Ineffable and Unknowable?

I was going to post this as a reply at Cliopatria, but then it went on a bit longer than I intended, and seemed (yet again) less anodyne than I feel I need to be on this subject in that location. Maybe I’m wrong to feel that way, but…I’m not convinced, and so far what people have said has just convinced me of the opposite. At any rate. Ralph said this in answer to a question about why say G_d –

As I suspect you know, there is a long tradition in Judaism of using g_d. It transliterates the Hebrew which has no vowels and it respects the unknowable, mysterious, ineffable qualities of ultimate reality. It isn’t a “naughty” word, though without naming any names there are apparently some people who prefer not to hear it uttered in their presence, except as a curse. My use of it is a little affected, since I am not Jewish. It’s not my only, my best, or my worst affectation.

And I started to answer this way, and then decided not to.

Well (without naming any names) how would you go about uttering it in our presence? What does it sound like without the vowel?

But seriously folks. If ultimate reality is unknowable and mysterious and ineffable – then why discuss it at all? Why claim to know something about it? Why, specifically, claim to be able to know what God’s will is and that it ought to be prior to politics?

That’s not a rhetorical question, and it’s also not a purely provocative one, though I daresay it will be taken as such – and the reason I daresay that is because I keep being told that I should say whatever I want to and then when I do say something (something quite mild) at B&W I’m told I’m calling for a “ban” when I’m not. Hence my chronic expectation that any disagreement with religion is likely to be greeted with – shall we say, acerbity. At any rate, that’s not a purely provocative question. One of the problems with religion when one is trying to have a rational discussion is that kind of having it both ways. God is ineffable etc. but that won’t stop us from knowing all about him. That kind of move doesn’t work in secular discussion, and doesn’t get resorted to as much. But with religion – well, you know, everyone means something different, and it’s ineffable, and you can’t pin it down or define it, and if you try to you’re just being literal and scientistic…

And that’s where I decided to stop, and transfer over here, instead. But that is a serious question. I am constantly being told that when I disagree with religion on substantive issues I misunderstand because that’s not what it’s about, it’s about awe and wonder, or love, or inner experience. But that’s not what Hugo’s post is about at all. It’s about taking the Bible as a guide to morals, and without picking and choosing, because that’s a bad habit. It’s about replacing one’s existing suppositions about justice with God’s will. It’s about taking direction from the Holy Spirit – not metaphorically but literally. That is the kind of thing that worries me, not awe or wonder, and not ineffable things (provided people don’t then decide that they’re effable after all when a different argument is going on).

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