Can we talk about God in meaningful ways? When we say things like “God is loving”, what do we mean? Is it somehow literal? Can talk about God be literal?
These questions, and many others like them are often asked within philosophy of religion. These types of questions may initially seem trivial. Christians may see such questions and think, “Well, obviously we can speak of God meaningfully! The Bible speaks of God constantly, and it has meaning, so clearly such talk has meaning!” There are, however, some rather strong objections to such notions.
Take the statement “God is wise.” What does this mean? Compare it to the statement “Socrates is wise.” Do we mean “God is wise” to mean the same thing as “Socrates is wise?” Perhaps, but clearly God’s wisdom is infinite, while Socrates’ wisdom is finite. Can the two things really be analogically or literally compared? Clearly we don’t mean that God is wise in literally the same sense as we mean Socrates is wise. The content, level, etc. of God’s wisdom is infinitely more/higher/etc. than that of Socrates. Such is one way to put the objection to human language’s ability to refer to the divine (Basinger, 245 [citing an argument from Frederick Ferre]).
These questions are quite basic to theism. If we can’t talk about God in meaningful ways, then assertions such as “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior” are, quite literally, meaningless. Thus, it is essential for the theist to provide a defense for the belief that God can be referred to not just analogically, but also literally.
Interestingly, for a time, many theists asserted that we could refer to God only (or at least primarily) in analogical ways. They were able to defend an ability to refer to God utilizing analogies by acknowledging a “proper proportionality” usage of analogy. On this view (utilizing the example above), we mean both God is wise and Socrates is wise in terms of proportion to their properties and attributes. Thus, when we say “God is wise” we mean infinitely so, but with Socrates we only mean finite wisdom (Basinger, 244).
This sounds plausible, but it may not actually solve the problem. William P. Alston (who uses the term metaphor instead of analogy) argues that within metaphorical (analogical) talk about God, there is indeed some kind of literal application of terms to God. This is because:
1) When utilizing a metaphor (or analogy), the subject must be similar in some way or another to the exemplar such that the subject can be a useful model of the latter (Alston, 27). For example, if we were to say that x is y, that means that x is, in some way, like y. If we say “God is my rock”, that means that God is, in some way, like a rock (28).
2) If it is possible to form a concept of P, then it is possible to utilize language to talk about P (28). For any concept we can have, we are able to somehow utilize language to discuss that concept. The same is true. We can have a concept of God (even if it is horribly mistaken or if God isn’t real)–which means we can use language to talk about God.
But what about literal talk about God? Can we refer to God in literal ways? Take a well-known example: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” בראשׁית ברא אלהים את השׁמים ואת הארץ
This seems to be claiming something about God. He literally created the heavens and the earth. But can it really mean anything literally? Rather than trying to prove that such talk is literal, Alston sets out to show that there are no barriers to the claim that they are indeed literal terms (39 ff). Incorporeality, for example, is not a barrier to God’s literal actions because the concept of action doesn’t have anything that necessitates a physical body in order to perform action. Rather, action is defined as bringing about change by an act of will, decision, or intention (72).
He asserts that when claims are made about actions performed by God, they can be referred to as “basic actions.” A basic action is an action which is not performed by performing some other action (Alston, 55). In other words, if a young man moves a load of dirt from one place to another, this is not a basic action, for this movement is caused by the young man’s motion of his arms and legs (and so on). But, argues Alston, for God, many actions could be basic actions. God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, etc. mean that for any action God wishes to perform, it could be basic (61). Not only that, but God could still choose to operate indirectly. Alston uses the example of God utilizing Cyrus to bring about freedom for the Israelites as an example of God’s using indirect action (62).
Thus, it seems that there aren’t any specific reasons to deny that God can indeed be referred to literally in action predicates. Similarly, if we can refer to God metaphorically with some kind of literal meaning, it seems as though we can know in some sense what it would mean to say that “God is loving.”
Another strong objection to human language and God is the idea of the infinite (briefly described above). If God is infinite, so the claim goes, then humans can’t know or talk about Him in meaningful ways. We can’t access the infinite. It seems to me as though analogical/metaphorical talk about God is one way to solve this issue (as above). But there are other reasons to think this fails as an objection. The primary reason, as I see it, is that God’s infinite attributes can be seen simply as properties. But it is indeed true that for any property, P, and any being, x, x either has P or ~P. So if God has omnipotence (P), it follows that we humans either have P or ~P (clearly the latter). However, if this is true, then the same objection to the infinite would apply to humanity, for ~P in this case is an infinite property.
This leads to another answer to such an objection. Perhaps omnipotence isn’t a property so much as something which entails a set of properties–specifically, the ability to do anything logically possible. This then assigns God an infinite list of properties, composed of phrases like, “Being able to bring it about that x.” This initially seems problematic, but then, by the rule set out above, we humans would also have either these properties or their denials. Thus, we have an infinite set of properties as well, most of which will be negative (for we are able to bring about some things). Thus, the argument falls apart on these grounds as well. It doesn’t matter if God conceptually or actually has infinite properties–this in no way forms a barrier to talking about or knowing God, because for any property God has, we humans have either that same property or its complement. Thus, we would also be infinite either positively or negatively.
Therefore, it seems to be quite clearly the case that we can indeed talk about God literally, metaphorically, and meaningfully. Not only do the objections to such talk fail, but there are also good reasons to think that we can indeed talk about God in such ways.
Alston, William P. Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Cornell. 1989.
Basinger, Hasker, et al. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford. 2009.
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