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What People Mean By “God”

Professor Stevenson has written a remarkable book: clear enough to understand the first time through; short enough to read through again, just to be sure; engaging enough to want to do that; interesting and important enough to want to hang on to for future reference.

Stevenson, Leslie. Eighteen Takes on God: A Short Guide for Those Who Are Still Perplexed. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Eighteen Takes on God is less a book about God than it is a book about how people think about, and perhaps experience, God. Whatever “God” means. Which, as Stevenson’s whole book attests, is often unclear, even to the people who are clearest about it.

Instead of “unclear” some of us might prefer to say “mysterious.” Those who suspect that’s a distinction without a difference might want to steer clear of Stevenson’s book. He’s sympathetic to that suspicion, but he’s also alert to the need to distinguish between conceptual unclarity and mystery, and is as open to the possible reality of the mystery as he is vigilant against the indubitable reality of the conceptual unclarity.

My guess is that a lot of people won’t like this book, actually. Stevenson calls out some popular untenable theological positions for what they are. [Untenable. The folks who “just keep on hanging on” won’t appreciate that.] He takes atheists’ objections to various positions completely seriously, which some folks will feel keenly as betrayal. But the atheists who enjoy mocking people who take God seriously won’t like this book any better, since Stevenson takes theists’ ideas just as seriously as he takes atheists’. In the process, he points to plenty of problems with the various ways people think about God, leaves plenty of loose ends hanging, and doesn’t impose solutions on underlying problems for the sake of making anyone more comfortable.

I love this book.

Stevenson is smart, knowledgeable, honest, and kind, a wonderful guide for a theological nature walk of sorts. He’s written a book for people who think faith does, actually, need to be thought through, even though thinking doesn’t get to the end of it.

Stevenson will thus say explicitly that, in the face of our many beliefs of various kinds, we have “a rational requirement (which many people find it convenient to ignore) to achieve reconciliation and consistency by reinterpreting or even abandoning some of our beliefs (91-92).” And will also cite approvingly William Hasker’s more or less inconclusive observation that

It is in the end out of the question for anyone to ‘prove’ that a particular conception of God is the correct one. Rather, one simply finds that a particular way of understanding the things of God makes the most sense, and provides the greatest illumination, in the overall context of one’s thinking and living.

William Hasker, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, InterVarsity Press, 1994, 154, in Stevenson, 68.

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Substantively, Eighteen Takes on God divides into three unequal parts. The first is a set of short discussions of several influential realist concepts of God. That is: ideas people have about God that are ideas about someone or something “real,” “out there,” that language about God actually refers to. So, “the old man in the sky,” or the cosmic personality, or The Good or the Prime Mover. Realist positions have a host of problems, many of which can be thought of as linguistic, at bottom. The clarity of this basic insight is reason enough to read this book.

The second is a set of short discussions of several more concepts of God, non-realist ones. That is: ideas people have about God that don’t require God to be real in the way the realist thinkers assume. This includes the idea that people may have a purely instrumental concept of God, making “God” the word we use in prayer when we go to church; or a reductionist notion of God, à la Feuerbach; or the idea that the word “God” means, Humpty Dumpty like, whatever its usage suggests to the users of that language in a particular worldview or language game. Non-realist positions also have their problems, not least of which is that they mostly seem to miss the point of what religious people think they are really talking about when they think they are talking about God, and think they more or less do know, at least partially, what they are talking about. Especially since most religious people think of God as real. [See “realist” positions.]

Finally, part three deals in a similar way with “experiential” concepts of God: ways of thinking about God that are anchored in some kind of decisive encounter with or experience of reality. Emphasizing religious experience doesn’t solve all of these problems, either. [Sincerity is neither a warrant nor an excuse.] But Stevenson has brilliant things to say about it, and captures the undeniable sense of lived religion far better than most philosophers of religion.

For that matter, Eighteen Takes on God doesn’t feel like a book of philosophy of religion, although technically it qualifies. It doesn’t read like a theology text, either, although it is certainly a book about theology. Maybe that is because this is not a difficult or technical book, although Stevenson writes with a more “classical” than “plain” style that I could expect to generate a few complaints from the college freshmen.

Eighteen Takes on God is really more a book about religion, and religious thought, and religious experience as it expresses itself in and influences thought. Reading it won’t make anyone an expert on God. But those readers who would rather not ignore that rational requirement to pursue reconciliation and consistency in their web of belief, and who would rather not be hectored and bullied by partisans along the way, might just find this little guide a Godsend.

Whatever they mean by that.
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[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]
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