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Defining God April 9, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A cornerstone of religious belief is the notion that god is real and while it is possible to believe without this (usually based on the notion that being religious is better than not – i.e. belief in belief) most religious people profess some genuine acceptance of the reality of the existence of their god. This raises a fundamental problem for believers however which I would like to raise.

What is god?

I am going to approach this from a Christian perspective but the same sorts of arguments work for any deity.

The bible is remarkably vague on what god actually is, but my impression from what I have read of the bible is that there are two distinctly different aspects of god represented by the bible.

The first is the “old man in the clouds” cliche and while this may not be explicitly stated in the bible (I am unsure if it is although churches make free with this notion in their imagery) it is certainly the impression one gets from reading Genesis, and any other part where people talk directly with god.

The details don’t matter too much – what matters is that god is seen in this definition as a tangible, directly observable, can “come down to earth” kind of thing. He is essentially portrayed as a super powerful person. This definition is interesting right up until you ask for evidence that such a being exists and then the second form of god makes its appearance.

The second aspect is represented when Jesus says “I am truth”. The notion that god is the driving force of life, that god is the good things, or all things, or truth, or life force, or any of these other intangible things. Such definitions are remarkably vague and do a good job of avoiding the need for evidence. Of course it doesn’t answer the question of why one would worship such an intangible thing, or even come to realise it exists in the first place.

There are of course intermediate definitions as well.

However it frequently seems to me that god is defined in the most convenient manner for the purposes of the current discussion – a theist might say “he’s a guy in the sky who responds to prayers” when praying and yet 5 minutes later might say “He is truth” in a different context.

I find this whole notion of what god actually is tremendously confusing, and I have yet to see any believers answer this question clearly or definitively. If any readers think I am wrong, please post a comment including their own precise definition 🙂 Keep in mind a definition needs to be precise, and needs to define something in such a way that something else that is not god is not covered by the definition. In other words someone should be able to look at a Tuatara and, via the definition, say that is not god.

If god can’t be defined properly surely it is lunacy to have faith in it? If I said “believe in Zeus, he is all things good” would you believe without asking what Zeus is? If I said Zeus can’t be defined, wouldn’t you be just a little suspicious? Why should god get any different treatment?

Cheers
Ian

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Comments»

1. Keith - April 10, 2008

I was following your argument till

“If god can’t be defined properly surely it is lunacy to have faith in it? “

why? people have a belief in many things they don’t understand or couldn’t for the life of them define. Regardless whether someone else can define it or not. They themselves can’t.

People generally believe in what they perceive to experience.

2. Ian - April 10, 2008

why? people have a belief in many things they don’t understand or couldn’t for the life of them define

Aren’t those beliefs also lunacy? It is tantamount to saying “I believe in x, no idea what it is but I’ll believe anyway.” I agree it is possible to believe in things you don’t fully understand but that is quite different to believing in something you can’t define.

Incidentally definitions could be in terms of personal experience – for example I could say “god is that voice in my head that tells me things.” That definition is sufficiently precise to move forward with, but unfortunately unlikely to be very useful for explaining anything except the voices in my head.

The real point is that there are well over a billion people who supposedly believe in the same god from the same book, and believe other people should also believe in the same thing. I am asking for a definition of that thing and if there isn’t one then it seems they are effectively believing in x without knowing what x is. If that is the case then I still think that it is lunacy 🙂

3. Ken - April 10, 2008

This is the key question – what is meant by the word god? Unless the term is defined there is no point in discussing the question – is there a god? Geering made this point in the recent documentary.

That is why a think it is pointless to discuss this question – participants will keep changing their ground opportunistically as the discussion proceeds.

It would be refreshing if theists could start their discussion with a defined god – a specific hypothesis. Mind you – if one person did this the theist standing beside them (or in the same church) would not agree.

4. Ian - April 10, 2008

Agree entirely Ken.

The real problem for theists is that committing to a single proper definition is committing to falsifiability which is dangerous for them because I suspect it’d promptly be falsified 🙂

5. Scott - April 11, 2008

This type of conversation flourishes when your source of data is ‘the closest professing theist I can find’. I’d recommend actually reading some serious Christian thinking on the subject if you’re wanting to engage at that level – for example, ‘The Doctrine of God (Contours of Christian Theology)’ by Gerald Bray is an excellent tertiary level introduction. It’s not a defense against atheism or anything, but it will at least help you to understand a solid Christian perspective in order to critique it.

There’s nothing wrong with people discussing theism ‘from the outside’, but from my observation people like Dawkins set a shocking example of their understanding of Christianity. His use of the Bible and understanding of it is just appalling.

6. Scott - April 11, 2008

Also, just an initial observation on the question…

Your starting point in this whole question appears to be that God is just like anything else in this universe which can be measured, defined and falsified. Now surely that presupposition is tantamount to defining God and asking for a definition simultaneously? The problem with asking for a definition of God in this way, is that is presumes that we have the tools and rational ability to ‘work God out’. That’s the number one assumption of philosophy when it comes to the God question. But it’s an assumption which the Bible questions in a number of ways, and therefore you have to think harder about the basis which Christian theism claims we can know something about God.

7. Ian - April 12, 2008

… but from my observation people like Dawkins set a shocking example of their understanding of Christianity. His use of the Bible and understanding of it is just appalling.

I presume by this you mean Dawkins doesn’t make the same assumptions that Christians do in interpreting the bible? I have yet to see anything Dawkins has said of the bible that is actually false.

Your starting point in this whole question appears to be that God is just like anything else in this universe which can be measured, defined and falsified.

Either we can know god exists or we can’t. If we can, I do not see how this is possible unless god is both definable and measurable. This actually applies to anything, not just god.

Now surely that presupposition is tantamount to defining God and asking for a definition simultaneously?

Not quite – if someone wants to make a claim that x exists, they must sufficiently define x such that the claim is meaningful.

The problem with asking for a definition of God in this way, is that is presumes that we have the tools and rational ability to ‘work God out’.

Not quite, as I said above, defining something and understanding something are different concepts. Saying we can’t work god out doesn’t really come into it.

8. fruitfulfaith - April 14, 2008

Hey, Ian wrote another post! 🙂

Indeed, it is important to sort out the ‘what do you mean by God?’ question…

Scott raises some good points.

I’ve heard it put this way: you cannot ‘comprehend’ God (in the way that, for example, you can appreciate the distance between two points, etc.), but rather you can ‘apprehend’ God (in a way very similar to appreciating a piece of music or a wife).

The athiest-theist conversation should begin by attempting to agree on how we can ‘know’ anything (epistemology). Once that framework is agreed upon (and that’s quite a task – and sadly one many Christians are VERY weak on), then you can use that framework to talk about ‘knowing’ what God is like, etc.

9. Ian - April 14, 2008

I don’t think it’s that complicated Dale. Sure we can have fun digging into the finer philosophical points of the question, as we can (and probably will lol) with any question, but in the end we either know what god is or we don’t. If we don’t then believers have a significant problem – because they are essentially saying “I believe in x, no idea what x is but I’ll believe anyway” and I don’t see how anyone could take that stance seriously.

10. fruitfulfaith - April 16, 2008

…in the end we either know what god is or we don’t…
You’ll hate this, but that seemingly simple ‘either-or’ is made quite complex by the use of the word ‘know’… Believe me, I KNOW how frustrating that may seem… The question it begs is: ‘know’ in what way or sense?
This is why I made reference to these two terms: ‘comprehend’ and ‘apprehend’

A basic notion about God is that he is not some kind of ‘thing’ you can ‘define’, as if God were a sausage, an answer to a mathematical problem or a distance between two points.
Having said that, I hear and understand the desire to have a ‘definition’ to ‘work with’…

To make things more frustrating for someone seeking such a ‘definition’, the Jewish understanding (from what I’ve heard) is that God’s self-revelation is unfolding, meaning it’s more and more revealed, progressively. This kind of ‘knowledge’ is very much like ‘getting to know’ a person (in that it’s relational knowledge/revelation), but it’s also unfolding in the sense that Theology (our human posturing and gesturing and ‘explaining’ about God) is ever-sharpening, continually… If you’ve got 10 rabbis, you’ve got 20 opinions…

I’m off to bed now…

🙂

-d-

11. Ian - April 16, 2008

I don’t think the meaning of the word “know” comes into it either. Theists either know what they believe in or they don’t. Also he (she/it) must be “something” such that it means something to say one believes in it.

I can accept god may not be directly tangible. I can accept we may not have a good grasp of what god is. I can accept that god may be utterly unlike anything we are used to percieving.

My question is, with all this uncertainty, what do we actually know god is, such that the phrase “I believe in god” can have any meaning whatsoever?

Theists may not be able to define God perfetly but that doesn’t matter, physicists can’t define what a Higg’s boson is exactly either, but they can tell you precisely why they believe it exists, and they can tell us what they do know such that we know what they mean and can distinguish that from, say, a bowl of petunias.

A lot of people in the world profess to believe in a god of some description, and as I discussed above, supposedly the same god. Yet how could one even know you believe the same thing as your neighbour if neither of you know what it is you believe in?

The notion “If you’ve got 10 rabbis, you’ve got 20 opinions” suggests to me that none of the 10 really have any idea what they are talking about 🙂

12. fruitfulfaith - April 17, 2008

I’m not sure if we can take it any further then! 🙂
Paul says that we ‘know in part’, and I agree. I don’t know God fully.
I know enough of God to know he isn’t a bowl of petunias, but also enough to know that just because I have a few difference with other Christians we still can be relating to the same God.
That’s the thing with monotheism. We’re saying that there’s only really one God. We know that one God in various capacities.

But maybe the following will help:
The first ‘point’ of any definition of God –in most people’s understanding– is God as Creator of all things. Of course, even this relatively simple and straightforward, take-it or leave-it assertion is viewed in different ways be different believers, but all believers will agree that the Creator is (somehow, someway) the reason why everything exists.
That, really, is the starting point. Leave all the details to one side for just a second and just focus on the idea of God as Creator and ‘test’ that and see if it ‘works’ for you. If it does, then you’ll find a door has opened in front of you that has ‘Deism’ written over the top of it. You don’t have to walk through the door, and even if you do, it doesn’t mean you’ve walked through any other doors (Yahweh, Jesus, Zeus, etc.) yet…

13. Ian - April 17, 2008

“…God as Creator of all things.

Let us assume for the moment that we have sufficient reason to believe that there is a creator of all things (we don’t, but that’s a whole other discussion).

You can’t really believe in god with only this starting definition and assumption. Rather one can only say “I believe the world was created.” (the “by god” part is redundant in this context).

So the next step is to add meaning to that redundant phrase… how would one do that?

14. fruitfulfaith - April 17, 2008

The idea was not to first say “the universe was created”, and then, secondly, to say “God did it…”

It’s a subtle difference, I know, but I thought it was worth distinguishing that I wasn’t starting with a cosmological ‘need’ and then moving to theology; rather, I was starting with the theological question (defining God) and then proposing that the best way to begin defining God is to begin by defining God as the being/thing/force/cause/reason for the universe’s existence. It just happens that this specific point of definition also happens to be a common cosmological suggestion to explain the universe’s origin…

Make sense?
Or did I totally mis-read you?

-d-

15. Ian - April 17, 2008

I did pick up on that subtle point but my point is that “god is the creator of all things” is indistinguishable from “all things were created” unless god is further defined.

16. fruitfulfaith - April 17, 2008

OK then (scratches head)…

What I’m saying (and perhaps you agree?) is that both statements (‘God is the Creator of all things’ AND ‘all things are created’), represent a kind of ‘first step’ or ‘starting place’ in trying to ‘define god’…

making the progression so far go something like this:

1. “God. Hmm… what do people mean by ‘God’?”

2. “Hey, let’s try and discover a definition of ‘God’…”

3. “Hey, I’ve noticed that most/all people that believe in a God believe that God is the Creator of all things.”

4. “Hey, that’s a good starting place for discovering a definition of God!”

5. “I think I agree. Now what do we think about this first point of definition. Bullocks? Maybe some validity?”

-d-

17. Ian - April 17, 2008

For the purposes of this discussion I’ve accepted the notion that “all things were created” (I don’t believe this is the case, but let’s pretend I do) and that this is a starting point for defining god.

In itself it tells us nothing about god my question is “what is the next step”?

18. fruitfulfaith - April 18, 2008

to use a foot-racing analogy, this idea of God as Creator is more than just a ‘starting point’ (as if the race had not yet begun – or as if the actually defining had not yet begun), but is rather the first steps (or first lap in a longer race!) in that race.

Another analogy:
Imagine a massive meal that no one person could eat in one sitting, this point (God as Creator) is like sampling the main entree. You’ll never be able to actually ingest all of this feast, but the main entree is a good indicator as to the ‘character’ of the meal…

So ‘God as Creator’ is not ‘pre-consideration’ or ‘pre-theology’ it is the first step in it…

(admittedly, I think it was me that used the ‘starting place’ wording)

-d-

19. Ian - April 18, 2008

I’m still not following – perhaps you could explain what we now know about god from the statement “god is the creator” that we couldn’t know by saying “all things are created”?

I know I am belabouring this point (I think it’s crucial) so thanks for your patience 🙂

20. fruitfulfaith - April 18, 2008

No worries…

There is a rather large difference between saying (a) “all things came into being [somehow, some way]…” and (b) “all things are created”…

‘a’ says precisely nothing about a Creator, and ‘b’ assumes a Creator by the use of the very word ‘created’…

So, to agree with the statement “all things are created” is to agree with the idea of a Creator…

We clear here?

🙂

-d-

21. Ian - April 18, 2008

I realise those two statements are different but I haven’t used (a) anywhere – my point is the statement:

“all things are created

And the statement

“all things are created by god

Are indistinguishable until god is further defined.

(remember for the purposes of this discussion I have accepted the notion all things were created).

22. fruitfulfaith - April 18, 2008

wow. we’re really not connecting! 🙂
OK then…

(Just went back and had a re-read…)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the title of this post suggests that defining God is the desired accomplishment.

After some (valuable or not) philosophical musings, I posited that the starting point (I now say ‘first step’) for doing such was the idea of God as Creator.

This idea (the idea of God as Creator) is about the thing we’re trying to define. The question is a theological one, and this idea is a basic theological one.

Your initial response –among other thoughts– was that this idea (God as Creator) was not enough for belief.

Looking carefully, we can observe a shift here…

The goal of the post was (simply) to work toward some kind of definition of God, right? But when a first point of definition was suggested (God as Creator), you then (here’s the shift) comment about requirements for belief

Instead of making this judgment about sufficiency for ‘belief’, why not just (as I suggested) focus on whether or not this specific idea (God as Creator) is reasonable, logical and/or makes rational sense as a first point of definition for God (whether or not you judge this God believable or not just now)??

To put it (hopefully) quite plainly:
Is there anything wrong (unreasonable, illogical, etc.) with beginning a definition of God with the idea of ‘God as Creator’?

If so, then what? Objections to this idea (of whatever kind) are not ‘some other conversation’; they are immediately relevant…

23. Ian - April 18, 2008

Hmm we really are talking across each other here lol.

To clarify:

I would like a meaningful definition of god, and it seems we are going to do it step by step which is cool 🙂

The reason this definition is important is that belief without it doesn’t make sense. This is why I think the discussion is important, not a goal of the discussion.

With that in mind the basic idea is to get to a meaningful definition of god.

There is nothing wrong with making the assumption that “all things were created by god” and for the purposes of this definition I have accepted that statement. (While I may disagree with the factual basis behind it, this isn’t needed for a coherent definition.)

My point about “created” vs “created by god” has nothing to do with belief and everything to do with its usefulness as a definition. In simply logical terms the two phrases are only different if god is further defined.

So I’m keen to get to the next step which (I presume?) is to further define god such that “created by god” is a more meaningful statement than “created”.

Thoughts?

24. Bryson - April 19, 2008

GRIEF!! Sorry about the double entry folks, maybe Ian can edit the second one out?

25. Ian - April 19, 2008

Thanks for the post Bryson. Apparently you can’t edit comments in blogger (which is annoying!). However I have copied your post below and deleted your original comment for ease of reading. I hope you don’t mind! 🙂 My responses are in the comment that follows it.

———————————–
bryson:

A meaningful definition of god?
Meaningful, in what sense and to whom?

Most things are defined not so much by what they are but what they have done or continue to do. Hopefully, the problem here is more that just semantics. We all use different sets of parameters in coming to a definition of god.

Some use personal, historical, biblical and theological understandings, which in themselves can be linked together in a logical manner.

Others work from the assumption that there is only the possibility of logically defining god using categories within a physical representation of reality.
Both points of view are logically valid.

However, if the god we wish to define, is the god who is there and is creator of the universe, then it is logical that that God, being neither a product or part of creation, is not just any god and of which we could never get our puny minds to fully comprehend. Since we can’t get our minds around even the smallest or largest things of the physical universe which God created, and we being part of this universe created by God, any rational notion or framework we come up with, to define reality (and therefore God) would require some extension of that rational framework beyond God, to enable us to include that God within any understanding which could generate a universal and settled definition of that God. However, from this, the logic seems to exclude that possibility, by using such a framework, from which anything defined is thereby subservient, making any definition of that God inconclusive.

It is not that we can’t posit some tentative definitions, based on our study and personal understandings, but it will not be an exhaustive and therefore universally accepted definition of that God. This in fact goes for anything else that we try to define. We all have similar but strikingly dissimilar ideas about many things in reality, depending on many factors such as upbringing, culture and education.

For instance, Lloyd Geering’s understanding (definition) of god, is one where god is impersonal and organic. His life’s experience has shaped that definition. His misaligned belief in a god who responds to our desires when we pray but who doesn’t answer prayer in that context, Geering regards such a god as either being aloof and uncaring or an historical, Biblical God does not exist at all. Together with doubts of the Bible’s historicity, understandings of modern science based on the physicality of the universe, the poor track record of the Church, as well as his personal musings of community, have all had a part in transforming Geering’s definition from a Biblical, personal, creator God to something akin to the panentheistic god of old.

Even more frustrating is that any definition that is constructed in cold hard logic invariably comes to grief. Definitions about living things by living things will always be liquid. How can anybody live a life by strict holding to a definition of anything significant? That would blow our minds as we try to align everything up on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis. We live having broad understandings with which we are comfortable, although not fully worked out. For some then, God is the Biblical, personal creator, to others it is as saviour, still others as an absentee landlord, or a party-pooper or dead or never existed, or even a combination of these and more. That’s not lunacy, it just plain human. It partly defines ‘living by faith’; not having the full picture always before us as we live our lives.

Otherwise the old creedal, instant coffee, sound-bite definition: God, the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth . . . ;)A meaningful definition of god?

26. Ian - April 19, 2008

Bryson, it seems to me your post is an interesting way of saying that one can believe in god without having any idea what god is. I stand by my claim this is lunacy 🙂

To comment on some specific points:

Firstly god doesn’t need to be fully comprehended to be defined meaningfully. And by meaningful I essentially mean sufficiently well defined to be communicated to another person. The rest of that paragraph seems to strongly suggest that humans can’t possibly know anything about god.

Secondly it is important to realise something does not have to be defined down the the very tiniest detail to be meaningful either. It does not need to be exhaustive or universal, it only needs to be sufficiently detailed that it distinguishes god from other things. For example I presume the Christian god is different to Zeus? If so the definition much be sufficient to demonstrate that.

There are a couple of ways things can be defined:

One is by observation, and can be illustrated by the example of Pulsars. These were sufficiently defined (as blinking lights in the sky which could be seen at given coordinates and had other characteristics) long before what they actually were was explained. This definition was meaningful in that one could look at the sky and say which was one and which wasn’t, long before any further understanding was obtained. This is an example of observing something but not knowing what it is, and defining it by what was observed.

The other end of the spectrum is to say something that might exist has a set of specific properties from which we can go searching for it. For example the Higg’s Boson (a subatomic particle) has never been observed but we have a clear definition such that if it ever was observed we’d know what it was. This sort of definition is a hypothetical one.

If god can’t be defined using either of these approaches (or a combination) then you can’t possibly have a reason to believe in god because the word “god” in that context has no meaning.

“Definitions about living things by living things will always be liquid. How can anybody live a life by strict holding to a definition of anything significant?

I completely disagree with this statement. The entire basis of human thinking revolves around categorising and defining things. One doesn’t look at a thing and see a cat one minute, and a carrot the next. While definitions may evolve with growing understanding, this happens at the margins of our thought. Your internal definition of a “house cat” probably hasn’t changed since you were three.

Finally I am willing to accept that god might be a “personal Saviour” or an “absentee landlord” or whatever – there are a lot of things god might be but I don’t see anyone telling me what god actually is.

And for fun, “God, the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth” could equally apply to Raymond E Feist who is a Father, and created the heavens and earths of Midkemia 😉

27. fruitfulfaith - April 19, 2008

I’ve had a long, busy day, so I’m too tired to interact with your exchange with BC… I’ll let him push back if he wants.

“So I’m keen to get to the next step which (I presume?) is to further define god such that “created by god” is a more meaningful statement than “created”.”
You’ve still (I feel) not addressed or recognised the significance of using the word ‘created’ when referring to the universe. Among other things, it means that something or someone (logically a ‘creator’) ‘created’ all things; which means that ‘all things’ are not accidental, meaningless, valueless or purposeless. Rather using the word ‘created’ implies that the universe was intentionally brought about, and has intrinsic qualities (value, goodness, purpose, etc.)…

28. Ian - April 19, 2008

I think I have a pretty good grasp of what is meant by created and it is a huge topic. I personally think the idea that “all things were created” is a massive claim which is fundamentally flawed but I have deliberately underplayed this point because it is secondary to the discussion and an unnecessary (and rather big) distraction. Therefore I accepted that everything was created (along with everything that entails) for this discussion to keep it focused.

It most certainly does imply a creator although it doesn’t really say much more than that (as stated). It tells us nothing about the creator nor the creation except that one made the other. To say that it implies things within the creation are not meaningless, valueless or purposeless is a non sequitur. A specific type of creator or creation might imply that, but far from all.

To get to those qualities it might help to be more specific in your definition of creator 🙂

29. fruitfulfaith - April 20, 2008

Thanks Ian,
I agree this point is important, so excuse me dragging it on… 🙂

As we agree (logically), to use the word ‘created’ (with reference to the universe) indeed obviously implies (necessitates!? – logically) a thing/person who did the creating; a Creator.

Now, you’ve said that it doesn’t follow (non sequitur) that the universe is not without meaning, value and purpose… A couple thoughts
1a. It a careful thing to say, but all creating that we observe is not accidental, but purposeful; so,
1b. …the action of creating by the creator would be purposeful and not accidental.
2a. The things that we create have purpose, meaning and value (at least functional value), so,
2b. The things that the creator created would then also have purpose, meaning and value.

Now, what we haven’t said anything about yet is what kind of purpose, meaning or value the creator had in mind – or the creation has invested it…

But, again, the use the word ‘created’ does not occur in a vacuum, but rather occurs in a world where all acts of creation are purposeful, etc. That, I suggest, is beginning to give proper weight to the word ‘created’.

But, again, our purpose here is not to define the universe, but rather to define ‘God’, so –again– to suggest the idea of ‘God as Creator’ implies not just that the Creator ‘created’, but that the Creator did so (like all other acts of creation we see) with purpose and intent (whatever that may be).

30. Ian - April 20, 2008

I am happy to accept most of that. I will comment however that if all things were created with a purpose, that purpose is relative to the creator. The assumption that a rock (or a man, or a planet) has an inherent purpose is false – the only way they can have purpose (via your argument) is that they are externally imposed by the creator. Therefore as far as we are concerned they may have a purpose to the creator but they don’t have an inherent purpose.

I am more than happy to accept that creation implies a purpose imposed by the creator. However we still know nothing about the creator with this assumption, and the statement “all things were created” is still indistinguishable from “all things were created by god“.

31. fruitfulfaith - April 20, 2008

I won’t go there, but your ‘internal/external’ language seems based on some underlying concepts…

I am more than happy to accept that creation implies a purpose imposed by the creator. However we still know nothing about the creator with this assumption…

I disagree. As we’ve observed, we ‘know’ (at least in principle in the pursuit of a working definition) the Creator not only creates in some passive, accidental way, but in a purposeful way. Also, the language of God as Creator implies a distinction between the creator and the creation; the one creates the other (rather than the created bringing itself into being)…
This is all (I think quite clearly) implied by the use of the simple word ‘creator’.

32. Ian - April 20, 2008

I’ve accepted that 🙂

I’ll rephrase slightly:

All things were created in a purposeful manner” and “all things were created in a purposeful manner by god” are indistinguishable at this point, and will be until we get to the next step 🙂

33. fruitfulfaith - April 21, 2008

Yes, and whilst those two statements (which are, again, about the creatION, not the creatOR) are indistinguishable without further defining of ‘god’, we still can discern a key and meaningful first step toward a definition of ‘god’ – that he is purposefully creative, etc.

34. Ian - April 21, 2008

So to summarise we have got this far:

1) Assume: All things were deliberately created;
2) Imply: This act of creation requires a creator;
3) Define: This deliberate creator shall be called “god”.

Would that satisfy you, such that we could go to the next step?

35. dale - April 21, 2008

I’m less-than-comfortable with that…

First of all, trajectory:
It starts with ‘all things’ and then works from there toward the attempt to define god.

The trajectory of the question (as framed in the original post), I thought, was the other way around. We start with the idea of ‘god’, and then we try to define that. Your primary challenge was that it is ‘lunacy’ to believe in ‘god’ if you can’t define what ‘god’ is.

So, within that trajectory (starting with ‘god’ and seeking to define that), I proposed that a first point of definition could/should be ‘god as Creator of all things’ (which, as we’ve seen, implies lots of things)…

I’m well aware that you (an atheist) will not want to ‘start with god’, no doubt viewing that to be a rather large ‘assumption’, but nonetheless, that seemed to me to be the trajectory of the question.

Mind you, the field known as “Natural Theology” does indeed work from nature toward God, but if that’s the trajectory you wish to take, then that’s a different kind of conversation…

(btw, I’m posting with my Blogger account to use the email follow-up option)

36. Ian - April 21, 2008

A definition can’t start with “god is god” hence why I framed it that way. 1 and 2 are just conditions necessary for 3 to be true. If we were talking about why we believe god to be real then this trajectory would matter but we are talking about definitions so I don’t think it does.

Still, if it makes you feel better you can put 3 at the top – it makes no difference to the statement.

37. fruitfulfaith - April 21, 2008

True, “god is God” is not a definition at all, nor a starting point. But that’s not the starting point I’ve suggested. The difference can be seen in the two words ‘creatED’ and ‘creatOR’…

‘creatED’ refers to ‘what has been made’; and ‘creatOR’ refers to the ‘maker’.

We are not trying to define ‘what has been made’, but rather the ‘maker’.

That’s what I mean by ‘starting with god’. God is the object of the task. And I’ve suggested that the first step of this task (defining ‘god’) is the idea of God as Creator/maker.

Make sense?

-d-

38. Ian - April 21, 2008

Yep it makes sense and I have accepted for this discussion that the first step of defining god is as the creator of all things.

39. fruitfulfaith - April 21, 2008

Good.

Now we can (from this first point of definition; God as Creator) check with your initial charge of ‘lunacy’.

Is it, then, ‘lunacy’ to believe in a God who is defined (partially; no more, no less at this point) as ‘Creator’???

40. Ian - April 22, 2008

I don’t think at this stage of the definition that there is sufficient detail from which one could “believe” in its existence. But yes, if you choose to believe in this specific definition of god then, from a definition point of view, it is not lunacy.

To clarify, we are working towards a definition of the god you believe in right? (as opposed to a definition of god in general).

41. fruitfulfaith - April 22, 2008

“But yes, if you choose to believe in this specific definition of god then, from a definition point of view, it is not lunacy.”

A quick question: what do you mean believing ‘from a definition point of view’?

Now, as far who this definition we’re working toward belongs to, while I naturally will suggest definitions/understandings which I resonate with (of course), I personally don’t (nor do I recommend any believers to) presume that my understanding/’definition’ of God is the defintion of God. The apostle Paul said: ‘We know in part and we prophecy in part,” etc.

Interestingly, you seem to draw a hard and fast distinction between defining and believing. I’m curious (and I’ll have to continue thinking about it myself) if you imagine the ‘defining’ bit being an objective sort of ‘thing’ which you can ‘test’ before believing or not? I’m not sure it works like that, myself, though I’m interested in further reflection on it… There is a latin phrase ‘fides quarens intellectum’ (faith seeking understanding), which implies that people of faith start with whatever level of understanding, and then test that understanding, etc.

Interesting stuff…

42. Ian - April 22, 2008

The main point of my OP was believing in anything that is poorly defined is “lunacy” from a definitional point of view (for lack of a better phrase). It could still be lunacy to believe in something well defined (e.g. zero or contrary evidence) but that isn’t the point of this thread.

I fully accept that your definition doesn’t imply that all Christians believe the same thing. However it will be interesting to see where yours takes us and thanks for offering it 🙂

I do make a very strong distinction between belief and definition. You can define something and not believe in it but I don’t think you can believe in something without sufficient definition and then claim the belief actually means something.

Now what could happen is that you start with a very general definition, look at evidence, choose to believe in it, refine definition over time, and repeat. However one must have a particular definition of “god” in mind when saying one believes in “god”, otherwise that belief is, in my opinion, lunacy.

43. fruitfulfaith - April 22, 2008

Cheers, Ian,

For me, the defining and believing are on-going, living things. Neither is ‘fixed’ or ‘static’. I’m not ‘finished’ with either, nor will I ever be. 🙂

I would also go so far as to suggest that all people (knowingly or not, conciously or sub-conciously) engage in this on-going defining and believing (or un-believing) act. In a very real sense, it’s not only the theists that must have a definition of the God they believe in, but also the atheists who must have a definition of the God(s) they don’t believe in.

I’ve heard, for example, the statement that “athiests are just like most people in that most people don’t believe in Zeus, Apollos, etc. – the athiests just go one god further…”

But unfortunately, that statement, while honest, assumes that everyone knows which ‘one more god’ they’re talking about…

44. Ian - April 22, 2008

I don’t think negative beliefs make much sense – we all have essentially infinite things we don’t believe in, and defining them is much more difficult than defining what we do believe in.

I would state that I believe that the world has natural origins (or is eternal) and that supernatural and paranormal phenomenon (including religious claims) have natural explanations.

I accept that definitions evolve over time, but that still means that at any point in time you must believe in something as a Christian. While the details might shift (although I doubt they do so substantially on a frequent basis) there must be some foundational features that define what god actually is.

Incidentally the statement you refer to can be expanded by two words to answer your criticism (and there words are implied in its usage): Just add “than you.”

45. fruitfulfaith - April 23, 2008

I agree, the positive/negative distinction doesn’t help much. We have understandings, ideas, perspectives, inklings and/or beliefs about ‘how it all works’ or ‘what it’s all about (if anything at all)’.

My point was simply that this process of observing, wondering, thinking, defining and believing (or not) is on-going and for everyone.

…and even those two last words assume that you know how the ‘other god than you’ is defined (unless, of course, those words are said within a context where the person has heard extended definitions of the other’s god, etc.)…


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