How can we talk about God?
For our distant ancestors, it was an easy question. They thought of God as being like a human, only bigger, more powerful, and immortal. He lived in the universe but hadn’t created it. He was finite. For them, talking about God was no more difficult than talking about Jeremiah or Sarah. They could attach a mental picture to the name “God.”
But for us, it’s not that easy. We think of God as being transcendent, infinite, and beyond our understanding. He does not have a physical body like we do. He’s not like anything we can know or understand.
So when we say “God exists” or “God is good,” what do we think we’re talking about? What meaning do we assign to the name “God”?
Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers have grappled with the problem for over a thousand years. In Medieval times, Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides took a whack at it, as did Thomas Aquinas. In our own time, Alvin Plantinga and other philosophers of religion have tried as well.
There are a lot of unreasonable answers to the question. There are also two reasonable answers that complement each other.
Among the unreasonable answers is that we’re not talking about anything. We’re just uttering nonsense. Many 20th-century thinkers held that view. Philosopher A.J. Ayer gave its most notorious formulation in his book Language, Truth, and Logic:
“To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”
By “literal” he means “empirically verifiable,” so in his own terms, Ayer isn’t completely wrong. But his view is unreasonable because statements about God influence everything from laws and social institutions to people’s behavior and their view of the universe. Its meaning might not be entirely clear, but it’s not nonsense.
As for the two reasonable answers, the first is that “God” means a Being (1) whose activities are described in the Bible and (2) whose attributes are discussed by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology. I omit other theistic faiths only because I don’t know their views about Divine transcendence.
Meaning typically connects one thing to another thing, neither of which has to be linguistic:
- An old song reminds me of my college girlfriend and is thereby meaningful to me.
- Dark clouds mean rain might be coming.
- “Ich liebe dich” means “I love you,” which in turn means “je t’aime.”
- The Bible says that God gave the Torah to Moses, so “God” means “the Being who gave the Torah to Moses.”
- If God is the first Being and the first Being created the world, it means that God created the world.
- If God is one, it means that God is not two or three.
Those are all statements that connect beliefs about God and thereby give meaning to the word “God” by the role the word has in the beliefs and in their connections.
The second reasonable answer is that “God” serves as a linguistic handle that connects our beliefs to other things. The other things might be known, unknown, or even unknowable.
Handles are words or phrases that let us think about complex subjects without needing to think of all their details. For example, “dog” lets you talk about dogs in general, without thinking about all the 330+ different breeds of dog. “The quadratic formula” lets you talk about a way to solve equations. You don’t need to know the formula to do it. You can talk about the formula as long as you know enough about it to use the phrase as a handle.
Likewise, we know or believe a few things about God: the Bible, theology, and so forth. That little bit of knowledge enables us to use the word “God” as a handle, connecting us both to things we can know and understand, as well as to things we can neither know nor understand (or even be sure that there’s anything to know).