We cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, OF THE SIMPLICITY OF GOD

When we are embroiled in something it is usually very difficult to step back and get some perspective – how much harder must it be to believe something which is entirely out of our sphere of experience!  Perceptions and language go hand in hand – we make words for things that we perceive, and we have trouble seeing things for which we don’t have words.  The oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal story of a certain Inuit tribe which has fifty-three words for different kinds of snow is a perfect example.  For most of us, snow is – basically – snow.  It may be slushy or fluffy, but that’s pretty much the extent of our interest.  As you might imagine, someone who lives with snow daily would have a keener interest in the various forms that it takes.  Thus, finer distinctions are made, and words evolve to describe the differences.

Imagine growing up in what we would (arrogantly) call a primitive culture and trying to learn English.  Perhaps you had only ever drank water from a local stream, and you did this by bending down and dipping your hand into it.  Now imagine sitting in your village with a volunteer from some world organization, trying to learn English.  First of all, what is a glass?  What is it used for?  Not only that, but what are tumblers, beakers, goblets, chalices, mugs, cups, and steins?  Why would anyone possibly need even one word for such a thing, much less eight?  What are the distinctions between these things? Surely, the whole concept would seem absurd.

The dichotomies (differences) we embrace define what Wittgenstein called our “form of life.”  There are spacial dichotomies (up vs. down, left vs. right, front vs. back), temporal dichotomies (past vs. future), visual dichotomies (light vs. dark, transparent vs. opaque), and value dichotomies (good vs. evil, happy vs. sad).  Of course, there are as many categories of dichotomy as there are nameable categories.  This is because the act of categorizing is essentially the act of applying a dichotomy.  There are even categories of categories, as in the statement: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everyone into two categories, and those who do not.” 

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu describes this situation this way:

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low rest upon each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Front and back follow one another.

Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Feng and English (trans.)

Thus, we know things only by comparison to other things – nothing exists except if something which is not-it also exists. For example, you identify your friend Bob by contrasting all of your friends who are not Bob. In fact, you go further: you contrast your friends from those people you know but who are not your friends. And, people you know from people you don’t know. This goes on and on; it is one of the fundamental activities of a human brain.

We have names for those things which exist in our form of life: water, cups, friends, strangers. Now consider this: what is left when you eliminate everything we have a name for?

This is the essence of what is called Apophatic theology – this is, if you can name an attribute of God, you’re not taking about God. So, in a manner of speaking, God is whatever is left when you eliminate things you have names for.

Now, if you take that to be the definition of God (a so-called negative definition), then by definition God must exist. This might not be the old bearded man in the clouds version you grew up hearing about, but face it, you didn’t really believe in that anyway, did you?