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God and grounding

Theology is a fertile source of statements that seem to have meaning but when you look at them closely they are revealed as empty. There is a particular class of such statements that turns up frequently, particularly when it comes to right and wrong. Theology has a lot to say about right and wrong. Well, a lot of words. Here is an example:

“God grounds moral values.”

It presses certain emotional buttons. “Grounds” sounds solid, deep, with an impression of the core of things. “Values” works in the same way. Values are good, precious. God is therefore kindly, caring, and looks after us to make sure our values are what they should be.

But, that is all that phrase does: stir up emotions. It has no useful content at all. It's a statement of belief, an expression of feeling. It's a wish, a desire, a hope. And yet it is used as a statement of fact, a premise.

This is very common in theology. Words are placed together as awkward bedfellows in the hope that there will be some productive consequences.

Let's have a look at what would be necessary to try to make sense of the statement “God grounds moral values.”

The first step would be to assume that there is something concrete and measurable called a “moral value”. That's a big step, and a bit beyond this discussion. So let's change the statement to:

“God grounds electricity”

That now has a non-deepity meaning. It would mean that God wired up the right leads on a plug. That sounds trivial, but it isn't. It illustrates what we need to know in order to confirm such a statement: that what was described was possible, how it could be done, and that God did it. Of course, this does assume that as a disembodied mind, God could use a screwdriver, but let's not be too fussy.

Of course, this isn't really the meaning of “grounds” in the original statement. The meaning of “grounds” there is “provides a basis for and sustains”.

So, let's change the statement again:

“God grounds air”

Nicely ironic, but not unreasonable. God could provide air from some source and keep it topped up regularly as needed. But what does “provides a basis for” mean in this situation? It's hard. Let's try again:

“God grounds goodness”

That's more like it. Something more theological, more intellectual. God supplies goodness. How is that done? By being good, I suppose. God sustains goodness. Perhaps the reward of Heaven and the threat of Hell achieves that? But we still haven't really got to the heart of what “grounds” means. How does God provide a basis for goodness? By just being God? Is there some essence he gives off that pervades reality?

It all starts to fall apart. There's supposed to be some aspect of reality that exists simply because God IS. But how can we have any proof of that? How can we even know it? If that aspect of reality exists, how are we supposed to know it's because of a God? How are we supposed to know it's because of the God we believe in?

An example of how this clearly doesn't work is moral values again. Many Buddhists believe in absolute objective moral values. There are standards built into reality. But, they don't believe they were put there by any divine being, and they don't believe they need to be sustained by any divine being.

I think an interesting exercise, if it could be arranged, would be a discussion between a Lane-Craig-type Christian theologian who believes that some personal god is needed for absolute morality and a Buddhist theologian who does not. That way we might, finally, get some idea of what the “grounding” power of God is supposed to be, and how it works.

To be honest, I doubt we will ever find out. Ideas such as the “grounding” of reality by God are yet another reason why supernaturalism is beyond evidence. Supernaturalism isn't really about reality – it's about how people want to feel. “God grounds morality” is warm and fluffy expression of hope. Although not so warm and fluffy if the grounded morality decides you are going to suffer.



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