The Grammar of God-Talk

Elsewhere in these writings we have asked whether it were not better for us to avoid theological language, at least when talking outside our own coterie of committed Christians. With those whom we would like to reach to make disciples, it is repugnant. Doctrine is not simply teaching, it is dogmatic; not authoritative but authoritarian. The talk that is expected of us, and we too often give, is counterproductive.

Yet surely there is a proper place for theological language, if it can be used judiciously, understanding its peculiar grammar. Richard Rorty understands and fails to understand this. In his terms there is nothing to be said about the nature of man, or the nature of God.[1] It is simply absurd to put predicates behind “God.” Yet we take very seriously a sentence like “God is love,” “God is good.” and “God is truth.” How can this be?

If we say God is good, then good sounds like an ordinary predicate adjective that brings its own meaning to the sentence. It becomes the pivot, judging the subject, bringing with it vexatious questions about what good means. Shall we define it in a utilitarian fashion? If so, how does it have to do with moral agency? Shall we define it metaphysically? That way lie the philosophical woods. Shall we define it spiritually? Then how can we avoid solipsism?

Surely any sentence in which God has a part must have God as its pivot. God cannot be qualified; therefore ‘good’ must take its meaning from God, not vice versa. “God is good” makes sense only if God defines good. Whatever God does, that is how we know of good.

In a sense, the name God creates a vacuum wherever it is embedded in a sentence. The vacuum in human meanings, human predicates, lies open as a temptation. Into it we are eager to put our own truths, and the more exalted language we can throw in, the closer to God’s truth we think we must be getting. That space that belongs to God is soon occupied by impostors—in short, idols.

Someone might object: Then ‘God’ is merely a grammatical surd; put any predicate alongside it, and the meaning is sucked out, leaving nothing in its place. As far as it goes, that is so. If nothing, i.e., No-Thing, occupies that grammatical space, all other possible subjects—false subjects—are shouldered out. Well they should be.


[1]         Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony & solidarity, p. 8.

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