Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What do I mean when I talk about God?

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First, possibly my all-time favourite Wittgenstein quotation:
'I should like to say that ... the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of *certain particular* words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer... It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. Practice gives the words their sense'. (From 'Culture and Value', in remarks dated 1950. The passage as a whole I would like read at my funeral)

So what do I mean when I talk about 'God'? It's a troublesome word. It's normally (that is, normally in non-Christian circles, and even in some that are Christian) understood to refer to a being, of supernatural origin, who acts and intervenes in the world. The God I believe in is not a being - because he is not a anything. God is not the member of a class - any class. So is the word 'God' a metaphor? Of course. We cannot capture God in our language; all attempts ultimately fail; and yet the attempt is edifying and enlarging. It is like climbing a ladder. In order to climb, one must first place all one's weight upon a particular step, but to progress, one must abandon it completely.

I have found it very difficult to get atheists to understand that point. That could be because they have much invested in the concept of God remaining ridiculous.

So what do I mean when I talk about 'God'? Several things, in no particular order other than the order I've thought of them.

Firstly I have a sense - I guess most people have a sense - of when I have started down a wrong path; or, conversely, when I am pursuing a right path. This could be compared to the physical sense of balance; or, an image I've used elsewhere, it is like the 'tilt' mechanism on a pinball machine. I will sometimes use the word God to refer to that which is calling me into balance, or warning me against being off balance.

Related to this is the sense of vocation, that is, that I am on a path with a particular destination, and that I am being led along this path from moment to moment. I will talk about God in this context, as that which is illuminating my next steps - a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. In this sense God is a lure - an active and intentional agent drawing me forwards.

This broadens out into something about intimacy and concern. The creativity and desire which is drawing me forward is personal; that is, I relate to it as I would to a person. I don't normally have a conversation - not in the sense that I would have a conversation with another human being - but that I am communicated with is undeniable. Indeed, it's routine, it's a large part of my prayer life, listening to what God might have to say to me.

Sometimes I have visions. I distinguish these from daydreams and the routine permutations of my imagination by the sense of seriousness and conviction with which they seize me (not all are equally serious). When this happens I take these to be particular and specific messages from God.

Another aspect to this is to do with truth. There was an occasion recently when I realised that I was not speaking the truth (that is, I was not persuaded of something that I was arguing for). I was not IN the truth. When I reflect on a situation like this then the distinction between one set of attitudes, beliefs and propositions and another set is very strong, and one set will seem much more attractive and luminous. I will use the word God to talk about the difference between them. Most frequently this will involve some sort of personal interrogation about motives, and the process of illumination will often disinter some sort of personal hurt or bad habit or vice which is preventing me from living in, and listening to, the truth. In other words, discerning the truth is a spiritual task, and this is one of the most important ways in which God makes himself clear to me. Crucially, all that I refer to when I talk about God is independent of my own conscious will and desiring.

Finally, I would want to talk about God in the external world, as an agent in the world. God is not an agent like other agents, however; not a cause alongside other causes. Rather, God is the precondition for all things that are held in being. When I see God at work in the world what I am really saying is that here my eyesight has been clarified; I'm not saying anything all that specific about God. God does not specially 'intervene', for God is always present. What changes is in me.

Now, to gather some of these strands together, I would want to talk about that which is intimately involved in my life leading me forward into truth and life and integrity and with which I can communicate in a personal way. That's what I mean when I talk about God. Yet there is one thing more. In the same way that as you walk into the light it becomes more possible to see, so too as I have slowly walked into the light of God, I have been more able - ever so slowly - to discern what God looks like. And He looks like this:

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