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So, What is God?

A presentation on Gods being and his relationship to our universe and ourselves.  Disparate theories from the world's major religious systems, when reconciled, provide an overall concept that has credibility

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1. INTRODUCTION

What is God? Essentially, believable theories about God’s being and existence are available! Firstly though, I think most of us know what God is not. Few would concede that he is an old white haired gentleman, dressed in wondrous robes, sitting on a golden throne up on the clouds. Simple views like these, left without intelligent alternatives, have severely impacted many a thinker’s ability to trust in his existence.

I must highlight, at the outset, that what follows in this article is a high level presentation on God’s being and its relationship to us humans and our habitat, planet Earth. As implied, this article relates only to the ‘being of God’ and his relationship to the state of ‘our being’ as we humans know it. Again, as this article’s heading infers, I explain here “what God is”. As a Christian, I believe that Christianity itself can provide the best explanation of “who God is”, that is an understanding of the personal side of God.  I mention more about this in the closing words of this article.

Logically, God has no need of human physical properties to support his existence. I guess there is no reason to even think of God as male or female. But, note that I do refer to God as “him” throughout the articles on this website, because that is what ‘I am used to’ within my chosen religion
. In the end, political correctness should have little bearing on the subject – God is God!

Theological issues – such as what we have to do to get to heaven after death, or even if there is a heaven at all – are only lightly touched here in this article, as and when necessary, and are largely out of scope. Please note that if you, the reader, simply wants to ‘test’ for yourself  whether God does exist, I suggest you access the section of this website, “Believing in God”.

2.    CONFLICTING VIEWS

Now we know the major religions of this world each has millions of followers. And, we should logically be able to turn to all of those religions for a common answer on, “What is God?” However, they don’t seem able to agree, at least initially, do they? In essence there are significant differences of opinion on the nature of Gods being’, and other important aspects such as life after death, held by the religious fundamentalists of all persuasions.

Serious conflict appears to exist between the two major camps – the “monotheist religions” and the so-called “pantheist religions”. (Explanations of these religious systems follow.) Polytheistic religions, those with multiple gods, often refer back to a single godhead in which the multiple gods are contained. The multiple gods are sometimes viewed, as within areas of Hinduism, as functional elements of the ‘One’. So, even polytheistic religions often still fall into one of the two camps identified above.

In essence, the theoretical nature of most gods fall into either one or the other of the two opposing views that follow.

2.1    Monotheism

The monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common heritage. (The basis of Christianity has been presented in the section, Christianity explained.) In essence, each of the three great monotheist religions maintains that there is only one god. There is also a very strong emphasis, within monotheism, on the ‘transcendent’ nature of God. Within the theology of all three religions, God is understood as all-powerful, all-knowing and beyond our ability to fully understand or experience him.  He then theoretically transcends us, our universe and even our ability to perceive him. Many Christians solely think of God as a being in Heaven and separate from his creations. 

All monotheist religions also believe that God is capable of, and wants to have, a personal ‘one-on-one’ relationship with every human being in this world. As a result, most monotheist followers tend to think of God as a ‘super’ person. The term, “personal God” arises from this outlook.

Somewhere about 1500 BC, God provided us present day folk with some understanding of his actual being. He did this via the name that he chose for himself, “I AM”. It appears in the Christian Old Testament [Exodus 3:14) and is repeated again in a very profound manner within the New Testament [John 8:58]. The name implies that: he has ‘being’; he ‘exists’, although not in a physical sense like us. It also carries the connotation that he himself is ‘uncreated’ and ‘self-existent’. Essentially, he just is! “I AM” is a pretty impressive name alright.

When it comes to his relationship with our planet many Christians, particularly fundamentalists, point to the Biblical Book of Genesis. And if that alone is taken literally, God created the world and has his own existence predominately outside of it, i.e. totally separate from it. Theoretically, in that view, the world generally continues to tick along quite well and independently without his help. This outlook is a very different view from that held by pantheist religions (and many moderate thinking monotheists, I might add). In fact there are Biblical verses, both in the Old and New Testament, that clearly indicate that we are continually dependent on God for our existences. This piece of imagery is from the Bibles Old Testament highlights the point:

            If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
            all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.
            [Job 34:14-15]

Within most mainstream monotheism there is little emphasis placed on this sustaining relationship that God has to our physical existences here on earth: his presence here, and his ongoing relationship to ‘all that is’, i.e. reality. It is rarely raised by clerics, probably because it has little bearing on our daily lives, as we perceive them, and faith itself. Within monotheism, this element of God’s nature is termed, “immanence” (i.e. his presence pervades the entire universe). I will further explain later why this second side of God’s nature is largely disregarded, even though monotheist holy books including the Christian Bible clearly refer to it. One example of Gods immanence from the Bibles Old Testament states:

            Do I not fill heaven and earth
            [Jeremiah 23:24] (Written as the words of God.)
          

More explicit examples of Gods immanence and sustaining nature, from the New Testament, follow:

            God did this so men would seek him
            and perhaps reach out for him and find him,
            though he is not far from each of us.
           
For in him we live and move and have our being.
            As some of your own poets have said,
We are his offspring.
            [Acts 17:27-28]

                      He (Jesus/ God) is before all things,
                      and in him all things hold together.
                      Colossians 1:17]
(My addition in brackets)

                      For from him and through him and to him are all things.
                      To him be the glory forever.
                      Amen.
                      [Romans 11:36]

2.2    Pantheism

The pantheist religions – which include Taoism in its early form, much of Buddhism and some segments of Hinduism – have a very different viewpoint from mainstream monotheism. They view God as the basis of reality itself. This outlook is largely based on the mystical experiences (i.e. arising from religious meditation) of these religions founders.

Indeed, within pantheism, everything is understood as having a one-ness with reality, and as such, with God. God is, as far as they are concerned, very much a part of this world. That is, God is totally present in this world or immanent and not transcendent (or personal) at all.

The most accurate way to describe God’s basis within pantheism, as best can be achieved with words, would be “pure consciousness”. Within pantheism, we might think of the world, indeed the entire universe, as the “mind of God”. As such, God can also be understood as the ground of being itself.  This is to be expected, on both counts, if reality is generated by a single conscious ‘force’.

Some of pantheisms writings offer a theoretical state where, in very simplified terms, all living and inanimate things, although having a visible individuality, are also One (i.e. God). In this particular school of thought it is reasoned that if God is us’, and nothing more than that, then the individuality we seem to have is illusionary. Personally, I think there is more to us than this outlook infers (and I will explain why later), but I do understand the basis of the reasoning, because it stems from meditative experiences (mysticism). 

Writings also promote the existence of a ‘world soul’ that contains the essence of every living being.

The planet Earth, indeed the entire universe, within these models takes on a whole new religious dimension. In pantheist systems of belief there is no God external to the universe, or (within most theory) even separate to ourselves, with whom we humans can enter into a personal relationship. If we are theoretically God, then obviously we do not have anything outside of ourselves to pray to, or enter into a relationship with for that matter, do we? Again, I understand the logic behind the philosophy, and its relationship to mystical experience, but my other life experiences say otherwise on this view as well. But, I shall also get to that later.

2.3    Respective theories on life after death

The theories of ‘after-lives’ of the two religious schools of thought are related to their different viewpoints on God’s nature. Within monotheist religions God is transcendent and, figuratively speaking, elevated above all else that exists – his basis (at the least) is separate from the universe. Because he has personal relationships with each of his faithful, then life after death can be with him in eternity (what we refer to as Heaven).

Pantheism, on the other hand, due to its lack of a ‘personal’ God outside of the universe, can offer no such relationship after death. Commonly, pantheist religions offer reincarnation of the soul, through life after life, here on earth. Some pantheist religions, such as Zen Buddhism, do not even have a theory on after-life – i.e. they believe that the state of individual “being” is extinguished at death. One analogy from Zen that I have seen, offered as an explanation of death, is that of a drop of water (representing a living existence) being re-absorbed into a river (representing the ground of all being) from which it was dislodged earlier.

3.    RECONCILING THE MAJOR DIFFERENCES

So, how can we reconcile two such opposing views of God’s being? These differences fuel the arguments of atheists and even cause some doubt in the minds of ‘faithful’ thinkers. Obviously these thinkers, within their respective systems of faith, wonder how can the God of another ‘faith’ differ so much from their own. (Of course, the fundamentalists of each religion just know they’re right!)

Rational, intelligent people obviously belong to the two schools of thought, as would always have been the case. Therefore, it seems fairly obvious again that both groups must have based their beliefs on their own experiences of God’s presence in their lives.

Well, from my own understanding, it is a case of differing aspects of our one God being recognised within the experiences of the two groups. As is the case when two individual people ‘beg to differ’ on any logically based opinion, one view may be more important in the scheme of things but that doesn’t stop both opinions from having a basis of reason.

3.1    Experiencing God’s immanent nature

Due to my goal of wanting to know more about God, I decided quite early in my faith journey to try to understand more of the pantheist viewpoint. I knew that the theories of pantheism are normally based on mystical experience, so I decided to see for myself. It took some determination, several years of it in fact, to reach my first genuine ‘experience’.

There is a world of difference between the states of mind used in contemporary relaxation techniques (simple meditative methods used to calm the mind) and intense mystical experience. A mystical state begins with the same feeling of deep relaxation, as in mind calming meditation. But the experience gets to a point, about when one feels as relaxed as one could ever get, where there is a dramatic change to the conscious state of mind. The mind feels, in that moment, as though it has been launched into a totally different zone. There is no doubting about it ... you know when you get there!

My eventual experiences in that state certainly support the pantheist views of God. I can honestly say that I felt the same levels of intense intoxication, lack of physical existence, one-ness with all, and timelessness of which the mystics of pantheist religions write. I also felt an overwhelming sense of huge-ness. The sense of ‘peace’ encountered doesn’t do the word justice. And even though I was totally intoxicated by these experiences, I still (surprisingly) had most of my faculties. Although I was totally ‘off my face’ I could, for example, walk a straight line and effectively use my cognitive powers. It is really quite a paradoxical state. 

Whilst there was no guarantee that I was ‘connecting’ with God during the experiences, I believe that I perceived an aura of what might best be described as ‘holiness’ within them. Some fuzzy unexplainable and yet unmistakable ‘special-ness’ dwelt there, through and behind those experiences. As a result, I certainly came to think of the world (or ‘reality’) in a way that I had never done before. The mystically inspired nature poetry of intuitive geniuses such as William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman suddenly made a lot more sense to me.

Interestingly enough, I received some belated evidence of the genuine-ness of these mystical experiences (i.e. it had been an encounter with God) a decade later through contact with a Christian fundamentalist Born Again pastor. Evidence of that nature, and in that setting, was bizarre in itself.  The article, “God within the Church” includes a ‘rundown’ on events, and related spiritual experiences there, within the Born Again/ Charismatic movement. The incident with the pastor, mentioned above, is included. Bear in mind too that I can also now say that the mystical experience of a pantheist is little different to that of a Christian mystic, because I subsequently  experienced that in due course as well.

3.2    Experiencing God’s transcendent and personal nature

In all honesty I could, like a Zen Buddhist, have just accepted what I had learnt from those early mystical experiences as all there was to know of God. Instead, due to my additional experiences of a ‘personal’ God, I also have a practical understanding of other aspects of him.

I, like millions of other monotheist believers (Jews, Christians and Muslims) around the world at this time, have developed a personal relationship with God. That relationship of mine was first established thirty plus years ago, and has continually developed since that time.

My belief in the God of monotheism is of course based on my own life experiences as a Christian, and the evidence of God’s everyday presence there. I know that he really can hear each of us when we speak to him. And I am totally convinced that it really is possible at times to hear his “still small voice”. And he definitely, from my experience, tries very hard to guide us all down the ‘right track’ in life. Although I am a Christian moderate, I have also witnessed stuff in so-called Born Again/ Charismatic church services that really rocked my socks’  sound evidence, as far as I am concerned, of Godpersonal presence in those services

I have devoted an entire section on this website, “Believing in God” to explaining how anyone can find (and then evaluate) the evidence necessary to establish for themselves that the God of monotheism exists. Undeniably to me, billions of people, over thousands of years, have proven to themselves that a ‘personal’ relationship with God is possible.

4.    PANENTHEISM

Although not an issue for the average Christian pulpit, the concept of God as the ‘ground of being’ received considerable thought from learned twentieth century Christian theologians such as John Macquarrie and Paul Tillich. Of course, twentieth century theologians were not the first to write clearly about such a concept. Notable and related examples of earlier writing, still in existence, are from the brilliant Christian mystic and debater Meister Eckhart (1260-1328 AD). There have been many other fine examples over the centuries.

The two opposing views of God already discussed in this article, immanence and transcendence, are actually aligned within this theology. I discovered Macquarries and Tillichs books after I had learnt in my own way (i.e. through my experiences). It is not surprising that the same thoughts have also been expressed within the theology of Judaism and Islam.

This Christian theology of  panentheism offers us a complex yet believable concept – a God who transcends our universe, yet simultaneously ‘enables’ its continued reality from within.

Although having the same ultimate outcome, there are differing versions of panentheism. One version is pronounced “panen-theism” meaning, “All things are within God but God is more than the sum of all things.” An alternative version, pronounced “pan-entheism”, theorises that “God dwells in all things” as well as simultaneously being transcendent and outside the universe.

There are again differing ways of depicting how God creates reality within panentheism. In the examples above, God is the ‘ground of being’ (the basis of all reality itself), or he creates the universe from himself (Creatio ex Deo). Within the second model, God, while pervading reality, maintains its existence via “Creatio Ex Nihilo” – creating it out of nothing, i.e. ‘willing it’ or thinking it into continued existence.

You can imagine it like this: Gods being is akin to a hugely powerful mind, and within that mind is a thought that is our universe and all that exists within it. As such, God has his self-existence (Mind/ Eternity/ Heaven) and within it we have own separate being (in the space-time continuum that is the universe). Unlike the pantheist model, our existences, within the theology of panentheism, have separation from Gods being. That is, we exist within him but we have a genuine individual being of our own.

Fundamentally, one version of panentheism has God as the basis of the universe, and the other has God underpinning reality by continually willing it to exist out of nothing-ness. Either way, every moment of reality is dependent on Gods immanent creative and sustaining power. Within both versions, God is also simultaneously outside the confines of space and time of our universe. As opposed to us, God’s basis itself is within ‘Eternity’.

Bear in mind too that God, although ‘enabling’ reality to exist, allows nature to follow its own course. He does not directly make everything happen! By and large, reality is governed by the laws of cause and effect that he has designed into it. By ‘design’, I don’t mean he built it all in literally seven days, as described through imagery within the Bible’s Old Testament book of Genesis. It is more likely he designed his laws into the universe before initiating the “big bang”, which has subsequently rolled out reality into the perfect state of existence that it is.

God clearly has a motive for hiding himself from us too, in a material sense, and that is discussed in the Lead Article, “Believing in God” within the section of the same name. So, it is no surprise that his handiwork in our universe is hidden from us. I have tried to present a credible view of the current theories of science, and their relationship to religion, in an article devoted to the subject, “Science and religion” within this section of the website.

5.    THE CHOICE – PANTHEISM OR
MONOTHEISM/ PANENTHEISM?

As I have said, as far as I am concerned both major streams of religion, pantheism and monotheism (including “panentheism”) have substance. I believe that they are both based on the relative experiences of their believers. But I feel at this point that I need to offer an explanation of why I have chosen a monotheist religion (Christianity) for myself. Firstly, though, before going on, let me make it clear that God loves us all, regardless of our chosen religions. In the words of South Africas Archbishop Tutu, God is not a Christian. Tutu went on to declare that, None is an outsider ... all are held in a divine embrace that will not let us go  all, for God has no enemies.” 

None-the-less, does it matter which religion we belong to? Well, as far as I am concerned, I believe it does. Most religions contain some truth (or maybe ‘Truth). Some religions obviously contain more than others. And again some religious truths are more important than others. I personally do not believe that God views all religions as equal. 

My mystical experiences indicated that God is immanent, and somehow the creative force behind and within the ‘reality’ that we all experience in life. He can be experienced there! As I have already written, I could have left it at that, but due to my additional experiences of a ‘personal’ God, I also came to have a practical understanding of other aspects of God. These life experiences support the Jewish/ Christian/ Muslim view of God’s transcendent nature, and his personal relationship with each of us humans, that differs so much from pantheist beliefs.

Theories on the nature of ‘being’ (metaphysics) have little relevance to the average monotheistic believer. Whilst I have little doubt about how it all fits together, I can see their point. When it comes ‘to the crunch’ for Judaism, Christianity or Islam, the transcendent and personal aspects of God have to be there. Otherwise, we cannot have the God who cares for each individual one of us – a God who can listen to us, strengthen us, guide us and, yes, even speak into our heads with his ‘still quiet voice’. Christianity adds emphasis to one of God’s personal characteristics, “love”.

As a Christian I feel that I must put a plug in for my religion. It is, from my analysis and experience, well evidenced and self proving. The practise of Christian faith, exercised in daily life and also importantly through contact with the Christian Church, enables us to genuinely experience God as a living, loving being who is intimately involved with our lives. Yes, and a God who wants to be ever more lovingly engaged with our lives, I must add in all sincerity. I write this based on my experiences and the supportive statements received from many other Christians.

By comparison to monotheist religions, the follower of a pantheist religion will experience a very different relationship with God. Their religious experiences will lead them to what is best explained as a sense of deep contentment that is very meaningful and holy. They can, through their practises, detach themselves from all the worries of this planet and enter into a peaceful yet non-personal relationship with the Universe (that is, God as solely the ‘Ground of Being’).

But, from my experience of both types of religion, the loss of a relationship with the personal God of Jews, Christians and Muslims – which unfortunately occurs with the pantheist religions – is a significant trade off. Bear in mind that I have a deep respect for those people who can commit to a long term relationship with the Ground of Being. There are rich rewards for them. It is a ‘beautiful thing’, but to my point of view it is not the ‘whole thing’.

6.    WHERE TO NEXT?

By all means access the writings of the world’s great religions to learn more of God’s theoretical being, and relationship to humankind, if you so desire. The Lead Article for this section of the website, Faith and reason” summarises other issues that can challenge the concept of faith for many people, such as suffering and evil and the perceived conflict between religious and scientific theory.

But, if you feel that you would like to begin a relationship with the great I AM and ‘to test the waters’, then access the next section of this website, “Believing in God”. Methods to build ‘faith’ in a monotheist sense (i.e. by recognising God’s presence in his Church and in your life and develop a lifelong fulfilling relationship with God, are included in that section.

The final section of this website explains the basics of Christianity. The Lead Article, Christianity explained, which is sub-titled Gods Beloved with good reason, provides an overview of the religion and how God is to be understood within it. It includes descriptions of Gods personal nature, i.e. the who is God stuff, as opposed to the  nature of Gods being that has been the primary subject of this article.