When asked if he is an atheist or if he believes in God, philosopher Noam Chomsky typically replies (my paraphrase): “Describe to me what I am supposed to believe in, and then I will tell you if I do” (Chomsky). This statement brings up an interesting issue for the religious individual. What does it mean to construct a proposition about God? What does it mean to “describe” God? What is the relationship between faith in God and defining God? Does one need the other? In this essay, I shall argue that although faith is a response to revelation and God is transcendent, natural theology and analytic theology still have pragmatic purpose.
Faith, it seems, must be something more than mental ascent to certain propositions as being true. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a well-working definition of faith: “Faith is a response to a revelation from God” (Hardon). When talking about such revelation, it is crucial for our language and communication to be coherent, clear, and rational. However, even if our statements about revelation are coherent and rational, we must not assume that our language creates univocal propositions about God-in-himself.
It has long been tradition within philosophical theology to maintain that God is transcendent of human language and cannot be fully described by human means. For example, if one speaks of the Trinity and refers to “Father” and “Son,” we must understand that these are anthropomorphic terms. Only organisms that reproduce sexually would have the concepts of fatherhood and then describe the Almighty in such metaphors. However, this does not imply that God actually is an organism who procreated another organism. Nonetheless, to maintain that we do not make univocal propositions about God should not push us into radical mysticism or turn us into anchorites because such a large aspect of human nature is entwined in a community-centered religious experience.
Stating a one-to-one correlated proposition about God may be quite difficult, but stating a univocal proposition about our own religious language seems doable. Clarifying our own words merely takes patience. Therefore, in order to function properly as members of a religious community, it seems quite pragmatic to create theological systems which are accessible to interaction.
For example, when discussing the doctrine of the Trinity – a doctrine rooted in the Christian scriptures and later systematized by the early church fathers – Brian Leftow said the following:
“[…] there is just one divine being (or substance), God….[As Thomas Aquinas says,] God begotten receives numerically the same nature God begetting has. To make Aquinas’ claim perfectly plain, I introduce a technical term, ‘trope’. Abel and Cain were both human. So they had the same nature, humanity. Yet each also had his own nature, and Cain’s humanity was not identical with Abel’s… A trope is an individualized case of an attribute. Their bearers individuate tropes: Cain’s humanity is distinct from Abel’s just because it is Cain’s, not Abel’s. With this term in hand, I now restate Aquinas’ claim: while Father and Son instance the divine nature (deity), they have but one trope of deity between them, which is God’s….bearers individuate tropes. If the Father’s deity is God’s, this is because the Father just is God.” (Leftow)
Do we really think God is identical to something in contemporary trope theory? No. It seems more precise to hold that these propositions are not univocal about God, but useful formulations in order to express theology necessary to aid us in worship. Religion is not a merely private or individual matter. It requires community. Necessary to human community is communication through language. Therefore, propositions of this kind help in keeping logical and rational beliefs within the community.
Once again regarding Brian Leftow’s statements about the Trinity as our example, we seem to follow this pattern:
- Leftow’s statements about the Trinity are statements about the ecumenical creeds.
- The ecumenical creeds are summaries of New Testament teaching.
- The New Testament is a collection of works that give an account of, teachings about, and explanations of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Christian faith is an action that is a response to number 3. Natural theology and analytic theology are typically statements and arguments that fall under categories 1 and 2.
Consider the first statement of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” This is a perfectly fine statement. But what if someone outside of the Christian faith wishes to have more clarification about this statement – about what we mean by “God”? Natural theology is a possible means of clarification. For example, we may explain to her the Cosmological argument from contingency, which states that – given the contingency of the universe – the most reasonable explanation of the universe is a necessary being. God is, as Paul Tillich said, the ground of all being. God is the Being through which all other things depend for their existence. Suppose one then ran through several of the other arguments from natural theology for the existence of God. One would have a picture of a necessary being that provides morality, gives teleology, is the first cause of the universe, and is a maximally great being. Even if these arguments ultimately fail in some way or another to demonstrate God’s existence to a skeptic, we will still have a decent picture of the kind of being we claim to put our faith in. It is by no means an exact picture, but it provides helpful illustrations for our theology and life of faith.
Another example of making our theology accessible to interaction is found in Alvin Plantinga’s work on the Ontological Argument. In giving a concise definition of the Christian, monotheistic God, we may state the following: There exists a Maximally Great Being. A Maximally Great Being is a being who possesses all of the great-making properties (i.e. omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc.) in every possible world. Such a definition provides a workable picture of what Christians typically mean when they refer to “God.” It may provide a useful starting point when conversing with someone who lacks belief in the Christian God and help in disputes regarding doctrines of God’s nature.
But of course, after providing such a definition, it would seem rather silly to think we exhaustively described the nature of God and, now with full understanding of the Almighty, we might move on to other philosophical issues. Even the phrase “possesses all of the great-making properties in every possible world” borrows a language of property-instantiation familiar to particulars with which we interact in the natural world. Does God even “instantiate” properties? Do properties exist outside of God and he merely relates to them? Although some philosophers like Peter van Inwagen seem to hold such positions, it appears rather odd. We could make a distinction, as Norman Geisler has (Geisler), and propose that God is subject to properties epistemologically (i.e. according to how we think and use language), but properties are grounded in God ontologically. However, once we move into describing how properties or other abstract objects might be grounded ontologically in God’s nature, our thought capacity and means of discourse become limited.
A given worldview, system of belief, or hypothesis strikes an individual as, in William James’ view, either “live” or “dead” (Thayer). Furthermore, religion is natural to Homo sapiens. If being religious is innate to our human nature, then perhaps simply clearing the threshold of consciousness from unwanted roadblocks may allow the religious disposition to freely flow in the individual. If most people are naturally religious, then we may not need to “prove” the existence of God to them, but rather help guide them toward a healthy religious experience. This means we must robustly examine all theology, religious philosophy, and church life. If we can create a proper context for religious expression, and ensure that our theological discourse is well founded on reason, a healthy expression should naturally follow. Thus, natural theology and analytic theology are necessary in order to ensure the well being of our religion and relationship to the Almighty. Is natural theology or analytic theology exhaustive? No. However, from a pragmatic point of view, it seems quite useful.
Chomsky, Noam. “Remarks on Religion.” Remarks on Religion, Noam Chomsky Interviewed
by Various Interviewers. Various Sources, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2005. Print.
Hardon, John A. The Catholic Catechism. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975. Print.
- Leftow, B., 1999, “Anti Social Trinitarianism”, in The Trinity : An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, S. T. Davis, D. Kendall and G. O’Collins (eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 203–49.
Thayer, H. S. “Will to Believe.” Pragmatism, the Classic Writings: Charles Sanders
Peirce, William James, Clarence Irving Lewis, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1982. 186-208. Print.