Assailing the Ineffable

God is often referred to as unknowable, infinite, omniscient and ineffable. Ineffable means to defy expression or description or too sacred to be uttered.

Following a conversation here, led to my thinking more of the place of the ineffable in Christian apologetics.

Arguments for the ineffable take the basic form: we cannot fully describe God because He is unknowable and infinite (and we are mere men), so God can neither be fully described nor disproven (on the basis of our inability to account fully for His Nature).

Clever, huh!

What are the possibilities?

  • There is a God. This God is an all-round impressive God: supernatural, infinite, and beyond description; so failure to describe this God is actually to describe a property of this God's existence, and hence is to support the notion that this God has actual existence (usually undefined). Because this God is ineffable, it is difficult to account for His mysterious behavior and purpose, though He typically seems utterly indifferent.
  • There is a God. This God is definable: fickle, vain, demanding, cruel, vindictive, punitive, jealous, etc. (as depicted in the Bible). Because this God is fickle, it is difficult to predict His mysterious behavior and purpose, though He typically threatens to act like a Punitive Parent.

Depending on the particular religious beliefs, One of the above Gods, and it's not always clear which One, has taken the trouble to interfere to some degree with the Universe and with Life on Earth. Could it be both of them rolled into one? "But they are so different!" you say.

Examining just one Brand of Godhead: Whichever God was so interested in His Special Creation that He sent his Son, perhaps Himself, down to Earth via Immaculate Conception. He, Who can arrange any miracle that He chooses, arranged for the Crucifixion and Resurrection of His Son or Himself. Why go to all this trouble? He wanted to offer us Salvation in exchange for our worshipping Him and for behaving like good, obedient little children – or else we'd be punished for all eternity. How do we know this? His Son or He told someone who told someone who wrote it all down in differing versions. How else? Certainly not through non-circular evidence.

  • There is no God. This absence of the supernatural leaves the purposeless universe at the mercy, and sometimes benevolence, of mostly measurable, testable, physical forces. These natural forces operate on the basis of a hierarchy of mechanisms that operate on different scales – from the subatomic to the cosmic. Some 10 billion years after a rapid expansion of spacetime, a planetoid formed within the arm of a galaxy at the edge of the universe. Within 500 million years of that planet's cooling, life had spontaneously appeared on the planet.

Complexity emerged within those life forms, ultimately generating one species with a thirst for answers, but not necessarily for accurate explanations. For psychological reasons, this species invented the increasingly complex conceptualizatons of supernatural mechanisms to 'explain' inexplicable phenomena. One of these philosophical lineages led to the invention of the Christian God.

Eventually, some members of this species began to investigate and investigate and investigate how the world really works, and this knowledge led to doubt about the supernatural invention. Some members of this species were particularly emotional thinkers and chose to faithfully retain the old beliefs and promises, some rational thinkers looked at the evidence and decided that the supernatural only appears ineffable because God does not exist.

Thus the notion of an ineffable deity, which began its conceptual life as an attempted explanation for the inexplicable, ultimately served double duty as an excuse for theological inconsistencies in Christian apologetics.

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