Few concepts in human history have generated as much fascination, intense longing, rapturous devotion, somber contemplation, and endless debate as the topic of God. In the English language, the term God, when capitalized and singular (as a proper noun), is typically used to refer to the sole Divine Being in monotheistic religions, and more broadly to Ultimate Reality in many other faiths. An uncapitalized spelling (both singular and plural) has generally been used to refer to an individual deity found in a polytheistic or henotheistic pantheon (such as in ancient Vedic and Greco-Roman religion).
Throughout history, the vast majority of people in the world have believed in a God. Yet, although notions of an absolute divine power are found in virtually all of the world's religions, the precise definition of what God is (and "is for us") varies greatly among the religions, within specific sects, and even from person to person. Typically, monotheistic theology describes God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (and in most theologies, immutable), as well as both the creator and sustainer of the universe. God may be understood as male, as female, as both male and female, or as beyond gender (such as an impersonal abstract power or energy).
Frequently, God is conceived of as a personal being that can relate with all aspects of human experience, and has attributes of goodness, justice, love, etc. In most religions, God is recognized to have the disposition of a parent, who watches over human beings—God’s children, protecting, educating and disciplining them in an effort to raise them well. In addition to the conception of God as a divine Father, other depictions of God include Mother, friend, healer, child, a judge, and even a lover. As such, some theologians speak of God's heart (see below) that longs for fellowship with human beings, and even suffers to see them in misery.
The word God comes from the Old English/Germanic terms god (guþ, gudis in Gothic, gud in modern Scandinavian and Gott in modern German). The original meaning and etymology of the Germanic word god has been widely disputed, though most agree it takes root in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word *khutóm. *Khutóm is a passive perfect participle from the root *khu-, which likely meant "libation" or "sacrifice." Evidence for this theory is provided by comparisons of the Sanskrit hu- ("to sacrifice"), the Greek khu-, kheu- ("to pour") as well as the Common Germanic strong verb *geutan (Anglo-Saxon gēotan) "to pour," and the English in-got. The connection between these terms likely derives from the meaning "pour a libation." The word God was first used in the Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas to represent the Greek term Theos, (Latin Deus) in translations of the Bible.
Early Conceptions of God
Both polytheism and henotheism seem to have been the predominant conceptions of divinity throughout most of the ancient world. Although their expressions varied considerably from culture to culture, some common characteristics of these conceptions can be identified. The gods of polytheistic and henotheistic belief systems have independent and individual personalities with specific skills, needs and desires. Although often lacking material form, they could (on occasion) assume physical bodies. They are seen to possess a high level of relevance to human life, as they can intervene in human affairs. They can do so by their own volition, or worshipers can encourage them by way of rituals and sacrifices.
The gods are generally conceived to be immortal. They are often portrayed as similar to humans in their personality traits, failings and vices, but with additional supernatural powers and abilities. Some have jurisdiction or governance over a large area, as the "patron god(s)" of a geographical region, town, mountain or clan. In many civilizations, the pantheons grew over time as the patron gods of various cities and places were collected together as empires extended over larger territories. In others cases, the various gods may have arisen due to a perceived "division of labor," with each having dominion or authority over specified elements in the human and natural worlds.
Many of the earliest conceptualizations of divinity were actually goddesses. Both carved figures and paintings of pregnant women were the dominant foci of worship during the Paleolithic times (35,000-10,000 B.C.E.). These depictions typically emphasized the reproductive parts of the female anatomy, such as large breasts, the pregnant womb, and the vulva, which presumably represented women's creative, maternal, nourishing, and embracing traits. The female was symbolically linked to the earth, maintaining the life cycle, representing fertility and the creation of new life. Excavations from Catal Huyuk in what is now Turkey suggest that settlements existing between 6500 and 5500 B.C.E. also held the goddess in highest esteem, and artifacts recovered form the Indus Valley Civilization suggest that goddess worship was also the earliest form of religious practice in India.
The ancient Greek gods provide the best example of henotheism that is most familiar to Western scholarship. Their extensive mythological tales (preserved in plays, visual art, and epic poems) show that the ancient Greeks believed in independent, highly personified deities who were not aspects of a greater divinity. Rather, they were seen to stand on their own, representing certain aspects of the cosmos or human experience. The first gods were largely tied to natural or primordial processes, such as Uranus, the father god of the sky; Gaia, the mother goddess of Earth; and Chronos, the godly personification of time. Later gods, such as the Olympians, became identified with more specific aspects of experience. For instance, Apollo was the god of light, dance, reason, music, archery and medicine, while also exemplifying the difficulties of human relationships through the stories of his many failed loves. Athena was heralded as the goddess of wisdom, artistry, education and inner beauty, as well as war. Zeus represented the god of weather. While each of these gods and goddesses evidently had dominion over a certain portion of reality, they also were members of a celestial pantheon and were, at various junctures, ruled over by Chronos, Uranus, and finally Zeus. Their belief in a father/ruler God meant that the Greek polytheism was perhaps best described as a henotheism.
Greek definitions of God
Developments in Greek philosophy shifted from polytheism/ henotheism to a monistic theism. This trend began with the Pre-Socratic philosophers, who suggested that this pantheisitic essence for the universe perhaps took root in a natural element—such as Anaximenes (who claimed the essence to be air), or Thales (who thought it was water). Eventually these elements came to be more abstract, reaching beyond the physical world. Anaximander (c.609-547 B.C.E.), for instance, proposed an uncreated and indestructible being which could not itself be considered a thing, yet was responsible for the existence of all things and ruling them all. For Pythagoras (c. 570-496 B.C.E.) and his followers, all things were ruled by mathematics and geometry. Xenophanes (c. 570-c. 478 B.C.E.) propounded the idea of a changeless, indestructible and unified entity which possessed infinite intelligence and was present in all things, which he called the "All-One." He claimed this notion of unity and oneness to be the highest and most reasonable form of religious thought.
These ruminations as to the singular essence behind the universe culminated in the later philosophical monotheism espoused by both Plato (c. 428-c. 348 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.). Plato construed God as representative of the single good which existed in contrast to the physical world, which was in constant flux and therefore evil. This so-called "Form of the Good" was held by Plato to exist beyond specific instances of good in the world, because each of these particulars was subject to mutability and therefore not eternal. Plato claimed these transient appearances of the Form of the Good were created by a Demiurge. The point of life was to rise up from all that is ugly, evil and fallacious and realize the true, permanent Good.
Likewise, Aristotle, the famous student of Plato, believed that truth can be found within a proper understanding of the natural world, which is attributable to its ultimate source. This source, also known as the "First Mover" or "Pure Form," is a completely actualized, immutable, and indivisible entity, which represents the ultimate ground of truth and singularly provides the explanation as to why all things exist with the characteristics they do, as well as how they came into being. Aristotle propounded the idea that all people must seek to understand truth, as the search for truth is ultimately a form of participation in God. Both Plato and Aristotle's conception of the highest entity in the universe would go on to wield massive influence on the conceptions of God in the Abrahamic faiths, especially Christianity.
Early monotheism in Egypt
Another example of a conception of the one transcendent God growing out of polytheism occurred in the iconoclastic cult of the Egyptian solar god, Aten, which was promoted by the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), who ruled between 1358 and 1340 B.C.E. Upon inheriting the throne, Akhenaten brought Aten from relative obscurity among the other gods and made him synonymous with the Sun, which Egyptians of that time period thought to be the single most powerful entity. Furthermore, Aten came to represent a more personal conception of the divine than the other gods, all of whom had been the primary focus of public ritual in temples. As these other gods in the pantheon came to be perceived as inferior to Aten, their idols were destroyed.
Even though such works as Akhenaten's hymn to Aten offers strong evidence that Akhenaten considered Aten to be the sole, omnipotent creator, Akhenaten's program to enforce this monotheistic worldview was promptly put to a halt upon his death. The worship of gods other than Aten never fully ceased outside Akhenaten's court, and the older polytheistic cults soon regained prominence. However, the Aten cult could still be classified one of the earliest known examples of monotheism, and it is claimed by some scholars to have possibly been a formative influence on early Judaism's eschewal of polytheism, due to the presence of Israelite slaves in Egypt.
Zoroastrianism provides another example of early monotheistic belief. Zarathustra founded Zoroastrianism at best estimation sometime during the tenth century B.C.E. perhaps under inspiration to elevate divine-human relations above the Indo-Iranian polytheism of his time, a tradition steeped in an elaborate ritualism. Under Zarathustra the various notions of divinity found within these assorted faiths were recognized as attributes of one all-encompassing deity called Ahura Mazda (or "Wise Lord"). Zarathustra set his teachings apart from his rivals by insisting that worship be dedicated solely to the Wise Lord.
Although Ahura Mazda is the supreme power in the universe in Zoroastrianism, he is not considered completely all-powerful. Ahura Mazda is described as inherently good, just and moral, and as such creates only good things, a seeming limitation to his power considering the presence of evil in the world. Zoroastrians attribute the existence of evil to two subsidiary moral spirits who Ahura Mazda is said to have fathered: Spenta Manyu, who is good, and Angra Manyu, who is evil. Although such a conception limits Ahura Mazda's power, he is consistently described to be triumphant over evil, which marks him as the supreme entity in the Zoroastrian cosmos. Later Zoroastrianism also includes angelic beings called the Amesha Spenta, who are seen as emanations of Ahura Mazda, whose job it is to put in place his will in the physical world.
God in the Abrahamic Religions
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are together considered Abrahamic religions due to the fact they worship the God who first came into covenant with Abraham. Abraham's portion of the covenant was that he spread the teaching that only God alone is the true God, and all others are not. Therefore, each of the three religions that trace their roots to Abraham strongly espouse monotheism. Further, no doubt due to the dialogical relationship between Abraham and God, the Abrahamic faiths conceive of God as deeply involved in human history, rather than detached from it. God appears at various junctures in order to alter the fate of individuals and nations.
Considering this close relationship between God and human beings, it is not surprising that Jews, Christians, and Muslims often conceive of God in personal terms. The prophets of the Bible and the Qur'an encountered God as a Being with an explicit will and personality. The Bible depicts God with anthropomorphic traits, as seen in Genesis 1:26: "God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'" However, from the viewpoint of faith, it is rather human beings who are "theomorphic," made in the image of their Creator.
Later, medieval rationalist philosophers in each of these religions put forth the view that one should not conceive of God as personal in the literal sense, as such perceptions limit God’s transcendent majesty. Rather, they claimed that such personal descriptions of God should be understood as metaphors. On the other hand, for many saints and pious believers, relating to God in personalistic terms allows an intimacy and depth of sentiment surpassing the logic of the more refined and rationalist conceptions.
The Hebrew Bible describes God as the Creator of the universe, the physical world, and all that lives upon it. Yet only a few chapters of the Bible are concerned with God's role in creation. Mainly, God in the Bible is understood relationally—as God in covenant with Israel - and thus God is known through the covenant relationship.
Biblical texts make evident that God cares about people, and that he also cares about whether or not people care about him. God is chiefly known by his mighty acts in history: liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and leading them across the desert to the Promised Land; rescuing faithful Israel from her enemies; and chastising disobedient Israel with invasions, pestilence and exile. God is also known by the laws he gives the people to live by—the laws of the Mosaic covenant, which require justice, charity to the poor and downtrodden, integrity in matters of morality. They also forbid idolatry and the worship of foreign gods. God's active mercy and protection, coupled with the obligations to follow his law, constitute the two sides of the covenant relationship. They make clear to the people that God holds them accountable for their actions, and that he has the power to reward or punish them accordingly.
The God of the Hebrew Bible has the likeness of a king who governs his subjects and expects their loyalty and service. To this the Bible adds another dimension, characterizing God not only as the divine ruler but also as a divine father. God takes a compassionate, paternal interest towards the Israelites; he is not content to rule them, but would also educate them and raise them to meet his highest expectations. His attitude in Exodus is a stern parent:
The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (...) will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)
But it is in the prophets that God's fatherly and even motherly heart shines forth:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and burning incense to idols.
Yet it was I that taught Ephraim to walk,
I took him up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of compassion,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one
who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11.1-4)
On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible deliberately avoids any rational apprehension of God's nature. This is in accord with its prohibition of images (Exod. 20:4): God is not to be depicted by any kind of form. God's traits transcend human comprehension to the extent that attempts to see him by form is downright dangerous! In Exodus, God is cited as saying: "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live"; even Moses, who longs to see God, must cover his eyes when God passes by and is only granted a glimpse of his backside" (Exod. 33:20-23). The prophet Ezekiel deepens the mystery with his vision of God's throne, mounted on a chariot surrounded by wheels and strange living creatures, for now matter how he tries, he can only glimpse "the likeness of the glory of the Lord" enveloped in light (Ezek. 1:26-28). This vision implies that God's true existence is far beyond the physical world, even as his action within the world sustains and governs all things.
Mainstream Orthodox Judaism teaches that although God is the creator of both matter and spirit, God in fact is neither. This teaching has raised questions among some as to how can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created if the Creator is indeed so different from it. In response, early Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) envisioned two aspects of God: firstly, God's self, which ultimately is unknowable, and secondly, the revealed aspect of God who created and preserves the universe, interacting with mankind in a personal way. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but rather complementary to one another.
Kabbalah teaches that in order to create the universe, God "withdrew," and created the universe within the space from which "he" contracted. It is taught in the Zohar that God, at the beginning of creation, shattered ten ספירות ("sephiroth") or כלים ("kaylim" or "vessels"), scattering their fragments throughout the universe. The sephirot are comprised of different vessels embodying various emanations of God's being. The ten sephirot form the "tree of life" in the form of the human body; hence every person has the potential to unify the sefirot within the self and ascend towards God. The standing view in neo-Hasidism, currently, can be summed up as the ancient and popular Kabbalistic incantation, אין עוד מילבדו ("Ain od milvado"), which means: "There is nothing but God." This is not pantheism, however, but rather a reality that can only be seen by supernatural sight. The mundane reality is defective, because the scattered fragments—sparks—of God's nature are covered by "husks" of evil. While humanity is endowed with an inherent godliness, people first must "raise the (divine) sparks" within themselves and in all creatures, an act called tikkun that repairs the rent fabric of creation.
Muslims conceive of God as the supreme singular power in the universe called "Allah." Just as in the other Abrahamic faiths, Muslims claim that monotheism is the only acceptable form of religious faith, and place Islam in direct opposition to polytheists and idolaters. Allah is all truth and the source of all creation; therefore Allah alone is worthy of worship, and no other gods are to be acknowledged or worshiped. Muslims reject the Christian notion of the Trinity as polytheistic. To attribute the traits of Allah upon any other god is considered by Muslims to be the only unforgivable sin.
Islam recognizes God's immanence as complementing his transcendence. God states in the Qur'an: "We indeed created man, and We know what his soul whispers within him, and we are nearer to him than the jugular vein" (50.16).
The Qur'an speaks of 99 names of God, namely the attributes of Allah. The text of the Qur'an itself lists even more than 99 "names," each an attribute that Allah embodies. Many of these names portray Allah in highly personalistic terms, giving Allah abilities to "see" and "hear." This has sparked controversy among Muslim theologians, some of whom claim that such passages insinuate God as having has a particular form limited by senses. This controversy is most often settled with the conclusion that if God does see and hear, he does so in no way similar to mere human sensations. With this concern about excessive anthropomorphism, many Muslims do not approve of the Christian appellation "Father" for God. One name, Al Haqq, meaning “The Truth,” equates Allah with absolute truth that cannot be negated and is universal in all time, past, present, and future. This and other traits put forth the idea that Allah is completely transcendent and therefore wholly separate from humanity. However, Allah is said to be immanent within the world as well.
The Christian view of God is perhaps best summed up the biblical statement: "God is love" (1 John 4:8). In the New Testament, God is known through the person of Jesus, of whom the Gospel of John states: "He who has seen me has seen the Father... Believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me" (John 14:9-11). God becomes someone that can be seen and touched, and who may speak and act in a manner easily perceived by humans, while also remaining transcendent and invisible to the naked eye. In Jesus Christ, God revealed his unparalleled love for every human being, who would sacrifice his own life—the life of his Son—for their sake: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). While the God of the Hebrew Bible demands and rewards faithfulness, in Jesus God demonstrated that he would sacrifice to save even the faithless sinner: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:10-11).
Jesus also demonstrated how believers can come into an intimately personal relationship with God as their Father, which he demonstrated in his own prayers, where he called out: "Abba, Father!" (Mark 14:36). The word "Abba" means "Daddy," what a child would call his father. Here Jesus discards the formality and respectful distance which the Hebrew Bible requires of a believer addressing God. The New Testament commends this intimacy for all believers: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God... When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:14-16).
The apprehension of God as a loving Father has remained central to Christian piety. At the same time, the New Testament's identification of God with Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit were eventually developed into the doctrine of the trinity.
The New Testament notion of God as love was replaced during the Middle Ages by a more philosophical notion of God as the "Unmoved Mover" or "Pure Act" (actus purus) under the influence of Aristotelian philosophy. This medieval doctrine of God, which was formulated by Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) and his predecessors, is usually called "classical theism." It emphasized the transcendence of God to the considerable neglect of his immanence, by equating the God of the Bible with the God of Aristotle that was a completely actualized and immutable deity as the "Unmoved Mover" or "Pure Form." God is perfect in that God is completely immutable. God is in want of nothing because as "Pure Form," God is completely actualized. As the "Unmoved Mover," God cannot be acted upon by anything. So, God is impassible, i.e., incapable of passion or pathos. Divine omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence were explained in this context.
When classical theism discussed the love of God within this framework, it sometimes faced a dilemma. If our prayers or our situations of misery or happiness can make no difference to God who is immutable and impassible, then how can we say that God is a God of genuine love who cares for us? Protestant Christianity was basically freed from the Aristotelian framework and returned to the Bible as the main source of theology, but its primary emphasis upon the transcendence and immutability of God still continued to exist in its faith.
Christian theologians describe God's dual attributes in several respects: transcendence and immanence, freedom and love, being and change. According to St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), God is both high and humble at once. Martin Luther (1483-1546) described God both as the hidden God (deus absconditus) and the revealed God (deus revalatus). Karl Barth (1886-1968) recognized two aspects of God: essence (freedom) and revelation (love), maintaining that while God in his essence is absolutely free from anything, he freely chooses to create the world to reveal himself to stay in love with it. Hendrikus Berkhof, a Dutch Reformed theologian (1914-1995), calls this polarity of God his "two-sidedness." Many Catholic theologians talk about of God in terms of the duality of "being" and "activity." Alfred North Whitehead's (1861-1947) "dipolar theism" discusses God in terms of his transcendent "primordial" nature and immanent "consequent" nature, which are his "conceptual" and "physical" poles, respectively. According to this, while God in his conceptual pole envisages all possibilities for the world, he in his physical pole also incorporates data from the world in order to decide which of the possibilities are finally relevant to the world.
Peter L. Berger's The Other Side of God: A Polarity in World Religions refers to our experiences of God's transcendence and immanence generally as "confrontation" and "interiority," respectively, and reports that these two types of religious experiences can be found in all major religions including Hinduism and Buddhism.
God as Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity has its basis in the New Testament, where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated in the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be seen together also in the apostolic benediction: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). However, for the monotheistic religion of Christianity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods, as there is only one God.
This doctrine arose as Christians tried to hold together two seemingly contradictory teachings: On the one hand, there is one God who created the world and who sent his Son Jesus Christ to save humankind. On the other hand, Jesus is fully divine, yet Jesus and God the Father are distinct beings. Are there, then, two gods? Likewise, the Holy Spirit is divine, with its own distinct reality. To deal with this paradox and safeguard monotheism, two theological movements sprang up within early Christianity. One view, called Modalistic Monarchianism or Sabellianism, taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different successive modes of one and the same God. That is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are titles which describe how humanity has interacted with or had experiences with God. In the role of the Father, God is the provider and creator of all. In the mode of the Son, we experience God in the flesh, as a human, fully man and fully God. God manifests as the Holy Spirit by actions on earth and within the lives of Christians. This view presents problems, chiefly for seemingly denying Jesus' free will and active relationship with the Father: how could one modality of God pray to another, asking the Father, "Let this cup pass from me, not as I will but as thou wilt?" Hence it was rejected as heresy by the Ecumenical Councils, although it is still found among certain Pentecostal denominations. A second approach, Dynamic Monarchianism, defended the unity of the Godhead by saying that the Father alone is God, and that the Son and Holy Spirit are merely creatures. The Son as a created man received a power (dynamis in Greek) from the Father at the time of his baptism to be adopted as the Son of God. This approach was rejected for seemingly denying Jesus his full divinity.
The Roman Catholic Church sought a middle way between these extremes, which, as articulated by Tertullian (c. 155-230 C.E.), became the orthodox trinitarian position: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "one substance of three persons." In this formulation the three are distinct, yet they are not separate. The Latin word persona in the days of Tertullian never meant a self-conscious individual person, which is what is usually meant by the modern English word "person." It rather meant a mask used at the theater, where a single actor would wear different masks to signify the characters he played. In this sense the three "persons" are still of one substance. Since the fourth century C.E., in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the mainstream doctrine of the trinity has been stated as "One substance in three persons." The vast majority of Christians today are trinitarian.
Further explanations of the relationship of the three distinct divine persons of one and the same God include the "mutual indwelling" or interpenetration of the three, according to which one dwells as inevitably in the others as they do in the one. Following John 14:11, "I [Jesus] am in the Father and the Father in me," and 14:17, "The Spirit of truth... dwells with you, and will be in you," the persons of the Trinity "reciprocally contain one another, so that one permanently envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the other whom he yet envelopes." The relationship of the three persons is further explained by differentiation of functions: creation, redemption, and sanctification are attributed primarily to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, respectively, even as all three persons are indivisibly involved in each.
Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and a small fraction of Christians are unitarian monotheists, referring to the fact that they believe in God as an undivided one and nothing else. They hold that God is only one "person" (so to speak), and often consider Trinitarian beliefs to be a form of polytheism (Christians counter that this point misunderstands the subtle and careful grasp of the one true God within trinitarian theology).
Some non-Christian religions also incorporate multiplicity into their concept of the One God. The Jewish Kabbalistic concept of the ten Sefirot (emanations) of God has been mentioned. Some sects of Hinduism recognize the Trimurti, a conception by which the three major gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) represent the three modes of the Supreme Deity as Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer (see below). Mahayana Buddhism developed the doctrine of the Trikaya, or three bodies of the Buddha: the Buddha's cosmic body, the eternal Dharmakaya, which is the substance of Enlightenment and Truth itself; the Sambhogakaya, the all-pervading compassion and wisdom of the Buddha which invites all people to salvation; and the incarnation of these principles in the historical Sakyamuni, called the Nirmanakaya. These doctrines can be seen as ways of dealing with some of the same theological problems that are addressed by Christian trinitarian doctrine: specifically how to bridge the gap between the ineffable God and his/her/its concrete manifestations in the world.
Conceptions of God in Asian Religions
In Hinduism, the term Ishvara (ईश्वर in Devanagari script), is a generic name for God as well as a philosophical concept denoting one supreme personal power who rules the cosmos. Other terms for God include Paramatman and Bhagavan. In some Hindu schools, use of the term Ishvara affirms that God is a deeply personal and loving figure; other schools subordinate Ishvara to the impersonal Brahman.
Hinduism of the early Vedas was polytheistic, with elaborate rituals and sacrifices prescribed for the appeasement of the various gods. Various gods rise to supremacy at various times in Vedic myth, as well as in the execution of the ritual. Yet the Vedas tended towards henotheism, with the supreme God depicted as sometimes the warrior-god Indra; cosmic forces such as Agni, the god of fire; Varuna, keeper of the celestial waters; or Vac, speech. The interchangeable nature of the supreme god suggests that Vedic henotheism was merely a heuristic device for a greater, more nebulous reality, with gods and goddesses personalizing various aspects of the supreme divinity in order to render it more accessible. Rig Veda 1:164:46 is famous for insinuating the existence of some divinity beyond the numerous gods, stating that "Truth is One, though the sages know it as many." This statement may be interpreted as a vague indication of a deeper monism or even monotheism, gauging from the later schools of Hinduism that were seemingly on a search to define god as ultimately one; even within these early texts, it seems clear that the Vedic seers were unsatisfied with the idea of their polytheistic pantheon fully expressing the wholeness of divinity. By the time of the Upanishads, the notion of an ineffable, indescribable Supreme Cosmic Spirit called Brahman, which served as ground for the entire universe, had been developed to better articulate this singular, supreme essence.
The schools of Vedanta (or "end of the Vedas") are responsible for the further development of this notion of Brahman. Advaita ("non-dualistic") Vedanta, founded by the philosopher Shankara (c. 700-750 C.E.), became the dominant monistic conception of God. According to Shankara, Brahman is the only true reality in this world, and everything else is based in illusion (maya). Maya is that complex illusory power which causes the Brahman to be perceived as the material world. Shankara also differentiated between Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without qualities) and Saguna Brahman (Brahman with qualities). When human beings attempt to understand the attributeless Brahman with their worldly minds, ever under the influence of maya, Brahman becomes God, or Ishvara. Therefore, God in the traditional form with positive attributes (Saguna Brahman) is Brahman conditioned by maya. Ishvara is omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, independent, creator of the world, and also its destroyer, ruling the world with his maya. However, while God is perceived in this conditioned state, humans by way of their ignorance are the servants of maya, which is the cause of the widespread unhappiness experienced within the mortal world. The Advaita Vedanta philosophy concludes that once one comes to fully realize that the distinction between Brahman and all particular things, including the human soul (Atman), are merely an illusory, they will recognize their own inherent unity with Brahman and henceforth liberate themselves from the material realm.
Visistadvaita Vedanta ("qualified non-dualistic" Vedanta), founded by mystic saint Ramanuja (1017-1137 C.E.), is the second of the major Vedanta schools. It holds that while the self is still connected to Brahman, it is only an incomplete part and not the same as the whole. While God is infinite and represents the cause and effect of the universe, individual atman are limited and considered to be inferior to Brahman. Thus, simple realization of the soul's true identity will not suffice for attaining liberation, since Brahman and atman are not fully equivalent. Rather, Ramanuja prescribed that one should dedicate and surrender oneself to the personal God in a process called bhakti (or "loving devotion"). Ishvara, then, is typically perceived by Visistadvaitas as equally important in non-dual Brahman form. Belief in this deity was claimed by Ramanuja to be indispensable for purposes of devotion, the ultimate path to non-dual Brahman. The end result of devotion is not a complete merger of the soul with Brahman, as described by Shankara, but rather an opportunity for the liberated soul to share in the nature of God.
Dvaita (or "dualistic") Vedanta, established by Madhva (1238-1317 C.E.), denies any connection whatsoever between Brahman and atman. Instead, God is conceived of in wholly personal terms as Ishvara, a being totally separate from the universe and souls within it. This view displaying significant overlap with Abrahamic theism. Nirguna Brahman is rarely acknowledged within this school, which considers the notion of a deity without characteristics to be an intellectual abstraction with no appeal in the context of religion as it occurs among laypersons.
Many outside observers mistakenly interpret the practices of some modern Hindu sects to be polytheistic in nature. In fact, many of these sects teach that Ultimate Reality is made up of innumerable aspects, a consequence of its infinite nature. Therefore, like the Vedic deities, the numerous deities of Hinduism, which have been reported as numbering as high as 330 million, provide personalized emphasis upon particular traits of God. Some believe that it is only through conception of so many divine beings that humans come to realization of Brahman or Ishvara.
One such example of multiplicity serving as a window to the primordial oneness is classical Hindu idea of the Trimurti, which acknowledges three aspects of God in the personae of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). These three gods are simply different aspects of the one and the same Ishvara, who ultimately is inconceivable. In this manner, the Trimurti is similar to the Sabellian interpretation of the three persons of the Christian Trinity as three modalities of the one God.
Worship of countless deities as manifestations of a single monistic principle is alive in contemporary Hindu traditions. The Smarta school believes meditation upon icons (murti) representing an unlimited number of gods to be the optimum means by which connect with the greater power of Brahman, who transcends the iconic form. All gods, then, reduce to the same principle which does not exist as a plurality. These schools of Hinduism are best classified not as polytheism but rather as "emanational" monotheism. Emanational monotheism refers to religious traditions in which a singular monistic or pantheistic principle is perceived by humans as having many emanations or iterations, and is subsequently given worship through these forms.
There are, however, varieties of Hinduism which are explicitly polytheistic. Notably, the Mimamsa school recognizes the devas (celestial spirits) as the rulers over the forces of nature, with no particular deva rising above the others as the supreme deity.
Modern Hinduism has developed substantial monotheistic movements that acknowledge one personalized God as supreme. The two largest branches of Hinduism today are Vaishnavism, which worships Vishnu and his avatars, and Shaivism, which worships Shiva. Both of these gods enjoyed some significance in the Vedas, Vishnu being declared the supreme god in several instances, and Shiva prominent in the form of his precursor, Rudra. Their mythologies burgeoned in popularity after the circulation of the Puranas and the Mahabarata, which laid the foundation for their eventual veneration as monotheistic deities.
In the movements associated with Shiva and Vishnu it is believed that Ishvara and Brahman are identical. Thus, these movements closely resemble traditional Western monotheism, in that each sect considers their chosen god to be the sole and supreme deity. However, unlike the Western traditions (as well as Hindu interpretations such as Dvaita Vedanta), the devotional sects generally do not interpret the relation between God and the universe as one of dualism. Rather, they maintain a monistic view which conceives their personalistic god as the supreme entity of the universe, embodying the indescribable and supreme power of the traditional Brahman without qualities as well as their anthropomorphic form. The personalistic attributes of Vishnu and Shiva are not perceived to be limitations upon their power. In fact, it is these very characteristics which are thought to render Vishnu or Shiva superior over Nirguna Brahman.
Ishvara, whether in the form of Shiva or Vishnu, is thought to be endowed with six major attributes—although individual attributes listed in any given account vary since the actual number of auspicious qualities of God are countless. One set of attributes (and their common interpretations) are: Jnana, the power to know about all beings simultaneously; Bala, the capacity to support everything without any fatigue; Virya, the power to retain immateriality in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations; Tejas, which expresses self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by way of spiritual effulgence; and Aishvarya, unchallenged rule over the sixth attribute; Shakti, the energy which renders the impossible possible. Shakti itself is the focus of worship in Shaktism, another popular devotional school. Followers of Shaktism conceive of the divine power of the Ishvara as a female goddess called Devi or Durga, who is worshiped as the Divine Mother.
Sikhism arose in the Punjab region of north-western India during the fifteenth century C.E. This vibrant religion embodied a theology of monotheism, asserting that God is essentially One (Ek Onkar). Numerous passages within the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) reiterate the importance of this idea, including the very first stanza, known as the Mool Mantra. It reads: "One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth (...) Self-Existent." The Sikhs reject any division of God, including the notion that God can produce avatars or human incarnations.
Generally, God is described by Sikhs as the creator of the universe, singular, supreme, timeless, omnipresent, and perfectly moral. Sikhs claim that God's very essence is unchanging Truth (Sat Namm). In addition, God is also described in seemingly anthropomorphic terms, such as in the aforementioned Mool Mantra, which describes God as "Creative Being Personified." Although Sikhs, like Muslims, bestow many names upon God in order to describe His various traits, they most commonly refer to God as Wahiguru.
Sikhism also features elements of pantheism or panentheism. Stories attributed to Guru Nanak suggest that he believed god to be everywhere in the physical world as in pantheism. Similarly, the Sikh tradition typically describes God as the preservative force within the physical world, present in all material forms. Each of these worldly forms was created as a manifestation of God. These ideas, taken together with the prevalent Sikh belief that God is the transcendent creator who exists independent of the world, could be interpreted to suggest that Sikhism is panentheistic.
Theravada Buddhism has been described as atheistic or agnostic: When asked about a supreme God, Buddha remained silent. Buddha believed the more important issue was a way out of suffering. Sakyamuni Buddha taught that speculation about the supernatural distracts us from the greater and more worthwhile devotion to breaking the cycle of rebirth. Buddha's silence has resulted in many even educated people believing that Buddhism is atheistic.
However, Mahayana Buddhism in China developed the notion of the Buddha's cosmic body, the eternal Dharmakaya, which is the substance of Enlightenment and Truth itself; and the Sambhogakaya, the all-pervading compassion and wisdom of the Buddha, which invites all people to salvation. These cosmic manifestations of the Buddha precede the historical Sakyamuni, called the Nirmanakaya. This doctrine of the Trikaya, or three bodies of the Buddha, bears some resemblance to the Christian doctrine of trinity. By thus venerating the Buddha as the qualities of truth and mercy that pervade the cosmos, East Asian Buddhists have attributed to the Buddha the qualities of divinity. Mahayana Buddhism also venerates the Bodhisattvas, enlightened heavenly beings who have chosen to forgo entering into nirvana until all beings are enlightened.
In East Asia, Heaven (Tian) is the term most commonly used for God. The concept of Heaven as a power that was believed to judge both the world and its rulers came into currency in China during the Zhou dynasty (1122-255 B.C.E.). Heaven was conceived sometimes as a personal agent, sometimes as an impersonal force, or both. Evidence suggests that under the Zhou, Heaven was an all-powerful entity that guaranteed peace and justice within the kingdom so long as rulers maintained order and justice. If order and justice were not maintained, Heaven meted out punishment through natural and social disasters. The way in which the ruler was obligated to rule his empire in order to please Heaven was known as the Mandate of Heaven (Tian-Ming). Dealing with Heaven was principally the responsibility of the ruler. To maintain the mandate, the ruler (who came to be known as Tian-zi, the "Son of Heaven") called upon Heaven with ritual and sacrifice.
Reverence for Heaven increased during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) as one leg of a three-fold relationship between Heaven, humans and Earth. The belief developed that the earthly bureaucracy mirrors the heavenly, with Heaven as the yang (masculine) aspect and earth as the yin (feminine) aspect. Human beings should maintain harmony and balance between the two spheres, as what happens on earth influences heaven, and vice-versa. Thus, at a very early period, the Chinese developed an empathetic relationship with both Heaven and the natural world. Heaven was thus not separate from nature, and later it would be conceived impersonally as the principle governing nature.
Although the teachings of Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) do not seem particularly theistic, he apparently believed in Heaven and believed himself to be guided by Heaven. Confucius delved into the practical questions of how one should live in order to implement the will of heaven and therefore uphold peace, harmony and justice within society. For purposes of implementing the will, he stressed the concept of li which had previously referred to ritual, but was nuanced under his influence, coming to be refer to "propriety." By bringing personal, familial and societal roles into harmony, one could achieve li, the basis for putting the Mandate of Heaven into action. Heaven is the foundation for all of which is good, the ultimate aid in attaining a life of ren or "humanity." Therefore, the truly humanistic person always keeps Heaven in mind.
Mozu (470-390 B.C.E.) expanded upon this idea, claiming Heaven to be the absolute source of goodness, and the principle which differentiates between what is right and what its wrong. Heaven brings what is recognized as beneficial and pleasing for all people in the world, particularly by way of people who seek its goodness through ritual activities such as sacrifice and prayer.
Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing and acknowledged founder of Daoism, provided a more pantheistic concept to describe the principle which creates and sustains the world, which he called the Dao. Simply put, the Dao is the way: the ultimate, ineffable principle which contains the entirety of the universe, yet also embodies nothingness as its nature. It is all things, but it is also no particular thing. Thus, the Dao, in its totality, represents the central unifying metaphysical and naturalistic principle pervading the entire universe. While the Dao is indescribable and incapable of full human understanding, it is not altogether indiscernible. That is, if one can look beyond the surface of things, they can potentially begin to see the Way of the universe, and come to a realization of their own place as a product of and participant within this Way. The Dao is also responsible for creation, oscillating between two contrasting creative energies which exist in diametric opposition, the yin and the yang. The yin and the yang put in place the dualities which persist in the physical world. Therefore, the Dao, while not personalistic by any means, embodies many of the definitive traits of God in other traditions.
Later on, more personalistic conceptions of divinity would arise. In the Daoist tradition which followed, Laozi himself came to be viewed as the human incarnation of the Dao, and was venerated as a personal god. As well, numerous other people who followed the Dao were recognized as heavenly figures, or xians ("immortals"), and henceforth were acknowledged held a measure of supremacy in folk religious circles.
The movement known as neo-Confucianism developed a more philosophical concept of God. Called the Supreme Ultimate, it was originally a Daoist concept that was developed into a Confucian metaphysics by Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073). He incorporated the cosmology of the Book of Changes (I Ching) into Confucianism through his groundbreaking work, Taijitu Shuo (“Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate”). According to the I Ching, the process of creation begins from the Great Ultimate, out of which originate the polarity of yin (tranquility) and yang (movement), which through their interaction give rise to the Five Elements (fire, earth, water, metal, and wood). The integration of these entities gives rise to male and female elements, which in turn generates the production and evolution of all things. Zhou taught that human beings receive all these qualities and forces in their “highest excellence,” and that when man reacts to the external phenomena thus created, the distinction between good and evil emerges in his thought and conduct.
Types of Belief about God
- Theism describes the belief that God is both transcendent and immanent. Thus, God is infinite and ineffable, yet also present in the affairs of the world. God's immanence is attributed to miracles or revelations given to humanity (for example, holy scriptures), whereby God takes initiative in contacting humanity. Even everyday human experiences such as those of "love," "goodness," or "truth" can be interpreted as affirmations of God's involvement in creation. Typically, God in theism is personal, having human form and dynamic emotionality. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and unfailingly benevolent, although this belief raises questions about how God relates to evil and suffering in the world. To remedy this difficulty, some theists ascribe to God a self-consciousness or else purposefully place limits upon his omnipotence, omniscience, and/or benevolence. Theism is by far the most common idea about God among believers in the Abrahamic religions.
- Deism developed in response to the cruel wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the seventeenth century. It rejects God's involvement in worldly affairs—i.e., to set up religions and give special revelations in scriptures—because these revelations and religions are incommensurate with one another. Rather, what can be known about God must be universal and accessible by reason. Deists like Voltaire (1694-1778) in France compared God to a "watchmaker" who set the universe in motion but does not subsequently intervene in what transpires. All valid laws of morality and religion are expressions of the fundamental principle by which God created the universe, and not a special revelation to any particular church. Humans ought to be moral because the consequences of not doing so are built into the fabric of the universe just like the law of gravity. In this way, deism is highly reconcilable with scientific thought. On the other hand, there is no point in praying to God or asking for His help, for God has no interest in human beings aside from setting up a universe hospitable to them.
- Henotheism is the academic classification placed upon religious belief systems which accept or have accepted the existence of many gods, but worship one particular deity as supreme. This may take the form of a system in which one god rises to supremacy over others in a process of mythological succession (as did Zeus among the Greeks). However, it may also refer to systems where various gods exist in order to illustrate aspects of a greater, Supreme Being or essence, such as in Vedic Hinduism. Henotheistic beliefs are very often the precursor to full-fledged monotheism, as the inferior gods gradually fall away and the supreme god or universal principle beyond the gods becomes recognized as the sole divinity.
- Monotheism holds that there is only one God. This has led some traditions to espouse an exclusionist view, holding that their definition of God is the sole correct one. Exclusionist monotheists of one religion can, and often do, consider the God or gods of religions other than their own to be false. For instance, some Christian fundamentalists consider all the gods of other religions to be demons in disguise, including even the monotheistic God of Islam. Others maintain an inclusionist view, accepting the possibility of more than one definition of God to be true at the same time and/or claiming that the one true God is worshipped in different religions under different names. Eastern religious believers and Liberal Christians are more likely to assume that adherents of other faiths worship the same God as they, albeit with different attributes due to cultural influences. More so than any other religious classification, monotheism has been conceived of as an "ideal" towards which all spiritual endeavors should strive; hence it is the classification which often plays the most significant role in discussions of God.
- Pantheism refers to the belief that God is the universe and the universe is God. In this system, God is fully immanent, imbuing all of reality with a spiritual basis, while simultaneously retaining status as transcendent. All of natural law, existence, and the sum total of all that is, was, and ever will be, is represented in the theological principle of God. This means that every object, as well as each individual human, is part of God. Most pantheists do not describe God in personalistic terms, instead conceiving God to be the unconscious, non-sentient universe and the holy majesty its totality entails. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a typical pantheist. Interestingly, "death of God" theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer is a pantheist because he believes that the transcendent God as the Wholly Other now died and disappeared to become totally immanent in humanity.
- Panentheism holds that God contains the universe but is not identical to it; thus God exists beyond the universe as well as within it. Panentheism is often compared to pantheism; however, the panentheist God is both immanent and transcendent, as in theism. In contrast to theism, the panentheist God is less likely to be personalistic. Despite the fact that the term has only recently come into currency within religious circles, panentheistic sentiments are actually quite common in religious movements, such as the Jewish Kabbalists, the Liberal Catholic Church, process theology, and many branches of Hinduism.
- Monism believes that the totality of things and phenomena in the world can be reduced to a single type of entity, whether it may be material, spiritual, substantial, or divine. The term "monism," derived from the Greek monos (meaning one), was introduced by Christian Wolff (1679-1754), and it is opposed to dualism and pluralism. Monists differ considerably in their choice of a reduced unifying entity. If it is a deity, they are pantheists like Spinoza. If it is a mind, they are idealists like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). If it is a material thing, they are materialists (atheists) like some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.
- Atheism refers most generally to a lack of belief in God or gods. The term has a variety of meanings ranging from a disbelief in certain conceptions of God (e.g., a personal God) to full-fledge denial that God exists. Such ideas have been present since antiquity. The hedonistic Carvaka school, which flourished in India between 600 B.C.E. and 1400 C.E., held that the only entities in existence were material, and that all the pleasures of life should be indulged since there was no possibility of god or afterlife to speak of. Similarly, in Greece during the fourth century B.C.E., philosopher Epicurus put forth the view that people should disavow faith in the gods and the notion of an afterlife in order to enjoy the immediate sensory pleasures. During the Age of Enlightenment, atheism resurfaced as the philosophical position of a rapidly growing minority, led by the openly atheistic works of Paul Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789). In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) claimed God was a fictional projection fabricated by humanity. This idea greatly influenced Karl Marx (1818-1883), the founding father of communism. Atheism would become the official position of the various communist states such as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) summed up the nineteenth-century popularity of atheism when he coined the aphorism "God is dead." "Death of God" theologian William Hamilton, in fact, became an atheist. By the twentieth century atheism became common, as rationalism and secular humanism came in vogue.
Names of God
The noun God is the proper English name used for the deity of monotheistic faiths. Names of God, however, are innumerable, varying with religious traditions and over time.
Yahweh (יהוה) (ya•'we) is the primary Hebrew name of God in the Bible. Jews normally do not pronounce this name, considering it too holy to verbalize. Instead, whenever they encounter this unpronounceable string of consonants, they speak the name Adonai. In Christian Bibles, Yahweh is usually translated as "the LORD," a rough equivalent to the Hebrew "Adonai." The Hebrew Bible indicates this reading by inserting the vowel pointing from the word Adonai on the consonants YHWH, rather than use the actual vowels. Based on a literal reading of this pointing (יְהוָֹה), many modern Protestant Christians read God's name as Jehovah. Orthodox Jews strenuously avoid mentioning or even writing the divine name, preferring such circumlocutions as "the Holy One," "the Name," or the defective writing "G-d."
Elohim is the generic term for God in the Hebrew Bible, translated "God." In the days of the Hebrew patriarchs, God was called by names such as El Shaddai (“God Almighty”), El Elyon (“God Most High”), and El Berit (“God of the Covenant”). These terms for God are based on the Hebrew word El, which can mean a generic divine being ("god") or the Canaanite god "El" who was head of the older Canaanite pantheon in the second millennium B.C.E.
When Moses at the burning bush asked God, "What is your name?," he was given the answer, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, commonly translated, "I am that I am," or "I am what I shall be," referring to his unconditional self-existence (Exod. 3:14).
Muslims refer to God as Allah. It is not God's personal name, but simply Arabic for "the God." The term Allah is by no means exclusive to Islam, and is commonly used by Arab Christians, Arab Jews, and Malteste Catholics (among others) in order to refer to the monotheist deity. Linguists believe that the term Allāh is derived from a contraction of the Arabic words al (the) + ilah ("male deity")—the Arabic cognate of the Hebrew word El.
"God" is the common name for the supreme deity in Christianity. Other terms include the Trinity, which denotes the "three-in-one" constituent parts of the penultimate God. Churches such as the United Church of Canada and Religious Science currently use the term "the One" alongside "God" as a more gender-neutral cognomen for God. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, God is called Igzi'abihier ("Lord of the Universe").
Among Hindus, there are thousands of names for the supreme divinity, including Brahman and Ishvara. Brahman is that infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, incorporeal, transcendent and immanent Reality that is the ground of all being. Ishvara (Supreme Lord) is the term used for the personalistic God; it is the more popular form of God in Hinduism. Most Hindus worship one or another personal form of Ishvara in its various roles of preserver Vishnu, destroyer Shiva, or creator Brahma. A common prayer is the Vishnu sahasranama, a hymn describing the one thousand names of God. Ishvara is a monotheistic concept; it should not be confused with the numerous deities of the Hindu pantheon.
Sikhs worship God with the name Akal (the eternal) or Sat (truth). Help of the gurus is essential to reach God, who is conceived as the ultimate guru. Hence, Sikhs most frequently refer to God by the title Wahiguru (or "wonderful guru").
The name of God is consistently capitalized in English writings. The development of English orthography was dominated by Christian texts. In early English bibles, the Tetragrammaton was rendered in capitals: "IEHOUAH" in William Tyndale's version of 1525. The King James Version of 1611 renders YHWH as "The Lord," Elohim as "God," Adonay YHWH and Adonay Elohim as "Lord God," and kurios ho theos as "Lord God" (in the New Testament). Capitalized "God" was first used to refer to the Judeo-Christian concept, and may now signify any monotheistic conception of God, including the translations of the Arabic Allāh and the African Masai Engai. The use of capitalization, as for a proper noun, has usually persisted to disambiguate the concept of a singular God from pagan deities for which lowercase god has continued to be applied. Pronouns referring to God are also often capitalized and are traditionally in the masculine gender, i.e., "He," "His," etc. However, in more recent times, God has sometimes been referred to in feminine terms, such as "She" and "Her."
Images of God
Religious attitudes towards images can be divided into two groups. Some religions reject images of the deity, believing that the creation and veneration of icons is tantamount to idolatry. Other religions accept images as helpful aids to focus devotions and as a conduit between the worshiper and the ineffable God.
Viewing images as idolatrous misrepresentations of the true God has led in various historical periods to iconoclasm, the destruction of images. One very early example of iconoclasm occurred in Egypt during the fourteenth century B.C.E. when pharaoh Akhenaten declared the solar God Aten to be solely supreme, and then ordered that images of gods other than Aten be destroyed.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the ancient Israelites rejected the worship of images, which were common enough in neighboring Canaanite culture. Israelite shrines typically have only one or more smooth standing stones, called a Massebah, near to the altar. The Second Commandment in the Hebrew Bible explicitly states: "Thou shalt not make unto me any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" (Exod. 20:4-5). With this in mind, contemporary Jews scrupulously avoid any paintings, sculptures or drawings of God.
Likewise, Islam strictly forbids any image of God. The manufacture of idols falls under the scope the mortal sin termed shirk, which in the Qur'an refers to any action or belief which does service to some force or entity other than the one God Allah. The second category of shirk is called Shirk in al-Asma was-Sifat (the Names and Attributes of Allah) and refers to the practice of confounding Allah with the attributes of his creation. By portraying Allah in the form and qualities of either human beings, animals, or other objects, one does not actually create an image of the divine, but rather creates a false idol, since Allah is irreconcilably beyond form. Thus, images of God are banned outright in most sects of Islam in order to reinforce absolute monotheism and to eliminate potential for idolatry.
Christianity in the Apostolic era maintained the thorough denunciation of images of God taught by the Jews. However, Saint John of Damascus (676-749 C.E.) would later claim that images of God in the form of Jesus should be permitted, as the person Jesus marks a shift in God's nature from invisible to visible. In the present day, depictions of God are common in Christianity, particularly in the form of Christ and sometimes even as the Heavenly Father. Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches have traditionally venerated images and icons of Christ (whom Christians believe to be the second person of the Godhead), as well as those of angels and saints. During the Protestant Reformation, many reformers condemned such use of images as idolatrous. Some took drastic measures to suppress the use of images of the divine in worship, such as John Calvin (1509-1564), who commonly ordered that church walls be white-washed. Contemporary Protestant groups have softened their position toward the use of images; they display the Cross prominently as a symbol in worship, and accept all manner of images of God and Jesus for purposes of education.
Hinduism employs of images and icons to depict the divine. Many Hindus regard icons to be necessary for human religious activity, since human experience is mediated by the senses. Statues of the deity are often at the center of religious devotion, which may include ritual bathing, decorating and feeding the image. In schools of Mahayana Buddhism, statues of the Buddha as well as of other venerated or enlightened beings are a focus for meditation and devotion. That said, some Hindu and Buddhist schools are critical of images of the divine, believing that such depictions detract from true spiritual awareness, which transcends all sensory forms.
For many people, the experience of God is something that happens to them, not something they seek after. Many children are said to have a natural relationship with God. "God needs no pointing out to a child," states an Akan proverb, and Muhammad once said, "Every child is born of the nature of purity and submission to God" (Bukhari). As an adult, God may intrude dramatically into a person's life like an unwelcome guest. Saint Paul had such an experience on the road to Damascus, which blinded him for a time and forced him to confront his prejudice against Christians.
The attitude of faith is said to invite God's presence in one's life. It requires trusting that God exists and is watching over the faithful, as in the Qur'an: "Put your trust in the Exalted in Might, the Merciful, Who sees you standing forth in prayer... for He hears and sees all things" (Q 26:18-20). Thus, theologian Karl Barth suggested the analogia fidei: an attitude of humility, self-denial and repentance to make room for God's revelation, the source of authentic information on the living God. Faith requires intellectual humility, as in the proverb: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight" (Prov. 3:5). Thus Saint Augustine of Hippo, followed by Saint Anselm of Canterbury, proposed the formula "faith seeking understanding" (fides quaerens intellectum), according to which faith is the foundation for all knowledge about God. In these ways have ordinary believers always been encouraged to live a life of faith and humility in order to be connected with God. That this way of life is so often successful becomes a reason to believe that God is indeed alive and is the One who "makes straight your paths" (Prov. 3:6).
In the heart
In the West, the conscience refers to a faculty whereby human beings come to know basic moral truths. This faculty has been described as “the voice of God,” because it represents God's universal law. For example, at Romans 2:14-15, Saint Paul describes conscience as “bearing witness” to the law of God “inscribed” on the hearts of Gentiles. In the Sufi traditions of Islam, God is said to dwell "in the heart of My faithful servant" (Hadith of Suhrawardi). In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah encounters God not in the earthquake, but rather in a "still small voice." (1 Kings 19:12) This conception of conscience, as a faculty by which God’s laws and teachings are made known to human beings, is continued in the writings of the church fathers such as Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. In the same vein, philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who denied the possibility of rational proof of God (see below), based his moral proof for the existence of God on the operation of conscience, which he called "practical reason."
The Eastern conception of this inward, divine self is variously called the "Atman," "original mind" or "Buddha nature." Thus the Upanishads: "In the golden city of the heart dwells / The Lord of Love, without parts, without stain" (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.10). It is not necessarily easy to access this Atman or “original mind,” which is often covered by the selfish desires of the ego. It requires effort at meditation to strip away those delusions. In the words of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Hui Neng:
Because the mind labors under delusions, he knows not his own inner nature; and the result is that he ignores the Trikaya within himself, erroneously believing that they are to be sought from without. Within yourself you will find the Trikaya which, being the manifestation of the Essence of Mind, are not to be sought from without. (Platform Sutra 6)
Yet to a person dwelling in enlightenment, "This very mind is the Buddha" (Mumonkan 30); or in the inspired mysticism of the Upanishads: "That is Reality. That is the (universal) Self. That art thou" (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7).
Through reason: arguments for the existence of God
Rational arguments for the existence of God have been developed especially in Christianity. The three most notable are the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. The ontological argument, originally developed by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1034-1109), claims that God must exist based on the simple fact that the human intellect can conceive of such a supreme power. In this proof, God is "that than which no greater can be conceived." This position was later reiterated with some modifications by René Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716).
The cosmological argument was first suggested by Aristotle, who claimed that all being and movement cannot originate from nothing and therefore must have an original cause or impulse. There must exist an "Unmoved Mover" who sets in motion the causal sequences of matter and being found within the world. Thirteenth-century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas insisted that this First Cause must be God.
Aquinas also provided the foundations for the teleological argument or the "argument from design," which contends that the instances of order and purpose which can be witnessed within the natural world suggests it has been designed. There can be no such cosmic design without a Designer, who is God. This position was elaborated by modern philosophers Frederick R. Tennant and Richard Swinburne, who claimed that the harmony observable within nature, as well as the breadth of the human mind which is capable of understanding and appreciating this harmony, proves the existence of a purposeful Creator.
Atheists who reject these arguments complain that they would only be accepted by people who already believe in God. To answer this objection, Swinburne developed the hypothetical method, which begins by positing the existence of God as a hypothesis, which then can be verified by observing the world. If the hypothesis is verified, the existence of God as its Designer becomes more probable than improbable.
The via negativa
The via negativa (negative way) or apophatic theology is to seek knowledge of God through negating categories, rather than through positive statements and affirmations. It assumes that human language can never truly express the complete purview of God. Instead, anyone who wishes to understand God must go beyond words. Rather than asserting what God is, then, negative theologians discuss what God is not. This kind of theology is often allied with mystical traditions, which focus on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, experience unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion. Mystical experiences are often described as exceeding the boundaries of human language; therefore, statements about mystical experience of God may be best suited for such a theology of negation.
The via negativa is akin to the spirituality found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The Upanishads state: The Self is "not this, not that (neti, neti)"; it is beyond comprehension. Or as the Dao De Jing states, "The way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way; the name that can be named is not the eternal name" (Dao De Jing 1). In other words, it is fruitless to attempt to describe Ultimate Reality by limited human categories. In Buddhism, as soon as one is led through anatta (no-self) to the realm of enlightenment in Nirvana as Fullness, the Fullness of Nirvana is immediately negated as Nothingness, its antithesis, because it is beyond description. Zen Buddhism provides various expedients, such as the Koan, which when meditated over lead adherents into such logical contradictions in order that they may break through the intellect entirely and reach Enlightenment.
Through devotional practice
Devotional practice is deemed helpful in preparing individuals for experiences of God, based on the common understanding that people can hardly recognize God's presence when daily life is so fully occupied with work and social life, and when their thoughts are dominated by self-centered desires. By quieting the mind and stopping the desires of the body, and by focusing one's attention and action towards transcendental things, a person becomes receptive to the finer vibrations of the divine Spirit.
As most people are dominated by the needs of the body for food, clothing, sleep, and sex, asceticism teaches abstinence from worldly pleasures and denying the body's desires in order to prepare a foundation for God to dwell within the self. Fasting is a very common ascetic practice. Islam, for example, practices sawm, which is fasting during the month of Ramadan. Hermetic solitariness and renunciation of possessions are also quite common amongst ascetics in various religions. Celibacy is practiced by the clergy and ascetics in some segments of Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Jainism has practices such as meditation in difficult postures and/or atop hills and mountains. Hindu ascetics do some extreme forms of devotion such as non-use of one leg or the other and the holding of an arm in the air for a very long period of time.
Perhaps extremely harsh asceticism can be questioned because it can lead to destruction of the self rather than helping the self to accomplish the goal. But the fact is that many an ascetic has experienced spiritual bliss, accompanied by a renewed and reorganized self.
- Prayer, meditation, and contemplation
Various religious traditions teach that prayer enables a person praying to experience the divine. Prayer involves praising and honoring the divine, confessing sins, sharing one's thoughts and feelings, and requesting guidance and assistance. Prayer is verbal communication to the divine. Often it is a form of supplication, with the expectation of a response. Better than praying out of one's own need is to pray for others in need: "He who prays for his fellowman, while he himself has the same need, will be answered first" (Talmud, Baba Kamma 92a). Best of all are prayers of determination and pledge, made not from need, but from strength and the desire to serve God's will, and accompanied by action.
Meditation is about one-pointed concentration without involving any word or image. Its purpose is first to clear the mind of surface thoughts and feelings, then to attain higher spiritual states on the path to enlightenment. Meditative techniques are widespread both in Eastern religions and in the mystical traditions of the Western religions.
Contemplation is to focus the mind on a text, an image, or an idea. For example, in Kabbalah, a frequent practice is to contemplate the four-letter holy name of God YHWH (יהוה) and all the permutations of those four letters. In Catholicism, contemplation of episodes in the life of Christ prepares the believer to make that life his or her own. Mystics and philosophers may contemplate the various attributes of God, such as his omnipresence or compassion, in search of a more profound understanding of the divine.
- Worship and rituals
Worship is to honor and praise the divine, sometimes done by an individual person and more often by a group or congregation. It may involve prayer, singing, dancing, chanting, scripture reading, exhortations, use of images (except in Islam), rituals, and sometimes sacrifices. Rituals, whether they are done as a part of worship or not, are often of symbolic nature; among them are the Christian sacraments and the Shintoist rite of misogi, geared towards purification and reconciliation with the divine.
- Service and charity
Many religions encourage their adherents to care for the needs of the poor, the sick and disabled, widows and orphans. This service is called charity (from the Latin word caritas) in Christianity, tzedakah (from the Hebrew verb for doing "justice" or "fairness") in Judaism, sadaqah ("voluntary charity") and zakat ("prescribed charity") in Islam, and dana ("giving") in Buddhism.
The efficacy of service and charity is based upon the common understanding amongst various religions that the divine reality is benevolent, compassionate, and giving; hence by serving the needy one will be connected with the divine. In Judaism, tzedakah, which is often done anonymously, is one of the three acts by which people can receive forgiveness of sin (the others are prayer and repentance). According to Buddhism, dana in the form of charity to support homeless monks leads to rebirth in happier states.
Other approaches to God
The immanence of God and His glory as reflected in the creation is the chief theme of nature mysticism, as represented by Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), whose famous "Canticle of the Sun" praises God's glory in all things. Shintoism sees divinity everywhere: "Even in a single leaf of a tree, or a tender blade of grass, the awe-inspiring Deity manifests itself" (Urabe-no-Kanekuni). Native American and African primal religions revere Mother Earth and all Her creatures as sacred. Poets of all traditions have written of the sacred within the natural world, notably the Americans William Wordsworth (1770-1850); and Henry David Thoreau (1827-1862).
Experiences in nature provide a likeness of God's harmony and peace, in contrast to the grasping rat-race of city life. Groves of trees inspire reverence as surely as any cathedral, and their unwavering fruitfulness season after season is seen as reflecting God's unchanging provision for humanity. The way trees attract birds and animals to their shade teaches lessons about magnanimity. Beautiful flowers and singing birds display God's love. Gazing at the starry night sky prompts religious emotions of awe and mystery.
According to Christian "natural theology," all people can have an indirect understanding of God through the created world of nature, which is God's "general revelation" to humanity. Thus the Book of Nature stands alongside the Bible as testimony to God's works.
The Jewish people encountered God in the events of their history, notably the Exodus from Egypt. The Christian Bible testifies to the historical manifestation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Belief in divine providence among the Puritans and American colonists meant that they saw God's hand in the discovery of the New World as a haven for dissenting believers who faced persecution in Europe. The same belief in providence lay behind Abraham Lincoln's remarks in his Second Inaugural Address, which saw the hand of God's judgment in the blood spilled in the Civil War:
Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
People have created religious art and awe-inspiring architecture as expressions of the divine. The great cathedrals of Europe with their soaring arches lift the spirit heavenward. Iconic religions such as Hinduism, Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and later Buddhism use images both to express divinity itself and to tell stories of the saints.
Music is another medium that inspires religious emotions. Composers like Johann Sebastian Bach wrote to glorify God, and in appreciating his music one can be moved to feel God's presence. Hymns and songs praising God are, of course, a time-honored form of devotion.
The Gender of God
Recently there have been a number of religious movements which have attempted to restore the role of the feminine in conceiving of God. Wicca, for example, has focused upon the use of powers derived from numerous gods, particularly the goddess, in order to execute magical procedures. Wiccans base this esteem for the feminine principle on the idea that such worship practices were prevalent in the world including Europe during the Middle Ages, but were repressed by patriarchal religious traditions which attempted to limit the balance of power allowed to women. Wicca, then, is seen as the current iteration of a long-standing tradition of religious beliefs which acknowledge the goddess as supreme. This line follows from an ancient shamanistic European tradition which worships the Mother Goddess in three aspects: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Goddess, then, becomes the focus of worship and liturgy in the Wiccan tradition.
The urge to reinvigorate the sense of God as woman has found its way into mainstream religion as well. Women in Christianity have begun to reconfigure the traditionally male conception of God, attempting to make it more feminine, both linguistically and theologically. Ruminations upon the feminine aspects of God have been dubbed theaology, based on the Greek root thea, or feminine conception of God as opposed to the masculine theos. Other depictions of a female Christ, often referred to as Christa, have also been produced. These terms have not necessarily been coined to change the conception of God and Christ to exclusively female in gender, but rather to illustrate the fact that male vocabulary has dominated conceptions of God throughout history, and that ideally the divine should transcend all statements of gender. Other Christian women have made similar assertions by associating Mary with the female nature of the divine, though Mary's unquestioning obedience to God as well as her virginity have been critiqued by some feminists as reinforcing the subordinate status of women.
The gender of God has been an issue also in other religions. The goddess Asherah was worshiped in ancient Israel and Judah as the consort of Yahweh, although it was never an approved practice. Also, while the Hebrew Bible officially actually refers to God as male, it sometimes depicts God with images of a mother who wraps her child in swaddling clothes and bends down to feed it (Hosea 11). In Hinduism, Vishnu and Shakti, male and female deities, compose Ardhanarisvara, an androgynous God. According to the I Ching in Confucianism, the world is an expression of the Great Ultimate (tai-chi) with the duality of yang and yin.
Again in Christianity, feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Reuther have incorporated androgynous features to God in order to balance traditionally "male" and "female" virtues in the divine. Ruether refers to the Supreme Being by the gender-neutral term “God/ess,” and claims that this being must be that conceived of as both male and female, yet also neither male nor female. Androgyny may very well be the future of godly conceptions in the context of gender. As John Bowker has suggested, "Maybe the next step would be to abandon both theo- and thea- and speak instead of Deology; Latin is also gender specific (deus, dea), but both can be abandoned in speaking of Deo-."
The Heart of God
In those traditions that understand God as a being of love, his everlasting love is not only "in general" but for each and every being, and for "me." All that exists both in the physical and in the spiritual realms exist in the purpose and "habitat" of love for "me." This focus on love is central to Christianity for example, as Christians understand through life-changing personal experience ("rebirth") that God not only "so loved the world," but so loved me "that He gave his only begotten Son" to perish for my sake (John 3:16). Mystics and saints who live to plumb the depths of such love—and in so doing who recreate their own lives as similarly loving and sacrificial—have produced a wealth of literature and poetry that seek to capture and communicate divine love. One reads in their devotions and transcendent rapture the overwhelming quality of even the most fleeting encounter with the true love of God. These writings are found among Christian saints such as Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Islamic Sufi saints such as Rabi'a Al-Basri (717-801).
Some mystics and theologians, however, redefine this true love of God in terms of his longing for human beings. God loves us because he longs for us with his desire for fellowship with us. Such a desire, which can be called God's heart, may transcend what has traditionally been called the absolute "freedom" or "omnipotence" of God especially in the monotheistic tradition. It may not be able to be explained through a one-way street from the omnipotent God to us, but rather through a two-way street that involves the reciprocity of love between God and us. In this scenario, God is even more blissful when we love him after being inspired by his love. This understanding of God's desire can be found in mystics such as Julian of Norwich (1342-c. 1416) and Nicolas Berdyaev (1874-1948). Jürgen Moltmann defines this desire of God as "God's longing for 'his Other' and for that Other's free response to the divine love." Alfred North Whitehead calls it God's "Eros," referring to it as "the living urge towards all possibilities, claiming the goodness of their realization."
God's suffering has recently become an issue of interest to many, although in the monotheistic tradition God was regarded normally as the most perfect Being who is immutable and impassible, and who is therefore incapable of suffering. The key to divine suffering seems to be God's longing or desire for fellowship with us, for if his desire is not fulfilled, he suffers. The Hebrew Bible actually talks about God's suffering because of the wickedness of humans: "And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Genesis 6:6). Jeremiah among other Hebrew prophets seems to have embodied God's painful suffering when he deplored the unacceptable condition of Israel.
Do not pray for a thing that you lack, for your prayer will not be accepted. Rather when you wish to pray, pray for the heaviness that is in the Head of the world. For the want of the thing that you lack is [a want] in the indwelling Glory. For man is a part of God, and the want that is in the part is in the whole, and the whole suffers the same want as the part. Therefore let your prayer be directed to the want of the whole... Pray continually for God’s glory that it may be redeemed from its exile.
Christian theologians, saddled with classical theisms doctrine of divine impassibility, have attempted to deal with divine suffering but without much success. The "theology of the cross" (theologia crucis), to which prominent theologians such as Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Eberhart Jüngel, Kazoh Kitamori, and Hans Urs von Balthasar loosely belong, took a step in this direction by positing the polarity of God, where one side of God is transcendent and impassible and the other immanent and somewhat passible—as regards to love.
A more reasonable account of God's suffering has been suggested by Alfred North Whitehead and Jürgen Moltmann with their notions of God's longing and desire in love. Moltmann's The Crucified God has been widely read on this topic. According to Whitehead, understanding God's suffering makes us feel that God is close to us: "God is the greatest companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands."
- God, Arguments for the Existence of
- This point remains true today despite the criticisms of atheists, who deny that there is a God, and Agnostics, who express uncertainity about the existence of a God or gods.
- Later, Christians living in the Roman Empire would be quick to identify the pagan gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon with demons, especially since these gods were the official ideological support behind an oppressive imperial order that persecuted Christianity.
- Karl Barth, "The Reality of God," in Church Dogmatics, vol. 2, part 1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (1957; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004, ISBN 0567051293), 257-677.
- Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith, revised ed., trans. Sierd Woudstra (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986, ISBN 0802836224), 114.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donal W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1979, ISBN 978-0029345702).
- Peter L. Berger (ed.), The Other Side of God: A Polarity in World Religions (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1981, ISBN 0385174233).
- Hilary of Poitiers, Concerning the Trinity 3:1. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved July 12, 2022.
- While Theravada Buddhism relegated the Hindu devas/gods to an inferior position vis-a-vis humanity, they did not reject them altogether. Thus, it is incorrect to describe Buddhism as atheistic; it is more accurate to label Theravada Buddhism as "non-theistic" (in the sense that it denies the existence of an eternal creator God and insists that all gods are subject to rebirth). Theravada Buddhism, however, does not deny the existence of smaller gods (gods with a small "g") but these gods are not seen as omnipotent, as in the typical monotheistic understanding.
- Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Clarendon Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0199271689).
- Andrew Wilson (ed.), World Scripture (New York: Paragon House, 1991, ISBN 0892261293), 204.
- Selwyn Gurney Champion and Dorothy Short, Readings from World Religions (Fawcett Columbine, 1951, 1951).
- John Bowker, God: A Brief History (New York: DK Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0789480506), 314.
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993, ISBN 080062825X), 106.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (The Free Press, 1967, ISBN 978-0029351703), 381.
- Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man (Princeton University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0691165417).
- For example, Huw Parri Owen, Concepts of Deity (Herder and Herder, 1971, ISBN 978-0333013427); Richard E. Creel, Divine Imapassiblity: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (Wipf and Stock, 2005, ISBN 978-1597522731); and Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into a Concept of Divine Passibility (Springer, 2011, ISBN 978-9401020497).
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978, ISBN 978-0029345702), 351.
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