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July 11, 2011


Adam Mac

"Wouldn't it just be easier to ask god to...I don't know...show up?"

I'm confused about this all the time. What is the point of all the mystery? It seems incredible unnecessary for an omnipotent being.

Trevor Palen


What's your definition of "show up" or "reveal godself"? If someone takes you out for that cheeseburger, what will confirm for you that that someone is God? You're a smart person...I do imagine you'd be able to reason your way in and out of why that someone is God and why that someone is not God. Would a cheeseburger actually make a difference?

Greg Horton

um, trevor, since I know you, I'm going to assume you can figure this out for yourself. clearly, I'd ask for evidence that can't be "reasoned away." not that difficult, sir, as you know.


If someone shows up offering to take us all out for cheeseburgers and show that she's god, we could have a conversation about sufficiency of evidence then. Part of the problem is that we have no access to god. Paul Tillich pointed out that a revelation that isn't a revealed to me isn't really a revelation, just hearsay. If people have different ideas about god, and think it's important to reconcile them, how do they do it? If I had a question about what my mother wants, I would ask her, and other people could do the same and get the same answer. God isn't a person as we understand people.

Something that would impress me at a cheeseburger dinner is evidence of knowledge beyond what humans have. That's noticeably lacking in the bible. (Out of charity I'm ignoring some apologists' creative attempts to read particle physics and general relativity into passages of poetry. If Psalm 104:5 doesn't imply geocentrism, Colossians 1:17 doesn't imply gluons.) "Pray and anoint the sick with oil" is considerably less useful than a primer on basic hygiene and public health would have been. Even something as specific as "Don't follow the purity rituals of the Essenes, since bathing in filthy, stagnant water will make you sick" would have been a step in the right direction. People who claim to have messages directly from god seem to want to say one of two things: either listen to me (me, me, me) because other sects are wrong, or be kind to one another. One is just a power grab, the other we already basically know.

But basically the question is unclear. There are several things my cheeseburger companion could do or say that would make me want to spend a lot of time asking about the nature of god. What would it take for me to believe that the person who just bought me dinner is god as understood by almost all of the councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus, but only partly by Trent, because they got a couple of things wrong? Um, that's really not going to happen. The entire point of doctrine is to establish and maintain a stable power structure that will ensure the continuity of ritual and community in the absence of the nominal head of the hierarchy. God's non-involvement has been built into the structure of faith since the very beginning. The faithful are just as good at living their lives without him as atheists are.

Trevor Palen

Leighton...that last sentence is gold.

Greg, I asked the question because I honestly don't know. Rather than making myself look like a fool by throwing out questions that confuse the issue, I tried to simplify it as best I could.

What evidence can't be reasoned away? Verification is a filter that is constructed, is it not?


People say God is a being. I'll handwave away most of the study of ontology and say this is claiming that God has existence distinct from any individual observer, and acts (or has previously acted, at least) in the universe in measurable ways. Not everybody agrees with this definition, but it's what most churches claim.

By this definition, it doesn't seem reasonable to assert that God exists. How do we learn more about God? He is omniscient, but we can't ask direct questions and get direct answers that are heard by anyone else. He is omnipresent, but we can't see or taste or touch him, or take blood samples like we can with any other creature that can communicate with us. He is omnipotent, but doesn't appear to act in any consistent or detectable way. Imagine a family where the parents were that invisible. Imagine a government where the head of state were that inaccessible. What's the first step in getting to know the absentee parents or discovering the will of the missing chief executive? Find them. Figure out where they've been hiding this whole time, and whether they're actually still alive. Or if that proves impossible, write them off as lost and move on.

If you want to talk specifically about a Christian God, we have fiftieth-hand hearsay of an alleged incarnation event a couple thousand years ago (Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman both have fantastic introductory texts on the problems with textual transmission over the millennia), and absolutely no consensus among practicing Christian groups about its nature or meaning that runs any deeper than shared vocabulary words. So it's not like past action is a particularly reliable or clear source for knowledge, either.

So that's how I interpret Greg's comment. If God is accessible, how do we gain access to him? If God reveals, where is the revelation? If God relates to us, why do people have to use "relationship" in a unique and convoluted way to be able to say "relationship with God" with a straight face? To be fair, there are conceptions of God that don't have these problems. But sophisticated psychological approaches like the ones (e.g.) Karen Armstrong and Joseph Campbell use are frankly not what mainstream churches offer, even though Christians in the U.S. do have an enormous variety of mutually incompatible beliefs and practices, everything from Episcopalians to megachurch vapidity to C Street sociopathy.

Faith looks too much like people making things up as they go along. I don't mean that in a pejorative way -- creative adaptation is probably the most healthy way to handle relationships and find purpose in society. But it isn't discovery. The best ways to treat tuberculosis don't vary by region or language or culture, but talking about which theology is "correct" makes about as much sense as saying that Monet's paintings are truer than Van Gogh's. And the latter is what a great many contemporary churches are offering: stagnation and certainty in meaningless claims.

Trevor Palen


"God has existence distinct from any individual observer, and acts (or has previously acted, at least) in the universe in measurable ways."

I do not know that most religious adherents would say that God acts in measurable ways. But sure, it is out there.

Here's I guess what I'm wondering. How, in a world where the scientific method is king, can anyone be moved to believe in God? How can a cheeseburger experience bring belief when it would not be replicable by another human being? If God is any of the above qualities you mentioned (and maybe God is not) there is no way for us to understand God.
There will never be a way to verify God, because God, if she exists, operates outside of anything we can construct to verify her being and/or actions.

Also, it's interesting you mentioned Metzger and Ehrman because the two could not have reacted much differently to the conclusions they drew from the evidence available (and Ehrman still has a little way to go before he's on Metzger's level, but he's also only, what, mid-40s? ).

I think if you take Metzger/Ehrman you see just how much presupposition plays into metaphysical beliefs. I'm fine with people not giving a shit about god. I'm fine even with people pointing at all the flaws in the arguments from people who do believe. But it makes no sense to me to say "I'd be open to God if he became human" if the bottom line is you're not open to the possibility of that which cannot be.


If what you're saying is right, then any statement of the for Fx such that x is g-d would be meaningless. If that's the case a theist wants to make for why g-d can't reveal g-dself, (and I'll admit that I find it a smidge more interesting a line of argument than Leighton or Greg seem to) then he's also going to have to give up using metaphors to describe g-d. I don't find the cheeseburger scenario plausible as an argument against theism. I do find it utterly compelling as a reason not to believe g-d wants a relationship with me.

Greg Horton

Cheek, I've sort of avoided this because I'm still not sure where Trevor is headed, and since I'm sure any of the four of us could construct a plausible scenario in a diner wherein we begin to verify god's godness, then I suspect Trevor is dodging the issue. Leighton makes the point that you begin with a particular kind of knowledge, stuff only god could know, or at least a being far more powerful than a human. That would be a good beginning, even asking "What number between 1 and 375,000,000 am I thinking of?" If you wanted to be truly perverse, you could demand that this being also identify the range of possibilities. It's really not that difficult. And, Trevor, I have no interest in reasoning myself in our out of reality; I'd just prefer to know that is what I'm dealing with. And John is correct in that the cheeseburger scenario reveals the nonsense at the heart of "relationship" talk. To simplify it as much as possible, an allegedly omni-, omni-, omni- being should be able to convince me. If he's not a person, then we're wasting a shit ton of time worshipping it.

Trevor Palen

"stuff only god could know, or at least a being far more powerful than a human."

Damned if this sounds petty but, Super Human =/= God. I imagine that either one would suffice in deism, but since the topic is theism, I think it's worth clarifying.

I don't feel that one can effectively define god in reference to specific human qualities. God exists in the negative if god exists at all. S/he has to be NOT human...and while the reference to humanity is obviously in tact, it is devoid of epistemic meaning, which seems to me to be most consistent with our relationship to god...devoid of epistemic content.

Before I give a reason as to why that could potentially matter to a person in any way, I should probably stop and see if I'm understandable in what I'm trying to say.

...Once again guys, thanks for the feedback. It's helpful as always (and I imagine develops your patience).

Greg Horton

Trevor, the categories superhuman, theism, deism are secondary to the point here, which is, how could god meaningfully demonstrate his godness. Anyone who believes in revelation, except probably Muslims, believe he already has. Your concept of god sounds far more like Allah than any classical definition of god I've heard. That aside, the entire point of the "being more powerful than a human" is simply to say that if it is to be god/a god, it must have more power than humans. That seems axiomatic, else why speak of divinity? What I'm also going after is the traditional omni- concept of god. Clearly, if god is any of the two omnis, what I've asked wouldn't be difficult. Christianity and Hinduism both rely on incarnations, so it seems not to be asking a great deal in terms of its actual possibility. If you're after a different construct of god, then just say it.

If I understand you correctly, a relationship with god is devoid of epistemic contact, which is to say we can know nothing substantive about the relationship and the god who forms the other half of it. How would it constitute a relationship at that point? How does it differ from delusion? How can we know a god we can't know?


Sorry, but "God exists in the negative if god exists at all" just doesn't mean anything. You can define something in the negative, and often that is an effective way of doing so, but it says nothing about how said thing exists. Things either exist, or they don't. If they do exist, then we can define them negatively either by listing enough predicates and saying that the thing is whatever lies outside the extensions of all of them. Formally, that's just a fancy predicate that you don't have a word for, and to be truly satisfactory as a definition, the list of predicates has got to be nearly exhaustive. Alternatively you can say it's anything that is like such and such but not like such and such, basically putting severe limits on the domain and then walling off the extension of the second predicate. That all just has to do with how we understand and talk about the things in question. It has nothing much to do with the actual existence of them.


Trevor, have you gotten a chance to research much in the realm of negative theology? Karen Armstrong's The Case For God and Elaine Pagels' coverage of Gnosticism both strike me as similar to what you seem to be trying to do. Just thought I'd mention it in case you haven't already read them. My "objection" to both (not really an objection, more of a quibble) is that it's sufficiently different than what actual churches try to do that pretending there is any kind of solidarity with established religion seems disingenuous to me. But it is meaningful to a lot of people, so I appreciate it from that perspective.

As for me, I am trying to construct the metaphysics behind a secular afterlife that includes eternal torture for the people who wrote Hewlett-Packard's printer installer software. I freely admit that this is neither rational nor ethical, yet I am compelled to try anyway.

Trevor Palen

Greg, in response to your first paragraph: I'm not after a different construct. More than anything I'm trying to develop an articulation of a belief over against the problems that you bring up with said belief (I may or may not be successful). Obviously, as a Christian, I'm holding to Christ as Immanuel.

To answer your questions in the second paragraph:

Maybe relationship is too strong of a word. Interaction may be a better word. I don't want to say that it looks different than delusion at the moment, but I would say that if these purported interactions take place in the context of a community and they lead to outcomes promoting love and peace and kindness, that those interactions should not be categorized with a word that is so derisive.

We "know" God in Christ (Incarnation), but we still cannot fathom concepts like omniscience, eternity, omnipresence. So to what extent could it ever be possible to "know" God would depend on how far you're willing to stretch the idea of knowing someone. Regardless, to know Christ is qualitatively different, and I think there is a good case to made for the possibility:

"The name Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known world. This does not mean that, at this point, time and things and men are in themselves exalted above other times and other things and other men, but that they are exalted inasmuch as they serve to define the neighbourhood of the point at which the hidden line, intersecting time and eternity, concrete occurrence and primal origin, men and God, becomes visible. The years A.D. 1-30 are the era of revelation and disclosure; the era which, as is shown by the reference to David, sets forth the new and strange and divine definition of all time. The particularity of the years is dissolved by this divine defintion, because it makes every epoch a potential field of revelation and disclosure. The point on the line of intersection is no more extended onto the known plane than is the unknown plane of which it proclaims the existence. The effulgence, or rather, the crater made at the percussion point of an exploding shell, the void by which the point on the line of intersection makes itself known in the concrete world of history, is not­ -- even though it be named the Life of Jesus -- that other world which touches our world in Him. In so far as our world is touched in Jesus by the other world, it ceases to be capable of direct observation as history, time, or thing." -Barth, Epistle to the Romans

I hear the overtones in this passage as much as, if not more than, the fundamental.

Trevor Palen

Cheek, if I understand you correctly you take qualm with the "in the negative" clause of "God exists in the negative".

I don't know that I agree that it doesn't mean anyhing. Even so, does it make more sense if I say "God is understood in the negative, if god exists (/is to be understood) at all."?

Leighton, I have not read either yet, but have heard of them. I'll definitely have to do some research in that direction.

Greg Horton

Trevor, like Cheek, I find the clause to be meaningless. How does a negation exist? Since you quoted Barth earlier, he too believed in negations; he believed sin was a negation inasmuch as it "existed" as potential having no substance of its own. I'm not sure what it would mean to say God exists in this way. If we're shooting for an ontological category, what would "exist as a negative" even look like. I think Cheek is right in his attempt to talk about defining in the negative; that's pretty standard linguistics, but your clause, unless you can flesh it out, appears to be a flat contradiction.

I tend to think the omnis are bullshit anyway, so an articulation that attempts to explain them will founder in the exact same places Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, et al, have foundered. They are categories imported from another language game and then superimposed on the Hebrew text, which clearly articulates YHWH is not omniscient, and omnipresence seems only to be used metaphorically in the Psalms. Even the incarnate Jesus lacked omniscience. Apparently, this wasn't a huge problem for the Hebrew folk and the early church.

As for your interesting take on non-Chalcedonian Christology, I'd first like to congratulate you on choosing the path of heresy. It's an honorable trek with solid company, including Barth and Marcion, both of whom I respect. What's missing here, of course, is the same hermeneutical method that insists on clear texts being interpreted clearly: He who has seen me has seen the father...in him all the fullness of the godhead dwelt..etc., and that really troubling baptism scene wherein God speaks to the people clearly in Aramaic: This is my beloved son... It seems the Bible makes claims about God's ability to reveal godself (the heart of Barth's theology, after all) that you're uncomfortable with. If all three members of the Trinity can show up for a river baptism, a cheeseburger seems reasonable.


I suppose I don't have the same problems with saying that god is understood in the negative, though you'll face the same challenge regarding limiting the domain that I referenced above. To be honest, I'm not at all sure what such an understanding would look like. Perhaps this is what Leighton has in mind from Karen Armstrong? (I'm not familiar with her treatment of contemporary praxis. I've only read her history.) Negative definitions are typically only used to define the empty spaces in scientific theories. Spaces where the objects posited by the theory have not yet been discovered and are not well understood. Or else they are used to avoid arbitrary or tautological pronouncements in drawing clear lines around the denotations of mundane functional terms like 'chair'. If our understanding of god is like this, then I suppose we should all say a lot less about god.

It seems to me, though, that you're use of 'understand' and 'exist' are much more closely linked than I'm comfortable with. It's right to say that if we do not have any understanding of the denotation of a word (i.e. 'god' in this case) then it's not likely that the word actually denotes anything. (There are counterexamples to this and plenty of them, but they all involve indexicals as far as I can tell. Again, if 'god' is just an indexical about which we have no better understanding, then we'd all best quit saying things about god.) Further, one would hope that any understanding we do have of the denotation is sensitive to its extant properties. Beyond that, however, I can't see why we would want to treat existence and understanding as profoundly interrelated.


Cheek, I don't remember Karen Armstrong being particularly interested in defining God (whether positively or negatively); she seemed more concerned with reclaiming God-talk as one approach to bridging the gap between inner life and communal life. After Trevor's clarifications, that doesn't seem to be very similar to the approach he is taking after all. But it is one perspective that would not be terribly bothered by the universe's lack of a literal divine entity, whether known, unknown or unknowable.

I am not a fan of this approach, however, because it simply doesn't communicate. People who want to talk about God seem convinced that there is a right way to talk about the subject (specifically, theirs), even though people have all kinds of contradictory convictions and no way to mediate between them except by the rules of conduct dictated by ambient culture. It seems more reasonable to me to say that human psyches are complicated, and that not every aspect of them is available at all times to our conscious minds, and our convictions about God are actually induced by aspects of our complex self-relationships. This accounts for the existence of large social bubbles wherein people have broad, non-semantic consensus on the nature of god, as well as the irreconcilable differences in both views and praxis between different bubbles.

The alternative is that there is some divine reality (something our beliefs cannot influence, any more than we could simply wish away our economic slump, hurricanes, or vancomycin-resistant staph bacteria) that is terrible at communicating with people in all, or almost all, of the bubbles. Deists and Loki-worshipers would have no problem with this, but the most popular versions of theism don't pass the pluralism test.

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