God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.

Gordon:

There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.

My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.

It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’

The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.

So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)

At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:

Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?

‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?

‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’   Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?

Rhiannon:

In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.

In long:

Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.

(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)

On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.

So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)

This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).

Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.

When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).

Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:

  • the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
  • religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
  • God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)

It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.

That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.

That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”

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6 responses to “God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

  1. I think we are in a computer simulation. There might be one reality, with hordes of simulations. They would be so useful- for gaming alternatives, for research, for entertainment…

    yet if this is a simulation, it appears to follow rules, applying to things from photons up to galaxies, so practically it might as well be real. Our lives may have meaning even if they are made of computer code.

    To me it seems that my understanding grows as if my direct perception of a thing or experience and my thinking about it, using words, sometimes talking about it with others, are separate things and they dance together. Further perception, and further thought in words, increase my understanding.

    I think the word “God” has use and value but am not sure precisely what it relates to. It is good to be with other people who also may think the word has value, both to experience and discuss God.

  2. Gordon might like to read two books: (i) Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge” and (ii) my brother’s book, “The Man That Looks on Glass” (Derek Guiton). The latter addresses Gordon’s concerns very well and the former is a wonderful understanding of ‘tacit knowing”.

  3. Gerard brought this to my attention. I agree with most of what Rhiannon says here. However, I’m not quite sure what she means by “no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it).” Perhaps I’m being philosophically naive, but I would have thought poets (to take one example) can invent words which have real meaning for them before they’re more widely accepted. I’m thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ use of terms like ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ etc. On Polanyi, ‘tacit knowing’ so far as I’m aware is his own term (and presumably one that meant something to him before it was shared) but in the way he used it it encapsulates the Quaker experience of worship and doesn’t contradict anything Rhiannon says – and I think Wittgenstein would probably have accepted it too.

  4. That also occurred to me, Derek, only I was thinking of theologians and mystics. Teilhard de Chardin invented concepts, and of course, Meister Eckhart. Is it possible, Rhiannon, Wittgenstein, was inclined to invent “concepts” (being clusters of words so to speak)? I’d like to know since I’m no Wittgensteinian myself, though what I do know is very attractive, Gerard

  5. I think your phrase, “sense God experientally” is the core of this. It elicits an answer from deep in the heart, not the head stuff that has been imposed by ourselves and others and which often gets in the way.
    This is the approach to God that spiritual directors/accompaniers like myself often take, supporting individuals as they explore and address these issues. The question, “What is your image of God?” is frequently asked and has value, though I’ve largely given up on it, preferring to work on the lines of, “How do you experience (or not) God/Spirit/Light/Whatever?”
    Working ecumenically, I have been finding that we as Quakers are well placed to support others in these “What canst thou say” conversations, working as we do from the inside out.

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