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God

The term God is used to designate a Supreme Being, however, there are countless definitions of God. For example:

  • Many religious and philosophic systems consider God to be the creator of the universe.
  • Some traditions hold that the creator of the universe is also the sustainer of the universe (as in theism), while others argue that God is no longer involved in the world after creation (as in deism).
  • The common definition of God assumes omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence. However, not all systems hold that God is necessarily morally good (see summum bonum). Others maintain that God is beyond the limited human understanding of morality. Negative theology argues that no true statements about attributes of God can be made at all, while agnostic positions argue that limited human understanding does not allow for any conclusive opinions on God whatsoever. Some mystical traditions ascribe limits to God's powers, arguing that God's supreme nature leaves no room for spontaneity.
  • The concept of a singular God is characteristic of monotheism, but there is no universal definition of monotheism. The differences between monotheism and polytheism vary among traditions (see also trinity, dualism, and henotheism).
  • Some concepts of God may include anthropomorphic attributes, gender, particular names, and ethnic exclusivity (see Chosen people), while others are purely transcendent or philosophic concepts.
  • The concept of God is often connected to principles of absolute morality or truth.
  • There are variations on defining God either as a person, or not as a person but as an ambiguous impersonal force (see Absolute Infinite). Also at stake are questions concerning the possibilities of human/God relations. There are countless variations in traditions of worship and/or appeasement of God.
  • Some espouse an exclusionist view, holding to one sole definition of God. Others hold an inclusionist view, accepting the possibility of more than one definition of God to be true at the same time.
  • There are also atheistic explanations for the concept of God that can include psychological and/or sociological factors.

Table of contents

Etymology

Earliest attestation of the Germanic word in the 6th century Codex Argenteus (Mt 5:9)

The word God continues Old English/Germanic god (guþ, gudis in Gothic, Gott in modern German). The original meaning and etymology of the Germanic word god have been hotly disputed, though most agree to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *ǵhutóm, which is a passive perfect participle from the root *ǵhu-, which likely meant "libation", "sacrifice". Compare:-

The connection between these meanings is likely via the meaning "pour a libation". Another possible meaning of *ǵhutóm is "invocation", related to Sanskrit hūta.

The word God was used to represent Greek theos, Latin deus in Bible translations, first in the Gothic translation of the New Testament by Ulfilas.

Philologically, Gk. theos is said to be akin to Zeus, the chief god in Greek mythology, who has Dios in a genitive form. L. Diespiter means Jupiter, chief god in L. mythology, dies + pater, day + father. In Skr. deva is a god, as derived from the root div, heaven, and diu denoting day, shine and brightness (L. niter).

Capitalisation

KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of "Lord" (and "God" in the heading)

The development of English orthography was dominated by Christian texts. Capitalised "God" was first used to refer to the Judeo-Christian concept, and may now signify any monotheistic conception of God, including the translations of the Arabic Allah and the African Masai Engai.

In early English bibles, the Tetragrammaton was rendered in capitals: "IEHOUAH" in William Tyndale's version of 1525. The King James Version of 1611 renders

  • YHWH as "The Lord"
  • Elohim as "God"
  • Adonay YHWH and Adonay Elohim as "Lord God"
  • kurios ho theos as "Lord God" (in the New Testament)

The use of capitalisation, as for a proper noun, has persisted to disambiguate the concept of a singular God from pagan deities for which lowercase god has continued to be applied, mirroring the use of Latin deus. Pronouns referring to God are also often capitalised and are traditionally in the masculine gender, i.e. "He", "His" etc.

Names of God

Main article: Names of God

The generic term God is the proper English name used for the deity of monotheistic faiths. Different names for God exist within different religious traditions.

History of monotheism

See also monotheism.

The religions widely thought of as monotheistic today are of relatively recent origin historically, although Eastern religions (notably religions of China and India) that have concepts of panentheism are difficult to classify along Western notions of monotheism vs. polytheism, and sometimes have claims of being very ancient, if not eternal.

In the Ancient Orient, many cities had their own local god, but this henotheistic worship of a single god did not imply denial of the existence of other gods. The Hebrew Ark of the Covenant adapted this practice to a nomadic lifestyle, paving their way for a singular God. The cult of the solar god Aten is often cited as the earliest known example of monotheism, but even if Akhetaten's hymn to Aten praises this god as omnipotent creator, worship of other gods beside him never ceased. Early examples of monotheism also include two late rigvedic hymns (10.129,130) to a Panentheistic creator god, Shri Rudram, a Vedic hymn to Rudra, an earlier aspect of Shiva, which expressed monistic theism, and is still chanted today, the Zoroastrian Ahuramazda and Chinese Shang Ti. The worship of polytheistic gods, on the other hand, is seen by many to predate monotheism, reaching back as far as the paleolithic. Today, monotheistic religions are dominant (mainly due to the missionary efforts of Christianity and Islam), but polytheism, and to a lesser extent also animism, survive.

The existence of God

While belief in God can be considered solely a matter of faith (Fideism), there are also many intellectual arguments for as well as arguments against the existence of God.

Theology

Theology is the study of religious beliefs. Theologians attempt to explicate (and in some cases systematize) beliefs; some express their own experience of the divine. Theologians ask questions such as: What is the nature of God? What does it mean for God to be singular? If people believe in God as a duality or trinity, what do these terms signify? Is God transcendent, immanent, or some mix of the two? What is the relationship between God and the universe, and God and mankind?

  • 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. Catholic theology holds that God is infinitely simple and is outside of 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, asserts that God has limits. "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 for God to create it. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur.
  • Monotheism holds that there is only one God, and/or that the one true God is worshipped in different religions under different names. It is important to note, however, that monotheists of one religion can, and often do, consider the monotheistic god of a different religion to be a false god. For instance, many Christian fundamentalists consider the God of Islam (Allah) to be a false god or demon (although theologians and linguists argue that "Allah" is merely the Arabic word for "God," and not the literal name of a specifically Muslim god). Many Jews consider the messiah of Christianity (Jesus) to be a false god and some monotheists (notably fundamentalist Christians) hold that there is one triune God, and that all gods of other religions are actually demons in disguise (as in 2nd Corinthians 11 verse 14). Eastern religious believers and Liberal Christians are more likely to assume those of other faiths worship the same God as they.
  • Pantheism holds that God is the universe and the universe is God. Panentheism holds that God contains, but is not identical to, the Universe. The distinctions between the two are subtle, and many consider them unhelpful. 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. It is also the view of the Liberal Catholic Church, Theosophy, Hinduism, some divisions of Buddhism, and Taoism, along with many varying denominations and individuals within denominations.
  • Dystheism is a form of theism which holds that God is malevolent as a consequence of the problem of evil. Dystheistic speculation is common in theology, but there is no known church of practicing dystheists. See also Satanism.

Most believers allow for the existence of other, less powerful spiritual beings, and give them names such as angels, saints, Djinn, demons, and devas.

Conceptions of God

Jewish, Christian and Muslim conceptions

Judaism, Christianity and Islam see God as a being who created the world and rules over the universe. God is usually held to have the properties of holiness (separate from sin and incorruptible), justness (fair, right, and true in all His judgements), sovereignty (unthwartable in His will), omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnibenevolence (all-loving), and omnipresence (all-present).

Jews, Christians and Muslims often conceive of God as a personal God, with a will and personality. However, many medieval rationalist philosophers of these religions felt that one should not view God as personal, and that such personal descriptions of God are only meant as metaphors. Some within these three faiths still accept these views as valid, although many of the laity today do not have a wide awareness of them.

In Eastern Christianity, it remains essential that God be personal; hence it speaks of the three persons of the Trinity. It also emphasizes that God has a will, and that God the Son has two wills, divine and human, though these are never in conflict. The personhood of God and of all human people is essential to the concept of theosis or deification.

Biblical definition of God

16th century Christian view of Genesis: God creates Adam (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) characterizes God by these attributes: "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, but who 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)

The Hebrew Bible contains no systematic theology: No attempt is made to give a philosophical or rigorous definition of God, nor of how God acts in the world. It does not explicitly describe God's nature, exemplified by God's assertion in Exodus that "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live". Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are the words omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent used to define God in a systematic sense.

Although Scripture does not describe God systematically, however, it does provide a poetic depiction of God and His relationship with people. According to the biblical historian Yehezkal Kaufmann, the essential innovation of Biblical theology was to posit a God that cares about people, and that cares about whether people care about Him. Most people believe that the Bible should be viewed as humanity's view of God, but theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Biblical God as "anthropopathic", which means that one should read the Bible as God's view of humanity, and not as humanity's view of God.

Similarly, the New Testament contains no systematic theology: no attempt is made to give a philosophical or rigorous definition of God, nor of how God acts in the world. The New Testament does, however, provide an implicit theology as it teaches that God became human while remaining fully God, in the person of Jesus, and that he subsequently sent the Holy Spirit. In this view, God becomes someone that can be seen and touched, and may speak and act in a manner easily perceived by humans, while also remaining transcendent and invisible. This appears to be a radical departure from the concepts of God found in Hebrew Bible. The New Testament's statements regarding the nature of God were eventually developed into the doctrine of the Trinity.

Kabbalistic definition of God

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both, but is himself neither. But if God is so different from his creation, how can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created? This question prompted Kabbalists to envision two aspects of God, (a) God himself, who in the end is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God who created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind in a personal way. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another.

Negative theology

Main article: Negative theology.

Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim medieval philosophers developed what is termed as negative theology, the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

God as Unity or Trinity

Jews, Muslims, and a small fraction of Christians are unitarian monotheists. The vast majority of Christians have been and still are Trinitarian monotheists.

  • Unitarian monotheists hold that there is only one "person" (so to speak), or one basic substance, in God. Some adherents of this position consider Trinitarianism to be a form of polytheism.
  • Trinitarian monotheists believe in one God that exists as three distinct persons who share the same substance/essence; the Christian version of this is called the Trinity, the Hindu version Trimurti. Trinitarians hold that the three persons have the same purpose, holiness, and sovereignty, and therefore each can be worshipped as God, without violating the idea that there is only one God to which worship belongs.
  • Mormons believe that there are three separate divine personages. One of these personages is a spirit without a body referred to as the Holy Ghost. The other two personages are spirits with perfected or glorified (often called celestial) bodies referred to as Heavenly Father (or less commonly "Elohim") and his son, Jesus Christ. Mormons hold that God is a Holy Man who advanced to his divine status through a repeatable process of progression. They believe that by following their religion's teachings, humans can literally become gods (sometimes phrased as "become like Heavenly Father") at some point after death and resurrection; this is also called Exaltation.
  • Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie is both God the Father and God the Son, made manifest in human flesh as the reincarnation of Jesus, while the Holy Spirit is seen to dwell within all believers (of Rastafari), and within all people (believed by some).
  • Hasidic Jews hold that there are ten Sefirot (emanations) of God. Each of these are more distinct than a characteristic, but less distinct than a separate personage.
  • Monism is the metaphysical position that all is of one essential essence, substance or energy, that being a pantheist, or panentheist, immanent God. Monism can be inclusive of other interpretations of God.
  • Dualism is the idea of two, nearly equal divine entities, one being the good God, and the other being an evil god, or Satan. All beings are under the influence of one side, or the other, if they know it or not. Zoroastrianism is an example of dualism.

Quranic definitions of God, i.e. Allah

Main article: Allah

Allah (Arabic allāhu الله) is traditionally used by Muslims as the Arabic word for "God" (not "God's personal name", but the equivalent of the Hebrew word El as opposed to YHWH). The word Allah is not specific to Islam; Arab Christians and Arab Jews also use it to refer to the monotheist deity. Arabic translations of the Bible also employ it, as do the Catholics of Malta who pronounce it as "Alla" in Maltese, a language derived from and most closely related to Arabic, as well as Christians in Indonesia, who pronounce it "Allah Bapa" (Allah the Father).

Many linguists believe that the term Allāh is derived from a contraction of the Arabic words al (the) + ilah (male deity). In addition, one of the main pagan goddesses of pre-Islamic Arabia, Allāt (al + ilāh + at, or 'the female deity'), is cited as being etymologically (though not synchronically) the feminine linguistic counterpart to the grammatically masculine Allah. If so, the word Allāh is an abbreviated title, meaning 'the deity', rather than a name. For this reason, both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars often translate Allāh directly into English as 'God'; however, some Muslim scholars feel that "Allāh" should not be translated, because it expresses the uniqueness of God more accurately than "God", which can take a plural "Gods", whereas "Allāh" has no plural. This is a significant issue in translation of the Qur'an. This also explains why Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians freely refer to God as Allāh.

Aristotelian definition of God

Main article: Aristotelian view of God.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses the meaning of "being as being". Aristotle holds that "being" primarily refers to the Unmoved Movers, and assigned one of these to each movement in the heavens. Each Unmoved Mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation, and everything that fits the second meaning of "being" by having its source of motion in itself, moves because the knowledge of its Mover causes it to emulate this Mover (or should).

The Ultimate

Arguably, Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate (this, too, has many different names) are not conceptions of a personal divinity, though certain Western conceptions of what is at least called "God" (e.g., Spinoza's pantheistic conception and various kinds of mysticism) resemble Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate.

Hindu Conceptions of God

  • In Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Hindus believe that God, whether in the form of Shiva or Vishnu has six attributes. However, the actual number of auspicious qualities of God, are countless, with the following six qualities being the most important.
  • The number six is invariably given, but the individual attributes listed vary.
  • One set of attributes (and their common interpretations) are
    • Jnana (Omniscience), defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously;
    • Aishvarya (Sovereignty), which consists in unchallenged rule over all;
    • Shakti (Energy), or power, which is the capacity to make the impossible possible;
    • Bala (Strength), which is the capacity to support everything by will and without any fatigue;
    • Virya (Vigour), or valour which indicates the power to retain immateriality as the supreme being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations; and
    • Tejas (Splendour), which expresses his self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by his spiritual effulgence.; cited from Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Swami Tapasyananda.
  • A second set of six characteristics are
  • Other important qualities attributed to God are Gambhirya (grandeur), Audarya (generosity), and Karunya (compassion).
  • Chanted prayers, or mantras, are central to Hindu worship. Among the most chanted mantras in Hinduism are the Vishnu sahasranama (a prayer to Vishnu that dates from the time of the Mahabharata and describes him as the Universal Brahman), Shri Rudram (a Vedic hymn to Rudra, an earlier aspect of Shiva that also describes Him as Brahman) and the Gayatri mantra, (another Vedic hymn that initially was meant as a prayer to the Sun, an aspect of Brahman but has other interpretations. It is now interpreted as a prayer to the impersonal absolute Brahman). Another famous hymn, Lalitha Sahasranama, describes the 1000 names of Devi, worshipped as God the Divine Mother, or God's Shakti or Power personified by Hindus.
  • It is important to add that in Hinduism (Sanatan Dharam) God is considered the Supreme Being, and many views of God range from panentheism to dualism. His appearance, in its entirety, cannot be comprehended by the common man. His appearance with form is only a manifestation of certain characteristics.

In Hinduism there are two methods of worship:

  1. To worship God through meditation on an icon (murti).
  2. To worship God without icon worship.

Modern views

Mathematical definitions

Process philosophy and Open Theism definition of God

In both views, God is not omnipotent in the classical sense of a coercive being. Reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events, which are experiential in nature. The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God and creatures co-create. God cannot force anything to happen, but rather only influence the exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. See the entries on Process theology, Panentheism, and Open theism.

Posthuman God

Similar to this theory is the belief or aspiration that humans will create a God entity, emerging from an artificial intelligence. Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction writer, said in an interview that: It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him.

Another variant on this hypothesis is that humanity or a segment of humanity will create or evolve into a posthuman God by itself; for some examples, see cosmotheism, transhumanism, technological singularity.

Extraterrestrials

Some comparatively new belief systems and books portray God as Extraterrestrial life. Many of these theories hold that intelligent beings from another world have been visiting Earth for many thousands of years, and have influenced the development of our religions. Some of these books posit that prophets or messiahs were sent to the human race in order to teach morality and encourage the development of civilization. (See e.g. Rael).

Phenomenological definition

The philosopher Michel Henry defines God in a phenomenological point of view. He says : « God is Life, he is the essence of Life, or, if we prefere, the essence of Life is God. Saying this we already know what is God, we know it not by the effect of a learning or of some knowledge, we don’t know it by the thought, on the background of the truth of the world ; we know it and we can know it only in and by the Life itself. We can know it only in God. » (That’s me the Truth. Toward a philosophy of Christianity).

References

  • Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Ballantine Books, 1994
  • Jack Miles, God : A Biography, Knopf, 1995. [1]
  • Cliff Pickover, The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience, Palgrave/St Martin's Press, 2001.

See also

External links

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