way God exists or does not exist Godself. Because we are not God, it doesn’t make our definitions of God inherently incorrect. And, because we can provide definitions of God, it doesn’t make our definitions inherently correct. However, just because we cannot know whether or not our definitions of God are correct with 100% certitude, it doesn’t mean that they cannot be correct, or partially correct. All this to say, God is not indefinable, God is not fully definable.

    You say, “In any case, saying that God is indefinable, cannot be defined by God’s interaction with creation is not at all to suggest that God is not God in any sense, at any time, or in any context. Quite to the contrary, it underscores the true ‘otherness’ of independence of God, because it does not attempt to force creation into a definition of God.” So, are you suggesting that we should not attempt to define God? Are you saying that because we may “force” an incorrect definition of God, that we should acquiesce to non-definition of God?

  34. GCC

    Character does not define essence or being. This is mostly because character is only expressed and perceived through behavior (for instance, when we say someone is jealous what we mean is that they behave jealously). Behavior does not define essence. Essence does have some effect on behavior though. Here’s an example: Lying. If I lie, that fact does not make me a human being. But the fact that I am a human being does make me able to lie. Here’s an example of how this applies to God: Creating (i.e. being The Source of All Things) does not make God God. But being God does make God able to create. Does this make sense?

    I don’t see at all how saying that God is The Source of All Things is the same thing as saying that God is something that is clearly not the source of all things. Not only is there no causal relationship, but the two things seem to contradict each other. Neither do I see ho saying that that God is something’s (or anything’s) source is the same as saying that God is that thing. (See above on why God cannot be love and love’s source and the analogy of speech and our brains.) It is also important to understand though that saying God is The Source of All Things is simply a more elegant way of saying God created everything, so even that is not a definition of God’s essence. And I think you would agree that everything that God created is not God. But to suggest that saying God is The Source of All Things is the same as saying God is “all-powerful, jealous, gracious, and faithful” requires one also to say that God is rocks, wood, evil, death, dogs, horniness, pornographic, young, old, slutty, love, unfaithful, weakness, etc., in order to be consistent. (And I don’t think you’re a pantheist).

    I would suggest that the fact that your statement about God is composed entirely of adjectives seems to underscore the point that God’s true essence has no definition. Definitions contain nouns. To that extent, “God is love” is a better definition. Also, the idea of a partial definition of God just sounds strange to me. Definitions, it seems, are not just concise but also complete.

    I’m not exactly saying that we should not attempt to define God. But because it is impossible it does seem to be a bit futile. I suppose that a benefit of trying to define God is that doing so tells us a lot about what God is not. So to a certain extent it keeps us from idolatry as I mentioned above. And I don’t think it’s a matter of acquiescing to non-definition of God. I’m not really sure how that’s even possible. I think I’ve said all this already, but this simply comes down to whether or not one’s conception of God is that of a God who created everything. If one believes God created everything, logic and reason simply will not allow for a definition of God. Furthermore, if one believes there is and can be only one God, then reason and logic don’t allow for a definable God. Further still, a definable God cannot be unlimited, so logic and reason force to believers of a defined god be reject their god’s omnipotence.

    Having said that, I do agree with you that our attempts to understand God through our own attempts at definition are not inherently or completely incorrect or false. But this is only the case to the extent that we understand we are using metaphor, and that our “definitions” of God are true in the way that metaphors are true, and thus aren’t really definitions at all. I assume you don’t think God is literally Jealous(y). (I feel it must be a noun for it to work as a definition here.) If you do, it would seem to imply that you don’t think God created everything. Again, I don’t think you believe that God is literally Jealousy, but I’ve mentioned the metaphor thing a number of times in this post so I guess I’m not totally sure.

  35. If essence has some effect on behavior (as you say), and behavior expresses character (as you say), then how does charcter not define essence?

    Sure, lying doesn’t make you human, it makes you a liar – one who has told a lie. God creating doesn’t make God God, it makes God creator – creator (n) being a description. This is an example of essence revealed, manifested, existing.

    Grant, I challenge you define anything completely. And, no adjectives.

  36. John

    Terrence, your last point happens to be what Holly and I were talking about last night–under Grant’s limitations no essence of anything living could ever be defined.

    Verse for y’all. I stumbled on this the other day–perhaps it will interest you, perhaps not. Exodus 24.9-11: “Moses then went up with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and they beheld the God of Israel. Under his feet there appeared to be sapphire tilework, as clear as the sky itself. Yet he did not smite these chosen Israelites. After gazing on God, they could still eat and drink.”

    This was not a cloud, burning bush, etc.–it was God himself. They saw his essence and comprehended it. That the elders did not die from the sheer glory of his essence clearly struck the writer. One presumes that they told others about God’s essence after descending the mountain. So while God’s essence may be incomprehensible to us today, in the past the opposite may have been true–if Grant is willing to believe that Exodus may contain literal truths!

  37. GCC


    How does behavior not define essence if essence has an effect on behavior? (I’ve left out the middle step of character to avoid confusion.) (Also, “effect” isn’t quite the right term – even if it’s mine. As is clear below, essence can allow for behavior but there’s not a direct effect.) Well, to start with there is no causal relationship from behavior to essence (and not even really the other way either). As an example, take a stone falling down a hill. Before it fell it was a stone. After it stops it will be a stone. While it’s falling it is a stone. Its essence is that of a stone. The behavior of falling in no way changes its essence as a stone, nor does it cause its essence to be that of a stone. Its essence as a stone has, to a certain extent, enabled the behavior of falling (though not caused it). As a stone it has a certain hardness and density which allows gravity to have a affect on it without the concern of wind resistance, and also allows it to remaining falling despite possible obstructions in its path. But the fact is that regardless of the behavior, the stone is a stone. The behavior is transitory; its essence is not. And that’s key for my understanding of essence here. Essence is not transitory.

    And so it is with lying. A human being may lie, or not lie. A human being may lie for a time, then stop, and then start again. The human being’s human essence has enabled the lying and the “not lying.” But regardless of whether or not lying was taking place the human being was/is always/still a human being.

    I think the lying example may have uncovered a communication problem we might be having. It seems that you consider the behavior (or character) to be the essence. I reach that conclusion from your statement that lying makes one a liar. That’s true, but it’s not my point relative to essence. And (as elucidated by the examples both above and below), I disagree that a behavior is essence or defines essence, if for no other reason than the fact that behavior and character are transitory and essence is not. (Interestingly, that statement “lying makes one a liar” also goes to my point regarding definitions because saying a liar is one who lies is circular, and not really a definition.) In any case, is it accurate to say that that you think that if someone lies his or her essence is “liar?”

    The important thing for me here is whether we define (in the context of people for example) “essence” as our character or our being. To put it in the form of a question, are people, at their very core when you strip away everything that’s external to them liars, givers, lovers, etc., or are they simply human beings? Obviously, I think it’s the latter. And I apply the same thinking to God. Anyone is, of course, welcome to think that people boil down to their behavior and are defined by it. And they can apply that to God too. But, in the case of God I think it becomes problematic. For instance, if the act of creation defines God then God is not God without creation – in a sense, that definition has created a dependent god. I don’t believe that kind of god is worthy of worship. Additionally, if behavior defines God’s essence then that essence can change (like a person’s) with God’s behavior. I don’t believe in that kind of god either.

    You mentioned how “God creating…makes God creator” and that is then God’s essence. (Again we see the circular thinking like lying making one a liar. And it’s worth noting that you freely admit that the act of creating does not make God God. And that’s my point – none of God’s behavior makes God God. So in reality, I’m not completely sure on what point you’re disagreeing with me.)

    Here’s an example that helps illustrate my disagreement with the position that “creator” is God’s essence. Jenny cuts her hair. The fact that she cuts her hair does not make her a human being. But the fact that she is a human being allows her to cut her hair. I think this is a better example than lying, because suggesting that Jenny cutting her hair makes her a haircutter is much more obviously circular than saying that lying makes me a liar. But in reality it is the same thinking that draws both conclusions. So, if Jenny cuts her hair, is her essence that of a haircutter? That’s precisely the thinking that gets one to say God created so God’s essence is creator – the only difference is the act of creation seems grandiose and seems to fit our popular ideas about God, so it feels better to say it. Of course, that feeling doesn’t make it accurate.

    I can see how one might conclude that behavior defines essence when the example given is something emotional like lying (or grandiose like creating). But when the behavior is more mundane like cutting hair, it becomes much more difficult. Both lying and grooming are behaviors. So, if you want to say that behavior defines essence feel free. But, if you also want to be consistent you would need to treat all behavior the same way, and define the essence of someone who cuts his or her hair as a haircutter. (That would result in each being having many essences too I would think – and that’s another problem when it comes to my conception of God.) The alternative, of course, is to recognize that essence is much deeper and elemental than behavior, such that behavior cannot define essence. In any case, I would be very interested to see an example when behavior does define essence.

    So, for a definition…

    First of all, I see a challenge that seems to be designed to demonstrate that nothing can be defined as a challenge that makes my point. Obviously, if nothing can be defined then certainly God cannot be defined. But I don’t want to skirt this so I’ll give one.

    Second, my conception of God as uncreated makes the concern of the defining anything that is created logically inconsistent with the real discussion. To compare a definition of the created with a hypothetical definition of the uncreated makes for a false analogy.

    Third, please notice that I didn’t say that definitions couldn’t contain adjectives. I merely pointed out that a list of only adjectives after the noun to be defined is not a definition. Of course definitions contain adjectives. But it seems that part of a definition is something that allows for comparison, and nouns cannot be compared to adjectives.

    Here’s a link to a very nice definition of “metaphor”: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/metaphor
    In a pleasant coincidence, the first entry uses as an example a reference to God.

  38. GCC


    Thanks for the quote.

    I’m not sure how you reach the conclusion that because I suggest that something that is not a part of creation can’t be defined based on creation, that nothing within creation can be defined.

    Regarding the quote from Exodus:

    It’s an interesting passage. There are lots of things to say about it. I’m curious what translation you’ve provided. It is clear that the translator doesn’t deem a literal translation necessary – possibly indicating that (in the mind of the translator at least) something figurative has taken place. (This is most clear where the translation here is about “smiting.” The Hebrew refers to God not “lay[ing] His hand.” Also, the rendering of “etzilei b’nei Israel” as “these chosen Israelites” is a rather free way of describing great or noble ones. The translator also seems to have the motive to bring the elders back down before they eat and drink, seeming to emphasize the importance of not being able to survive an encounter with God. But in the best translation I know of – which is the Judaica Press Tanach Series done by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg – and a not so good one – the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh – seem to have the eating and drinking happening in the presence of God. The NIV, NRSV, NASB, KJV, and others I’m sure, agree. And they tend to agree with the “hand” thing and the “chosen” vs “noble” thing as well.) I happen to find the translation of “smiting” to be good, but good from an interpretive sense. I think that the text does mean that some sort of death or something should have befallen those who beheld God, but that’s not precisely what the text says. The fact that they did not die also seems to underscore the idea that their perception of God was not literal. There’s commentary explaining that they did indeed die as a result of this vision, but the death was delayed in an effort to no dampen the joy of receiving the Torah.

    There are lots of ways to understand this text. For instance, I have a Bible that includes (rather text-critical) commentary about how the description of the sapphire colored brick pattern serves as an ancient explanation for the color of the sky. Some would say that this “vision” of God was like other prophetic visions. It’s also possible to read this text in conjunction with its sister text in Deuteronomy, and see the two versions acting in concert to give us multiple perspectives on the revelation at Sinai, each one pointing to a certain relationship to the divine (this one being tremendous awe and joy, Deuteronomy’s being awe and fear.) One can also see allusions to bondage, liberation, etc. But one only gets that sort of value out of the text when the literal elements are seen as allusions to other things (context is always important for the Bible – even other books), and the power and significance of metaphor is seen. This is one of those texts that a Bible critic might point out as an inconsistency. But such a critic is merely falling into the same trap of literalism.

    As far as my reading of this text is concerned I don’t see it as a problem for my conception of God. And I don’t see anything in it that indicates clearly that God was different then. (Indeed, I would have a very hard time demonstrating that something was different in us or God at some point in history that would allow us to comprehend God’s essence. It seems that would require some sort of change in creation – or possibly in God.) Most simply, I would suggest that seeing a concrete image of God in this text and that image as something that the Bible wishes to convey is to miss the forest for the trees. There are lots of times when God is anthropomorphized (with a mouth, feet, hands, ears, arms, eyes, and a heart) in the Bible. But that same Bible also goes out of its way to emphasize that there is no form to God. These two things seem to contradict each other. How can God have hands and no form? The answer is simple. One is metaphor and the other is not (or they both are!). So, when we set out to determine which is metaphor and which is not, we use our intellect. For a number of reasons (unity, omnipresence, etc.) I believe our intellect tells us that a true God cannot actually have form, so the anthropomorphisms must be the metaphors that are not to be taken literally. And of course, centuries and centuries of Biblical commentary and scholarship agree with me.

    What about the men “seeing” God? There’s another interesting point of translation. The one given here says the men “beheld” God. The best one I know says they “perceived” God. I see one the first version as a much more literal (physical, visual, etc.) encounter. It seems to imply something rather concrete. But what does it mean to perceive? That can mean a lot of things. In fact, all 73 of those who were there could all have described their experience as having “perceived” God while at the same time having had very different experiences and having “perceived” very different things. I think you could probably say the same thing if it’s translated as “beheld.” So to me, the interesting thing in this context is that these men (including Moses who said a lot of things in regard to God) apparently “saw” God, yet we are not then provided with a description of that God. Why not if God was so clear to perceive? It’s also elucidating to see that the text employs a simile-type comparison when referring to the blue bricks and clarity of the sky. (Again which translation one uses either underscores of diminishes this point, but it is present in the one here as well as the three I’m looking at.) The text seems to be indicating that it’s not a literal description because everything is “like” (in your translation “appeared to be”) something, and not the thing itself. (The NRSV translates it with an added level of vagueness by saying it was “something like…”)

    As for whether or not I see literal truth in Exodus, I don’t think that understanding this passage as something other than a literal, historical account of a group of men seeing God’s body precludes me from seeing literal truth in Exodus. But I do think that focusing on the literal, historical elements might cause us to miss deeper, more important meaning (e.g. the symbolism of bondage and freedom in the context of the revelation of God and his Torah). The other thing that’s interesting to me is that if we focus on the literal/historical, we run the risk of searching after confirmation of those facts rather than searching after the larger truth and figuring out how we can apply what we have been able to grasp of the larger truth as we work to better the world.

  39. John

    I’ll let Terrence continue on the point of defining the essence of things living, if he likes.

    On Exodus, you’re clearly trying hard to explain away the possibility of the elders actually seeing God (perceive vs. beheld, etc.). You argue that our intellect tells us God cannot have form and the lines *must* therefore be metaphorical…but isn’t that just asserting that human intellect is superior to divine revelation? This is either suggestive of sola scriptura (at best) or outright Deism (at worst).

    I’m not saying that God was different then–I’m saying that those elders, unlike us, may have seen him directly, and that experience may have directed their descriptions of him. Exodus insinuates over and again how the Israelites were not to look upon God, lest they die; only Moses could, not even Aaron; passover and the angel of death, etc. That for one singular moment others were permitted to look upon God in safety in this context is *highly* significant; that they may have transmitted their experience orally/in writing is doubly so.

    Really, I’ve pretty much lost interest in the whole definition problem you propose. What I’m now interested is your exegetical approach. I sense an absolute refusal to accept that lines in the Bible could have specific, literal meaning. If the insinuation about your ability to find literal truth is true, give me a line of scripture you willing to take literally.

    Finally, I appreciate your point about locating other meanings–I’m no Biblical literalist by any stretch of the imagination–but what is this about locating “the larger truth?” Isn’t God the *largest* Truth? Just curious…

  40. GCC

    John, I agree with you that the more interesting thing at this point is the biblical passage, interpretation, etc. I think you’re right about this passage being interesting and significant too. I’ll see if I can tighten up my thinking on it and move it to a different post.

    One thing regarding literal truth is this: I find it rather unnecessary/unimportant in most cases. E.g. An historical Abraham would be nice but it’s unnecessary, the faith is the same either way.

  41. Perhaps you assumed too much regarding my use of the word “essence.” In this matter, I’m only referring to spiritual essence. What one does confirms their essence. What one does is the outward manifestation of their essence. For these reasons, one’s essence is defineable (at least to some extent) by what they do, not because it is solely their essence, but because it is their essence revealed in practice.

    Yes, you didn’t say that definitions couldn’t contain adjectives. But, you did say, “the fact that your statement about God is composed entirely of adjectives seems to underscore the point that God’s true essence has no definition,” and I find that argument premature (it was not an exhaustive attempt) and wrong (see above).

    Further, I’d like to address that you did say, “Definitions, it seems, are not just concise but also complete.” This was the basis of my challenge, not the adjective piece. I didn’t say nothing can be defined. I said nothing can be defined fully. My challenge to you is designed to prove that God can be defined, although incompletely.

  42. GCC

    That clears things up. We were talking about somewhat different things. Now though, I’m curious what you mean by “spiritual essence.”

    And I’m still curious about your definition of God – mostly because I think the majority of religious thought would argue that it can’t be done. (Including: priests, monks, rabbis, theologians, historians, saints, taoist monks, imams, plenty of lay thinkers, etc. – going back at least to 500 BCE and continuing through today.)

    Regarding incomplete definitions: For me, if something isn’t fully God, it isn’t God. Simple as that.

  43. Some of my entries above are intended to begin to describe spiritual essence. At this point, I think it would be redundant to explain my philosophy on such matters.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that we can provide a full definition of God. I am saying that there is a definition of God to be had, and our definitions, although incomplete and perhaps inaccurate at times, are our attempts to desribe God more fully and accurately.

    I agree with your statement that if something isn’t fully God, then it is not God. Yeah, that is quite simple. That doesn’t change anything that I previously stated.

  44. GCC

    The reason I’m curious what you mean by spiritual essence is that I see the fact that we have a spirit as a component of being human. If were only bodies we would not be human. If we were only spirit we would not be human. If either thing is separated from the other we’re no longer talking about humans. Because I view essence as sort of the last thing we boil things down to, I don’t think that we have a spiritual essence. Rather, our essence is human. (To be clear, I am not saying we have no spirit/soul. Quite the opposite.)

    While I can understand the thinking behind an incomplete definition (though I reject it), I can’t at all understand the idea of an inaccurate definition. How is it possible for a definition to be inaccurate? If a statement is inaccruate it is not a definition at all. It may be intended as a definition, but it is not one.

    Saying that if something isn’t fully God, then it isn’t God contradicts your previous statements. If we provide something other than a full definition of God, then what we’ve defined isn’t fully God. And if we say that anything that isn’t fully God isn’t God, then what we’ve defined isn’t God. And if what we’ve defined isn’t God then we have not defined God. So, logically at least, when you agree that something that isn’t fully God isn’t God, you’ve rejected the idea of a partial definition of God. And since you seem to say we only can other offer partial definitions of God, you, logically at least, reject any definition of God.

  45. I believe that we are spiritual beings that have physical bodies. Our bodies are conduits of our spiritual nature. Both our spiritual and physical natures help define what it means to be a human being. This does not change my position on what I wrote regarding spiritual essence.

    People provide definitions all the time. That doesn’t mean people’s definitions are accurate, it means that people subscribe to particular definitions. If I disagreed with someone’s definition, I wouldn’t say to them “that is not a definition.” They would contest that it is a definition. So, instead, I would cut to the chase and say, “that is an inaccurate definition,” knowing that a debate will likely ensue. I think this is only something of personal style though.

    The real heart of the matter is that because our ability to define God is limited, we are therefore, at times, prone to inaccurate and incomplete definitions of God. God has an accurate and complete definition apart from our definitions of God. My position is that we can provide definitions of God, some of which may describe God more accurately or fully, but we cannot provide a full definition of God. Otherwise, we’d be God.

    If God is righteous and the arbiter of righteousness, but I fail to understand, believe and/or articulate other definitions of God, then my definition of God is incomplete. If God deems abortion as unrighteous, and I argue and believe that abortion is righteous in God’s eyes, then my definition of God is inaccurate. My definition of God does not change the complete and accurate definition of God. There is a complete and accurate definition of God to be had. In an unredeemed state, which I’d argue we are all in, we are incapable of knowing such.

  46. Beyond divine attributes, do we mean the same thing when we use the word “God”? I bet there are family resemblances, at best.
    In case you are interested, I’ve just posted on this question at http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/what-does-god-mean/

  47. There is a recently published e-book: “My God,” which was dictated to Robert R. Nielsen, a “channeler” in 1994 by the Supreme Being. It has been kept secret until now. It contains answers to millions of questions, yet it is only 45 pages. If you are really interested in the God of gods, then you will enjoy this book he transcribed at the direction of the Creator of All That Is, or ever can be. The site has a subscription box and if you subscribe there are many “freebies” available to you. Go to http://www.mygodebook.com Once you read this free material you will want a copy of this fantastic work for your personal use. Thanks and enjoy

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