The Varieties of God

SOULJOURN:  The novel and the journey of interfaith exploration….

I offer here a categorization and listing of ways that people think about God, across the boundaries of world religions.  It’s far from complete.  Some categories overlap with each other.   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.

(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.

 

Is your God on this list?  Add your categories and comments below!

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 .


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