I’ve been thinking a little bit about communication from God. This is a little off the beaten path for me, but I’m going to tackle it anyway. Ordinarily, I try to stay away from arguing about things like how many angels can fit on the head of a frog’s penis, but this one seems a little more relevant in light of the fact that so many important people think they hear from deities on a regular basis. I guess what got this stuck in my craw was a news article reporting that Joe the Plumber heard from God, and God told him political office is not in his future — at this time.
The main problem with communication from a deity is — surprise, surprise — defining exactly what constitutes communication. (Seriously, is there anything about God that is defined worth a damn? I really don’t think so.) When I was a kid, I was taught to look at the world around me for signs of God’s will in my life. If I was facing a dilemma, something would present itself to me clearly, and I would know what I was supposed to do. Of course, this presented some problems for my young mind. Not having experienced much in the way of personal trauma, and having nothing more to worry about than whether or not I was going to get a 99% or a 100% on my report card (Yes… I was that annoyingly smart kid who blew the curve) I found myself hearing communications from God about all sorts of trivial matters — whether I should work on building a fort today, or whether the Cubs and Harry Carey needed me to watch and lend my prayer to the arsenal of the faithful.
When I mentioned to a youth minister that I was having this issue, he and all the other people he told (privacy, my ass…) thought it was the cutest thing ever. It’s not cute. My mind was getting royally screwed. Instead of learning about the complex world of cause and effect, I was seeing angels and demons. Anything at all that caught my attention was a potential communication from on high. I felt like Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” waiting for my Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring. Even the most benign thing might mean something, and I was struggling between logic and dogma trying for my life to figure out what I was supposed to be getting out of all the communication God was sending my way.
We’ve all known adults like that, haven’t we? These are the people who see Jesus in burnt toast, but they’re also the people who look for signs and omens to decide whether to marry, take a job in Cincinnati, or bomb the local abortion clinic. These are adults who should know better, yet they really do believe that they are supposed to interpret the world around them and decide what the almighty creator of the universe wants them to do.
Most intelligent people come up with an obvious question: If God is so freaking powerful, why doesn’t he just whisper audibly in your ear? Why all the smoke and mirrors? Unfortunately, some people do hear God whispering audibly in their ears. They’re called schizophrenics, and they’re quite crazy. Other people hear God audibly in their dreams. Some people hear him in the words of those he speaks through — like Billy Graham or Robert Tilton or Benny Hinn.
So, as solid as the argument may be, theists have a ready answer, and anyway, who are we to question God? If the communication works, then it works, right? Maybe he knows the inner workings of every brain so well, he gives everybody exactly the sign or audible voice they need. People who aren’t hearing God aren’t listening. People who are open to him… well, they’re going to hear him.
This, by the way, is why I normally don’t argue about this topic. By the time you get to the given that God does communicate, you’ve lost the argument. So, instead of going that route and ending up at a stalemate, I’d rather show you how the atheist is in the same position here as he is with God’s very existence — until and unless a theist gives us something we can clearly understand and test, we are under no obligation to take them seriously.
So, let’s start by defining “communication from God.” A definition is a limit. That is, anything that exists as something can also be said to be not something else. It’s normally a very bad idea to define something as what it is not, but this seems to be a very important concern with God’s voice, since anything can apparently be a sign or omen. So let’s just ask the question outright. Is there anything at all which could not be a sign from God?
Some theists will say no. Anything at all may be a sign from God. If this is the case, though, we’re stuck. It’s sort of like my recent discussion of the morality of hell. If anything can be communication, and there’s no legend with which to decipher what is and is not, then we are left with our own individual interpretation — which is to say, we’re left with nothing objective.
Some theists will try to hedge a bit. There are only some things God would communicate. If you hear something you think is God’s will, but it goes against what you know of God, then it’s not. It couldn’t be. God wouldn’t do that, regardles of whether he could. Unfortunately for the theist, this is a distiction without a difference. It is still up to the mind of the interpreter to decide what God would and would not communicate.
At this point, most Christians will point to the Bible, but we should not let them do so. In the first place, the Bible itself suffers from the same problem of credibility. There are many holy books in the world, and many people claim that this or that one is the correct one. Without some way to determine which is the correct holy book, we have no reason to trust one over the other. More importantly, the Bible itself is anything but clear. Even some of the most set-in-stone Christian dogma is interpreted from various passages in the Bible. Beyond that, the Bible is internally inconsistent and riddled with both factual and logical errors.
When it comes down to it, communication from God is as nebulous as God himself. He might be a burning bush, and he might be a still small voice in your head. He might also be a wet mat in front of your front door, or a homeless man from a small city nobody’s ever heard of before. His voice could be the wind, or the grandeur of the Alps, or the smile of a child.
So… why, in 2000 years, has there not been one single, unequivocal communication? Theists will usually answer that such a display is vulgar, or would take faith out of the equation, but why would either of those things be bad? We’re left with the paradoxical God who wants everyone to know and love him, and doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, but who refuses to give himself a concrete form by which to be recognized by us lowly humans. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Next time you get into a discussion with a theist, ask them to define communication from God, but don’t let them off the hook with a standard Bible School answer. Watch how fast the situation deteriorates. Like so many other deity-concepts, the idea of receiving a message from God is so ill-defined as to be useless for any logical or empirical purposes. There’s literally nothing to test, since no theist seems to be foolish enough to narrow down the parameters enough to put them to the test.
Because it’s wrong to test god…