Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.


My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.


Present Musings on Historical Readings

I’ve been brushing up on my European history recently.

“Fascinating,” I hear you say, with barely concealed sarcasm. But believe me, it really is. Of course, I think all history is absorbing, but the book I am currently reading concerns the turbulent period Europe underwent between 1880 and 1945. It is something I find particularly interesting.

It was certainly a time of great social, economic and political upheaval. Countries changed rapidly, fresh ways of thinking were introduced and new technologies were developed that altered lives and social relations. The period was marked by perennial political and ideological ferment; revolutionary ideas were being lobbed like hand grenades, detonating old certainties and precipitating the sharp invasion of hitherto-unthinkable propositions.

And one must not forget the fact that the most advanced collection of nations in the world (aside from the United States, Canada, Australia, NZ and Japan) were, during this period, plunged into devastating war – not once, but twice. Within this heady, destructive mix, empires were swept away, whilst new nations were fashioned out of whole cloth. Like islands that suddenly appear after a volcanic eruption, many European countries sprang up, seemingly overnight, in the wake of the continent’s two, great conflagrations. Others disappeared, like chaff in the wind.

That is a potted rendition of what I am reading. The details are utterly absorbing (for me, anyway), but the concerns of this post are a little different. Reading this book has stimulated a number of (admittedly half-formed) thoughts on history and history writing. I don’t claim originality, for I am sure they have been conceived, articulated and discussed elsewhere.

Delving into this book invited me to think, first of all, about the nature of history itself: what it is, and what distinguishes it.

At first sight, the question seems straightforward enough: history is the retelling of past events, of lining them up in a row and arranging them in simple chronological fashion.

If only it were that simple. To be sure, history is about the retelling of past events. But is that a sufficient definition? It’s certainly necessary; one can simply recite a series of dates and occurrences, and one is participating in history. However, there seems to be a difference, however inarticulate, between mere recitation and the systematic (and sometimes unsystematic) treatises that go some way to providing a meaningful account of the past.

Meaningful. This seems to be a way forward. History could be seen as the provision of a meaningful account of the past. Whether it’s someone’s personal history, or the history of a nation (or even of several nations, as they interact with each other), history aims to give some semblance of meaning – of significance – to what might otherwise be seen as a vast jumble of events without much truth beyond their own contents.

How this meaning is derived may vary, which further complicates the historical project (and is another arrow that pierces the facile definition with which I began). When confronted with a mass of events, it is natural enough to want to place them in some kind of order; to try and discern any causal connections between the morass of seemingly disparate occurrences that make up the past. This is a preliminary step: A said B, which led to C, causing D to declare E, and creating crisis F. This is all true, so far as it goes. But this doesn’t begin to cover the notion of “meaningful”, even if it manages to develop a causal account of the past.

Some authors try and go beyond this process of mere causality. For instance, I read a wonderful book last year, on American history. The writer grouped his analysis around three, broad concepts: liberty, empire and faith. It was gripping stuff, but I suppose it could be faulted for having imposed an artificial framework onto the last 240 years of American (not to mention pre-American) history (to be sure, the author did admit that his was a synthesis, and so less detailed than specialist works). As with so many countries, The United States has undergone radical changes. So diverse a country possesses a sprawling past, and one might think that trying to map overarching ideas such as “empire” or “liberty” on so fragmented a history is nigh impossible. Still, it’s not an uncommon attempt, and not something I necessarily disagree with. Indeed, humans seem quite adept at generating meaning – coherency, intelligibility, thematic unity, intentionality – out of what seems to be the dunghill of senseless, discrete happenings. Happenstance is transmogrified into intelligible history, and meaning is bestowed upon (or coaxed out of, depending on your point of view) what might otherwise seem bereft of significance.

History – or at least the historical project – is more than simple recapitulation of past events. It involves meaning, story and interpretation. This is not to say that all history is nothing more than the result of subjective viewpoints, as if historical truth were completely inaccessible. However, it does rely upon (as far as I can tell) a fair degree of interpretative skill and narrative flair. How else might one tell the story of the United States – a vast polyglot country, with some 300 million citizens under its banner – using the aforementioned rubrics? So much of history, as a matter of course, is synthesised and translated; that is the nature of story, for in order for history to mean something – beyond dates and places and battles and speeches – it needs to be finessed, corralled, channelled. Some facts are left out, whilst others receive what might seem to be inordinate attention. This inevitably means straining the deluge of information through whatever “grid” one finds most appropriate (not that the whims of the individual historian should ever determine whether a particular framework is apt).

Further, history cannot escape the fetters of different thought worlds, and the ultimately inaccessible inner lives of historical subjects. Historians can draw credible conclusions from literary and physical evidence, but unlike, say, a tree or a moon or a glacier, a historical figure has motivations, intentions and a will. This, the “subjective” pole of history, cannot be fully overcome. One can peer into it, but only so far. And historians, even when they don’t wear thick ideological blinkers (such as doctrinaire Marxists) are wont to view the historical process through certain lenses. That is not so unusual; we all do it, whenever we view reality. Indeed, it’d be impossible to write history in the first place, and the project would be a non-starter.

However, even if we try to eschew the more overt influences of ideology, questions still remain. Is history fundamentally driven by individuals? Or is it, at base, the result of impersonal drives and forces – whether political, cultural, economic, geographic or spiritual? Are humans the captains of their (collective) fate? Or is our present era – including we, the people, who reside within it – completely determined by what has gone before us (and so on, back through the rivers of time)? Are individuals able to exercise some kind of freedom over their historical circumstances, or are we be better off capitalizing themes such as “Liberty”, “Empire” or even “Nation” as thematic drives with their own, substantial existence? I ask that last question somewhat flippantly, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that interpreting history via certain philosophical or hermeneutical grids can superimpose an artificial sense of “fated-ness” upon contingent events. Some authors write with what seems to be a false (or at least, deeply contrived) goal in mind – as if all historical circumstances were inexorably leading to a particular point. The dialectical materialism of Marxist historians is only the most explicit example. We might also cite the Enlightenment narrative, which speaks about the seemingly irresistible march of reason and progress, as human beings make their way upward towards the summit of their existence.

I suppose historians will lean one way or the other when it comes to the respective roles of individuals and broader forces in the shaping of history. In any case, these questions were sharpened by reading my current tome, featuring as it does men (they were usually men) who seemed capable of rising above the masses to carve out for themselves a place, not only within history, but seemingly over history. The example par excellence in the period about which I am reading is, of course, Adolf Hitler. Although his ghastly project was (thank goodness) unsuccessful, he more than most seemed able to bend the historical process towards his will. He rose up out of the mire of post-war German misery to turn an entire nation upon a new course. A glance at the history of Germany during these years might suggest that Hitler was some kind of deus ex machina: a ghost out of the machine; a man out of time; an individual endowed with the capacity to break free from the shackles of the normal historical order. At the same time, however, we must remember that he was just as conditioned by events as everybody else, from the lowly Bavarian day worker, to the aristocratic Prussian general. Even he might have said that he was simply a humble servant, doing what was fated for him. Indeed, he saw his origins lying within the mythological matrix of Aryan and Pan-German ideology – as if the German nation itself had birthed him, offering up an embodiment of the disparate longings of the volk (one should also regard as significant the less mystical factors that merged to “create”, if you like, the man Hitler. Examples might include Prussian militarism, turn-of-the-century German workers parties, and even the earlier philosophical influences of Romantic nationalism).

One might say, then, that there exists a mutually reinforcing relationship between individuals and the historical contexts within which they live and develop. A kind of “feedback loop” is formed, quite unconsciously, where individuals who compose a culture are simultaneously moulded by it. I remember reading a piece by Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, who spoke of the interplay between “structure” and “agency”. On the one hand, we recognize the inescapable influence broader forces have on us (“structure”), whilst open to the stubborn reality that we are nonetheless capable of shaping those same forces (“agency”). Perhaps history is much the same, writ large across a much broader canvas. Perhaps the discrete events that compose the historical process represent, to some degree, the more mundane, though no less meaningful, acts of individuals. Perhaps it is possible to say that historical meaning is an emergent process – that is, it emerges out of the chaotic ferment, where the myriad decisions people make every day somehow result in a broader coherency that exists apart from any one individual’s conscious participation in it. Indeed, it could be said that the past is pregnant with meaning after all, which then goes on to exert an unseen, yet irresistible, power over its denizens.

Of course, much more can be said than the little precis I have offered. As you can see, the reading of history can be very stimulating. That we engage in it – on whatever level – is, I think, one of the main differences between humans and the rest of the natural world. The fact that we can not only recollect the past, but reflect upon it, suggests that, to some extent, we can shape our environments. We are deeply influenced by what comes before, but perhaps our capacity to situate ourselves within the historical stream means that we can at least play some role in its future course. Not only space, but time as well, is malleable – at least to a certain extent. Reading the violent, rancorous history of Europe between 1880 and 1945 compels me to hope for this, in any case.