TALKING NONSENSE ABOUT GOD: C. S. Lewis versus Michel de Montaigne
20th-century writer C. S. Lewis thought that God ought to be described within the confines of generally accepted logic. Said he,
“His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God. That’s C. S. Lewis’ position.
Michel de Montaigne, whom I’m currently reading and who was a French politician and famous essayist from the 16th century, had another take on this. He thought that talking about what God can or cannot do based on what we perceive to be nonsensical statements about God would mean to confine Him to the imperfections of our language.
“It has always seemed to me,” said Montaigne, “that certain expressions are too imprudent and irreverent for a Christian: ‘God cannot die’; ‘God cannot change his mind’; ‘God cannot do this or cannot do that’. I find it unacceptable that the power of God should be limited in this way by the rules of human language; these propositions offer an appearance of truth, but it ought to be expressed more reverently and more devoutly. Our speech, like everything else, has its defects and weaknesses. Most of the world’s squabbles are occasioned by grammar!”