Concepts of God

Concepts of God

1. Different conceptions of God

It is useful for our purposes to speak of “pictures” or “conceptions” of God rather than “belief in” God, for two reasons. First, the term “belief in God” is often used to indicate that one agrees with a certain proposition about the existence of a deity, and this way of talking about “belief” is foreign to much of the religious tradition in, for example, the Indic or East Asian civilizations, where “belief in” is of relatively minimal importance and is often connected with what many thinkers in those traditions would argue is a mistaken identification of God with a cause of the universe. Second, the term has a utilitarian or prudential sense, as found in Pascal’s famous wager (Pensées I.233), and when we consider the complex interplay of emotion and reason in the implicit ways in which religious persons understand their own tradition’s teachings about the Deity, it is clear that propositional belief is not always primary. But there are always some dominant doctrines or teachings about God in any religious tradition, even if it is not accurate to say that all adherents of that tradition “believe in” these teachings, and it is these doctrines that we have in mind when we speak of “pictures” or “conceptions”. For the wide range of what can be called “belief in” or understanding of God that we find in the world, it is profitable to consider that the term “belief” is understood in a variety of nonpropositional senses, as an attitude, commitment, interpretation, or working hypothesis. And though it is impossible to cover the range of these various “ways of taking” in a single essay, one can compare the dominant teaching of various religious traditions at least in a general way.

It is difficult to find a simple starting point in talking about the varied concepts of God in the history of world religions, since conceptions of God are so interwoven with the whole religious experience and the ways in which different religious communities are shaped by their traditions in thought and practice. In addition, individual adherents of a particular tradition are often not fully aware of the teachings of their own heritage, and therefore do not hold conceptions of God in any systematic or consistent way. Nonetheless, exploring various texts and doctrines and drawing on the work of religious ethicists and theologians, one can still glean a relatively coherent notion of the various ways in which God or the Ultimate Reality is understood by the devotees of the world’s religious traditions.

2. Attributes and characteristics of God

An analysis of the nature of God’s communication and role exhibited in scriptural accounts can provide a systematic framework for understanding God’s attributes and characteristics. God is said to have communicated in a variety of ways including dreams, visions, direct vocal expression, and the use of third person. These means of communication reflect a flexibility by which God adopts and fulfills a variety of roles. When relaying positive or negative messages to an entire nation, God is seen as a strict and fair authoritarian figure. In interacting with individuals to offer encouragement, recognition, or correction, God adopts roles of counselor, friend, and observer. These diverse role fulfillments are carried out in efforts to create change in accordance with God’s eternal will for humanity to be “saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4).

Communication is a primary factor in social organization. Societies not only experience change, they help to create change by developing new forms of behavior to regulate their environment. These behavioral patterns emerge in the form of systems, which are constructed and changed by individual interpretations of reality. In order to regulate the social environment, people develop and fit roles that reflect their own and others’ characters. It is through role fulfillment that people exercise personal interpretations of reality and attempt to change or preserve existing systems by creating new forms of behavior. Christian doctrine reveals that God began the process of systematic change from the very onset of the human race. Scriptural accounts of God communicating with patriarchs and prophets indicate a divine role set in motion to positively affect change.

3. The role of God in different religions

A person’s concept of God is complex and depends on cultural and social factors as well as personal experiences and influences. When we compare and contrast the deities of monotheistic and polytheistic religions using the above attributes, we are faced with the problem of comparing apples and oranges. For example, the God of a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim is a single God – all are monotheistic religions today. Yet the nature and role of that God differs according to the culture and societal structures of the believers. The same can be said when comparing the high God of a polytheistic religion to that of a monotheistic religion. However, it is easier to compare the high Gods of the monotheistic religions to each other than with the Gods of the polytheistic religions. This is due to their simple nature – God for the Christians, Allah for the Muslims, and Yahweh for the Jews – are all omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good supernatural beings. This is similar to the high God of many polytheistic religions (Chinese folk religion, Ancient Greek religion) which can also be seen as a single simple God when compared to the pantheon.

4. Philosophical debates on the existence of God

Recent writers such as John Mackie (The Miracle of Theism, 1982), J.L. Mackie sought to disprove the whole idea of a serene, perfect rational God as inconsistent with the world we live in. Mackie offered logical arguments against the existence of a perfect God, discussing at length his inconsistency with the existence of evil that we see in our world. Mackie goes on to classify evil in three levels: logical, natural, and moral evil, concluding that the existence of these three allows no room for a “wholly good and omnipotent” God. Mackie’s assertion is that we are forced to deny either God’s goodness or His omnipotence in order to retain the obvious premise that there is indeed evil in this world. He says “Hence a wholly good omnipotent God is quite compatible with there being no evil in the world, and quite compatible with there being no good in the world, so long as the alternative states of affairs are not due to any actions of His.” Mackie’s work sets forth a very strong argument against the existence of the God of classical theism and has received much opposition, including an entire book entitled The Faith of a Moralist by E.L. Mascall. This other work, however, only serves to confirm the notable influence of Mackie’s writing. Although most contemporary debate concerns the latter works of John Hick and is no longer metaphysical in method. From another aspect, Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things: A Critical Account of Language and Logic (1959) saw a much different side of God. Gellner suggests that religion and religious belief are completely necessary to humans, defining “modernity” as a time when human beings were beginning to lose the traditional frameworks of their lives and were pulled into a world of vast uncertainty. He saw religion as a response to the absurdity of the human condition, suggesting that man is a “cognitive amphibian,” lost in a world that is ill-suited to him. Gellner says that “he perished because he is too different from the environment in which he has to live.” This stance on religion refers to one very separate from the Gods of classical theism and towards writings on the God of faith, such as Paul Tillich’s work in Systematic Theology.

5. Personal beliefs and experiences of God

This section starts with the profound experiences of those who continue to believe that they have encountered God or been recipients of particular graces. These are private or “inner” experiences and in some cases may differ quite markedly from the beliefs of the religion they adhere to. It has been argued that belief and experience are so intertwined that it may be impossible for some people to alter their beliefs about God without a change in their experiences. This section includes discussions about difficulties in talking about experiences of God and how far religious language is shaped by such experiences. Some people, whether theistic or non-theistic, maintain an agnostic position about the existence of God but believe that this question is less important than questions about the meaning of symbols used in religious discourse and practice. There is an intriguing contrast between this and the self-consciously atheistic attitudes of others. It is not always clear however that those who profess atheism are repudiating the same God whose existence they are said to be denying. This section concludes with a discussion of differing attitudes to the intelligibility of the belief in God.

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