Say anything

Mark Vernon is playing the same old hurdy-gurdy.

The Oxford church historian tells of a ‘wise old Dominican friar’ who informed him that God is not the answer. Rather, God is the question…First you’ve got to ask what you mean by the word ‘God’. And there is a quick answer: we don’t know what we mean by the word ‘God’. God is a mystery. ‘The word “God” is a label for something we do not know’…

A mystery is different from a problem; a problem can be solved, science does that, science does it well, but a mystery is different. And God is one of those. Aquinas said God can’t even be said to exist. Talk about mysterious!

That’s how much of a mystery God is. Inherent in any decent conception of divinity is the notion that the divine is not a thing in the world, like everything else, because God is the reason there are things at all. God as the cause of existence, not something that exists.

It’s a mystery, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it; oh nooooooo. We can talk about it a lot! Why would we want to?

Again, the “why” is simply answered: because existence is so extraordinary. You see, if you believe the question of God is worth asking then it’s because you’ve sensed that life might have meaning, that the cosmos is for something, that there might be an explanation beyond chance as to why there is something rather than nothing. To ask of God is to raise these questions.

No doubt, but to raise these questions is not necessarily to talk about (or ‘ask of’) God. It is entirely possible to talk and speculate about life, and meaning, and the cosmos, and purpose, and why there is something rather than nothing, without talking about ‘God.’ You may not want to; you may think those vague suggestions are too generalized and shapeless and in an odd way parochial to be worth talking about; you may suspect that those aren’t real ‘questions’ but rather pretend questions shaped by the need to find reasons for thinking ‘God’ is real; but all the same you can. It’s the weird imperialism of goddy types that makes them think all questions of that kind are inextricable from God-talk. Being hammers, they think everything is a nail. But it isn’t.

So, second, how can God be talked of? It’s called the negative way, or the apophatic – saying what God is not. Whatever God might be, God is not visible: God’s invisible. Whatever God might be, God cannot be defined: God’s ineffable. Nothing positive is said. But nonetheless something is said of God. Similarly, the often forgotten motivation for the formulation of doctrine is the aim of not dissolving the mystery of God. When Christians say God is three in one, they assert what they take as a meaningful contradiction. And that’s the point. If you accept it, you accept a mystery.

God’s ineffable, but we get to go on and on and on effing anyway, and people say God is one and God is three and you just have to lump it and that’s because they don’t want to dissolve the mystery of God so the thing to do is to talk complete bullshit because by gum that preserves the mystery of God, and it lets you go on talking, too. In other words anything and everything, anything goes, it doesn’t matter, it’s a mystery and ineffable so nobody can say ‘Eh that’s nonsense’ and we can just go on blathering forever without ever having to check our data. As Mark Vernon does for another three paragraphs.

There’s something terribly childish about being satisfied with that kind of thing. Why bother? Yes, sure, you can do that, and go ahead, but why go proudly public with it in the Guardian’s blog? Why say it aloud as if we were supposed to be impressed? I’m impressed by people who really find out things, not by people who just spin words about ineffable trinities.

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