What Is God?

In case I haven’t mentioned it on this blog before: I’m a college student. This semester, I am taking Introduction to Philosophy, and having now made it about two-thirds of the way through the course, I really think that this is a class every student should take at some point. Philosophy teaches you how to think about complex questions. And some of the questions are very, very complex.

My class recently moved into the study of Metaphysics, and for the last few class sessions we’ve been talking about Theism — specifically about different arguments for and against the existence of God. Looking at the different ways people throughout history have defined God has got me thinking about my own definition, and I decided to take some time to write down what God is to me. Those notes became the rest of this blog post.

(It’s a shame that I have to make a disclaimer on a post like this, but I’ve been on the Internet long enough to know that it needs to be said. This post is about what I believe about God — this is just me sharing my thoughts. I am not trying to say that this is what you should believe, or that any other beliefs are invalid. God may mean something different to you than God does to me, and that’s okay.)

I’m going to start with a literary allusion, because books are what I know best. In H.P. Lovecraft’s work (I know, I know, but stay with me), Cthulhu is both an indescribable force of entropy and a being who personifies that force. In a way, this is similar to how I think of God. God is both the immense, indescribable force of order that permeates and sustains the universe and a being that personifies that force. To refer to God only as a supernatural figure fails to capture God’s immensity, but to refer to God only as an impersonal force fails to capture the personal and intimate aspect of God. And just like Cthulhu in Lovecraft’s work, God can never be completely comprehended by the human intellect or accurately described by human language. The countless scriptures, poems, and hymns that describe God are only an approximation of the reality. They are, to put it bluntly, the best we can do. We are, at least on one level, physical beings, and are therefore not programmed to understand the divine.

It is because of this dualistic approach (viewing God as both a force and a Person) that I don’t have an issue with Trinitarian doctrine. I do not think that there are three Gods or that God is somehow both three persons and one Person. I think that God is One — and as previously stated, that One is both an intelligent being and a boundless force. The Latin word for the three aspects of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is personae, which originally referred to the masks worn by an actor. By definition, these three personae are not separate beings, but are the same being filling different roles. To Christians, the Father represents God the Creator, the Son represents God the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit represents God as a guide and counsel. But they are all still God.

Here’s where I differ a little (okay, a lot) from mainstream Christians: I do not think the three personae of the Trinity are the only legitimate faces of God. God is boundless and incomprehensible, but God is also filled with love for God’s creations and a desire to be known by us. It makes perfect sense to me that God would appear to someone in a form they would recognize. For one person, that may be Jesus Christ. For another, it may be Lord Vishnu, or Kwan Yin, or any of countless other faces. They, too, are all God.

I’m not pulling this idea out of thin air. If you really study global religions, you will find that there are many common threads running through them. Even in vastly different religions like, say, Christianity (a monotheistic religion that has historically preached love and peace) and Heathenry/Asatru (a polytheistic religion that grew out of a war-based culture), there are noticeable and striking similarities. I do not think such coherence among different faiths would be possible if all or most of them were not at least partially divinely inspired.

(As a side note, I absolutely believe that some religions get more right than others do. My point here is that I do not believe anyone is completely wrong.)

So why do I identify as a Christian if I believe that other religions are equally valid? There are a few reasons for it, not the least of which is that I grew up Christian. Jesus Christ is the familiar face of God in my life, and there’s something to be said for that.

I also believe that Jesus demonstrates one of, if not the best example of a person whose life is lived in total harmony with the will of God. I don’t know if he was the literal biological son of God (there are compelling theological and historical arguments for and against this, but that’s a debate for another post) but I know that he lived a life filled with the glory of God and that he became One with God after — or, more accurately, through — his crucifixion. I truly believe that Jesus was and is “God with us” (the common English translation of the Hebrew name Emmanuel) and that he worked and works tirelessly to establish God’s kingdom of Earth. I believe that by following Christ’s example and by living his teachings, I am more in tune with the will of God. Through Jesus, I am able to live a better life and to share this new, eternal life with the people around me.

Sharing with the people around me is important to me, because I believe that there is a part of God’s Grace in all living things, most especially in human beings. This is one place where my thoughts are closer to Hinduism than Christianity; the Hindu concept of the atman, the eternal self, the god-self within the physical self, is a good example of what I’m talking about. Or we could define it as the “Inner Light” of the Quakers, or simply as “the soul.” These are all different expressions of the same idea: that there is a little bit of the divine within each of us.

According to the most basic laws of physics, neither energy nor matter can be created or destroyed — everything that exists comes from somethings else, matter and energy shifting through countless forms over billions of years. The material that makes up the universe now is the same material that made it up at its birth. If we believe that the soul is something separate from the body and even the mind — which I, and most religious people, do — then that soul must have come from somewhere. By the laws of the universe, it could not have spontaneously come into being at the moment of our birth, or conception, or whenever our life began. To me, it makes sense that this source, this Great Soul from which all souls are born (the Paramatman or Absolute Self, to use another Hindu term), is God. God is the source of life. God is also a being of infinite love, of sacrificial and radical love. It is consistent with everything I know about God to believe that God would be willing to give of God’s self to create each of us. Our souls are born from God, and therefore contain the essence of God.

I do not think human souls are God. I think that we are of God, which is a very different idea. Remember that the laws of physics state that, while energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can be transformed. The soul/Inner Light/atman within us is no longer a part of God — we don’t have access to God’s omniscience because we are limited by our human knowledge, for example — but is still divine in nature. For lack of a better way to phrase this, it’s made of the same stuff as God. This allows us to access God through prayer and meditation, and to be instruments of God’s will.

This also means that, because God is inherently good, human beings are also inherently good. But again, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that there are no bad people (there are) or that our actions don’t matter because we contain this essence of God (they do). Humans have free will, and it is well within our power to deny our nature as partially divine beings and to do horrible, evil things. I do think that the people who do these things are going against their nature, but it does happen and when it does the people responsible should have to answer for their actions. Free will is the cause of a lot of human suffering, but without it we wouldn’t really be individual persons. Without the ability to make our own choices (even if those choices oppose God’s will), we would just be an extension of God.

Free will is also the reason that our species comes up with so many different explanations and interpretations of the divine. My favorite metaphor for religion is one that I heard so many years ago that I’ve actually forgotten the source, but it’s one that rings true in its simplicity. Imagine three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. As none of them can see the elephant, they must rely on their sense of touch to identify it. One man runs his hands over the trunk, and proclaims that the thing before him is a tree. Another man touches an ear, and proclaims that the thing before him is a fan. The third man touches the tail, and proclaims that the thing before him is a rope. Each of the men is sure that he is correct and that the other two are crazy — but if they were to listen to each other and combine their information, they would end up with a more complete mental picture of the elephant in its entirety.

So it is with God. In this metaphor, we (as in, the human race) are the blind men, and God is the elephant. We’re quick to assume that our narrow view of God must be the complete picture, and that any other interpretation is the delusions of the mad and blind. But if we listen to each other with open hearts and minds, we may be able to help each other become closer to the God from which we all are made. That’s part of the reason why I made this blog, and a lot of the reason why I love learning about the traditions and practices of as many different faiths as I can. It’s why I’m passionate about religious studies.

The more I study, the more I feel like this must be the case. We walk many paths, but our destination is ultimately the same: to be united once more with the glory of God.


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