I remember my first few years as a grad student, a professor reassuring my friend and I that no physicist ever gained true expertise in the topics by taking the classes. We'd learn the subject matter, but the real mastery would come when we had to teach it. Since about January my wife and I have been teaching a Sunday school class on logic and critical thinking, and even though the subject matter is pretty basic, I'm finding more insights into the topic that I just hadn't noticed before.
One of these is with the Law of Identity, which is our next topic. Stated, the Law of Identity sounds really dumb: "A thing is itself, and not anything else." This apple is this apple, and not a banana. This apple is this apple, and not that apple. It applies to claims, as well. The claim that the sky is blue, is the claim that the sky is blue, and not some other color. It's the claim that the sky is blue, and not that my car is blue. And if we disagree on what is meant by "the sky" (do we mean the night sky?) or "blue" (my wife says this color is "blue"), the language disagreement doesn't make the claim itself ambiguous or unknowable. My claim still means what it means.
I was thinking recently how this applies to God.
What do we mean when we say the word, "God"?
There are some people who claim the word "god" is so ambiguous that's it impossible to know if a god exists or not. It has truth to it. What a bronze age European tribesman meant by "god" is vastly different, in terms of category, from what a Muslim means by the same word, or what a Vedic Hindu means by the word. The ideas are not comparable enough for a single, common word to be applicable to all three.
The confusion over what the word signifies is especially true for Christians, with our storied history of violating the Commandment against graven images.
One of the most famous centers for Christian worship in the world has on its ceiling this painting:
And this painting has spawned a thousand memes.
When I say the word "God", I get the sense that many people think I mean this guy here depicted in this painting.
God is a man. God is a man in the clouds. God is a white man with a long flowing beard living in the clouds, wearing a robe and rope sandals.
That is not what I mean by the word "God."
This guy depicted in this painting is not what any adult means when they say the word "God." There are children who think this is what is meant by "God," because children are still developing the ability to think of abstract truths apart from concrete experience. And there are people with childish mindsets who think this is what is meant by "God." But no adult Christian means the guy depicted in this painting, or in any painting, when they say "God."
But wouldn't it be really stupid if we did?
Wouldn't it be really stupid to claim the guy depicted in this painting is the eternal creator of all time and space? What was he standing on? What was he doing before? He looks like he'd get bored. What did he do with his hands all that time before the universe existed? Did he have his arms crossed? At his side? In his pockets?
Wouldn't it be stupid to claim the guy in this painting is the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty? That guy? I guess he's alright and all, but... he's not that great, really.
And why that guy? Isn't it special pleading to insist that guy, there, depicted in that painting, is the supreme being, and not some other guy in some other painting?
But that's not what I mean when I say "God," and so when I claim that God is the ultimate ground of being, I do not mean that the guy in that painting is the ultimate ground of being.
When I say the word "God", I mean God, as he has revealed himself within historical Christianity. I mean the Trinity --- Father, Son, Holy Spirit --- who is one God in three Hypostases, never either before or after the other. In this Trinity, neither the Father, nor the Holy Spirit, nor the Son before his Incarnation, can be likened to anything in all creation.
The best way I can represent to you visually what I mean with the word "God" is this picture:
Notice that this is not a picture. God doesn't look like a triangle embedded in a circle. It's a diagram, illustrating the relationships between the three Divine Hypostases of the One God. The diagram is not God, but it expresses truths about God. This is one artistic representation of what is known as the Trinitarian Shield.
God can only be truly depicted in terms of truths about himself. There is no other way to depict God. In Deuteronomy 4, we read:
9 “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children— 10 how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ 11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. [...]
15 “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
We cannot depict God in any form, because he does not have any form. God is not a part of creation. God is not merely a very powerful being, like Zeus or Thor or Marduk. God is something entirely other.
When I say "God", I mean the Trinity. You can only barely conceptualize what the Trinity means, with the help of very careful definitions and diagrams. You definitely cannot paint what the concept signifies.
When I say "God", I do not mean an old man in the clouds.
I do not mean a magical sky fairy.
I do not mean an invisible pink unicorn.
I do not mean a special friend inside my head.
I mean God. The Christian God. The Triune and eternal God of Creation.
If I did believe in an old man in the clouds watching over me, then that would be exactly as stupid as the atheists say it is. But I don't. So their ridicule and bombast is at best irrelevant.
When I say there is one God in three Hypostases, let me explain what I mean.
I am holding an apple. The apple I am holding, is the apple I am holding. It is not any other fruit, and it is not any other apple. This is the Law of Identity. There are other apples similar to this apple. But there cannot be other apples exactly the same as this apple. If another apple were exactly the same as this apple, it would not be another apple. It would be this apple. This is also part of the Law of Identity.
What would it mean to be holding two apples that were exactly the same? Not merely similar or duplicates, but exactly the same in all respects. I would be holding the same apple. Twice. I would be holding one apple in two hypostases. There is no object in creation with more than one hypostasis per being. God has three hypostases in one being. That's just how he is.
That's what I mean when I say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but that these are not three Lords, nor three Gods, nor three Almighties, but one and the same Lord and God Almighty.
Let me address some questions I've heard atheists raise upon hearing this.
If I don't believe God is a man, why do I use the word "he" when discussing him?
Because that is how God chose to reveal himself. He chose to relate to us through Jesus, who became a literal man, and through the Father, who chose this metaphor of a good and loving father to illustrate to us what he was like. The Holy Spirit, who is also a divine Hypostasis, is actually referred to in the neuter gender in the original Greek, as the Holy Spirit does not relate to us through personal metaphors. We use "he" in English because the third-person singular neuter pronoun in English ("it") is perceived as denying personhood, and the Holy Spirit is not a mere impersonal force.
If I don't believe God is a man, why do Christians have all of these paintings of God, showing him as an old man with a long flowing beard?
I have no idea, except lack of creativity. I think Muslims and Jews have proven much better than Christians at conceiving abstract and beautiful ways to portray Deity in terms of the revealed word and geometric patterns. Because the Bible literally refers to Jesus as "the icon (image) of the invisible God," Christians have historically felt more comfortable than other monotheistic faiths at representing God with icons. It's not a practice I condone.
If I don't believe God is a man, why is that what you learned in Sunday school?
Because you were a child and misunderstood your teacher, and weren't old enough to internalize what he or she really meant. When you were old enough to internalize it, you had already dismissed the idea of God based on your earlier misperception, and have not yet corrected your understanding.