The Varieties of God

I offer here a categorization and listing of ways that people think about God.
It’s far from complete.  Some categories overlap with each other.  I’ve
been thinking a lot about the subject lately, in the course of reading
Nicolas of Cusa from the 15th century and Charles Hartshorne from the
20th, theologians who had strikingly similar views of divinity in some
respects.  I offer this list in order to stimulate my own thinking, and
hopefully yours, about the tremendous variety of ways that people have
tried to define or begin to comprehend Ultimate Reality.  The list is a
meditation inspiring humility in all of us who claim to be religious or
to have any clue about the nature of God.  Is your God on this list?

(Special thanks go to Roger Christian Schriner for his excellent treatment of this subject in his recent book, Beyond the God Gap.)

Supernatural Theism

God is a divine personality who is either outside of the universe or
otherwise not one and the same with it, and who intervenes miraculously
in the cosmos for his/her purposes.

The God Dude or Dudette.  Technical term:  anthropomorphism.
This is the very human, earthy God who walked in the Garden of Eden
with Adam.  This a kind of God found in many cultures of the world: a superman or superwoman with
amazing powers, intervening sometimes capriciously in human affairs, yet
with very human flaws and foibles.

The Local God.  Technical term:  henotheism.
God is a supernatural, anthropomorphic being who has supreme power only
within a circumscribed geographic area.  In the Hebrew Scripture, the
Syrian general Naaman believed that the God of Israel had sway only over
the land of Israel – so when he went back to Syria after his healing in
Israel, he took a load of dirt from Israel with him so that he could
turn to the power of the God of Israel again.  It’s clear that the
people of Israel believed this about their God in one period of their
history.  Henotheism is associated with the idea of God as protector and
benefactor of a particular tribe or nation.

The Specialist God.  Technical term:  polytheism.
This is a collection of Gods, each with particular jobs:  The Creator,
The Destroyer, The Luck-Bestower, The Wise One, The Trickster, The Loyal
Sidekick.  While each god in the “pantheon” may have a unique character
and role in intervening in human affairs, in some religions each may also be
understood as a manifestation of the one, ultimate God.  Each god can be worshiped separately, or be seen as a
member of a heavenly “court” or “Godhead” – a
board of directors of supernatural beings headed by a high God.  The
Greeks had a pantheon of “specialist” gods headed by Zeus, who was more
powerful than the other gods, but not categorically distinct from them.
In the Hebrew Book of Job, God
consults with his cabinet, including Satan, to determine Job’s fate.  This early biblical version of God lies somewhere between the polytheistic and monotheistic understandings of divinity.

The God above gods.  Technical term: monotheism.  There
is only one God; all others are figments of the imagination or are
categorically lesser spiritual beings. The biblical commandment not to
have other gods before God reflects that the Jews assumed there were
other gods, but they were inferior to the God of Israel, or at least not
to be worshiped as supreme in Israel.  A variation of this idea shows
up in references to “spirits” in the New Testament.  Early Christians
assumed that there were spiritual entities other than, but inferior to,
the one and only true God.  In the establishment of Islam, a pantheon of “specialist” gods gave
way to just one God, Allah, whose 99 names refer to his varied qualities
and roles.

The Perfectible God.
The Mormon faith suggests that God once was a man who went through a
process of spiritual perfecting until he became divine, and that human
beings can follow the same kind of path.  One way to read the Bible is
to see it as the development of the character of God from a vengeful,
jealous, capricious man-God, into a cosmic, indescribable Creator and
Sovereign, and ultimately into divine Love.

The Spiritual God.
This is the divine ultimate reality of people who call themselves
“spiritual but not religious”.  The term “God” is used less than
Spirit.  The Spirit is is the force of “attraction” that is invoked by
positive thinking or prayer, causing miracles that benefit people.
Often, it is understood to have force only if it a person is attuned to
it through meditation or repetitive affirmations of one’s intentions.
This view is associated with the belief that only Spirit, not matter, is
fundamentally real – that nature is supernatural.

The Crucified God.
For many Christians, the person of Jesus is all they really mean by the
word God.  Jesus is God in human form, who was born and died, served
and suffered in the world, in order to save humanity from sin.  He
continues to intervene in on earth, answering prayers and making
miracles happen.  He will return to earth in a glorious form at the end
of history.

Natural Theism

God is in nature, or is the same as nature, or is the creative and
compassionate quality of the cosmos.  God does not intervene in nature
through “miracles”.  Science reveals as much or more about God than
theology.

The Outsourcer God.  Technical term: deism.  This is a bridge between supernaturalism and naturalism.  God is the eternal power that created the universe and the rules by which it operates, and then stays out of the way and lets natural
processes take their course according to physical laws.  God does not
intervene in history with “miracles”.  God did the initial work, and
then “outsourced” the rest of creation to nature.  This was
the view of God shared by many of America’s “founding fathers”, and is
somewhat similar to the view of Albert Einstein.

The Everywhere God.  Technical term: pantheism.
It’s a departure from supernatural theism that suggests that God is to
be found in every entity in the universe.  William Blake expressed this
viewpoint in his poem, “Auguries of Innocence”:  “To see the world in a
grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold eternity in the palm of
your hand, And eternity in an hour.”  It might be compared to the
concept of the fractal, in which large-scale structures are mirrored at
smaller scales.

The Love God.
God is love – an experience that humans have toward each other and
toward the cosmos.  God is action and attitude, rather than an abstract
theological concept.  This view is associated with mystical, personal
spirituality and is a way that many Christians use to express their
faith outside of traditional dogma and doctrine.  Some folks with this
definition of God think of love as a supernatural power that works
miracles – others see love as part of nature.

The Process God.  Technical term:  panentheism.
Process theology and philosophy views God either as one and the same
with the universe as a whole, or as the creative process of the
universe.  This is a step beyond pantheism.  God is to be found in the
whole, or in the process of emergence of all entities and events.  It
suggests that God is not outside the universe, but effectively is one
and the same with it.  God is the eternal, ever-creating essence of a
cosmos without beginning or end.  Panentheism allows for the idea of God
as the “person” who is the universe as a whole, compassionately
“feeling” all the pain and joy and possibility in the cosmos.  It also
allows for the idea of God as the impersonal, essential quality of
creativity intrinsic to all events and entities in the cosmos.  A
related idea is “naturalistic theism”, seeing God and nature as one;
some people with this view call themselves “religious naturalists”.  But
some “religious naturalists” are atheists with a religious impulse
toward reverence.

Transcendent Theism

This is a view of God as beyond the reach of human consciousness to
comprehend.  For some, this leads to abstention from talk about God
altogether, or to refer to God in only highly abstract and non-specific
terms.  For others, it leads to doubt or denial of the existence of any
kind of God.

The God of Existence.
The theologian Paul Tillich called God the “ground of being”.  God is
“is” – existence itself.  This view is suggested in the book of Exodus,
in which the burning bush tells Moses that its name is “I AM THAT I
AM”.  It is reflected in the sacred name/sound of God in Hinduism, “OM”,
which is probably a Sanskrit cognate of the verb “to be” – and may be
linguistically related to the Hebrew word “Amen” – “so be it”.

The Ineffable ___.
God is so holy and divine that he/she/it is beyond the human capacity
to describe, explain, or name.  In some religions, this viewpoint is
expressed by abstaining from reference to God altogether, as in much of
Buddhism.  In Judaism, it is expressed by avoiding the use of any name for God – such as writing G-d, or just
saying the word “Hashem”, which means “name” in Hebrew, and also by the
biblical commandment to refrain from making “graven images” of the
divine.  Many ancient Greeks and Romans thought the Jews and the
Christians were atheists because they did not worship a God that could
be described or visualized.

The Questionable God.   Technical term: agnosticism,
or, literally translated, “not-knowing” whether or not there is a God.
Some self-described agnostics are closer to the idea of the Ineffable
God, others are closer to atheism.

The Nonexistent God.  Technical term: atheism.
This is a rejection of the existence of any kind of God.  In practice,
however, it is usually a rejection of supernatural or
anthropomorphic notions of God.  When I ask self-described atheists what
God they don’t believe in, every time they answer with a definition of
God that I don’t believe in, either – and I’m a Christian pastor!  Many
atheists have a deep sense of awe and reverence toward the cosmos that
is indistinguishable from sentiments associated with religion.

About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .

  • Joris Heise

    In my old age, I have come to see that in the Torah & Prophets, the four strands of tradition (JEPD), and in the New Testament with four distinct Gospels–this (Judaeo-Christian) tradition emphasizes your point–that the “god” needs to be seen from a variety of semi-contradictory points of view. It is by holding opposing views of the one “transcendental” meaning of god that we achieve some enriching human satisfaction about it. The current crop of Fundamentalists and/or Conservatives–as well as many a “heretic”–restrict the point of view to one, and thereby negate the mystery.

  • David Evans

    “When I ask self-described atheists what
    God they don’t believe in, every time they answer with a definition of
    God that I don’t believe in, either – and I’m a Christian pastor!”

    When you give them your definition of God, is it one they believe in? If not, there is less agreement between you than your statement suggests.

    If you ask me, a self-described atheist, what God I don’t believe in I will say “All of them”. I have feelings of awe towards the cosmos, but they do not lead me to postulate any sort of God.


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