Giving the mystery a name

More from Mark Vernon. And more again. I’m still not convinced though.

But this is the over-riding issue, it seems to me, in the atheists’ dismissal of God: if they really want to be conclusive then they must address the best ideas of God available, the criterion for that being those of the great theologians…Unfortunately, or irritatingly, though, they will find that the best theologians say that God is not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis they want to apply. For the very simple reason that God is beyond human comprehension, else not God. This is not to say that reason has no role to play in theology: it’s primary purpose is to do away with false gods.

But if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then how can (human) reason do away with false gods? How can it do one but not the other – or if it can’t do one, how can it do the other? How can you know this is counterfeit, and this is a fraud, and this is no good, if you don’t know what the authentic version is?

And there’s also the wearyingly familiar problem, which I apologize for repeating, that if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then why do people say things about it at all? If it’s beyond human comprehension – why doesn’t that mean that there is just nothing at all for humans to say about it? It still seems like a cheat. ‘God’ is beyond comprehension so it’s ‘not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis atheists want to apply,’ but it is amenable to the kind of analysis theists want to apply. How can that not look like a shell game? Not to mention the pesky fact – again, much repeated – that many people do claim to comprehend god and make all sorts of factual claims about it, especially about the way it wants us to behave and not behave, which people it wants us to treat badly, how hard to hit children, and the like. In that sense the theologians’ beyond comprehension god is beside the point. The problem with religion is all the claims that people do make about god, so it’s in a way irrelevant to point out that theologians mean a different kind of god.

Stephen Law comments here and here. He answers the ‘God is beyond human comprehension else not God’ move this way:

But now here’s my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon’s theist who says there’s a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery “God”? Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

It seems so to me. There’s this [ ] that we don’t comprehend, called ‘God,’ or there are a lot of things we don’t comprehend, and because we don’t comprehend them we don’t give them names. There’s an unknown unknown; let’s either call it ‘God’ or not call it anything. There’s a mystery about why there is anything at all; let’s call it ‘God’; no, let’s not give it a name. That does indeed seem like a trivial difference. (I think Stephen meant to say ‘anything’ instead of ‘nothing’ in the theist version: I think the two mysteries are meant to be the same mystery rather than different mysteries.)

Update: Yes, Stephen meant ‘anything,’ so I’ll change the wording, noting it here because commenters have quoted the first version.

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