Tag Archives: Telling the Truth about God

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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Telling the Truth about God: book launch

TtTaG cover

‘Telling the Truth about God’ was published by John Hunt/Christian Alternative press in 2019 as part of their Quaker Quicks series. It can be purchased as a paperback or eBook from the publisher, or ordered from any ordinary bookshop either in person or online.

My book, Telling the Truth about God, is out this month! Copies are already in some book shops and can be ordered online, including direct from the publisher.

I am also holding a book launch event for it – Saturday 6th April, 2pm, at the CLC bookshop in Birmingham (at Carrs Lane). Refreshments will be provided, and I’ll be signing copies and talking a bit about the book and how I came to write it.

Full details in the book launch flyer [pdf].

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.