Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Philosophers have been chewing away for millennia on this topic and show no signs of ceasing. Naturally, therefore, ontology ("being-talk") has evolved into an extremely complex subject. Nevertheless, I maintain that most people are capable of easily understanding those aspects of ontology which matter.

Much ontological discussion revolves around the use of language. This is because the word "being" is easily misused. To illustrate:

  • I can say, "That is a teddy bear." When I do so, what I'm really saying is that the object I'm indicating has the name "teddy bear".
  • But when I say, "That teddy bear is," I'm saying that the object known by that name possesses some sort of quality, that of existence or being. This amounts to making the word "being" into the name of some quality.

An enormous amount of convoluted discussion about this sort of language exists. The debate indicates that the meaning of the word "being" gets distorted because

[a] it's a participle not a noun (that is, it has characteristics of both noun and verb) and must therefore be used with extreme caution;

[b] it's not a predicate. The word "white" in "paper is white" is a predicate. It doesn't do to say, for example, "paper is is". And again, we can say, "Large dogs growl" and (with some difficulty), "Large dogs are" - but not that "Large dogs will be" - indicating that the word is, from which the word "being" derives, must be carefully used.

Immanuel Kant said that being is not a valid predicate. Take the word "wise". When I say that somebody "is wise " I'm first saying it exists and then specifying what exists - in this case a "wise" person. But when I say that something "is" I'm saying it exists but I'm not saying what it is that exists. Being is not a component of anything. He added "... a hundred real thalers contain no more thalers than a hundred possible ones." In other words, to say that something is without specifying what is to propose a possibility, not an actuality.

C J F Williams in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion notes that Gottlob Frege in 1950 pointed out finally why treating being as a property of things isn't valid. Frege wrote, "Affirmation of existence is nothing other than denial of the number nought." His argument involves "second-level" predicates. When I say, "There are three cats here" it's plain that "three" isn't a property of any one cat. But when I say, "There are three ginger cats here" the predicate "ginger" does belong to each of the three cats. The predicate "three" is a second-level predicate. According to Williams "... it is as nonsensical to say of someone that she is powerful and existent as to say that she is wise and numerous."

In the end, therefore, if being is considered either as an object or some sort of special attribute, then the verb "to be" has to be used in new and clumsy ways which cease to make good sense. As one author puts it, "The outcome of the attempt to make what is mystifying clear is to make what is clear mystifying." Predicates refer to properties. Being can't be a property of anything.

Nearly 3 000 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Parmenides said words to the effect that "What is, is and what is not, is not" - which seems obvious (though it has its own complications). Plato later muddied the water by maintaining that being belongs exclusively to an eternal and perfect realm. In contrast, beings and things (including us) are copies or shadows of the ideal realm. We're not "being" but "becoming" inasmuch as we approximate perfect Being or Form. 

Plato thought that there is a third category - what "is not". But there's a problem with saying that something "is not". If it isn't, how do we know what isn't - by what criteria or evidence? If I tell you that there's no such thing as a zingzang how is either of us to know what a zingzang is? To what entity or being does the word "is" refer if a zingzang doesn't exist? If I say, "There's no such thing as a round square" I'm maintaining that the definition of "round" is not the same as the definition of "square". For that reason we can't imagine a round square. A round square isn't - by which I mean that it's impossible to find an instance of a round square.

Aristotle, on the other hand, said that things possess being. But to "possess" being is to endow being with attributes. If I say, "Dogs have being" is that the same sort of thing as saying, "Dogs have legs"? Or when I say "Dogs are beings" am I saying they possess something called "being" or perhaps that they inhabit a class of things called being? It seems to me that when I say, " Dogs are beings" all I'm saying is that "Dogs are" or "Dogs exist".

Aristotle also held that Plato's Ideal Forms are abstractions - mental constructs with no necessary relation to the world of beings or things. What do we mean, for example, when we say that a number "is the square root" of another number? Does a square root exist in the same sense that a particular dog exists? If I say, "That is a square root" is it the same as saying, "That is a dog"? Aristotle would answer in the negative.

As far as I can tell later discussions of being generally fall into either a Platonic or an Aristotelian category. None has shed much light on the matter - a claim which would no doubt be vigorously contested by various schools of ontology!

The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20-50 BCe), studied Plato in relation to the Hebrew Bible (better known as the Old Testament). He noted that in Exodus 3.14 God is revealed to Moses as "I am who I am". Philo translated that into Greek, the lingua franca of his time, as "ho on". This means "the Being" or "He who is".

To the Jews, God is an active agent in human affairs. But when Philo's rendering passed on from Judaism into the emerging Christian world, this active God became a static, immutable entity. This conception proved influential in the thought of theologians like Augustine, Origen and Clement and on through to Thomas Aquinas. The latter defined God in Latin as "Qui est" ("Who is"). C J F Williams notes that some other languages have fewer problems with using "is". Latin, Greek and Hebrew often do without it as do modern Russian and Japanese.

In general, there have been two main streams of theological opinion. One regards God as perfect Being, outside space-time, free from change and suffering, unknowable. Perhaps one way of expressing this is to say that God as Being is a category or class with only a single member. In contrast, the class or category "animal" includes many instances of animals.

This absolute Being may influence creation but can't in turn be influenced. Others, while accepting this viewpoint, argue that we can guess at the nature of pure Being by analogy. Creation serves as a guide to God's nature. This is the foundation of what is usually called natural theology or "God-talk derived from nature".

The difficulty of moving from "Being" to "beings" when using normal language is well illustrated in the way the matter was tackled by the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich. He talks both of God as "being" and as the "ground of being". He's accused of confused expression in this regard. But it seems to me that he's saying both that God is the unknowable absolute and at the same time that which supports creation in the same way that the ground supports us. That God is the "ground" of our being is clearly a metaphor.

The most influential philosopher in the 20th century around the nature of being was probably Martin Heidegger. Unfortunately, his writing is largely opaque to most ordinary mortals. Like Tillich, he distinguishes between Being as the "absolute other" and beings as expressions of Being. Being thus occurs at differing levels. A human being is at a higher level than a stone. This difference is, however, comparatively minor compared with the difference between beings and "being as such". If God is a being, says Heidegger, then Being is not God.

Both Tillich and Heidegger give answers to the question, "What is being?" But this presupposes that the question is a valid one. Its validity rests, it seems to me, on the supposition that being is either a thing in itself and unlike any other thing, or that it is a quality which is definitive of everything. In the former case, it's possible to name the thing and call it "being". Both senses take "to be" as essentially different from a verb like "to walk". D A Drennan in A Modern Introduction to Metaphysics suggests that there have been many answers to the question, "What is being?" Parmenides says that being is "One"; Plato that it is "One and Many"; Aristotle that it is "substance" and so on.

Coming down from the rarified heights of philosophy allows me to make sense of being in another way. I am obviously able to invent and use a noun "being", just as I'm able to invent a noun "zingzang". But that doesn't mean that either being or zingzang actually exist. I can point to a dog when I use the noun "dog". I can't point to "being".

And yet in everyday terms things obviously exist - that is, they "are". I can validly say, "That dog is." But when I say this, what I mean is, "That dog is a real entity" as opposed to a false claim such as "A zingzang is a real entity." I can  produce a dog; I can't produce a zingzang. And when I say, "Two is the square root of four" I maintain that two has a certain relationship to four as part of a much larger system we call mathematics. The word "is" can validly refer to two differing types of existence, one concrete and the other abstract.

The concept of being remains puzzling, especially when the philosophers and others get their teeth into it. But for ordinary people, not much concerned with the difficulties of language and thought, it's not that opaque. There's nothing wrong with thinking of God (for example) as "that which is the fount of all things which exist or have being". In other words, it is not preposterous to think of such a "thing" as Being itself from which all beings take their existence.

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