The Elusiveness of Theological Statements
The discussion arising from Flew’s paper of 1950 raises the issue of the ‘meaningfulness’ of theological utterances in a sense nearer to the ordinary use of the word. He complains that we can never know definitely what theists mean by what they say, because when faced with awkward arguments or facts of experience (such as the fact of evil in the world, which seems to cast doubt on the alleged goodness of God) they alter the meanings of their words, and you can never pin them down. They say that God is good, just, loving; and the course of events in the world contains much which, to an outsider, seems incompatible with this assertion. But the theists are strangely unmoved by what, to the non-theist, seems so clear a case. They say that God’s conduct is not to be judged by the same standards which we apply to one another, and they insist that he is behaving justly and lovingly even where it seems clear that he is doing nothing of the kind. Nothing seems to count, in their eyes, as a refutation of their claims about him. And Flew argues that an assertion of God’s goodness which is elastic enough to cover what we actually find him doing is too elastic to mean anything at all. He challenges the theists to say what they would accept as a refutation of their assertions; for we cannot know what these mean until we know at least what would be incompatible with them. Theists, in a word, are invited to show that their assertions do mean something by showing how they could be falsified.
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