God’s Communication Problem pt. 2

Image father and sons

Possibly a depiction of a communications situation
By unknown master (book scan) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Continuing to think about the communication problem.

Assuming God, and God’s classical attributes (“the omnis,” which is what got me thinking about this problem in the first place, the seeming inconsistency of the omnis with God’s ineffective communication …):

God differs from humanity. Not following Barth into the land of the ganz anderes, the “wholly other” God, because as one of my professors once said, Barth wouldn’t have said that if he’d thought about what it actually meant. Because Barth, of all people, is the theologian of the self-revelation of God, and there’s no self-revelation if God is ganz anderes, wholly other, since then there’s no shared reality within which revelation can take place. For us to be having this communication problem, there has to be some shared reality, whatever its properties. (That is, it might be small or fragmentary; our reality might only be a part of God’s reality, and the part of our reality that we share with God might be only a part of our own … maybe, although I’m not sure that claim would hold up under scrutiny; we might have to share all of our reality with God; but certainly we imagine that God’s reality is bigger than ours; so that there’s some region of God’s reality from which we are excluded, at least normally.)

So, God differs from humanity, but can in principle communicate with humanity through the medium of the reality we share. Let’s leave unspecified for now how much of God’s reality can be communicated through that reality; we could come back to that.

Assuming some Christian doctrine, in particular the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus as the Christ, we have the common basis of human life experience. So say we human beings have in principle at least as much common ground with God as any two individual human beings might have. Furthermore, assuming the truth of the Apostle’s Creed, we get to assume the ongoing reality of that common physical life, in some sense (“he ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”) – though not in the normal sense we apply to our next door neighbor, in some alternative sense (again, unspecified). So, God has life experience and this common basis for communication remains active and actual, but the precise mechanism by which the communication with God occurs is mysterious.

Assuming some more doctrine, we could say it’s mediated by the activity of the Holy Spirit. Again, whatever that means concretely, it doesn’t seem to mean, and I don’t think anyone takes it to mean, that it is anyone’s normal experience to communicate with God the way we communicate with our next door neighbor, for example – with another ordinarily real human being.

If I had taken an intro communications class, I would probably be aware of all kinds of complexities in what seems like the simple and direct way my next door neighbor and I communicate. But I didn’t, so I proceed in blissful ignorance of all that, thinking like this: Take a little piece of communication, for instance, Buffy my next door neighbor inviting us to her husband Bud’s 40th birthday party. Buffy, who has a unique physical address in her physical body initiates some conversation by addressing me through one or more of my five senses, typically sight and sound. (“Hey, Heather!” + a wave, for instance; or an email message, for instance.) The message is in language, presumably a language we both speak, more or less fluently. Buffy is an external, identifiable source. The message is objectifiable, and I can save it, in my memory, and maybe in another form – like the email in my inbox, or the birthday invitation tacked to the fridge with the trip-to-Florida magnet, whatever.

God, thanks to omnipresence, isn’t limited to a unique physical address. God’s communication could presumably originate from any physical address to which God has access: another human being, some non-human aspect of the physical environment, our own thoughts or states. (Any other location categories?) Setting aside the prior problem of God’s being able to make use of any particular source in the first place, which poses a whole set of problems in itself, this would seem to be a communications advantage.

But it’s probably, simultaneously, a communications disadvantage: it always has the potential for obscurity, confusion, from failure to identify the communication as coming from God, since it’s also always coming from some non-God physical address. In the case of a burning bush, which is really out of the ordinary, there’s presumably less potential for confusing God’s message with an ordinary communication from a bush, since we have so few of those. On the other hand, precisely since we have so few of those experiences ordinarily, we might have more difficulty believing such an out-of-the-ordinary experience had actually happened –  “I must have dreamed it,” “I must be nuts,” “I need to stop going out for margaritas after choir practice,” that kind of thing.

But in the case of a prophetic human being, like Jeremiah for instance, while we might be less likely to question whether some real communication is happening, there is surely more potential for confusion about where the communication is actually coming from. Since communicating with people is something we do all the time, the structure of God’s communication through Jeremiah raises the question, how does someone distinguish God’s communication through the medium of Jeremiah from Jeremiah’s ordinary communication? Jeremiah might be able to give us some information along these lines, but we would have to accept it as trustworthy; and we might not care to do that, or be able to; we might have reservations or doubts; we might not like the content of the communication, and reject it for that reason; or we might not like Jeremiah, and reject the possibility that Jeremiah is communicating with us on God’s behalf; and we could probably come up with several other problems along these lines.

I don’t see how it would be possible to eliminate the problems associated with God’s communication with people through external sources like these.

Being “all powerful” wouldn’t make it possible to do away with these problems, because they seem to reside in the structure of the communications situation itself.


About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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2 Responses to God’s Communication Problem pt. 2

  1. Steven Hoyt says:

    saying jesus is god incarnate doesn’t mean anything more than that jesus is how we imagine god to be our hope he is like. nothing terribly important changes with the christian enterprise if jesus is not homoousia and is instead memra/logos because of the jewish, not barthian, tradition that god is wholly other (see moses in exodus vs stephen in acts regarding the burning bush; god himself, or memra).

    if the apophatic tradition and natural theology are taken together, then grace leads to faith and both are salvation for mankind. meaning, that because god is goodness and because we are icons of god, we are drawn to god; atonement is the experience of doing the good and salvation is from the transformative nature of the experience of participating with the good.

    that’s the very same idea in islam (ie fitrah) and judaism (ie participatory pedagogy).

    you have to consider why on earth you should presuppose a thing! since no idea arises in a vacuum and all ideas are based on reality, we don’t invent the idea of god. but when we give ideas about god, they can’t be about god; god transcends.

    we don’t say that because there is a god, we are good. we don’t know if there is a god at all in the first place. but when we theologically say “god is good”, we don’t ultimately assert there is a god. only that we have the impression of volition, of purposefulness the world and we describe it in terms we can understand; that it is goodness itself.

    simplicity demands that we don’t exist to know god at all, but instead exist to begin to know ourselves and that it is only through our circumstances that we know anything, and circumstances lead to particular ideas. since there is an idea of god in the minds of humanity, the question is necessary (if there is a god) but some “correct” sentence about god, some bit of knowledge isn’t necessary at all.

    simplicity demands that god’s plans are infallible, and that means ALL god-talk accomplishes the goal god had in mind when creating our circumstances of living which have birth to the idea of gods at all.

    occam’s razor, philosophical simplicity, parsimony …

    we cannot presume god tells us who he is just as he isn’t telling us who we are, and so, demigodery is passé. we anthropomorphically conceive of god and god is all the best humanity has to offer, and good is then the ideal we strive to iconify. THAT is the only appropriate response to a god in hiding, evidenced by a world fully of religions all purporting to have the only knowledge of god and the path to him. these beliefs are simply idolatrous. arrogant.

    great quotes:

    Equivocal God-talk leaves us in total ignorance about God. At best, one can only feel, intuit, or sense God in some experiential way, but no human expressions can describe what it is that is being experienced … [As for univocal] Our understanding and expressions are finite, and God’s are infinite, and there is an infinite gulf between finite and infinite. As transcendent, God is not only beyond our limited understanding, but He is also beyond our finite expressions.

    (Norman Geisler, ‘Systematic Theology, Vol. 1’, Bethany House Publishers, 2002, pg. 615)

    … when we speak of God by using the word ‘God’, we do not understand what we mean, we have no concept of God; what governs our use of the word ‘God’ is not an understanding of what God is but the validity of a question about the world [Why anything at all?] … What goes for our rules for the use of ‘God’ does not go for the God we try to name with the word. (And a corollary of this, incidentally, is why a famous argument for the existence of God called the ontological argument does not work.)

    (Fr. Herbert McCabe, ‘God Matters’, Continuum, 2005, pg. 6)

    For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential propositions which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone. But in fact this is not possible. It is sometimes claimed, indeed, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. But if the sentence “God exists” entails to more than that certain types of phenomena occur in certain sequences, then to assert the existence of a god will be simply equivalent to asserting that there is the requisite regularity in nature; and no religious man would admit that this was all he intended to assert in asserting the existence of a god. He would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being who might be known through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestations. But in that case the term “god” is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.

    (A. J. Ayer, “Language, Truth, And Logic”, Dover, Second Edition, 1952, pg. 117)

    To exist beyond the sphere of natural law means to exist beyond the scope of human knowledge; epistemological transcendence is a corollary of ‘supernaturalness’. If a god is a natural being, if his actions can be explained in terms of normal causal relationships, then he is a knowable creature. Conversely, if god can be known, he cannot be supernatural. Without mystery, without some element of the incomprehensible, a being cannot be supernatural – and to designate a being as supernatural is to imply that this being transcends human knowledge. Epistemological transcendence is perhaps the only common denominator among all usages of the term “god,” including those of Tillich, Robinson and other modern theologians. While some “theists” reject the notion of a supernatural being in a metaphysical sense, it seems that every self-proclaimed theist – regardless of his particular use of the term “god” – agrees that a god is mysterious, unfathomable or in someway beyond man’s comprehension. The idea of the “unknowable” is the universal element linking together the various concepts of god, which suggests that this is the most critical aspect of theistic belief. The belief in an unknowable being is the central tenet of theism, and it constitutes the major point of controversy between theism and critical atheism.

    (George Smith, ‘Atheism: The Case Against God’, 1973)


  2. HAT says:

    Hi, Steven, thank you for this meaty and interesting comment, which by the way made me feel like a “real blogger,” so that’s really double thanks. (Sorry for the delay in noticing it … comments are so rare here, I don’t have a policy for checking on them.) I was particularly interested in your mention of the “memra” tradition, which is something I didn’t know anything about before this, so now I have some interesting reading to do on JSTOR.

    I think that the status of claims that some communication or other constitutes “revelation” has to come into consideration here explicitly. That specific condition seems to matter.


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