Is there a God? Does God exist? These questions have been significant, if not fundamental, in the search for ultimate reality since before the questions were first articulated. A brief survey of religious history demonstrates that these questions have been important even when not stated explicitly. What people mean by these questions and how they answer them can be significant.
I admit that when I am asked these questions my inclination is to answer “Yes.” But that is because of certain assumptions I am making. Assumptions that may, or may well not be warranted. When I answer these questions, I am assuming the meanings of certain words. And I am assuming that others know what I mean by those words.
The problem with assumed meanings is that they are just that: assumed, not articulated or clarified. Too many connotations, secondary meanings, not to mention personal meanings, are bound to creep in. When we use words assuming their meaning and that other folks mean the same thing we do by those word, the situation is rife with the possibility of miscommunication.
Dictionary.com defines connotation as:
1. a. the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning: A possible connotation of “home” is “a place of warmth, comfort, and affection.”
b. the act of connoting; the suggesting of an additional meaning for a word or expression, apart from its explicit meaning.
2. something suggested or implied by a word or thing, rather than being explicitly named or described: “Religion” has always had a negative connotation for me.
And as if that doesn’t complicate matters sufficiently, there is the technical definition from philosophical logic:
3. Logic. the set of attributes constituting the meaning of a term and thus determining the range of objects to which that term may be applied; comprehension; intension.
We need not look far for humorous – and sometimes not so humorous, even tragic – misunderstandings based upon assumed meanings of words. There are plenty of examples from interaction between spouses, parents and children, and from general life. Religious life is full of such misunderstandings as well as disagreements on terms.
In any communication we deal with the issues of assumed meanings, subconscious meanings, connotations, etc. When I make a statement or answer a question, I assume I know the meanings of the words I am using and that other people use the same meanings. That is not always the case.
When we ask “Is there a God?” or “Does God exist?” we must ask what one means by the term “God.” What does one assume is the nature of God? What images come to mind? We may think “God” is a universally understood term when in fact there are as many meanings as there are people. Any discussion of said existence must take into account these personal meanings and the experiences from which they arise.
Then, what does one mean by existence? To us it involves breathing, physical existence. But God is spirit, so we must ask what we mean by existence for whatever we mean by the word God. We understand – or think we understand – what it means when we talk about our existence or the existence of a physical object, but what does it mean to say that God exists?
“Is there a God?” Once again, we think we know what words mean and that they mean the same to everyone. But what does on mean by the word “Is?” I know that this raises images of certain impeachment proceedings and many related jokes, but it is a serious question. It was meant that way then and it certainly is in this context.
“Is” means the 3rd person singular present indicative of “be.” There are dozens of forms the verb “be” takes over first, second and third person and numerous specific time references. Then, “is” is a form of “be,” that is, to have being. What does it mean to have being? Being like a person? How so? Or a larger being? Just how does that work?
And we haven’t even gotten to the words “does” and “there,” which we won’t here because hopefully you have the idea.
I am sure that to many people this seems like merely playing with words, but it isn’t. Words have meaning and those meanings must be understood.
Depending on how you define these various terms, there are numerous gods that I do not believe in. An ultimate reality or concern is whatever a person centers their life around. And there a lot of ultimate realities, ultimate concerns that I do not accept as valid.
I consider a life genuinely centered on love, compassion, truth, reason, etc. to be centered on something worthy. However, greed, narcissism, hatred, etc. seem less worthy focuses for one’s life. And there are those who make these their ultimate concern.
Let me be a little more direct. I consider reason to be a worthy center of one’s life. Those who question the existence of God but genuinely try to live by reason may be very good people indeed. It depends on, well, you guessed it, personal connotations and meanings.
These questions have been around a long time, and probably have as many answers as people thinking about them. But words have meaning, and each of the words in these questions have an impact on the outcome and must be considered.