This page is intended to be a review of mainstream Christian understandings of the nature God. Some authors claim Quakers have distinctive understandings of God and Christ. These are not covered here. The has a fairly neutral point of view. A perspective on arguments for and against the existence of God is on other pages.
Characteristics of GodEdit
God has many namesEdit
The religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as several other faith traditions including Zoroastrianism, declare there is one God, as well as angels, demons and other supernatural entities. Hinduism and paganism are among traditions which have many gods. Buddhism, Taoism and Australian Aboriginal religions do not have a God, however many adherents do believe in spirits of some kind or worship ancestors. The Living Buddha is almost deified by some Buddhists, but is viewed as a remarkable human by others. Some read the biblical record as evidence that God changes through history, while others believe in an unchanging eternal presence. God may be seen or experienced as a personal God, with whom I have a relationship, as an impersonal creative force, as the spirit of love among us all, or be treated as an object of inquiry. God has many names and there are many understandings of God. This article reviews the characteristics which have been claimed for God in mainstream Christian traditions.
In the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions God is understood to be self-existent. Self-existence is absolute positive being, the source or origin of existence, from which all things derive and in which all things have their being. God is existence itself, that essence in which all reality has its existence. A more contemporary expression of this concept is God as ‘ultimate reality’. World religions have different understandings of ultimate reality (see, for example, Valea no date) http://www.comparativereligion.com/god.html which can be seen as contradictory and mutually exclusive. Some mystics and religious leaders see a unity beyond these differences, an ultimate reality beyond the codifications of ultimate reality, while others maintain that their understanding of ultimate reality is the only true understanding. Catholic (and other) theologians argue that self-existence implies that God is infinite.
If we accept God as the ultimate reality, the only conceivable relation between the infinite being and the finite reality is the relation of Creator. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia (Knight 1997-2008) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06614a.htm creation means the total production of a being out of nothing, that is, the bringing of something into existence to replace absolute nonexistence. Creation can be conceived as an ongoing relationship as well as a pre-historical event. God sustains everything in existence as well as having brought everything into existence in the first place.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) , considered by many the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian, developed an earlier argument from Aristotle . Since the Universe could, under different circumstances, conceivably not exist, it is contingent and must have a cause, which ultimately is not merely another contingent thing, but something that exists by necessity (something that must exist in order for anything else to exist). In other words, even if the Universe has always existed, it still owes its existence to an Uncaused Cause, and, according to Aquinas: ‘it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God’ (Aquinas 2008) http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm . A difficulty is that the argument for a prime cause argument depends on the principle of causality, but by positing an absolute beginning to the chain of causality implies that there can be at least one thing, God, which is without cause. This not only seems to undermine the principle of causality on which the argument rests, but if the prime cause is eternal and absolute, it must be unchanging. If this is so, how can one account for its capacity to produce things and events which are transient? It is difficult to see how something which is itself unchanging can produce change without undergoing some change itself (see Dalai Lama 2005 pp.88-89).
Intelligent design claims to be a scientific argument that some features of the universe, especially in living things, demonstrate an elegance and complexity which is better explained by an intelligent cause than by an undirected or random process such as natural selection. This is a late Twentieth Century version of a traditional teleological argument for the existence of God: that the order, purpose, design and direction that we perceive in the world and the universe must have come from God. An everyday form of this argument is to experience God in the beauty of a rose or the majesty of a sunset. Intelligent design modified the teleological argument by not specifying the nature or identity of the designer. In this way, intelligent design could be taught in U.S.A. school science classes, rather than being limited to religious instruction. It is clear, however, that intelligent design's main advocates all believe the designer to be the Christian God. Notions derived from complexity science are central to intelligent design arguments. Proponents of intelligent design argue that some systems are characterised by irreducible complexity, that is, systems whose basic function depends on several well-matched interacting parts, such that the removal of any one part causes the system to effectively cease functioning. Some systems are not only complex in this sense, but are also specified by information, such as information transmitted by DNA to specify complex biological systems including humans. The complexity in these systems must have originated with an intelligent agent, that is, been produced by an intelligent cause. Intelligent design argues that a world as complex as the one we inhabit must be an outcome of intelligent design. It is possible to agree with this assertion (though it is a little inaccurate) while maintaining that the intelligence exhibited by the system is not extrinsic, in an independently existing God, bit is intrinsic to the system as a potential or emergent property.
God is loveEdit
‘Deus caritas est’ (God is love) was the motto of a monastery where I lived for some months. In Christian theology, the characteristics of the infinite God include infinite love. The Bible declares that ‘God is love (1 John 4:8, 4:16) and the opening paragraph of a Papal Encyclical declares that ‘These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith’: a relationship with Christ, who is God. ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’ (Benedict XVI, 2005). The Christian God is not just a disembodied creative principle, but incarnated in the historical figure of Jesus, is made man. Through Jesus we can have a personal and loving relationship with God. The love of God applies to the Jewish and Muslim traditions also, as we are advised to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Monotheistic religions attribute supreme and unlimited power to God alone. Omnipotence is understood in different ways between people of different faiths, and among people of the same faith. Some believe that God is able to do anything that God chooses to do; some that God is able to do anything that is logically possible for God to do. Others believe that God can only do what is in accord with His own nature (so, for example, if it is God's nature that everything he speaks is true, then God is not able to lie); or that it is part of God's nature to be consistent and that it would be inconsistent for God to go against His own laws. Some believe that God can do absolutely anything, even what is logically impossible. Because God is omnipotent, some believe that ‘all power is from God’ (Romans 13:1), so historic kings and contemporary governments rule by divine right. For some, the power of God to threaten destruction and then pull back (for example, if we survive an earthquake or a severe storm does not hit us after we pray) is seen as God communicating both his power and love for us, and engenders trust in God. Unlimited omnipotence is not essential to theism. Some monotheists take the view that, by choosing to create creatures with freewill, God chose to limit divine omnipotence. In mainstream Judaism, and some movements within Protestant Christianity, God is said to act in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion (for open theism, this is a matter of choice, God could act miraculously, and perhaps on occasion does so; while for process theism it is a matter of necessity. Creatures have inherent powers that God cannot, even in principle, override. God is manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, not necessarily by miracles or violations of the laws of nature.
An all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God is able to intervene in the ordinary processes of nature by performing miracles. These are usually understood as suspending or superseding the natural laws, and are events which cannot be explained my medical or other science. Events may be accepted as miracles in various ways. A scripture or other (usually ancient) record may state that a miracle occurred, and believers accept this as revealed fact. The Catholic Church holds formal inquiries to establish the absence of a medical or scientific cause and through other tests confirms that specific events are acts of God, often through the intervention of saints. Miracles are claimed in all monotheist religions, and there are also claims of miraculous events in non-theist religion. Miraculous events surrounding the life of the Buddha, for example, include walking on water. In Buddhism these are explained through the attainment of remarkable powers and abilities through deep meditation, and though unusual, as consistent with the laws of nature not acts of divine intervention.
I don’t remember the source of the story of a Hindu priest who said that he believed in all of God’s characteristics (including both a single God and many gods) except existence. I know very little about Hindu philosophy, but as I understand it, the essence of God or Brahman can never be understood or known since Brahman is beyond both existence and non-existence, transcends and includes time, causation and space, and so can never be known in the same material sense as one traditionally 'understands' a given concept or object. If we assume or believe that there is a god-like entity taking intelligent actions, it seems we cannot know the limits of God's powers. The laws of physics and other sciences are only known to be valid in this universe. I am not a cosmologist or a physicist, but I understand it is theoretically possible that parallel universes exist which may may exhibit different sets or arrangements of laws of physics. Heaven and Paradise, for example, can be imagined as parallel universe(s). If a God that is the source of all that exists, and if the number of parallel universes is unlimited, then the God-like entity is also unlimited and the source of all power, making this entity omnipotent. Unfortunately there is not any empirical evidence of parallel universes, or any indications which cannot be explained within a single universe (even if this is only because human rationality and empirical evidence available to our senses occur only within a single universe).
Some theists conclude that a God-like sentient being sustains or inheres in the universe such that all things and actions are flows of what may be called divine energy, the Tao or Dharma. Pantheists see the universe as the body of God, so everything and everybody shares in the nature of God, or is God. Some understand that when a person does something, it is actually God doing it. We are the means God uses to act in this world. For some Christians the notion of the Living Body of Christ comes close to this. In Taoist philosophy, the Tao is in some ways equivalent to God or the logos. The Tao cannot be fully expressed or described in words. It is an inexhaustible dynamic power which includes strength and weakness, light and darkness. The Dharma may be seen as the whole body of Buddhist teachings, and an ultimate transcendent truth which is utterly beyond human teaching and worldly things. The Dharma may refer to ultimate reality or ‘the way things are’, the realisation of which enables us to achieve enlightenment. All religious and philosophical traditions include a range of understandings or ‘schools’. Some offer pragmatic ways to manage everyday life; others offer religious affiliation as a source of identity, community membership and perhaps a resource to use in conflict resolution. Many religious traditions have mystical or universalist traditions which enable adherents to share a common understanding of the great mysteries with followers of diverse traditions.
The Bible based religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) traditionally refer to God as masculine. Some see this as a side effect of linguistic forms, while others see the masculinity of God as a sanction for male leadership on Earth. Carl Jung and others have viewed a masculine God as incomplete. We might logically expect an infinite and all powerful God to include and transcend both sexes, since having only one gender would make God less complete and powerful and thus no longer omnipotent. Some monotheistic religions (Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism) consider God as being both genders. This is not meant literally, but as aspects of divinity to illustrate a duality just as the Tao consists of Yin and Yang. Many theists would see God as beyond gender and references to masculinity as nothing more than linguistic conventions.
New age phenomenaEdit
Things like the collective unconscious, spiritual channelling, extra-sensory perception and everyday intuition are complex, subtle and difficult to study. There has been a lot of hocus-pocus and charlatanism as well as self-deception. There are also self-fulfilling prophecies and other interactional effects which warrant much more study than they have received. Joint work between Buddhist psychologists and mediators with Western scientists over the last couple of decades is revealing very interesting results. It would be easier to throw out the bathwater and keep the baby if there was agreement about the differences between bathwater and babies.
Aquinas, T. (2008). Summa Theologica Available from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html
Benedict XVI (2005). Deus Caritas Est, from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est_en.html
Dalai Lama, G. T. (2005). The Universe in a Single Atom: How Science and spirituality Can Serve Our World. London: Abacus.
Knight (Ed.), K. (1997-2008). The Catholic Encyclopedia Retrieved 9 September, 2010, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/00002a.htm
Valea, E. (no date). The Ultimate Reality in world religions. ComparativeReligion.com Retrieved 14 September, 2010, from http://www.comparativereligion.com/god.html
Related web pagesEdit
Catholic Encyclopedia: Nature and Attributes of God
Wikipedia: The nature of God in Western Theology