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I. The Problem

Our interest, in this book, is the de jure question:44   For the contrast between de jure and de facto questions, see Preface, pp. viff. is it rational, reasonable, justifiable, warranted to accept Christian belief—Christian belief as outlined in the preface? Or is there something epistemically unacceptable in so doing, something foolish, or silly, or foolhardy, or stupid, or unjustified, or unreasonable, or in some other way epistemically deplorable? But there is a prior question: is the very idea of Christian belief coherent? Can there really be such a thing as Christian belief? Well, why should that be a question? Isn’t it obvious that many people hold just those beliefs mentioned in the preface? Here is the problem. To accept Christian belief, I say, is to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us. It is also to believe, of course, that no more than one being has these properties. And Christian belief involves not only that there is such a being but also that we are able to address him in prayer, refer to him, think and talk about him, and predicate properties of him. We have some kind of cognitive 4access to and grasp of him. We can refer to him, for example, as the all-powerful, all-knowing person who has created and upholds the world, and we can predicate of him such properties as being all-powerful, being all-knowing, and having created the world. We can use a definite description like this to refer to this being, to pick him out, to single him out for thought; and we can give a proper name to the being thus singled out. For example, we can use the term ‘God’ as his name.

Accordingly, Christians ordinarily take it for granted that it is possible to refer to God by such descriptions as ‘the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe’, and possible, furthermore, to predicate properties (wisdom, goodness) of the being thus referred to. Of course, such a description succeeds in actually naming something only if there really is a being who is all-powerful and all-knowing and created the universe. Furthermore, it must be possible, if I can think about God and predicate properties of him, not only that there be such a being but also that my concepts apply to it. If not, then I am not in a position to assert or believe or even entertain any of the propositions mentioned above, if indeed there are any such propositions.

Now Christians also take it for granted that God is infinite, transcendent, and ultimate (however, precisely, we gloss those terms). And just here is the alleged problem. It seems many theologians and others believe that there is real difficulty with the idea that our concepts could apply to God—that is, could apply to a being with the properties of being infinite, transcendent, and ultimate. The idea is that if there is such a being, we couldn’t speak about it, couldn’t think and talk about it, couldn’t ascribe properties to it. If that is true, however, then, strictly speaking, Christian belief, at least as the Christian understands it, is impossible. For Christians believe that there is an infinite, transcendent, ultimate being about whom they hold beliefs; but if our concepts cannot apply to a being of that sort, then there cannot be beliefs about a being of that sort. This idea often sees the light of publication; it is even more heavily present in the oral tradition. In the spirit of interdisciplinary ecumenism, therefore, I want to begin by looking into this question.

Consider, for example, the theologian Gordon Kaufman:

The central problem of theological discourse, not shared with any other “language game” is the meaning of the term “God.” “God” raises special problems of meaning because it is a noun which by definition refers to a reality transcendent of, and thus not locatable within, experience.55   God the Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 8.


In particular, it seems to be widely accepted, among theologians, that Kant showed that reference to or thought about such a being (even if there is one) is impossible or at least deeply problematic,66   The whole medieval tradition of negative theology also finds reference to God problematic. The difference is that the medievals took it for granted that, of course, we can refer to God; the problem is to explain just how this can be accomplished. For the contemporaries I am thinking of, however, the difficulties (whether apparent or real) lead them to doubt that we can, in fact, refer to and talk about a being that is ultimate and transcendent. or at any rate much more problematic than the idea that we can refer to and think about ourselves and other people, trees and mountains, planets and stars, and so on. Those theologians who think or suspect Kant showed this do not ordinarily develop the point in detail;77   As we shall see in chapter 2, however, John Hick constitutes an exception. they ordinarily content themselves with a ritual bow in his direction. They do not explain how they think these things were shown or what the arguments establishing them are; perhaps they think (quite properly) that that is the job of philosophers. Some of these theologians then go on to suggest that language ostensibly about a transcendent God isn’t what it looks like at all; it really serves some quite different purpose. Alternatively, perhaps, it really serves no useful purpose as it stands; what we have to do is find a useful purpose for it to serve. Perhaps it can be used, somehow, to further or promote human flourishing and humaneness,88   As in Gordon Kaufman: see chapter 2, p. 41. or religious tolerance,99   As in John Hick: see chapter 2, p. 60. or liberating praxis, or the rights of women,1010   See Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). or the fight against oppression.

But what is important for my present purposes is not an exploration of the ways in which religious language might be reconstrued or restructured, once we see (as we think) that it cannot function the way ordinary believers think it does; I want, instead, to examine the prior claim that, indeed, it cannot function as ordinary believers assume it does. Is there really something especially problematic about referring to or thinking about God? Did Kant show that if there were such a person as God, we couldn’t refer to or think about him? Or if ‘show’ is too strong a word, did he give us powerful or even decent reason to believe that our concepts couldn’t apply to God, if there is such a being? Or if he didn’t do that, do some of his contemporary followers—Gordon Kaufman, for example, or John Hick—give us a reason to think this is indeed true? And is the claim in question—that our concepts do not apply to God—a coherent one? (Or rather, is there a coherent claim somewhere in the nearby bushes, since clearly there are several different claims lurking in these bushes?)


Initially, the answer seems to be no; one who makes the claim seems to set up a certain subject for predication—God—and then declare that our concepts do not apply to this being. But if this is so, then, presumably, at least one of our concepts—being such that our concepts don’t apply to itdoes apply to this being. Either those who attempt to make this claim succeed in making an assertion or not. If they don’t succeed, we have nothing to consider; if they do, however, they appear to be predicating a property of a being they have referred to, in which case at least some of our concepts do apply to it, contrary to the claim they make. So if they succeed in making a claim, they make a false claim.

Note how difficult it is, initially, to state the claim in question, the claim that if there is a being with the properties Christians ascribe to God, our concepts would not apply to that being. Consider the proposition

(1) If there were an infinite, transcendent, and ultimate being, our concepts could not apply to it.

But now suppose (1) were true. The idea, one takes it, is that we do have at least some grasp of the properties of being infinite, transcendent, and ultimate (else we shouldn’t be able to understand the sentence or grasp the proposition it expresses). An infinite being, we might say, is an unlimited being—unlimited, that is, with respect to certain properties. Among these properties might be power, knowledge, goodness, love, and the like. (A being is unlimited with respect to power and (propositional) knowledge, for example, if there is a maximal degree of power and knowledge, and the being in question enjoys that maximal degree of those properties. It might be hard to say precisely what the maximal degree of these properties is; with respect to knowledge, we might begin by saying that a being displays that maximal degree if it knows all true propositions and believes no false proposition.) Perhaps we can also give an explanation of what it is for a being to be transcendent: such a being transcends the created universe; and a being transcends the created universe if it is not identical with any being in that universe (if it is not created) and if it depends on nothing at all for its existence. So we do have the ideas of transcendence and being infinite (and if not, then (1) makes no sense). And the idea behind (1) is that if there is such a being (i.e., if there is an infinite and transcendent being), then none of our concepts could apply to it. In particular, then, the concepts being infinite and being transcendent could not apply to it. But how could that be? How could it be that there is a being that is infinite and transcendent (i.e., falls under our concepts infinity and transcendence) but is nevertheless such that the concepts infinity and transcendence do not apply to it? Is the idea, perhaps, that these concepts are impossible, incoherent, like the concept of a round square, a concept such that we can just see a priori that it couldn’t apply to anything, that there couldn’t be a thing to which it 7applied?1111   Thus some philosophers have claimed that the notion of omnipotence is incoherent; others have paid the same compliment to the notion of omniscience (see Patrick Grim and Alvin Plantinga, “Truth, Omniscience, and Cantorian Arguments: An Exchange,” Philosophical Studies 70 [August 1993]); still others have argued the same point with respect to the idea that God is a person without a body. That would make (1) trivially true, at least if a conditional with an impossible antecedent is thereby true. Of course, it would also make (1*) true:

(1*) If there were an all-powerful, all-knowing being, our concepts would apply to it.

So presumably that is not the idea here. What, then, is the idea? I think the best we can do in trying to state such a view coherently is to say with John Hick (see below, pp. 47ff.) that there is a being to which none of our positive, nonformal concepts apply (a being that has none of the positive, nonformal properties of which we have concepts) and that this being, somehow, is the one with which Christians and others are in touch in religious practice. This is perhaps the best we can do; I shall argue below (pp. 59ff.), however, that it isn’t good enough; it suffers from serious, indeed fatal difficulties.

So the suggestion is that Kant showed us, somehow, that there are real, perhaps insurmountable problems in the idea that there is a being like that acknowledged in traditional Christianity, to whom we can refer and to whom our concepts apply. This is a question of considerable import for our present project, for if this suggestion is right, then there really isn’t any such question as the one I say I propose to discuss; then, the sentences Christians use to express (as they think) their beliefs, do not really express the kinds of propositions or thoughts Christians think they express. Indeed, perhaps, they don’t express any propositions or thoughts at all but are a sort of disguised nonsense: they look as if they express propositions but in fact do not.

Before we explicitly turn to Kant, however, it is worth reminding ourselves that the claim in question is by no means a new claim in the present historical context. Beginning in the 1930s, the logical positivists were fond of insisting that the sentences Christians typically use—‘God loves us’ or ‘The universe was created by God’ or ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’—do not, as they are ordinarily used, say anything at all; they express no propositions at all; they are really disguised nonsense.1212   See, e.g., A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), pp. 115ff. They look like they say something, and Christians and others think they say something; in fact, however, they altogether fail to express a proposition, just as does an obvious nonsense sentence like “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimbol in the wabe.” The positivists appealed to the 8dreaded “Verifiability Criterion of Meaning,” according to which a sentence makes sense, is literally significant, or is cognitively meaningful only if it is ‘empirically verifiable’ (or falsifiable)—only if, that is, its truth (or falsehood) can be established by something like the methods of natural and empirical science. Beginning in the 1940s or so, the main questions asked and answered by philosophers of religion in the English-speaking world were whether it is possible to refer to God at all and whether the sentences typically uttered by Christians and other believers in God really make sense or are, instead, nonsense, cognitively insignificant.1313   See, e.g., New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955). Of course it doesn’t follow that such meaningless sentences are altogether useless; perhaps they serve some other function. Rudolf Carnap, for example, wondered whether the meaningless sentences of metaphysics and theology might not really be a form of music.1414   Perhaps metaphysics can have other aesthetic functions as well, as can Carnap’s own work. Although, as far as I know, no one has ever used Carnap’s writings as music (or even set them to music), in 1976 the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford displayed a page of Carnap’s Logical Syntax of Language magnified about 20x and posted on the wall. No doubt a piece of metaphysics could serve the same purpose. (It isn’t known whether he expected them to supplant Mozart and Bach, or even Wagner. I myself doubt that metaphysics will ever replace Mozart, but perhaps we could see it as a peculiarly avant-garde form of rock.)

By now, logical positivism has retreated into the obscurity it so richly deserves.1515   For an account of the harrowing vicissitudes of the Verifiability Criterion, see Carl Hempel, “Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning,” in Semantics and the Philosophy of Language, ed. Leonard Linsky (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1952), and my God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), chapter 7. Something like it lingers on, not only among some theologians who propose to reconstrue religious language in such a way that it no longer refers to God but also in the Wittgensteinian fideism of D. Z. Phillips and others, which is a sort of continuation of positivism by other means. Although some of this work is eminently worth discussing, I will not discuss it here, referring the reader instead to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s perceptive “Philosophy of Religion after Foundationalism I: Wittgensteinian Fideism” (presently unpublished), to which I have little to add. There still persists, however, the widespread impression that reference to God is problematic; it is time to turn explicitly to Kant, the main source of this idea. Does his work offer cause for concern to those who propose to think about, refer to, pray to, or worship a being described the way Christians describe God—as a personal being who is transcendent and infinite?

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