philosophy theology

god is not a ‘thing’…

…and that is one of the first ‘things’ I believe about God.

34 replies on “god is not a ‘thing’…”

Hmmmn. Neither is what we mean by the adjective “very” to pick something abstract at random.


It occurs to me that this will be open to the charge of ‘special pleading’, but if there is a creator of all things, who would be necessarily distinct from what the creator created (the creation), then the creator would have ‘exceptional’/’unique’/’special’ characteristics in relation to the creation.

Think of it in terms of time/space/matter: any thing that caused (and is distinct from) all time/space would not be confined by time/space (this extends to any multi-verse theories as well). So thus, it’s not so much that the creator is ‘not-now’ or ‘no-where’, but rather the creator would ‘transcend’ temporal/spacial locations.

The idea here about ‘thing-ness’ is really about ontology (existence). Not only can we not assume a priori that we know (in advance) what kind of things have ontological grounding, we cannot assume that there is not a creator on whom all things find their ontological ground.

…I know you could immediately reply, “…and we cannot assume there is either!” But I merely say this to demonstrate that denial (or acceptance) of a creator of all things must be done not before argument, but after it.

I am not convinced that this doesn’t make god a concept though – after all we can’t directly experience something that transcends what our senses deal with. Energy is a concept in this way – there is no such “thing” as energy but we can talk about it as if it were a thing for clarity of thought and its existence as a concept is tremendously valuable.


I notice that your description of god circles around ignorance, Dale. For sure mystery is a very real part of life, though. But I can’t help but notice the parallel with anti-evolutionary schools of thought; the incessant cries of “that is too complicated, therefore it must have been created”
In stark contrast scientific understanding – in a sense – refuses to make conclusions about what we don’t understand. After all, how can sensible conclusions be made from things we don’t understand? Ergo we have a multitude of religions, but a unity of science.

I agree with Ian that god is a concept. Every word and every concept that you use is post 7 is borrowed from other things. Especially the transcendental ‘outside-of-time’, ‘beyond-space’ ideas. And they should be! Because you are pointing at mystery, I think.

I agree with you that “we [can]not assume a priori that we know (in advance) what kind of things have ontological grounding”. But to then go on and make no end of corrallaries about what these maybe-ontologically-grounded things are like is just stupid! Is it any wonder that science is a unity by talking about what we know, and religion all over the place by talking about what we don’t?

We certainly have a ‘concept’ of god(s), no doubt – the question is, is god an actual being?

I’d resond that rather than circling around ignorance, it merely recognises the proposed (and manifestly logical) nature of the being in question. It doesn’t rely in any way on gaps in scientific or any other knowledge (even if some portray it this way).

Ian and Simon (on ‘sensing’):
I do think we can ‘sense’ God –> in terms of our five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing), I’d say we sense God indirectly (via creation); but if there are other ways of ‘sensing’ (perhaps more subjective ones), then we are possibly sensing God more often than we may realise (or allow ourselves to even consider?).
Here raises the question of how we interpret our (subjective – meaning within ourselves) experiences. I have no problem at all with the idea that all humans (whatever religion or lack of religion) experience things which (here’s the interpretation bit) can rightly be seen (interpreted) as an experience of God.

Now, whilst I don’t think that every claim of divine experience is automatically valid, I don’t think their automatically invalid either. Also, I think scientific explanations of things do not in the slightest diminish these being divine experiences.

I’ve got a few other comments to make ’round the place, and am watching a movie with my wife, so will stop there… :)

Just one last thing, Simon.
First, I think it’s manifestly untrue and (no offense) ignorant to speak of “a unity of science”. Different theories abound. Now, you could speak of a unity in terms of the commitment to methodological naturalism for scientific method, etc., but then you could conversely speak of a across all religions in terms of a common commitment to ‘some sense of the divine’. Different expressions of scientific theories do not invalidate science any more than different understandings of God make God a falsity.


Ah! Brilliant. Yes, I agree that the commonalities between religions the world over is a ‘scientific’ observation in itself, really. And so I am quite prepared to say that there is something ‘spiritual’ about human beings. My perplexion is why people like youself can’t see this, too, and so let go of your parochial dogmas; fairly recognising them as mirrors of what you see in other religions.
And you are correct that science is not purely a unity. But I sense that you know what I mean, and I was trying to point out the obvious difference ‘twix the two.

Ultimately I do disagree with you about god necessarily being a gap-filling concept. For if there was no mystery – if there were no unanswered questions like “Where the heck did the universe come from?” – then there would be no need to extrapolate and “propos[ed] [a] (and manifestly logical) nature of the being in question”

I wanted, in my last post, to contrast the unity-like nature of science/methodological naturalism with religion. I wanted to say, I suppose, that if one is not reined in by real empirical observations, then one has free reign to postulate all manner of ridiculous things. And religion does exactly that – I think you’d have to agree with me on that, Dale, because I’m sure you think many/most of the doctrines of opposing religions are false.
So although I find the statement “humans are spiritual beings” a true statement (heck, even an empirical one, as explained earlier). It does appear that any attempt to force that statement to manifest itself in the real, physical world leads to fallacies and wishful thinking.

Perhaps god is experience itself.

We certainly have a ‘concept’ of god(s), no doubt – the question is, is god an actual being?

Which then leads us to distinguishing “being” from “thing”…

I suppose I’m wondering why I shouldn’t be allowed to do the following two things at once: 1) acknowledge the similarities or ‘unity’ accross the various religions, and 2) have considered and calculated differences from them that I obviously take seriously enough to distinguish myself from them.

And when it comes to what might be (pejoratively) called ‘non-empirical speculation’, we still have tools of reason and logic to give us at least some kind of guidance, no? For example, the difference between polytheism/henotheism and monotheism is in the domain of this ‘non-empirical speculation’, but I think it is manifestly obvious that logic/reason sets up the ever-familiar (nauseating!) regress of ‘who made that god? – really? then who made that god? ad infinitum’, which is immediately indicitave of a ‘self-made’ or ‘self-existant’ or ‘monotheistic’ god. Just one example of how logic/reason function in ‘non-empirical speculation’.

Yes, the underlying question (pretty much always skipped over – or [worse] ruled out a priori as a ‘meaningless question’ – based on what logic!?) is that of ontology. What is existence and what kind of things exist? This topic brings clarity to the ‘being’/’thing’ distinction.


Of course you can do that. There’s no nice way to say this: I just find it very blind. I just don’t understand how one can look across at other religions, see very similar things, and not connect the empirical dots. I s’pose that’s why they call it a personal, subjective thing. I don’t understand why religion is such an exclusivistic thing.

I suppose I agree that non-empirical methods can be used. But this is just as true for homeopaths, water diviners, ghost-whisperers and hindus.

So god isn’t a concept or a thing, but might be a being depending on just what existence actually means… to be honest you’ve lost me :)

How can it be that my seeing points of both agreement and disagreement between religions is in any way blind???

Clearly I’m being very careful (intentionally pedantic?) with words here. The creator of all ‘things’ simply could not have the same kind of ‘thing-ness’ that all created ‘things’ have.

Which then leads to this question: what is this thing-ness quality that created things have for which the creator cannot have?

The usual distinctions of existence/being/thing-ness between creator/creation are:

creation – temporal, finite, etc.
creator – eternal, infinite, etc.

Which completes the circle: by your definition a thing is temporal and finite.

Another random thought: is god really infinite, or more afinite? (if such a word exists).

Rather than a ‘circle’, I’d want to say it’s merely just being consistent all along? But yes, God would not a ‘thing’, because ‘things’ are temporal/finite, and God would be eternal/infinite.

And I actually like your word ‘afinite’. Because I don’t think we should think of God as “existing for a really long time”, as if God was within an infinite amount of time; rather God’s god-like kind of existence (divine existence) would be time-less; not-limited-by time; or eternal.

Following on I’m not so sure your god can technically be said to exist since existing is really a characteristic of things. Perhaps your god should be considered to “aexist”?

…but the god-like kind of existence would be of a different kind to the kind of existence ‘things’ have. :)

That was kind of my point although I’d go one step further which is that saying this version of god exists is actually a meaningless statement because existence or lack thereof is not a property of a non-thing.

Yes, and you’ll hate this, but (again) God-like kind of existence is not ‘mere existence’, but rather something entirely different. For all of our familiarity (whether experiential or experimental) with the kind of existence which ‘things’ have, this does not (nor could it) rule out (or confirm, of course) entire other modes/kinds of existence.

Good point Ian! What does it mean to say that “god exists” if we don’t mean exist by the word ‘exist’?

Forgive by bluntness Dale but I find the idea that there is a non-existing existing non-thing thing which is [a] god and which is even discernable! Multiverse – 0, Dale – 1 :)-

I’ve not said that God has no kind of existence, or that he has no essence; rather, I’ve said he has a God-like kind of existence and suggested that his nature is more actual than the word ‘thing’ can handle :)
Do we really think it possible that a Creator of all things even could have the same kind of mode of ‘existence’ or ‘thingness’ that the created things have?


Well, yes, I think I relise what you’re saying: It’s always a ‘supra-‘ kind of description. Which is to say that words ultimately fail – god is inexpressable. So when you use the word ‘existence’ or even ‘essence’ – if I make you commit to properly defining these words, we will have driven out of them the import that you intend.

The word ‘exist’ and the word ‘thing’ ultimately fail. Hence god is a non-existing ‘existing’ non-thing ‘thing’.
I have to say though, I am more receptive to what you are saying than I seem here. I am quite ready to admit the mystery and experiential quality of existence. :) (Is that what you mean by ‘actual’ in 28?)

Do we really think it possible that a Creator of all things…..

No. No to the question. Where is there precident for this? When we see things created around us, or create things ourselves – when do we ever make something out of nothing? We always use pre-existing materials. Ergo, even when you use the word ‘created’ and attribute it to god it is a mis-use of the word.
The non-existing ‘existing’, non-thing ‘thing’ which non-created ‘created’ everything.

Appologies for being an arse!

Good comment, Simon!
Yes, words fail. And you’re right to draw a massive distinction between the unprecedented ‘Creating’ of the Creator, and the very-precedented ‘creating’ which we ‘creative’ humans ‘create’.

No arse-ness at all! :) Sounds like we agree? Even if the words fail, the logic seems to me to be crystal clear – even inescapably so.


I have recently and inadvertently, actually, become aware of [some of the] more Eastern explications of the experiential-ness and mystery of existence.

(In most ways I find the Eastern ‘language’ more sensible, and looking back I can see that christianity is very much part and parcel of the sort of declarative, deterministic thinking that gave birth to Western academia ( which most certainly has daunting accomplishments.) I find that many of your(Dale’s) views are of this ilk – declarative and deterministic; ‘logical’, I guess. E.g. god having to be ‘above’ time, beyond existing and creating. But on the other hand often more….well, Zen, I guess – less deterministic and less seeded by Westernity (as opposed to the like of the chaps at ThinkingMatters) And I see christinaity heading this way; liberal, mor INclusive, less EXclusivistic, like Rob Bell)

And I agree that it is beyond words. However, I’m not sure that [I agree that] it is possible to be beyond words and prostrate to logic – as you mention – at the same time. I shall have to give this some more thought!


Cheers Simon,
Of course, Judaism was/is more an ‘eastern’ worldview. As for Christianity, a lot of serious/detailed stuff has been said/written about to what extent the early church fathers made Christianity ‘westernised’ (Greek-i-fied, etc.), or perhaps were communicating their understandings to a Greek audience, etc. All this just to say that the divide between ‘western/logical’ and ‘eastern/mystical’ isn’t so clear?

As for me, I admit I can lean to the ‘logical’ side a bit, but I certainly hope to be able to use both my objective and subjective faculties in this endless pursuit of truth. No doubt, we both have to keep thinking!

Mmnnn. I’d call Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrian Middle Eastern, though. Very different to what I mean by Eastern, and a long way from Zen(!)


Cheers Simon, I suppose my point is that Jewish/Christian belief/worldview has been un-western for a few thousand years – way before Rob Bell, anyway :)

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