Against the Atheists: God or Subjective Concept? (Part 1)

The disagreements about God’s nature among Christians–and more broadly, among those who profess a belief in God–are sometimes used as evidence that God is simply a subjective projection of the human psyche. It is said that if God truly existed, then the human mind would not form so many conflicting pictures of God.To this argument I have two responses. First of all, God is not a concept, but three Persons. In everyday life, we avoid treating persons as concepts, or least we should. Persons are not abstractions, but concrete entities with a visible aspect embodying the invisible intellect, will, imagination, and so on, with this latter, invisible aspect being what tradition calls the soul. Persons are complex, even mysterious. In many ways, more than I might wish, I am a mystery to myself. Sometimes we are tempted to ignore the mystery that others present to us, to assume that we know their motivations and their understandings of words or symbolic gestures. If we are not cautious in this way, we will indeed begin to treat others as if they were projections of ourselves. But surely this is an offense against the dignity of another person. We don’t take kindly to others assuming that they know what we are about.

Because of this complexity, the mystery of the human, it is never possible to reduce a individual person to a concept. Every person is always a potential surprise. For this reason, no two persons will have the same knowledge of a third person. My mother would describe me somewhat differently than my best friend or spouse or coworker. If they all sat down and shared their descriptions, however, surely they would recognize commonalities and familiarities. So it is with God. Each human person has a different set of experiences with God, and while we mediate and process those experiences with the help of others who have known God before, we will never have exactly the same understanding of God as someone else will. This is because God cannot be caged by conceptual language any more than a human being can.

1 Comment

  • Taran of Caer Dallben says:

    You say: “Persons are complex, even mysterious. In many ways, more than I might wish, I am a mystery to myself.”

    True. And (is it serendipity?!) it reminds me of what I heard at Easter mass in the Cathedral of the Madelein (SLC, UT) just a few weeks ago, when the bishop said in his sermon that, because he is so infinitely great, he is everywhere, and that also means

    “God is always close to us, closer to us than we are ourselves.”

    God understands my mystery better and loves it more than I do.