Conceptions of God in World Religions

by frankbeswick

The various religions of the world differ among and sometimes within themselves about the concept of the ultimate being

Some time ago I read a letter in the paper from an atheist who rejected the commands of a bronze age beardy, by which he means, I presume the God of the Bible. I have news for this gentleman, nowhere in the Bible is God said to have a beard, he has taken this popular image from at best the Sistine chapel and most probably from cartoons. A wise man indeed! But the various religions differ significantly in their view of the ultimate being. Hinduism differs within itself, and Buddhism is agnostic about the ultimate nature of the universe. In this article I intend to delineate the various understandings of the deity found in the religions of the world.

Theism and the Alternatives

When I did my short and uncompleted studies for the Catholic priesthood, the philosophy lecturer began our third year course with an outline of the various views of God that one might take. He might also have said that religions of the world fall into a small number of streams. There is the Abrahamic, Western or Semitic stream,  into which fall Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam, along with one or two smaller offshoots;and there is the Eastern stream.composed of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Iranian stream is the Parsee/Zoroastrian faith. Others exist, such as Shinto and the pagan faiths, which are expressions of the most ancient stream of all. 

They fell into a number of broad views. Theism is the belief that there is a deity active in the world who can affect what goes on in his creation. But there are differences within theism. There are classical theists, who are represented in the main by Islam. They believe that God is in control of everything that happens in the world. Thus when fourteen hundred people died in a  crush at Mecca, the Saudi king said simply that it was Allah's will and that had they not been at Mecca they would have died at the same time and another place anyway. This is standard Muslim teaching expounded by Mohammed after  some of his friends died in battle. Other theists, such as most Christians, believe that God has a permissive will. He allows the universe that he created to run itself, but can act therein at times. Thus not everything in the world is caused by God.

Deism differs from these in that it accepts a creator God but not a deity who can act within the world that he has created. This view was common in the eighteenth century supporters of the machine theory, which regarded the universe as a mechanism created by a deity who allowed it triun under its own rules, and it is represented today by the ex-atheist Anthony Flew.

Pantheism is found mainly in the Hindu faith today, or some varieties of that incredibly compelx faith. This is the belief that the world is an illusion and all is really the deity. The view was popularised by Shankara [sankara] in the ninth century. There is a tale told about Shankara. A rajah who thought that he was talking nonsense summoned Shankara, but set a trap. In his grounds he had released a wild elephant, at the sight of which Shankara promply climbed a tree. The rajah later challenged him as to why if the elephant was an illusion he had shinned up the tree, to which Shankara retorted, "You did not see me  climbing a tree, you thought you saw an imaginary me escaping an imaginary elephant by climbing an imaginary tree." The rajah was neither impressed nor converted.

A later successor, Ramanuja, modified Shankara's view. He believed that the world was real enough, but that God was the self within the self, the true self at the heart of all humans. This view is common in some forms of Hinduism.


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Personality and God

Many non-believers do not appreciate that sophisticated religious people are aware of the limitations of their knowledge of the divine and of their language to express it. Most people in the Abrahamic tradition regard God as a personal being with whom they can enter a relationship, be it friendship and love as in Christianity, or submission as in Islam. Yet the unsophisticated view of God as the old man on the cloud does no justice to this kind of belief, for religious people are aware that God is not person in the exact sense that we are persons. Those who take up the negative way [via negativa] expounded by the early mediaeval mystic Dionysisus the Areopagite [known as Pseudo- dionysisus as he wrote under an assumed name] will accept that God is beyond all human language and that we can only speak of him[!] in negatives, saying what God is not. However, it has been noted that negatives imply positives and so later thinkers developed the way of supereminence [via supereminentissima] in which the deity is accepted as having qualities to a vastly higher degree than humans have them and is different in degree and to some extent kind. Thus a Christian will speak positively saying "God is love" but be aware that God's love is above and beyond human love.

Yet there are religious groups who do not believe in a personal God. Einstein did not accept a personal deity, but stated that God does not play dice with the world and spoke of the workings of a great spirit. This view is not unknown in the incredibly intellectually varied and rich religion of Judaism. Jews are orthoprax rather than orthodox, which means that they accept a core of common practices but differ in beliefs. Some forms of Hinduism believe that the ultimate reality is Brahman, an impersonal absolute from which all the plurality of Hindu deities stem. Others see God as a personal being, Vishnu, the source of and origin of the universe, whose breath creates as it exhales and desroys as it inhales [metaphorically] in an endless series of universes. sometimes this personal deity is known Bhagvan [high one.]


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Male or Female

A common feminist complaint is that Christians worship a male deity and are thence patriarchal. There is some truth in practice in this complaint, as the worshippers seem to have at the back of their minds a male figure. This probably derives from the Jewish heritage, in which Jesus called God Father. [No one would have understood if he had used feminine language] and it is almost certainly at the root of the silly refusal to have women priests. But chapter one of the book of Genesis says that God made male and female in his own image and likeness. Thus at the deeper level of the biblical tradition there is an awareness that God transcends mere maleness. It should also be known that Benedict the Sixteenth, writing in Jesus of Nazareth Volume 1 stated that Christians may call God mother. Dame Julian of Norwich sometimes spoke of God as she and her writings are widely read by Christians.

Yet some religions see God as femininine. Figurines from palaeolithic Europe depict a fertility goddess, a rather fat lady. Tacitus tells of how one of the seven tribes who lived around the Baltic shore, the Angli, worshipped the great goddess. You should recognize the name: the Angles, one of the tribes ancestral to the English, and they brought their worship with them. Certain sects of modern Hinduism think that the ultimate reality is Sakti, a divine feminine energy. Some forms of modern paganism worship the great goddess.

It seems likely that in the neolithic period deities were worshipped in male-female pairs. Grigsby believes that this was the case with the vanir, the deities worshipped across Europe in the neolithic and still operating as a second set of deities among the Scandinavian peoples. We can see evidence for the male-female pairing on the island of Gigha, where fishermen used to stop to give homage to two stones, the Bodach and the Callieach [the old man and the old woman.]There is still ancient shrine in Glen Lyon which has a small family of these two plus a daughter. It is still tended yearly by a local shepherd. Some modern pagans continue this male-female pairing and make it part of their beliefs.   


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Religion is a rich and varied phenomenon that defies the simplistic stereotypes that certain people impose on it for their own ends. It is a lifetime of study, and the great mystery at the heart of it, the mystery of God, is like an ocean on whose shore we stand gazing into the distances and the depths, sometimes entering it, but never going very far. Too ofteen people think that they understand it, but to understand is a lifetime study to be undertaken with an open mind and sensitivity to others who hold beliefs different from your own.

Updated: 10/17/2013, frankbeswick
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