Tuesday, May 02, 2006


During the past four hundred years ‘God’ has been rendered practically and imaginatively almost irrecoverable, suggests Nicolas Lash in Holinesss, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Ashgate, 2005) – perhaps one of the most helpful small-scale theological statements to be published in the last twenty years.

This loss began when the early-modern search for human mastery (through the definite ‘ends’ produced by cause and effect) led to the word ‘god’ being used, “for the first time, to name the ultimate explanation of the system of the world.” But natural science soon saw that the world as such did not require any single, overarching, independent, explanatory principle. So the word ‘god’ could be dispensed with, and modern atheism was born.

Before modernity, ‘gods’ were understood relationally, as whatever people worshipped, and resided in occurrences, activities and patterns of behaviour. “The word ‘god’ worked rather like the word ‘treasure’ still does. A treasure is what someone... highly values. And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour… There is no class of object known as ‘treasures’… valuing is a relationship.”

However, with the dominance of instrumental reason ‘gods’ became, correspondingly, things (objects, entities, individuals) of a certain kind, a ‘divine’ one. Analogously, the ‘home territory’ of God-understanding shifted from worship (the assignment of worth-ship) to description (the assignment of properties)

This double shift of meaning and affection fundamentally corrupted and disabled the modern comprehension of ‘God’ – because God is, logically and necessarily, beyond definition (delimiting) and categorisation. God is not a ‘thing’ belonging to a class of things called ‘gods’.

“Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods.” Religions are best considered schools in which people learn to worship by not worshipping any thing – not the world nor any part, person, dream, event or memory of or in it.

God is rendered ‘unbelievable’ today because we have forgotten this. People “simply take for granted that the word ‘god’ names a natural kind, a class of entity. There are bananas, traffic lights, human beings, and gods. Or perhaps not: on this account… ‘theists’ are people who suppose the class of gods to have at least one member… ‘atheists’ are those who think that, in the real world, the class of ‘gods’ is, like the class of ‘unicorns’, empty.”

This is a basic category mistake with lethal consequences. As Denys Turner says, following Thomas Aquinas: “In showing God to exist reason shows that we no longer know what ‘exists’ means.”

Similarly, the modern mind readily supposes that technical and abstract language (‘ineffability’, ‘transcendence’) is inherently superior to the ‘concrete anthropomorphic imagery’ of biblical thought, ascribing the latter to the simple-minded. This is nonsense. It ignores the fact that all language is humanly generated. Everything we say of God, in whatever register, is metaphorically said – and speech or writing that is conscious of this is less likely to deceive itself by attempting a ‘fix’ on ‘what God looks like’. God-talk is immensely difficult and requires both imagination and the disciplining of it that we call theology.

Another modern misunderstanding is the idea that God is ‘supernatural being’. This is a misapplication of a word originally used adjectively or adverbially to designate a creature acting beyond the categories of its nature by the grace of God. (A rabbit playing a violin, say, or a person behaving truly selflessly!) In these terms “God, alone, cannot be supernatural, cannot act supernaturally, for what would graciously elevate or heal God’s nature?”

What, then, does it mean ‘to believe in God’? Developing Augustine, Nicholas Lash distinguishes three possibilities based on the Latin: Credere Deo (to believe what God says), Credere Deum (to believe God to be truly God); and the creedal formula Credere in Deum (to believe ‘godwardly’ or ‘into God’, as in incorporation and godly behaviour).

It is the third sense that best expresses what is offered and required in Christian believing – the language of appropriate relationship embodied in Holy Mystery, by which we non-idolatrously and wholeheartedly give ourselves to the truth, flourishing and freedom to which we are called.

Part of a larger summary which I am currently working on for a discussion group in Exeter.

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