What does the word God mean? At first glance this seems like an easy question; everyone knows what God means. But the more we look at it, the more we realize that the meaning of that term is far less set than we might have thought at first.
An ‘Improper” Proper Name
The religious philosopher I.M. Crombie said that the question “Who is God?” seems like a proper question at first, but it becomes clear that it cannot be properly answered. That is, if a child were to ask, “Who is Tom?” the question could be answered by saying, “Tom is my brother,” or by pointing to Tom himself. But as Crombie notes, “If a child asks ‘Who is God?’ he can only be given statements (such as ‘He made us’) by way of answer. He can never be brought into a situation in which it is proper to say, ‘That is God.’” Crombie concludes that the term God is an improper proper name—that is, it looks like a proper name (e.g., Tom) but does not work like one, in that its use is not based on acquaintance with the being it denotes.1I.M. Crombie, “The Possibility of Theological Statements,” in Religious Language and the Problem of Religious Knowledge, ed. Ronald E. Santoni (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 91.
Crombie continues by noting that God seems to have the same characteristics as terms like point or Huckleberry Finn from geometry and literature, respectively. A point seems to have an inherent contradiction in its meaning: it is simultaneously sizeless and occupies a location in space. Like the term God (simultaneously transcendent and immanent), point seems to be identified by contradictory rules—the only way it can be identified. Likewise, identifying Huckleberry Finn as “the best friend of Tom Sawyer” is the only way a fictional character can be identified because one cannot point to the actual individual. In these ways, point and Huckleberry Finn seem to be improper proper names.
The Lack of Perfect Descriptions for God
Crombie points out that because God is not known to anybody, we lack perfect descriptions that would define God. Even the terms we come up with to define God (the first cause, the supreme being) are the kind of terms about which no one can say what it would be like for something to actually fit such a definition. For example, how do you know when you have encountered the supreme being? Given that, Crombie asks, how can there be a fixed object to which the word God refers? And if there isn’t such a referent, how can God be considered a proper name?2Ibid., 93-4.
There are even those who argue that names that do not have a proper referent should not even be considered names at all, but thought of as a kind of set of descriptions.3Mark de Bretton Platts, Ways of Meaning : An Introduction to a Philosophy of Language (London ; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1979), 138. We all think we know what God means, but once we look at the word, it becomes clear that the way we use the word God differs from the way we use any other name.
My God vs. Your God
Consider this scenario as a case in point: two people are talking about matters of faith and one of them says, “I am hopeful about this election; I really believe God wants a president who favors a strong military.” The other replies, “Well, I’m not sure about that; my God favors peace and reconciliation.” Now, were this a conversation between two polytheists, nothing would be amiss. One might be talking about Mars and the other about Venus. But if we assume that both are monotheists, and let’s even go so far as to say both are Christians, then this conversation reveals an odd phenomenon that makes it different from any other conversation.
Such a conversation would not work, for example, if you substituted an ordinary name. You can’t say, “Steve really prefers a president who favors a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy” and have that countered with, “Well, my Steve favors peace and reconciliation.” If both individuals are talking about the same Steve, then that Steve is either a hawk or a dove. One of the people in the conversation is wrong.
The Unknowable God
But with God, such statements are common. And this can only be because, as Crombie points out, unlike other individuals for whom names are used, God cannot be fully known. The meaning of God is not self-evident, the way the meaning of Steve is. The word denotes one thing—the ultimate reality of existence—but connotes different particular understandings of what that ultimate reality is like.
Even when a number of people have gathered together and are willing to declare, “We have come here to worship God,” there can be no certainty that they all have in mind the same object of that worship. The objects of the statements “We have all come here to worship that statue,” or “We have all come here to worship Steve,” are obvious. But there can be no absolute certainty that everyone who invokes the word God is referring to the same understanding of the same reality. As far as proper names go, God does not accomplish the same thing that ordinary proper names do.
The Name of God
Technically speaking, of course, God is not a proper name; it’s a job description.4The logician Joseph Bochenski argued that “God” could not be a name given that the “great majority of believers … do not have any real experience of God.” They pray and worship God but nothing suggests that they come to know any more about God than what is contained in their creeds. As a result, he argues, the term “God” is a description. See, Santoni, 125-6. The same is true of الله Allah (literally, “the God”), אלהים Elohim (“God”), and אדוני Adonai (“my Lord”)—none of them is a proper name.5The Tetragrammaton יהוה Yhwh is, in fact, a name. But it is interesting to note that it is completely unused in Judaism as itself (the substitute is usually ‘adonai) and rarely used in any formal context in Christianity. Even then, it shows up as Jehovah. It is also worth noting that the name appears to be a verb form, based on a root that means “to be,” and can mean either “he is” or “he causes to be.” So, even this name, at its deepest level, is still a description.
American philosopher of religion William Alston points out that this might actually be an advantage of the ambiguity regarding God. If we understand the term not as a descriptor—that is, not as a word tied to a concrete reality that could be either confirmed or rejected (“Yes, that is Steve”)—but as a reference to “that which we have experienced,” then there are two positive implications.
First, we wouldn’t need fancy theological descriptions for the purpose of describing the divine like prime mover, first cause, supreme being, or that thing greater than which nothing can be conceived. Even ordinary people can use the term God, after all. Second, using the term God opens the possibility that radically different religious traditions might all be referring to and worshiping the same reality. This improper proper name might be essential to both the democratizing of religion and to the aspirations of those who seek greater interfaith understanding and relationship.6Alston, 115.
A Meaningless Name?
So, God might not be a proper name pointing to an easily definable object in the world. But does that mean the word is meaningless? Surely the word must mean something or have had some specific meaning at one time.
The English word God comes from the Germanic side of the family through a proto-Germanic root *guthan, which is derived from a Proto-Indo-European form *ghut-, itself from the root *gheu(e)-, meaning “to invoke.”7Douglas Harper, “God,” Etymon Online, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=god. Thus, God is “that which is invoked.” Alternatively, some linguists trace the word to the Proto-Indo-European *ghu-to- “poured,” from the root *gheu-, “to pour, pour a libation.” This root is found in the Greek phrase χυτη γαια khute gaia, which means “poured earth,” referring to a burial mound. This Greek usage suggests that the ancient Germanic form may have originally referred to the spirit present in a burial mound.8Ibid.
God is a Metaphor
Neither sense—“that which is invoked” or “that which is poured”—sounds like something concrete. They sound an awful lot like metaphor. We have talked about all the metaphors we use in describing God’s relationship to us or our experiences of God, but now we have to consider the possibility that God itself is a metaphor.
But what kind of metaphor? In her book Metaphor and Religious Language, theologian Janet Martin Soskice proposes the idea that God is a metaphor of “causal relation.” That is, it is a metaphor that stands in for an as-yet unidentified process that effects some change in the world.
The “Valuable Vagueness” of Metaphor
We have used metaphors like this before in other disciplines, especially in science. When the term gene was introduced in biology, the mechanism of acquired or inherited traits had yet to be identified, and was described with metaphorical language like bearer of information and medium for communications.9Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 121. The term gene came to be used to describe this bearer or medium long before what we know of as genes were discovered.
The metaphor of the gene had a “valuable vagueness” that allowed scientists to refer to features of the natural world that they were still trying to understand without having to make definitive claims about them.10Ibid., 134. That is, such metaphors are provisional statements: the gene is the genetic information conveying mechanism, whatever that is.
A Causal Metaphor
In Soskice’s view, God can be understood as just such a causal metaphor. “God is that which on such and such a date seemed more real to John Henry Newman than his own hands and feet,” or “God is that which Moses experienced as speaking to him on Mount Sinai….” whatever that is. God is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, that “dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”11Frederick Buechner, “Christian,” http://frederickbuechner.com/content/christian.
Now, speaking of God by way of causal metaphor does not actually attempt to describe God. Using such a metaphor says nothing of God, but only points toward God. Through metaphor it is possible to claim to speak of God without claiming to define God. God, then, is a metaphor that the believer invokes to describe an experience that cannot be described otherwise. As Soskice writes: “in our stammering after a transcendent God we must speak, for the most part, metaphorically or not at all.”12Soskice. 138-40
The Deeper Level of Explanation
The idea that God is a stand-in for an ineffable experience of the transcendent is made even more emphatically by professor and quantum physicist Paul Davies, who wrote:13Michael Reagan, The Hand of God : Thoughts and Images Reflecting the Spirit of the Universe (Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel Pub., 1999), 59.
I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level “God” is a matter of taste and definition.Michael Reagan, The Hand of God : Thoughts and Images Reflecting the Spirit of the Universe
People have long had the sense that there is some “deeper level of explanation” to the universe. Some fundamental level of existence, a “ground of all being” as theologian Paul Tillich would have put it. Some sense of the ultimate. It has been the tradition of billions of people over the ages to refer to that ultimate, that seeming abstraction which we cannot comprehend, as God. As Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology and religion said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.”
Even God, then, is a metaphor pointing beyond itself.
This post is an excerpt from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue, now available for purchase from Amazon and other online retailers in print, e-book, and audio formats.