I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

In this essay, the word in question is not “inconceivable”, but “God”.

My jumping-off point here is part of the interview with philosopher John Gray, excerpted back here (emphasis is in the original):

(Interviewer) You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

(Gray) [Fritz Mauthner] was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

The “idea of God” is what I want to talk about here.

In the broadest sense, “theism” is the belief in one or more gods.  In this context, Gray is obviously speaking of monotheism.  One of the most persistent problems with theism, in my view,  is the problem of anthropomorphizing God, that is, conceptualizing Him as if He were human.  In a polytheistic religion, giving the various gods and goddesses human traits is more or less a feature, not a bug.  Even in a monotheistic religion, some degree of anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, since we have to use some categories in which to speak of God, and the categories of “human” and the various human attributes are the most accessible to us.  However, the danger of making God into a big man with a long white beard sitting in the sky is that it tends to end in attributing petty and nasty human characteristics (vengefulness, spite, hatred, favoritism, and so on) to Him, with bad results for believers.  After all, if God is OK with smiting the infidels, the believer might end up thinking it’s a good idea for him–and his armies–to do so, too.  Gray, however, seems to be taking it beyond mere anthropomorphism and locating the problem in language itself.

There is a certain logic to this notion.  The God of the philosophers, at any rate, has been the object of speculation, discussion, and most importantly, definition.  Definition is the ultimate act of bringing something into being–or at least into intelligible being–by naming it.  Philosophers and theologians have attempted to delimit God, to say what He is–perfect, self-existent, all-good, all-powerful, and so on.  There is a sense in which God is thus seen as a “linguistic ideal” and in which there is an “attachment to language” which can indeed become obsessive.  To put it another way, our speculative attempts to define God, to determine what He is, put us in danger of constructing linguistic idols that we mistake for God as such; and we become idolaters who worship the word rather than the Word.

However, a couple of things are worth pointing out.  First, Fritz Mauthner, to whom Gray refers, seems to have been a bit extreme, almost to the point of skepticism (in the philosophical sense of saying that we can’t really know anything).  From the Wikipedia article on him comes the following (edited for length with my emphasis):

According to Mauthner, thinking never allows access to reality but is always mediated by language. Language sanctions universal meanings, ideas whose validity seems to be due to a cause, to something real. In fact, it lends its protection to a metaphysics given over to what Mauthner calls “superstition” or “word fetishism” (Mauthner, 1901–1902). For the fact is that our vocabulary gives an illusion of a supernatural, ideal world. For example, he denigrates the metaphysical concept of being as “merely a word, a word without content”….  Mauthner ends by condemning language as a “useless device for knowledge”.  He was emphatically committed to studying everyday language as opposed to logically-minded philosophers’ search for idealised structures and formalised languages which correlate discourse and reality.

In his last encyclopedic, philosophical work, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (4 vols. 1920–23), Mauthner claimed that all dogmas – religious or scientific – were mere human inventions with the basis of their origin, flourishing, and decline lying in history. Mauthner sought to show how the West had begun to shake off the once dominant concept of God. His work was thus intended to trace the disintegration of this concept, an “anthropomorphic illusion” that had held peoples spellbound for several millennia. According to Mauthner, critique of language cannot transcend the limits of language but can only point to them. This leads to a secular mysticism by revealing a transcendent reality that has no limits. Mauthner rejects conventional mystical preoccupations with occultism and theosophy as ludicrous and unscientific and argued that mystics should not put forward theories positing priveliged knowledge about the world. Mauthner regards Meister Eckhart and Goethe as true mystics. He interpreted Goethe’s dictum “Man never knows how anthropomorphic he is” as meaning we can never really grasp the extent of anthropomorphism in language as we can never detach the concept of man from language. Mauthner had a particular affinity with Meister Eckhart’s claims that God and his nature could not be understood in any way. He concludes that any attempt to express the feelings of the artist, the mystic, the philosopher destroys what only the silent ego feels – “nothing more can be said” (Die drei Bilder der Welt, Vol. III, p. 170).

Thus, in my mind, Mauthner exhibits a rather extreme, almost nihilistic skepticism about not only God and religion, but science, language, art, and everything else.  He is right in pointing out how much we anthropomorphize, and how that can be a problem; and strangely, he seems to end in a kind of mysticism; but he doesn’t seem interested in giving any method by which we can tell how to live or what to consider real or to determine just what kind of mysticism we should pursue.  It’s all well and good to say that reality is ultimately beyond us and can never be grasped; but the fact remains that we live in reality, and like or not, we must make decisions every day based on our poor human perceptions.  It might not be much, but it’s all we’ve got; and Mauthner seems willing to pitch it all.  Which if he were a monk in a cave would make sense, but he wants to pitch that, too!

In any case, Gray rightly points out the apophatic theology of the Christian tradition.  Apophatic theology thinks in terms of what God is not rather than what He is.   Examples would be Meister Eckhart’s concept of the “Godhead”, by which he means God as He is, totally unknowable to us, or the Orthodox concept of God’s “essence”, which is equally unknowable.  This is similar, as I’ve remarked before, to the Kabbalistic notion of God as the Ein Soph (Infinite), the Hindu concept of Brahman, and (more debatably, I admit) the Mahayana Buddhist concept of the Dharmakāya or the Vajrayana concept of the Adi Buddha.  The problem to me is that Gray (and certainly Mauthner!) seems to want to keep it at that.  He seems to object to trying to do anything with the Great Mystery beyond more or less asserting it (or its possibility, I suppose, since Gray is an atheist).  Admittedly, I wrote a post about how bad anthropomorphism is; but that was in the context of contemporary Christianity as practiced, which I think is too anthropomorphic.  On the other hand, we are humans–anthropoi–and we understand as humans; therefore we can’t help giving “human form”–“anthropos”, human; “morphe”, form–to things when we try to describe them.  The problem is not per se that we anthropomorphize God, but that we forget that our verbal and mental constructions, while they may grasp a fragment of God, do not exhaust Him or give us an accurate picture of Him.  In short, if the blind man grasps the elephant’s trunk and thinks it’s like a snake, that’s OK as long as he doesn’t try to say that this is the last word on it!

It’s also worth pointing out that the various apophatic systems described above had no problem with looking at God–unknowable in His true essence–via concepts in order to relate to Him.  Thus Eckhart had God (by which he meant God-as-we-perceive-Him, as opposed to Godhead, or God as He is); Kabbalah has the Shekhina (God’s presence); Hinduism has sagua Brahman (God with properties) or Īśvara (Lord), that is, the Absolute as personified; Orthodox Christianity has God’s energies (by which He interacts with us); and Buddhism has the Nirmāṇakāya, the form in which the Buddha is actually manifested.

I think the main problem Gray has is that in the West, kataphatic theology–trying to say what God is, to trap Him in words, if you will–has tended to predominate, especially since the end of the Middle Ages, which coincided with a suspicion of mysticism in the Western world.  Now even in the most anti-mystical ages of the West, I think  many theologians–privately, at least–would tend to agree with the apophatic method of theology.  I think that in religions that are more open-system it is more acceptable to be explicitly apophatic.  By contrast, in religions, such as the Abrahamic ones, which are more closed-system, ideas that are seen as more theoretical or as departing from the given orthodoxy (and apophaticism by definition departs from any orthodoxy that can be put into words) are less likely to be publicized.  They will continue to exist, but will be mainly the preserve of the intelligentsia and the theologians; and even among them, such ideas may be exchanged only with great circumspection–St. John of the Cross, for example, got in trouble with the Inquisition for his apophatic, mystical views.

In any case, I think that Christianity at its best tries to integrate the strengths both of the kataphatic and apophatic perspectives; and I think that the present age is a good time for this to occur, since there is greater openness in society, by and large, to different perspectives, to say nothing of the greater access to the insights of other religious and philosophical systems of thought from which Christianity can learn.  Hopefully we will be able to come to a point at which we neither worship structures of words that conceal the True God, nor reject belief altogether, but come to understand that “God” does not necessarily mean what we think it means, and move into a deeper spirituality and a more profound quest for God.



Posted on 04/03/2013, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: