Sunday, January 16, 2022

Deism: The Limitation Of Language

All of my life I have been a words guy. The written word as a kid was my constant companion as I devoured books by the hundreds. To this day I cannot really fall asleep without first reading, even if it is just a few pages. As I got older I discovered that I had something of a knack for the spoken word as well, once I learned to slow down as I spoke. My wife will attest that when I was younger most people couldn't understand me because I was speaking so quickly, she said when we dated and talked on the phone she often would miss entire conversations. In the FFA I did a lot of public speaking and then in my professional career I did even more. I have never had that same fear of public speaking that terrifies so many people, I actually really actually enjoy it. In March of 2004 I was an early adopter of blogging and while a lot of my writing back then was pretty poor and my positions have changed, a lot, it is something I am passionate about. All of that to say that I am a big believer in the power of language and words, written and spoken. 

Having said that, it is also critical to understand that language does have it's limits. I cannot describe with anything approaching the most elementary details a planet on the far end of the galaxy. No one can. Some can guess and speculate but that is all it is and better yet they know it and also know it is something you cannot disprove. What we call the "known universe" is just an infinitesimal fraction of the total universe and we know basically nothing about it. With our best technology it would take several months at best to get to Mars, the next closest planet to Earth, and we haven't even managed to get people there despite space travel being relatively common for half a century. When you get further out into our solar system, the distances get a lot bigger. Mars is on average around 140 million miles from Earth but Saturn? Saturn is on average more like 746 million miles from Earth. How can we even talk about going to Saturn, much less anything beyond our solar system? The next closest solar system is apparently called Epsilon Eridani and it is maybe 60 trillion miles away. Without some sort of major leap in technology no human will ever get there.

Space is vast but it at least is observable and sort of measurable in our immediate environs. What about a deity that is unseen and unmeasurable? 

It really isn't a big leap to recognize that human language, created and utilized by people with lifespans of a few decades, is intrinsically incapable of describing something that is by definition timeless. I can't really comprehend a few hundred years in the past, it is difficult enough grasping how different things are in my own lifetime, so how can I begin to describe something that has always existed? Or a being that is presumably omnipotent, able to create that vast universe that we cannot fathom? Trying to explain something like that with any authority is futile and a little silly and arrogant. 

Silly or not, it hasn't stopped anyone. For most significant major religions in the world, describing an eternal being using human language is precisely what they do and not only that but they defend their particular notions of what God is or is not fervently and often violently. 

In spite of the limitations of human language, religions by their nature have spent all of human history trying to control the definition of God and often done so using the written word. Three of the world's major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are made up of "People of the Book", an Islamic term that is also used by the two other groups. Hindus and Buddhists similarly have holy books that put their own spin on the divine but I will look more specifically at the three Abrahamic faiths.

That three major world religions with adherents that number over 4 billion people, half of the population of the world, base their understanding of God on their holy book  raises an obvious issue to people who are somewhat familiar with the three holy books held sacred by those three faiths. What is that issue? Simply that what they say is contradictory and mutually exclusive about God, what God wants and pretty much every other significant teaching. 

God is this, God is not that, because this book says so while a different book says, no God is not that at all, God is really this.

Jesus is God, but no, Jesus is a prophet, or wait Jesus was actually a false prophet and fake messiah. They can't all be right of course but the real question is, can any of them be right?

The three Abrahamic faiths, despite having a common origin story, are completely incompatible with each other. Anyone who unironically uses the risible term "Judeo-Christian" is exposed as someone who is theologically and historically ignorant. Certainly an ethnic Jew can become a Christian but one cannot practice Christianity and Judaism simultaneously and no one thought you could until fairly recently. No one would seriously talk about Islamo-Christian and for the same reasons of incompatibility there is no such thing as Judeo-Christianity. 

That is confusing enough in itself but compounding the issue is another simple fact: which book you believe to be correct is mostly a product of where you grew up. White people in the Midwest and South of the U.S. aren't likely to gravitate to Islam or Judaism, if they are going to get a religion it almost certainly would be Christianity while young people in Pakistan or Kuwait are going to end up as Muslims. There are exceptions of course, many people leave the faith of their family and others join a new faith from their existing family religion but generally your religious faith is a result of your parentage. I doubt if many, or really any, of the people reading this ever considered converting to Islam or Judaism. 


That brings us to The Big Issue Of Monotheism: Which book is correct? 

Billions of people believe in one book, billions more in another, the (arguably) oldest of the three believes in something completely different. A whole bunch of people are wrong and being wrong has some pretty awful repercussions. What is more, billions of people in the various camps have virtually no exposure to the other books so they really don't have the chance to compare the different holy books. How many Christians sat down and read the Bible (and very few have at all) as well as the Quran and the various holy writings of Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism and then decided which one was correct? Or substitute a Muslim or Hindu or Jew and ask the same question. I would wager the number of people who had actually investigated all of their options before deciding is functionally zero. Maybe you did, that is fine, but it doesn't negate my point that generally your cultural setting determines your holy book to accept or reject in it's entirety. 

Further muddling the competing claims of authority is the idea of tradition, or extra-Scriptural teachings that are formally or informally given the weight of Scripture. This is most prevalent in Roman Catholicism/Orthodoxy and Judaism but it is very common as well in Protestant circles. I don't know as much about Islam in general and their sacred tradition, or Sunnah, in particular but like a lot of sacred tradition it is deeply divisive and no one seems to agree on which tradition is valid. So within these religious groups you have further schism based on non-canonical teachings that are often contradictory and mutually exclusive within a broader faith tradition. It makes it pretty perilous to figure out which one is correct.

Or perhaps, as I believe, none of them are correct at least not completely and sufficiently, not least because none of them can truly make a claim to divine origin. At best what we have are copies of writings that are attributed to men like Moses, Muhammad and Paul but no one has anything actually written by those men. I am very familiar with Christian apologetics and I assume that Islamic apologetics for the Quran are similar but what it all comes down to is a leap of faith. You believe the Bible or the Quran or the Torah is the word of God because you want to believe that. 


Back to the main point. Even if you decide that one holy book is correct and the others are all incorrect by whatever process brings you to that point, there are still all sorts of problems and the biggest problem is this:

How do you authoritatively describe a being(s) that is by definition eternal and limitless with human language that is based on describing what is observable? 

Humans have always tried to do this, from early tribal religions to more formal belief systems like the Greek and Roman pantheons and for the last two thousand years a trio of monotheistic religious systems. All of these religions have tried to explain and describe what humans instinctively understood, specifically that there was something apart from and over the natural, observable world. Who or what that is has been the age-old question. 

My opinion is that this task is inherently impossible and attempting to force the divine into a box that we have created in order to authoritatively quantify and describe the divine is inherently flawed and often quite dangerous to the pursuit of the truth. 

The human mind cannot comprehend the eternal divine, our limitations are too many and our capacity too finite. We can seek after the eternal divine but we should not arrogantly presume our ability to capture anything other than the most superficial of understanding. As much as I enjoyed the systematizing of the divine for much of my adult life, looking back now it seems ludicrous.  

Even more so our language lacks even a rudimentary ability to put into words that which our mind cannot begin to comprehend. If you cannot conceive it, how can you describe it? Anyone who does any writing knows that there is a huge gap between thinking of something and putting it on paper. Some of my deepest blog ideas were a train-wreck when I tried to write it out.

That hasn't stopped mankind from trying to do just that for all of human history. God is this, God is not that. God wants you to do this, God doesn't want you to do that. Endless debates and arguments that often spilled over into shedding blood over our attempts to force others into our beliefs when our arguments proved inadequate. 

While others are free to believe as they wish just as I claim that right for myself, my hope is you will consider my main point here and not get caught up in the weeds. With human minds incapable of grasping the eternal divine and human language inherently unable to express even our admittedly limited mental capacity, can we truly believe that we can describe authoritatively and exclusively something that is unlimited and eternal? If we cannot ever hope to do so, what does that mean for our various preferred organized religious systems?

My answer to that is a bit murky. Rejecting all forms of organized religion as essentially a mechanism to control human behavior and create an elite class that wields that control in the form of clericalism, I have come to the place where I simply feel I need to accept that the question of the eternal divine is not one that can be answered by humans with any level of certainty and definitely defies the attempt to describe it with authoritative human expressions. That does not mean one should abandon the search, but simply that the search takes on a new meaning and method when you recognize that the answer will be necessarily incomplete this side of the grave.

Without that certainty you can find yourself on emotional thin ice. Life is much easier when the biggest question of all is something you can speak to with certainty but then again truth is never something that should be easy to grasp. We will talk more about that in an upcoming post.


4 comments:

  1. Great thoughts. The difficulty is that to have a valid frame of reference, there must be a fixed point to measure, otherwise all becomes relative.

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  2. Does that FFA jacket still fit?
    Mine fits... my daughter.

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  3. Religious men of the past have considered the language limitations you describe.

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    -Lao Tzu

    Of the Logos, which is as I describe it, people always prove to be uncomprehending, both before and after they have heard of it. For although all things happen according to this Logos, people behave as if they have no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is. The rest of humanity fails to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep. ~ Heraclitus

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  4. I haven't deeply studied all religions, but, have briefly dipped my toe into most of them. It seems to me that there is a "base code" for all of them. Perhaps it's something that was implanted in our human DNA. And that is, for lack of a better example, the Ten Commandments.

    Sure the language between them will be a little different, but they all have the same basis...treat others as you would be treated.

    Even in mythology and the Native or indigenous religions, there was/is still a basic code of laws to live by.

    With the exception of Islam, all the other various religions are ancient.

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