This article covers the definition and meaning of God.
God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith in monotheistic thought. The conceptions of God, as described by theologians, commonly include the attributes of omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-present), and omnibenevolent (all-good) as well as having an eternal and necessary existence. Depending on one’s kind of theism, these attributes are used either in way of analogy or in a literal sense as distinct properties. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence (being outside nature) and immanence (being in nature) of God, with positions of synthesis such as the “immanent transcendence“. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung equated religious ideas of God with transcendental aspects of consciousness in his interpretation.
Some religions describe God without reference to gender, while others use terminology that is gender-specific and gender-biased. God has been conceived as either personal or impersonal. In theism, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, while in deism, God is the creator, but not the sustainer, of the universe. In pantheism, God is the universe itself. In atheism, there is an absence of belief in God. In agnosticism, the existence of God is deemed unknown or unknowable. God has also been conceived as the source of all moral obligation, and the “greatest conceivable existent”. Many notable philosophers have developed arguments for and against the existence of God.
Monotheistic religions refer to their god using various names, some referring to cultural ideas about their god’s identity and attributes. In ancient Egyptian Atenism, possibly the earliest recorded monotheistic religion, this deity was called Aten and proclaimed to be the one “true” Supreme Being and creator of the universe. In the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, the names of God include Elohim, Adonai, YHWH (Hebrew: יהוה), and others. Yahweh and Jehovah, possible vocalizations of YHWH, are used in Christianity. In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, one God coexists in three “persons” called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Islam, the name Allah is used, while Muslims also use a multitude of titles for God. In Hinduism, Brahman is often considered a monistic concept of God. In Chinese religion, Shangdi is conceived as the progenitor (first ancestor) of the universe, intrinsic to it and constantly bringing order to it. Other names for God include Baha in the Baháʼí Faith, Waheguru in Sikhism, Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism, and Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in Balinese Hinduism.
The many different conceptions of God, and competing claims as to God’s characteristics, aims, and actions, have led to the development of ideas of omnitheism, pandeism, or perennial philosophy, which postulates that there is one underlying theological truth, of which all religions express a partial understanding, and as to which “the devout in the various great world religions are in fact worshipping that one God, but through different, overlapping concepts”.
Etymology and usage
Main article: God as a Word
The earliest written form of the Germanic word God comes from the 6th-century Christian Codex Argenteus. The English word itself is derived from the Proto-Germanic * ǥuđan. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form * ǵhu-tó-m was likely based on the root * ǵhau(ə)-, which meant either “to call” or “to invoke”. The Germanic words for God were originally neuter—applying to both genders—but during the process of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples from their indigenous Germanic paganism, the words became a masculine syntactic form.
In the English language, capitalization is used for names by which a god is known, including ‘God’. Consequently, the capitalized form of god is not used for multiple gods (polytheism) or when used to refer to the generic idea of a deity. The English word God and its counterparts in other languages are normally used for any and all conceptions and, in spite of significant differences between religions, the term remains an English translation common to all. The same holds for Hebrew El, but in Judaism, God is also given a proper name, the tetragrammaton YHWH, in origin possibly the name of an Edomite or Midianite deity, Yahweh. In many translations of the Bible, when the word LORD is in all capitals, it signifies that the word represents the tetragrammaton.
Allāh (الله) is the Arabic term with no plural used by Muslims and Arabic speaking Christians and Jews meaning “The God” (with the first letter capitalized), while “Ilah” (Arabic: إله) is the term used for a deity or a god in general. God may also be given a proper name in monotheistic currents of Hinduism which emphasize the personal nature of God, with early references to his name as Krishna-Vasudeva in Bhagavata or later Vishnu and Hari.
Ahura Mazda is the name for God used in Zoroastrianism. “Mazda”, or rather the Avestan stem-form Mazdā-, nominative Mazdå, reflects Proto-Iranian *Mazdāh (female). It is generally taken to be the proper name of the spirit, and like its Sanskrit cognate medhā, means “intelligence” or “wisdom”. Both the Avestan and Sanskrit words reflect Proto-Indo-Iranian *mazdhā-, from Proto-Indo-European mn̩sdʰeh, literally meaning “placing (dʰeh1) one’s mind (*mn̩-s)”, hence “wise”.
Wahiguru (Punjabi: vāhigurū) is a term most often used in Sikhism to refer to God. It means “Wonderful Teacher” in the Punjabi language. Vāhi (a Middle Persian borrowing) means “wonderful” and guru is a term denoting “teacher”. Waheguru is also described by some as an experience of ecstasy which is beyond all descriptions. The most common usage of the word “Waheguru” is in the greeting Sikhs use with each other:
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh
Wonderful Lord’s Khalsa, Victory is to the Wonderful Lord.
Main article: Conceptions of God
There is no clear consensus on the nature or the existence of God. The Abrahamic conceptions of God include the monotheistic definition of God in Judaism, the trinitarian view of Christians, and the Islamic concept of God. The dharmic religions differ in their view of the divine: views of God in Hinduism vary by region, sect, and caste, ranging from monotheistic to polytheistic. Many polytheistic religions share the idea of a creator deity, although having a name other than “God” and without all of the other roles attributed to a singular God by monotheistic religions. Jainism is polytheistic and non-creationist. Depending on one’s interpretation and tradition, Buddhism can be conceived as being either atheistic, non-theistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, or polytheistic.
- as a powerful, human-like, supernatural being, or as the deification of an esoteric, mystical or philosophical entity or category;
- as the “Ultimate”, the summum bonum, the “Absolute Infinite”, the “Transcendent”, or Existence or Being itself;
- as the ground of being, the monistic substrate, that which we cannot understand; and so on.
The first recordings that survive of monotheistic conceptions of God, borne out of henotheism and (mostly in Eastern religions) monism, are from the Hellenistic period. Of the many objects and entities that religions and other belief systems across the ages have labeled as divine, the one criterion they share is their acknowledgement as divine by a group or groups of human beings.
Monotheists hold that there is only one god, and may claim that the one true god is worshiped in different religions under different names. The view that all theists actually worship the same god, whether they know it or not, is especially emphasized in the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism and Sikhism.
In Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity describes God as one God in three divine Persons (each of the three Persons is God himself). The Most Holy Trinity comprises God the Father, God the Son (which is Jesus Christ God), and God the Holy Spirit. In the past centuries, this fundamental Mystery of the Christian faith was also summarized by the Latin formula Sancta Trinitas, Unus Deus (Holy Trinity, Unique God), reported in the Litanias Lauretanas.
Islam’s most fundamental concept is tawhid (meaning “oneness” or “uniqueness”). God is described in the Quran as:
“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”
Muslims repudiate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, comparing it to polytheism. In Islam, God is transcendent and does not resemble any of his creations in any way. Thus, Muslims are not iconodules, and are not expected to visualize God.
Henotheism is the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities.
Theism, deism, and pantheism
Theism generally holds that God exists realistically, objectively, and independently of human thought; that God created and sustains everything; that God is omnipotent and eternal; and that God is personal and interacting with the universe through, for example, religious experience and the prayers of humans. Theism holds that God is both transcendent and immanent; thus, God is simultaneously infinite and, in some way, present in the affairs of the world. Not all theists subscribe to all of these propositions, but each usually subscribes to some of them (see, by way of comparison, family resemblance).Catholic theology holds that God is infinitely simple and is not involuntarily subject to time. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, although this belief raises questions about God’s responsibility for evil and suffering in the world. Some theists ascribe to God a self-conscious or purposeful limiting of omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence. Open Theism, by contrast, contends that, due to the nature of time, God’s omniscience does not mean the deity can predict the future. Theism is sometimes used to refer in general to any belief in a god or gods, i.e., monotheism or polytheism.
Deism holds that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world beyond what was necessary to create it. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and neither answers prayers nor produces miracles. Common in Deism is a belief that God has no interest in humanity and may not even be aware of humanity. Pandeism combines Deism with Pantheistic beliefs. Pandeism is proposed to explain as to Deism why God would create a universe and then abandon it, and as to Pantheism, the origin and purpose of the universe.
Pantheism holds that God is the universe and the universe is God, whereas Panentheism holds that God contains, but is not identical to, the Universe. It is also the view of the Liberal Catholic Church; Theosophy; some views of Hinduism except Vaishnavism, which believes in panentheism; Sikhism; some divisions of Neopaganism and Taoism, along with many varying denominations and individuals within denominations. Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, paints a pantheistic/panentheistic view of God—which has wide acceptance in Hasidic Judaism, particularly from their founder The Baal Shem Tov—but only as an addition to the Jewish view of a personal god, not in the original pantheistic sense that denies or limits persona to God.
Dystheism, which is related to theodicy, is a form of theism which holds that God is either not wholly good or is fully malevolent as a consequence of the problem of evil. One such example comes from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan Karamazov rejects God on the grounds that he allows children to suffer.
In modern times, some more abstract concepts have been developed, such as process theology and open theism. The contemporaneous French philosopher Michel Henry has however proposed a phenomenological approach and definition of God as phenomenological essence of Life.
God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, the source of all moral obligation, and the “greatest conceivable existent”. These attributes were all supported to varying degrees by the early Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologian philosophers, including Maimonides, Augustine of Hippo, and Al-Ghazali, respectively.
Non-theist views about God also vary. Some non-theists avoid the concept of God, whilst accepting that it is significant to many; other non-theists understand God as a symbol of human values and aspirations. The nineteenth-century English atheist Charles Bradlaugh declared that he refused to say “There is no God”, because “the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation”; he said more specifically that he disbelieved in the Christian god. Stephen Jay Gould proposed an approach dividing the world of philosophy into what he called “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). In this view, questions of the supernatural, such as those relating to the existence and nature of God, are non-empirical and are the proper domain of theology. The methods of science should then be used to answer any empirical question about the natural world, and theology should be used to answer questions about ultimate meaning and moral value. In this view, the perceived lack of any empirical footprint from the magisterium of the supernatural onto natural events makes science the sole player in the natural world.
Another view, advanced by Richard Dawkins, is that the existence of God is an empirical question, on the grounds that “a universe with a god would be a completely different kind of universe from one without, and it would be a scientific difference. Carl Sagan argued that the doctrine of a Creator of the Universe was difficult to prove or disprove and that the only conceivable scientific discovery that could disprove the existence of a Creator (not necessarily a God) would be the discovery that the universe is infinitely old.
Stephen Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinow state in their book, The Grand Design, that it is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. Both authors claim however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.
Agnosticism and Atheism
Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.
Main article: Anthropomorphism
Pascal Boyer argues that while there is a wide array of supernatural concepts found around the world, in general, supernatural beings tend to behave much like people. The construction of gods and spirits like persons is one of the best known traits of religion. He cites examples from Greek mythology, which is, in his opinion, more like a modern soap opera than other religious systems. Bertrand du Castel and Timothy Jurgensen demonstrate through formalization that Boyer’s explanatory model matches physics’ epistemology in positing not directly observable entities as intermediaries. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie contends that people project human features onto non-human aspects of the world because it makes those aspects more familiar. Sigmund Freud also suggested that god concepts are projections of one’s father.
Likewise, Émile Durkheim was one of the earliest to suggest that gods represent an extension of human social life to include supernatural beings. In line with this reasoning, psychologist Matt Rossano contends that when humans began living in larger groups, they may have created gods as a means of enforcing morality. In small groups, morality can be enforced by social forces such as gossip or reputation. However, it is much harder to enforce morality using social forces in much larger groups. Rossano indicates that by including ever-watchful gods and spirits, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.
Main article: Existence of God
Arguments about the existence of God typically include empirical, deductive, and inductive types. Different views include that: “God does not exist” (strong atheism); “God almost certainly does not exist” (de facto atheism); ” no one knows whether God exists” (agnosticism); “God exists, but this cannot be proven or disproven” (de facto theism); and that “God exists and this can be proven” (strong theism).
Countless arguments have been proposed to prove the existence of God. Some of the most notable arguments are the Five Ways of Aquinas, the Argument from desire proposed by C.S. Lewis, and the Ontological Argument formulated both by St. Anselm and René Descartes.
St. Anselm’s approach was to define God as, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. Famed pantheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza would later carry this idea to its extreme: “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” For Spinoza, the whole of the natural universe is made of one substance, God, or its equivalent, Nature. His proof for the existence of God was a variation of the Ontological argument.
Scientist Isaac Newton saw the nontrinitarian God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation. Nevertheless, he rejected polymath Leibniz’ thesis that God would necessarily make a perfect world which requires no intervention from the creator. In Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton simultaneously made an argument from design and for the necessity of intervention:
For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets on one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation.
St. Thomas believed that the existence of God is self-evident in itself, but not to us. “Therefore I say that this proposition, “God exists“, of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject…. Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by effects.” St. Thomas believed that the existence of God can be demonstrated. Briefly in the Summa theologiae and more extensively in the Summa contra Gentiles, he considered in great detail five arguments for the existence of God, widely known as the quinque viae (Five Ways).
For the original text of the five proofs, see quinque viae
- Motion: Some things undoubtedly move, though cannot cause their own motion. Since there can be no infinite chain of causes of motion, there must be a First Mover not moved by anything else, and this is what everyone understands by God.
- Causation: As in the case of motion, nothing can cause itself, and an infinite chain of causation is impossible, so there must be a First Cause, called God.
- Existence of necessary and the unnecessary: Our experience includes things certainly existing but apparently unnecessary. Not everything can be unnecessary, for then once there was nothing and there would still be nothing. Therefore, we are compelled to suppose something that exists necessarily, having this necessity only from itself; in fact itself the cause for other things to exist.
- Gradation: If we can notice a gradation in things in the sense that some things are more hot, good, etc., there must be a superlative that is the truest and noblest thing, and so most fully existing. This then, we call God (Note: Thomas does not ascribe actual qualities to God Himself).
- Ordered tendencies of nature: A direction of actions to an end is noticed in all bodies following natural laws. Anything without awareness tends to a goal under the guidance of one who is aware. This we call God (Note that even when we guide objects, in Thomas’s view, the source of all our knowledge comes from God as well).
Some theologians, such as the scientist and theologian A.E. McGrath, argue that the existence of God is not a question that can be answered using the scientific method. Agnostic Stephen Jay Gould argues that science and religion are not in conflict and do not overlap.
Some findings in the fields of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are interpreted by some atheists (including Lawrence M. Krauss and Sam Harris) as evidence that God is an imaginary entity only, with no basis in reality. These atheists claim that a single, omniscient God who is imagined to have created the universe and is particularly attentive to the lives of humans has been imagined, embellished and promulgated in a trans-generational manner. Richard Dawkins interprets such findings not only as a lack of evidence for the material existence of such a God, but as extensive evidence to the contrary. However, his views are opposed by some theologians and scientists including Alister McGrath, who argues that existence of God is compatible with science.
Different religious traditions assign differing (though often similar) attributes and characteristics to God, including expansive powers and abilities, psychological characteristics, gender characteristics, and preferred nomenclature. The assignment of these attributes often differs according to the conceptions of God in the culture from which they arise. For example, attributes of God in Christianity, attributes of God in Islam, and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy in Judaism share certain similarities arising from their common roots.
The philosophy of religion recognizes the following as essential attributes of God:
- Eternity (God is not bound by time)
- Gender of God
- Immutability (God is not subject to change)
- Impassibility (God is not affected)
- Incorporeality (God is not material)
- Names (“Word“)
- Omnipotence (limitless power)
- Omniscience (limitless knowledge)
- Oneness (God is wholly benevolent)
- Simplicity (God is not composite)
Main article: Names of God
Throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bibles there are many names for God. One of them is Elohim. Another one is El Shaddai, translated “God Almighty“. A third notable name is El Elyon, which means “The High God“.
God is described and referred in the Quran and hadith by certain names or attributes, the most common being Al-Rahman, meaning “Most Compassionate” and Al-Rahim, meaning “Most Merciful” (See Names of God in Islam).
Many traditions see God as incorporeal and eternal, and regard him as a point of living light like human souls, but without a physical body, as he does not enter the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. God is seen as the perfect and constant embodiment of all virtues, powers and values and that he is the unconditionally loving Father of all souls, irrespective of their religion, gender, or culture.
Vaishnavism, a tradition in Hinduism, has a list of titles and names of Krishna.
Main article: Gender of God
The gender of God may be viewed as either a literal or an allegorical aspect of a deity who, in classical western philosophy, transcends bodily form. Polytheistic religions commonly attribute to each of the gods a gender, allowing each to interact with any of the others, and perhaps with humans, sexually. In most monotheistic religions, God has no counterpart with which to relate sexually. Thus, in classical western philosophy the gender of this one-and-only deity is most likely to be an analogical statement of how humans and God address, and relate to, each other. Namely, God is seen as begetter of the world and revelation which corresponds to the active (as opposed to the receptive) role in sexual intercourse.
Biblical sources usually refer to God using male words, except Genesis 1:26–27, Psalm 123:2–3, and Luke 15:8–10 (female); Hosea 11:3–4, Deuteronomy 32:18, Isaiah 66:13, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 42:14, Psalm 131:2 (a mother); Deuteronomy 32:11–12 (a mother eagle); and Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 (a mother hen).
Relationship with creation
Adherents of different religions generally disagree as to how to best worship God and what is God’s plan for mankind, if there is one. There are different approaches to reconciling the contradictory claims of monotheistic religions. One view is taken by exclusivists, who believe they are the chosen people or have exclusive access to absolute truth, generally through revelation or encounter with the Divine, which adherents of other religions do not. Another view is religious pluralism. A pluralist typically believes that his religion is the right one, but does not deny the partial truth of other religions. An example of a pluralist view in Christianity is supersessionism, i.e., the belief that one’s religion is the fulfillment of previous religions. A third approach is relativistic inclusivism, where everybody is seen as equally right; an example being universalism: the doctrine that salvation is eventually available for everyone. A fourth approach is syncretism, mixing different elements from different religions. An example of syncretism is the New Age movement.
Jews and Christians believe that humans are created in the likeness of God, and are the center, crown and key to God’s creation, stewards for God, supreme over everything else God had made (Gen 1:26); for this reason, humans are in Christianity called the “Children of God“.
God’s depiction in 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 intimacy and depth of sentiment surpassing the logic of the more refined and rationalist conceptions.
Main article: God in Judaism
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.
Main article: God in Islam
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 sumed 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
- Main article: 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.
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.
Conceptions of God in Asian Religions
See also: God in Jainism
In Jainism, godliness is said to be the inherent quality of every soul. This quality, however, is subdued by the soul’s association with karmic matter. All souls who have achieved the natural state of infinite bliss, infinite knowledge (kevala jnana), infinite power and infinite perception are regarded as God in Jainism. Jainism rejects the idea of a creator deity responsible for the manifestation, creation, or maintenance of this universe. According to Jain doctrine, the universe and its constituents (soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion) have always existed. All the constituents and actions are governed by universal natural laws and perfect soul, an immaterial entity cannot create or affect a material entity like the universe.
Main article: God in Hinduism
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.
Main article: God in Sikhism
Sikhism arose in the Punjab region of north-western India during the 15th 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.
See also: Classical theism
Classical theists (such as Ancient Greco-Medieval philosophers, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, much of Jews and Muslims, and some Protestants) speak of God as a divinely simple “nothing” that is completely transcendent (totally independent of all else), and having attributes such as immutability, impassibility, and timelessness. Theologians of theistic personalism (the view held by Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and most modern evangelicals) argue that God is most generally the ground of all being, immanent in and transcendent over the whole world of reality, with immanence and transcendence being the contrapletes of personality. Carl Jung equated religious ideas of God with transcendental metaphors of higher consciousness, in which God can be just as easily be imagined “as an eternally flowing current of vital energy that endlessly changes shape … as an eternally unmoved, unchangeable essence.”
The attributes of the God of classical theism were all claimed to varying degrees by the early Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, including Maimonides, St Augustine, and Al-Ghazali.
Many philosophers developed arguments for the existence of God, while attempting to comprehend the precise implications of God’s attributes. Reconciling some of those attributes-particularly the attributes of the God of theistic personalism- generated important philosophical problems and debates. For example, God’s omniscience may seem to imply that God knows how free agents will choose to act. If God does know this, their ostensible free will might be illusory, or foreknowledge does not imply predestination, and if God does not know it, God may not be omniscient.
The last centuries of philosophy have seen vigorous questions regarding the arguments for God’s existence raised by such philosophers as Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Antony Flew, although Kant held that the argument from morality was valid. The theist response has been either to contend, as does Alvin Plantinga, that faith is “properly basic”, or to take, as does Richard Swinburne, the evidentialist position. Some theists agree that only some of the arguments for God’s existence are compelling, but argue that faith is not a product of reason, but requires risk. There would be no risk, they say, if the arguments for God’s existence were as solid as the laws of logic, a position summed up by Pascal as “the heart has reasons of which reason does not know.”
Many religious believers allow for the existence of other, less powerful spiritual beings such as angels, saints, jinn, demons, and devas.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia