The Meaning of the Word “Is”

God is LOVE. . .

. . . GOD is Love. . .

. . . God IS Love.

The first letter of John states that “God is Love” multiple times. Much has been said of agape, the sacrificial love which describes God’s love for us and how we are to love God and one another. Also, much has been written on the nature of God and who he is, though this truly is an inexhaustible topic that we can never completely comprehend. I think it would be instructive to also delve into the meaning of the small little word in between.

What is the meaning of the word “Is”? The dictionary answer is “3rd person singular present indicative of ‘be’.”  Digging deeper, we have to wonder whether we mean “to equal in meaning,” “to have a specified qualification or characterization,” or something wholly other. Given the profound difference between God and man, do we strain the meaning of words when used in both senses? Can God saying “I am” in the burning bush have the same meaning as when we (echoing Descartes) say “I am”?

Back in 1998 when President Bill Clinton was under investigation and eventually impeached, he responded to a question with a line that is still remembered to this day: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” If memes were a thing back then, it would surely be one. Such twisting of language is what gives lawyers a bad reputation. And yet, that statement contains what is in fact a noble pursuit. What exactly is the meaning of the word “is”? Most of the time in normal usage, the meanings of words are clear in context. Communication would not be possible if we constantly are questioning the meaning of each word, but sometimes getting to a fuller understanding of truth requires challenging the meaning of words in context. The example of President Clinton is the opposite of the sincere search for truth. Word meaning is challenged to obfuscate meaning and hide the truth. You might say this Georgetown grad was being “Jesuitical.”

Unfortunately for the Society of Jesus that has done much good through the centuries, the dictionary defines Jesuitical not just as “the system, principles, or practices of the Jesuits,” but “a principle or practice, as casuistry, equivocation, or craft.” Thus, clarifying a word’s meaning can be used to lead us both toward a greater understanding of truth or further away from it. As someone who has benefited greatly from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola at several religious retreats, I see the value in a systematic “Jesuitical” approach to faith. It is in this spirit of genuine seeking of truth that we further approach the title question.

I submit that “is” is the most profound word in any language. It defines “being,” and “being” transcends mere existence. The study of being (Ontology) is its own branch of philosophy. The trend in modern thought toward epistemological knowledge and away from ontological knowledge is in fact a trend away from God. And a trend away from God is a trend away from love, because “God is love” means more that God possesses the quality of love or even God defines love as the highest example of love. God is. “I am” is his name. He is uncreated being. I can say “I am,” but only as a created being reflecting the “is” that is God. In a sense Descartes has it backward. “I am therefore I think” may in fact be more correct. Because I am created in God’s image I can now think and love. I can appreciate the other transcendentals like truth and beauty. I can say “I love,” but I can’t say “I am love,” except in a merely symbolic way. Only about God can the statement “He is love” be said.

We do need to be careful that we do not define words so that they have a different meaning when we speak about God than when we speak about ourselves. The love I am capable of expressing is the same love that God is. Just because God is infinite and perfect and I’m not does not mean I redefine the word “love” or the word “is.” It just means that I express it finitely and imperfectly. (The concept I am describing is known as ontological univocity from the philosopher and theologian of the high Middle Ages Scotus and departs from traditional Scholastic thought. One does not become a modernist heretic if one acknowledges that philosophical thought can develop beyond Aquinas) There is danger in defining words like “is” in that I can only symbolically approach what God is. Being created in God’s image means much more than there existing similarities between me and God. I am called to strive toward the perfection that is inherent in God by being that which God called me to be. I have the hope that in eternity I will arrive at this perfection.

The next step to understanding word meaning is context. I have already discussed the highest meaning of the word “is” that is related to being. Other meanings come in normal usage and we need to be clear by studying the context. If mathematically we describe this first primary definition as A=B then we can have a second meaning as A∈{a1,a2,a3…} where we are defining something as belonging to a set of things with a certain property i.e. the ball is red.
There would also be a special case of this second definition where a property is described that is unique A∈{a} i.e. God is an uncreated being. A third definition of “is” would be that of analogy: it is symbolical of or similar to: △A≃△B

Now that we have more clearly defined the meaning of the word “is,” we can look at the statement “God is love” and realize not only that this is the highest definition of equality or being, but also that this is a revealed truth. This is not a truth we could have discovered on our own with mere reason. An infinite and perfect lover requires an infinite and perfect beloved. Only in understanding God as trinity can we truly say “God is Love.” The person God the Father loves the person God the Son, God the Son returns this love, and that love between them is the third person, God the Holy Spirit. Our finite love becomes perfected when it is united in the perfect love of the trinity. Love means desiring what is best for the beloved and what is best for the lover and beloved is being together in union with God. If we gloss over biblical reading and just think in terms of analogy, we can miss this much deeper meaning.

Honest bible study demands sincere effort to understand the meaning of the words in the context they are written. I would like to present for consideration my take on common understandings of some common verses based on context:

“God is Love” A=B equality in being.

“I am the vine, you are the branches” △A≃△B analogy.

“This is my body” A=B equality in being.

“I am the good shepherd” △A≃△B analogy.

“Love is patient, love is kind…” A∈{a1,a2,a3…} possesses attribute.

“I am the way and the truth and the life” A∈{a} possesses attributes uniquely.


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