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God by Monty Python

Let’s Stop Using This Word (2): God

God by Monty Python

Recently, in a discussion, someone accused me of “believing in ghosts.” I asked what they meant by “ghosts,” and the response was: “invisible white floating things.” I must say, as someone with a science degree, I do struggle how something that is an “invisible” thing can be said to be “white” thing.

At heart, though, that conversation expresses how the concept of “God” is often understood. God is expressed as an object – as if atheists believe the universe is made up, say, of X number of objects, and those who believe in God, theists, believing that the universe is actually made up of X+1 objects (or maybe Christians, in X+3).

Theists, including Christians, of course exacerbate the perception by similarly using God-is-a-thing language literally. But God is not a thing [true: God is also not a nothing]. Adding God to a group of things does not increase the number of objects now present.

Sure, I would love to retain the use of the word “God”. In linguistic theory, however, the focus for understanding the meaning of a word is less on the sender (the person who uses the word) than on the receiver (the person who hears or reads the word).

In some (many?) contexts, the word “God” may be the least useless word to use to point to the mystery at the heart of reality. But in other contexts, words like “Depth”, “Meaning”, “Love” may better convey this mystery.

Discuss.

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13 thoughts on “Let’s Stop Using This Word (2): God”

  1. Quite right!

    The Catholic Theologian Nicholas Lash makes just this point point in ‘Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God’ (Ashgate, 2004) He says,

    “For most of our history, then, ‘gods’ were what people worshiped. I do not mean people worshiped things called ‘gods’; I mean that the word ‘god’ simply signified whatever it is that someone worships. In other words, the word ‘god’ worked rather like the way the words ‘treasure’ still does. A treasure is what someone treasures, what someone highly values And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour…
    And it is almost certain that the gods you worship will not be named by you as gods. Most of us are polytheists, inconsistently and confusingly worshiping ourselves, our country, ‘freedom’, sex or money. There is no class of objects known as ‘gods’. Worshiping is a relationship: gods are what we worship.”

    1. Yes! Thanks, Paul. This is very much the way I think, speak, preach. The hope is that we are converted to worshipping the true and living God revealed in Jesus. Blessings.

  2. Bosco, as someone who writes liturgy in a denomination that is currently navigating the waters of having ministry personnel who self-define as atheist (The United Church of Canada), I would beg of you to *not* let go of the word God.

    Rather than subtract, add.

    The Ground of our Being; the Deep of our Life; the Song that Sings the Universe – whatever – but don’t lose “God” in the mix.

    1. Thanks, Richard. And nice to find (by your comment) your website. As this appears to be your first comment here, I am not sure how regular you are in this community here. I have a particular passion for the apophatic – sorely lacking in most western exploration of “God”. I also struggle to understand why people are agile with metaphor EXCEPT when it comes to spirituality. I am fascinated to explore what it means to have ministry personnel who self-define as atheist. I will explore your website to see if I can make sense of that. Meanwhile, you are of course welcome to expand that comment here. Blessings.

  3. Yes, I would like to hear more aboutvministry personnel who define as atheist.

    “All bishops,who don’t believe in God,
    Chief Constables who do…”

    Unupdated Mikado List Song from the 1985 ENO Pproduction, recently revived. I think the reference was, rather rudely, to a certain Bishop of Durham.

    For Monty Python fans, the character who, nudge nudge wink wink, sang those lines was Eric Idle.

    Enough apophatic theology for tonight I think.

    1. Thanks, Alex. As a great fan of the Monty Python group – and that tradition of humour – I would be cautious (as with so many things) of taking this literally. As you intimate, it would be very unfair to say that certain Bishop of Durham did not believe in God. Furthermore, for readers just picking up on this conversation, apophatic theology is not about not believing in God – it is the understanding of the limitations of human words and concepts when it comes to the idea of God. Blessings.

  4. Just thinking out loud, so to speak:

    (1) Everyone’s journey to a mature, informed faith has to begin somewhere. Even if someone starts with a somewhat reified notion of God, that needn’t be the story of their life. Exposure over time to the full spectrum of Judaeo-Christian doctrine can bring them to a better, awe-filled understanding of what the term means. So I wouldn’t dispense with the word “God”.

    (2) In any case, I don’t think that even as a pre-schooler who believed in God, I anthromorphised Him. I intuited even then that God was somehow transcendentally other. I don’t mean that I had the vocabulary back then to describe my belief that way, but I do think my concept of God was more sophisticated than children are usually credited with, and I don’t think I was precocious. I think that an understanding like the one I had is more likely to be the rule than the exception, and the “invisible white floating things” kind of reification is the product of later scepticism and shallow thought. So, the use of the word “God” need not be an impediment to good communication.

    3) If you had had the opportunity to pursue a conversation with your “thing” minded accuser, where would you have taken it next, assuming he/she were not so closed-minded as to make further dialogue impossible? Without overburdening the other person with advanced theological terminology and concepts, what apologetic direction could we take in such a conversation to bring to light the fallacy in their thinking and open the way for him/her to reconsider?

    Warm regards

    1. Thanks, Trevor. Yes, as I intimated, I retain using the word “God”, but I am very conscious that it is very easily misunderstood – so I do so usually surrounded by explanation. The natural growth in the understanding of “God” that you describe may not be as readily available to the vast majority of younger people in our culture any more. Logical positivism is a dominant presupposition. Images of “God” are linked to tiny communities of old people getting ready for death, mega churches of anti-science, gun-toting fundamentalists whose pastors own jet planes bought from tithing, and an unhealthy obsession with sex. I regularly do pursue your point (3) in my (IRL) ministry (primarily with young people) – and explore Depth, Meaning, Love, the One revealed in Jesus, the Source of all things, the Mystery at the heart of Reality. Blessings.

  5. Helpful post and I like Mr Overend’s Nicholas Lash quote too.

    Perhaps the word ‘believe’ is half the problem in today’s world, as it loses its overtones of trust, prefer, cherish and even love, and comes to just mean ‘think that’.

    I think I’d rather recover ‘believe’ than rename ‘God’. Then we would have a sense of active trust, rather than assertion; and the challenge would be to live out that trust, rather than argue about a proposition.

  6. I pondered this but got stuck on Christ with whom I, and Christians generally I hope, have a tangible relationship. I feel obliged to refer to him as God because I accept He is – in this form its a proper noun rather than an adjective. The receiver needs to hear, in some way, about Christ so the sender preaches the Gospel and knowledge of Christ is, I would hope, the desired outcome for the receiver. That its all mysterious is hardly surprising when we are dealing with the idea of a God that has always existed, is outside our universe and appears unbound by the physical laws that apply to us but Christ I can grasp onto and in Him my hope rests.

  7. Phillip Hadley

    Interested to read an installment on “Heaven” After-all as the psalmist prays “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” (Ps 115:3)

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