The Magic Three-Letter Word

One day when I was in elementary school, I asked my teacher if he believed in God. For weeks, he had been telling us all these nice stories about Yahweh and his people (we used a sanitized children’s Bible, without the sex and violence), but when it came to his own beliefs, he tended to waffle somewhat. When I asked him up-front, he went to the blackboard and spelled out the three big letters “G-O-D.” Then he inserted an extra “o” in between. God is that which is good. And there sure are good things in life. Therefore, God exists.

Ever since then, I’ve noticed that there is something funny going on with God. Not with the Lord himself, but with his name. The name of He who is that He is, as He introduced himself to Moses when He appeared in the burning bush. Believers and unbelievers alike have been discussing the existence of God since time immemorial. But that raises the question: whose existence are we talking about? For some people, “God” refers to a supernatural creature with human-like emotions and thoughts, perhaps even a white-bearded fellow residing on a heavenly throne. For others, “God” is a transcendent bodiless spirit, or a mysterious impersonal force permeating the world, or not really a being himself, but rather the Ground of all Being (whatever that means). And for people such as my school teacher, “God” is simply a symbol for love and kindness. In his latest book The Great Unknown, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy defines God as “that which we cannot know.” And because there will always be things about which we are ignorant, “God” will always exist.

But if everyone just defines “God” according to their own taste, is it still meaningful to discuss the existence of God? In fact, why are discussions about the definition of God so intractable? Sometimes they seem like the semantic equivalent of a dispute about an ambiguous will: who is the rightful owner of the three letters “G-o-d”? The bearded fellow of old may be dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, but who or what did he name as his heir?

Words and labels

Words are labels that we attach to things in the world. That, put very crudely, is the traditional view of language. There are different ways to anchor the meaning of a word in natural language. Sometimes we give a description, like in a dictionary, and sometimes we give what is called an ostensive definition: we simply point at objects to which the word refers (dogs, tables, grass). In other instances, there is no way to define a word except to use it in practice. Some words as easy enough to define, because they pick out tangible objects you can point to (such as the sun, a corkscrew, or Donald Trump), while others are more abstract or ambiguous (concepts like art, democracy, or emotion). The relationship between words and objects, as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out, is at bottom arbitrary. Meaning is a matter of convention and common usage. If tomorrow we collectively decide to swap the words “table” and “chair,” we don’t need to mess up our furniture. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” as Juliet put it to Romeo. (Except, as the great philosopher Homer Simpson added, if you were to call them “crapweeds.”)

Language is an imperfect tool for describing the world, and sometimes ambiguities and misunderstandings arise. Is an almond a nut? Botanists will say it isn’t, but cooks will venture it is. Did the dinosaurs go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous era? Not if you’re counting birds, says the evolutionary biologist. In most cases, however, we are not particularly hung up on specific labels or meanings. If confusion arises, we negotiate our labels, agree to adopt a new definition, or just stipulate one for the time being. For instance, if we can all agree that birds are included in the class of “dinosaurs,” then the claim that dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous is, strictly speaking, false. But you could instead decide to reserve the term “dinosaurs” for the group of non-avian reptiles that went extinct 65 million years ago. This is just a matter of convention. Obviously, you don’t bring a T. Rex back to life by the sheer force of semantics.

Humpty Dumpty

But what about the word “God”? In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice has an encounter with the talking egg Humpty Dumpty. At some point, Humpty Dumpty uses the word “glory” in a quirky way that doesn’t seem to make any sense. In the delightfully absurd dialogue that ensues, it turns out that Humpty Dumpty uses “glory” in the sense of “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” Alice, however, points out that this is not at all what “glory” means, and one cannot just arbitrarily upend the conventional definition of a word. But Humpty Dumpty is unfazed, and snorts derisively: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” But can you make words “mean so many different things,” asks Alice? Of course, says Humpty Dumpty: “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”

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Humpty Dumpty and Alice

Now, if theologians have had to pay “God” (the word) for extra linguistic labor, they must have collectively spent a considerable amount of money over the centuries. The God of old was a powerful person with thoughts and intentions, capable of intervening in the world at will. But in contemporary theology, all of that is in disarray. Is “God” still a person of sorts, or rather an impersonal force, an entity, a process, even an absence? Does he intervene in the world or not? Is he immanent, eternal, transcendent, absolute? Even the fact of his “existence” is no longer taken for granted by theologians, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word. In the process theology of Alfred N. Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin, God is no longer timeless and immutable, but rather a becoming being, an end point in the future which is “pulling” the whole universe towards it. Theologians such as Paul Tillich and Denys Turner argue that the everyday concept of “existence” does not even apply to God at all. God is not so much a mere being that exists, but rather the “ground of Being-Itself.” An influential contemporary theologian, David Bentley Hart, takes up this line of argument in his book The Experience of God (2013), which has been hailed even by The Guardian as “the one theology book all atheists really should read.” For Hart, God is “beyond being” as well as “absolute Being in itself” (or rather its Ground?). We learn that this being-beyond-being is also the “transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends.” God is the causa in esse, pouring forth “actuality” into that which cannot exist by itself. In apophatic theology, “God” is by definition ineffable, and nothing positive can be affirmed about Him whatsoever. The three-letter-word is merely a placeholder for that which will forever transcend human understanding.

If the God of old were to read such theological tomes, He might well be stricken with existential angst: to be or not to be, that is the question indeed. As the theologian Raimundo Panikkar puts it: “God is so great that the greatness precludes existence.” But what’s the point of such abstruse abstractions? Why not use a different word to refer to the Ground of Being (whatever that is), to clear away confusion? And why not use the conventional labels for such things as moral goodness, human ignorance, or the laws of  nature, instead of co-opting the infinitely malleable term “God”?

In an ordinary discussion about the existence of X, you would first agree on a definition of X, and then proceed to investigate whether or not there is anything in reality corresponding to X. But “God” is no ordinary word. It reverberates with meaning, and that is precisely the point. Most theologians have come to realize that the traditional deity – a supernatural person who meddles in worldly affairs – has been superseded by science. So they are forced to relinquish some terrain. But what to do? Belief in God, as Daniel Dennett writes in Breaking the Spell, has joined forces over time with belief in belief in God, in other words, the conviction that believing in God is a desirable state of affairs. When theologians find that the old definitions of “God” have become too incredible to believe in, they try to find a suitable substitute, which allows to keep professing belief in the three-letter word. Perhaps “God” does not answer prayers after all, or perhaps he did not become flesh in the form of Jesus, or perhaps he did not create the world in a single miraculous act, including all the living species in their current form (as virtually every Christian until the 18th century believed). Perhaps he is not male, or not even a person, or perhaps we cannot even say that he is (whether or not we choose to engage with Bill Clinton’s metaphysical musings on the meaning of that word).

On the other hand, as “G-o-d” is emptied of all godness, and stripped of all its familiar attributes, he (or she, or it) becomes harder to embrace for the ordinary believer, and even for theologians themselves. But that’s no problem. As long as you keep using the same trio of letters “G-o-d,” you can make their definitions as arcane, abstract and obscure as they like, and still ensure that your audience will detect the echoes of millennia of religious mythology.

This is why theologians cannot afford to come clean and introduce a new term, because that would completely sever the umbilical cord with tradition. As the philosopher Robert McCauley wrote, sophisticated theologians want to purify the term “God” from any suggestion of anthropomorphism, but like Lot’s wife in the Old Testament, they cannot resist the temptation to look back. Even in the most sophisticated theologies, you see God’s human-like attributes shimmering through. For instance, by using bodily metaphors (pouring out, donating, supporting), David Bentley Hart evokes the notion of God as a loving caregiver. Not only does he persistently refer to this GoB (Ground of Being) with male pronouns in his book, but he also enjoins atheists and skeptics to fall down on their knees and “pray,” with a “patient openness to grace.” But how do you address the ineffable Ground of Being? What is the polite form of speech to use in the presence of  the infinite Absolute on which all that is contingent depends?

If liberal theologians honestly wanted to make a clean break with the anthropomorphic figure that people have been worshipping for millennia, they would abandon the word “God” itself, for the sake of semantic clarity. But they can’t. Their God is like the two-faced Roman god Janus. One face is intellectually sophisticated but unappealing: these are the arcane abstractions which keep theologians busy. The other face is familiar and human-like, but intellectually disreputable. The human face of God is the one that ordinary believers can address while praying, while the intellectualist face is the one trotted out when non-believers attack religion. Both faces are needed for the concept of “God” to survive. The tension between anthropomorphism and abstractness, between God and GoB, is the very point of theology, and it is a forlorn hope that it will ever be resolved.

Magic words

Many religious traditions profess belief in the magical power of words. Orthodox Jews never pronounce the name of their God (YHWH), but use some indirect form of address, for instance a description in terms of superlatives. In the gospel of John, which is inspired by Greek philosophy, God himself is identified with Logos, a creative power. Voodoo priests cast evil spells over people merely by uttering their name. In the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a miller’s daughter is forced to give away her firstborn child to an evil imp, unless she can guess his name. By learning someone’s name, you acquire power over that person.

Language can bewitch our intelligence, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose proposed antidote was the study of philosophy). And some words have magical powers. By retaining the empty shell “God,” and filling it up with whatever verbiage they can muster, theologians create the illusion of unity in multiplicity: deep down, it seems, we are all talking about the same thing. But in reality the myriad contradictory definitions of “God” have nothing to do which each other, apart from the label itself. So, does God exist? The question is pointless. God is surely dead, but in the hands of theologians, “God” is immortal.

Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a postdoc philosopher of science at Ghent University, Belgium. In 2011, he wrote his dissertation on pseudoscience, Here Be Dragons: Exploring the Hinterland of Science. On the same topic, he coedited Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, with Massimo Pigliucci. His most recent book is Seeking Untruth. The Quest for Beneficial Illusions (“Illusies voor gevorderden” in Dutch).
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Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a postdoc philosopher of science at Ghent University, Belgium. In 2011, he wrote his dissertation on pseudoscience, Here Be Dragons: Exploring the Hinterland of Science. On the same topic, he coedited Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, with Massimo Pigliucci. His most recent book is Seeking Untruth. The Quest for Beneficial Illusions (“Illusies voor gevorderden” in Dutch).

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