Virtual Colloquium: H.D.P. Burling, “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.”
January 20, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

Welcome to the first Virtual Colloquium of the spring term! Today’s paper is “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited” by H.D.P. Burling. Hugh Burling is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (UK) and a Visiting Graduate Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He work has been published in Religious Studies. His research concerns religious disagreement, method in theology, and the concept of God.


Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.

H.D.P. Burling

We instinctively characterise religious disagreement as disagreement either about what there is, or about what the same thing – God – is like. A common dialectical move made in modern theology, both academic and popular, sits between these two possibilities. Often, we read a theist of one stripe claiming that theists of another stripe don’t worship the same God. They are ‘idolaters’, or, more diplomatically, they just so badly misconceive God that they don’t ‘mean’ the same ‘thing’ by His names. It is not easy to explain what is mistaken about this move when it seems mistaken. My first publication concerned a particular version of it, in which natural theology is attacked as having to do with some other being than the God Christianity concerns. ‘Debunking’ local instances of the manoeuvre is worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied, and wanted a more general strategy which might show what is wrong with adopting partisan definitions of ‘God’ in order to avoid deeper engagement with others’ claims about God.

The strategy I adopt in the following article is to regard that manoeuvre as just one of the many features of theistic religious language which is curious – one of the explananda for a semantics for theism. So, we start by asking what we ‘mean’ by ‘God’, and answer that question by attempting to infer the rules of the ‘theology game’ by watching people play it. The conclusion I come to is that ‘God’ implicitly denotes, in Russell’s sense, whichever being is worthy of our worship. This secures co-reference between theists of extremely different stripes, whilst explaining the high-stakes nature of theological disagreement, and why parties to it o not just ‘walk away’ when apparent parity is reached, or one party attempts to squirrel his definition of “God” in favour of his claims about God. If both parties implicitly understand something Anselmian by ‘God’, then when the Christian insists that by ‘God’ he just means the Holy Trinity, the Muslim’s response to this makes sense. Rather than walking away (‘If they’re what you mean by ‘God’, I don’t care what you claim about them’), she will challenge him.

The article itself shows how my crypto-Anselmian understanding of God copes better with other desiderata for a semantics for theism than rival theories in the nascent literature. The view I defend makes it very easy for humans to successfully pick out God with ‘God’ because the basic ethics of worship are something we pick up fast, and, plausibly, most of us are introduced to God-talk in an appropriate context to get stuck in with worshipping the One we intentionally pick out with that Name. Kripkean views according to which ‘God’ is a proper name whose reference is passed down via a causal chain, however, threaten ease of access for speakers because the chain is so messy and fragile. Non-Anselmian descriptivist views struggle because their content is often harder for speakers to have in mind.

I hope the article is persuasive in defending a view about the semantics of ‘God’ which, I think, is the best candidate for being ‘the’ traditional view. (I think that Anselmian descriptivisms, and descriptivisms which appeal to lists of metaphysical divine names, only come apart in practice when our axiologies do not reflect those of the theologians responsible for the lists of divine names.) But I also hope it’s persuasive to theologians who lean towards identifying God in a confessional manner. Otherwise, I think identifying God the way I do can help explain a lot about the commonalities between different behaviours and literatures we call ‘religious’.

Within the scope of the article, I do not have space to go through alternative iterations of the ‘Specified Singleton’ view, other than my preferred option. So I’d be particularly curious to hear about alternatives which strike readers as preferable.


The complete paper is available here