Over the last several monthsand especially within the last few daysI have been involved in numerous conversations about the nature and function of human language in describing God. What follows is not meant to be a fully-developed essay, but is rather intended to be somewhat of a summary of the lines of thinking I have pursued and the very tentative conclusions which I have reached.

Obviously, one of the most prescient issues is to what extent one can affirm that human language is capable of literally expressing and/or encapsulating truth about the nature of God. The initial, and I believe correct, answer is that human language is insufficient to do this. After all, we are speaking about a finite medium (human language) through which we attempt to speak about that which is infinite. To use a material example, such would be like the proverbial two-dimensional Flatlander attempting to shake the hand of the three-dimensional invader of the two-dimensional plane. While the Flatlander may be able to intersect a two-dimensional cross-section of the three-dimensional visitor, the Flatlander will be, by virtue of his difference, incapable of fully engaging or encapsulating the reality of his new higher-dimensional friend. In a similar and more profound way, it is not possible that human language could somehow directly and fully engage the reality of the divine.
Despite this obvious conclusion, we persist in the attempt. Our language en toto, but also (and more) specifically in relation to the divine, is filled with propositional, absolutized words, phrases and linguistic expressions. This is, in actuality, unavoidable. After all, language, by its very nature, is absolutizing. To speak is to form and reflect some conception of the world. While the appropriateness of the linguistic symbols attached to the meanings being expressed may be questioned, it is clear that to speak is to construct; to speak is to make a declaration about the nature and meaning of the reality which one perceives.

The problem with the necessity of this functional reality in human language is that human language is necessarily self-referential. In the act of speaking, the content of language is rooted in that which we know. We cannot speak of that which we do not know, and that which we do know determines the shape and form of our language. An interesting example of this is Anselms proof for the existence of God. While the full argument will not be pursued here, the basic thrust of Anselms argument is that God is the being than which no greater being can be conceived. In essence, Anselm argument is two-fold: Humans have an idea of a perfect beingGod. Concomitantly, human beings are not perfect. Therefore, to Anselm, the fact that finite, imperfect humans have a conception of a perfect being lends evidence to the fact that this perfect beingGoddoes, in fact, exist.
As history relates, Anselms argument was quickly dismantled by his antagonists. Guanilo, for example, mocked Anselms theory by using the example of the perfect island, asserting that the mere imagining of a perfect island by no means necessitates or proves its existence. However, what both Anselm and Guanilo miss is that it is the function and nature of human languagenot the limitations of human epistemologywhich renders Anselms argument moot.

Consider Anselms statement about God: God is the being than whom no greater being can be imagined. The beginning problem with such a proposition is that its very criterion is dependent upon human language. Determining the attributes of greatest of all beings requires an appeal to human descriptive language, and the greatness of God is delineated on the basis of these stated attributes. However, how does human language gain access to these attributes? Again, the very categorizing of properly divine attributes is dependent upon the absolutizing of human language about, suprise suprise!, human attributes. In this sense, the language by which one describes God is not truly reflective of the divine nature in an absolute sense, but is merely the infinitized form of human language about human experience. In such a scenario, God, at best, is the biggest human, or, at worst, has an existence dependent upon human consciousness.

The obvious dilemma that this creates is that propositionalizing about God necessitates a functional, if not actual, affirmation of the eternality of that which is other than God. After all, if God is said to be such and such litany of attributes that are merely the infinitized and absolutized versions of human attributes, there is no possible way in which to speak about God apart from that which God is affirmed to have created. In this sense, the Creator is dependent upon the creation, if nothing else, to simply exist within human language.

Another more generic example would be the biblical language of God is love. The truthfulness of this statement is not disputed by many, and any objections would not be to the linguistic construction of the statement, but would rather proceed along the lines of arguing that God is x other than love. However, if we look at the utilization of the language in this propositional statement, the anthropologically absolutizing nature of human language is seen to be deviously present. If one says, God is love, the presence of the qualifier is represents that a comparison is being made—the nature of God is delineated by the qualifier love. Alternatively, the phraseology of the statement could be just as accurately deployed as follows: God exhibits all those characteristics and/or is composed (in nature) in such a way that God can be said to be equivalent, or wholly like unto the characteristics and/or composition (in nature) of love.

Do we see what has happened in this statement, however? In the attempt to propositionalize about God, we have alternatively asserted that there is something to which God can be compared. But by necessity, if there is something by which the character of God can be adjudicated, we must naturally conclude that this qualifier is independent in nature from God and/or greater than or equal to God such that it is appropriate that God be likened unto x. In the case of the propositional statement, God is love, our linguistic construction, if literalized, affirms that this category of love is conceived to exist in such a way that it can be taken independently of God, and that God may be spoken of as fulfilling, in nature, the particular characteristics which would create the propriety of equating God with the property of love.

The above is said not for the intention of evacuating all meaning from phrases such as God is love. On a practical, functional level, it would seem apparent that the affirmation of God is love is not meant to convey that God is equal in nature (and substance?) to an independent property such as love. Rather, the phrase is deployed simply as a descriptioni.e., we have a notion of love and conceptualize God to be the height and, in fact, source of the same.

At the same time, however, this brief examination of human language in relation to the divine does highlight an important consideration: that is, we must always use extreme caution in how definitively and propositionally we affirm human language to encapsulate or even represent truth-statements about the divine nature. As our language will always fall short, simply by virtue of its finitude and anthropocentric nature, we cannot uncritically deploy language about the divine while concomitantly assuming that we have spoken something absolute or truth-encapsulating


If the above-referenced lines of thinking are reasonable, how then should we pursue language about the divine? In closing, I would offer two suggestions.

1.) Our language must allow that God has existence apart from human language and experience. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion, the ways in which we deploy language about the divine often betrays this fact. If our language
and subsequent theologizing, cannot rise above (or below, as it may be) the tendency to resolve the divine upon the altars of linguistic absolutization and propositionalizing, we will forever speak only of ourselves; God will be merely a linguistic category that contains the trumped up self-evaluation of the human ego.

2.) Counter-intuitively enough, I believe the first suggestion is resolved in the second, that is, that our language of the divine must be thoroughly Christological. As Christians affirm, Christ, the eternal Logos of God as Incarnate in the person of Jesus, is the self-revelation of God. Yet interestingly enough, this self-revelation of the divine occurs on the level of human finitude, a level of messiness, imprecision, and contradictoriness. While the Incarnate nature of Gods self-revelation will certainly heighten the temptation for anthropologically exclusive language about the divine, it will also, if pursued circumspectly, mitigate significantly against the same, for any sure propositionalizing about the divine, eternal nature will require consideration of a bloody cross.