Explaining God’s ‘being’ and his relationship
to our universe and ourselves.
Differing theories from the world’s major religious systems,
provide an overall concept that seems to have credibility.
What is God? Well firstly, rational theories about God’s being and existence are available! But, I think most of us know what God is not. Few would ‘think’ that he is an old white haired gentleman, dressed in wonderful robes, sitting on a golden throne up on the clouds. Simple views like these, left without intelligent alternatives, have severely damaged many a thinker’s ability to even trust in his existence.
I must highlight, upfront, that what follows in this article is a high level presentation on God’s being and its relationship to us human beings and our home, planet Earth. As implied, this article relates only to the ‘being of God’ and his relationship to the state of ‘our being’, as we human beings know it. The article tries to ‘sort out’ the major differences between major religious groups in that regard.
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”. I mention more about this in the closing words of this article.
Please note that if you, the reader, simply want to ‘test’ for yourself whether God actually does exist, I suggest you begin by accessing the article, “Can I really believe in God?”.
2. CONFLICTING VIEWS
In the very early stages of my own faith journey, I did decide that I needed to understand what God actually was. Maybe then, I could come to experience his presence; his existence. (To read about the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this website please click here.)
Now we know the major religions of this world each have millions of followers. And, we should logically be able to turn to those religions for a common answer on, “What is God?” However, they don’t seem able to agree do they?
Serious conflict does appear to exist between the two major camps – the “monotheist religions” and the “pantheist religions”. (Explanations of these religious systems follow.) In essence, most theories about God fall into either one or the other of the two opposing groups discussed in this article.
The pantheist religions – including Taoism in its early form, some segments of Hinduism and to some extent, Buddhism – have a very different viewpoint from mainstream monotheism (explained under Heading 4).
3.1 God’s relationship to reality
Pantheists generally view God as the basis of ‘reality’ itself. They, God and reality, are believed to be ‘one and the same‘, as I will explain. This outlook is often based on the mystical experiences (i.e. arising from religious ‘meditation’) of the founders of relevant religions.
Within pantheism, everything is understood as having a shared ‘one-ness’ with reality, and as such, with God. That is, God is totally present in this world, and the universe as a whole. (The term for his presence in that regard is “immanent”.)
3.2 Human relationship with God
Many of pantheism’s writings offer a theoretical state where, in very simple 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 ‘God is all of us’. As indicated above, the individuality we each seem to have is just not there!
Look, I do understand the basis of the reasoning, because it stems from meditative experiences (mysticism). And as explained in the article, “Analysing mysticism” I have personally evaluated those experiences for myself.
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 even separate to ourselves, with whom we humans can enter into a personal relationship. If all of us, put together, are theoretically God then obviously we do not have anything outside of ourselves to pray to, or enter into a personal relationship with for that matter, do we?
But, bear in mind, it is possible within pantheism for us human beings to ‘connect’ with the basis of reality as such … to experience it for ourselves … to be enlightened in a religious sense.
So, let’s have a look at the ‘other side of the coin’, that is monotheism.
The monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common heritage. (Christianity’s basis has been presented in the section, “Christianity explained”.)
Somewhere about 600 BC, or maybe even earlier, I believe that God ‘orchestrated’ a particular verse in the Bible that obviously intrigues me. It provides some understanding of his actual being. And he did this via the name that he chose for himself there, “I AM” (as used in the title of the website). It appears as examples 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 makes it clear that: he ‘exists’, although not necessarily in a physical sense like us. It also hints that he himself is ‘uncreated’ and ‘self-existent’. Essentially, he just is! It also indicates his transcendence (superiority), when compared to us humans. “I AM” is a pretty impressive name alright.
In essence, each of the three great monotheist religions maintain that there is only one god. There is also a very strong emphasis, within monotheism, on the ‘transcendent’ nature of God. All three religions, understand God as as all-powerful, all-knowing and even beyond our ability to fully understand or experience him.
4.1 Human relationship with God
Again, we have a very different outlook here to the pantheist view.
As already stated, he theoretically transcends us, our universe and even our ability to perceive him.
Many Christians also think of God as having an existence that is ‘spatially’ separate from themselves. They believe he is in Heaven and we are on Earth.
Unlike pantheists, all monotheists do agree that God and humans are separate beings. Our human existences do rely on God, but each of us have definite ‘separation’ from him, and other human beings for that matter.
All monotheist religions 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” also arises from this outlook.
4.2 God’s relationship to reality
When it comes to God’s 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 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. Now, this outlook is a very different view from that held by pantheist religions. And moderate thinking monotheists, I might add, don’t agree with it either.
In fact there are verses, in both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible, that indicate we are ‘continually’ dependent on God for our existences. And they clearly mean that God is immanent, as well as being transcendent. I offer those Bible explanations of God’s relationship to reality under the next heading.
So, within much of Christianity, this element of God’s nature termed, “immanence” (i.e. his presence pervades the entire universe) is definitely acknowledged. Remember, pantheism ‘is all about’ that aspect of God. But it does not include ‘transcendence’ at all in its theology.
And as we read those verses that follow, we get the impression that reality is ‘held together’ by him, and exists ‘within him’. As explained earlier, God is ‘uncreated’ and ‘self-existent’ in a transcendent sense.
As such then, it seems that as well as being transcendent God also contains all that does exist – our universe, us and eternity – within himself.
How can we think of God ‘himself’ in this context, then? Could God be described as a ‘spiritual force’ … or a ‘super-powerful mind’? You know, I believe we just waste our time trying to work it out! But, God certainly has no need of structure or form as we know it.
4.3 The Bible and how it all fits together
Firstly, I need to explain that the Bible’s “Old Testament” (written before the Jesus bits) offers many explanations to us human beings through its ‘imagery’. That is the universe, and all within it, is continually dependent on God for its existence. So, bare that in mind, with regard to the following verses relevant to God’s immanence.
Do I not fill heaven and earth
[Jeremiah 23:24] (Written as the words of God.)
If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.
But when it comes to the “New Testament” (the Jesus bits) the Bible offers much more clearer explanations of God’s immanence and his transcendent, sustaining nature. So, from the New Testament:
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.’
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever.
So, to me, it is pretty clear that the Bible intends us to know that God is immanent; his presence pervades reality, as we know it. That is in addition to his transcendent nature of course.
5. THEORIES OF AFTER-LIFE
The theories of ‘life after physical death’, or ‘after-lives’, of the two religious ‘schools of thought’ differ radically. Not surprisingly they are related to their different viewpoints on God’s nature.
5.1 Pantheism and death
Pantheism, due to its lack of a God with separate existence to the universe, or indeed each of us, can offer no ‘personal’ relationships with him 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. They believe that the state of individual ‘being’ is extinguished at death. I remember reading an analogy of life and death for human beings from a Zen writer. In the analogy, a human life was compared to a droplet of water, which had been separated from its source, going over a waterfall. Death of the human was represented by that single droplet being re-absorbed into a river below (representing the ‘ground of all being’) from which it had been separated earlier.
5.2 Monotheism and death
Within monotheist religions God is transcendent and, figuratively speaking, elevated way above all else that exists. His ‘basis’ pre-existed the universe, at the least, and as such is separate from it. God is not reliant on the universe’s existence for his own. No, the universe continually relies on God’s creative/ sustaining power. As do we human beings. (Of course he is immanent as well as transcendent.)
And because he has personal relationships with each of his faithful during life, then life after death can be with him in eternity (what we refer to as “Heaven”).
6. EVALUATING BELIEFS
In the early stages of my own faith journey, as mentioned already, I decided to analyse mysticism for myself. At the time I wanted to evaluate all there was to know about God’s existence.
6.1 Insight through mysticism
The article, “Mysticism explained” in this small subsection of website provides an overview of the practise. And that includes its historical use within both pantheism and monotheism (including Christianity).
Please also access the article, “Analysing experiences of mysticism” to read about my own ‘full-on’ experiences. And my verdict on those experiences. I think that even surprised me!
6.2 Both opinions are based on reason
But, before moving on with this article, let us look at how we can reconcile two apparently opposing views of God’s existence: pantheism and monotheism? These differences fuel the arguments of atheists and even cause some doubt in the minds of ‘faithful’ thinkers. Obviously these thinkers, within their own systems of faith, wonder how can the god of another ‘faith’ differ so much from their own.
Maybe, you have already worked it out? Well, from my own understanding, it is just 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 having a logical basis.
Monotheism simply bases its major beliefs about God on its method of personally ‘engaging’ with him. That is by deliberately entering into a personal one-on-one relationship with a transcendent God who has created us for that purpose. Trust me that relationship can be proven to be very real for each of us. And again, please see the article, “Can I really believe in God”.
Pantheism on the other hand bases its beliefs on the outcome of ‘communion’ with God, e.g. as the Ground of Being through the practise of mysticism. I guess we can describe it as a ‘connection’ but it is not a ‘relationship’ as such. Again trust me, it is possible to come to accept their point of view as well.
7. CHOOSING PANTHEISM OR MONOTHEISM?
So, as far as I am concerned both major streams of religion, pantheism and monotheism, do have substance. As stated, I believe that they are both based on the relative experiences of their followers.
And 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 Africa’s 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.”
7.1 Considering the alternatives
Well, not withstanding that God loves us all, I do personally believe our choice of religion does matter. Most religions contain some truth. Some religions obviously contain more truth than others. And again some religious truths are more important than others.
So, although God may love the followers of all religions, I do not believe that he views all religions as equal.
As explained, I seriously trialled mysticism for myself – to experience God’s immanence. 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 him.
These life experiences support the Jewish/ Christian/ Muslim view of God’s transcendent nature, and his potential personal relationship with each of us human beings. And that understanding differs so much from pantheist beliefs. Look, the majority of this website concentrates on ‘engaging with God’, in a Christian sense, within our lives and the Church. And yes, we all can come to rock-solid belief in God through engaging with him in that manner.
Theories on the nature of God’s ‘existence’ (immanence and transcendence) have little relevance to the average monotheistic believer (Jew, Christian or Muslim). They generally have no need to think about it. And, ‘on the other hand’, I can see the pantheist’s point as to why they solely concentrate on a totally immanent God.
But! 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. That is a God who can listen to us, strengthen us, guide us, assist us and, yes, even speak into our heads with his ‘still quiet voice’. Christianity adds emphasis to one of God’s personal characteristics, “love”.
7.2 Monotheism is my clear winner
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, a relationship with a God who, to them, is solely the ‘Ground of Being’ and nothing more.
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 through the pantheist religions – is a significant trade off. There are truly positive life-changing outcomes available to us through that relationship. For more on this, please read the article, “What does faith offer us?”.
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’.
8. 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 caption, “Be still, and know that I am God” in the image at the beginning of this article, carries a strong message for all monotheist religions. It is about realising that he is indeed real, and we should actually acknowledge him; engage with him as the Bible explains. The verse also carries a tone of his ‘might’! Yeah, God does deserve our respect as such.
Of course God has other characteristics. For example, as I have mentioned already, us Christians recognise his loving nature; the way he bestows his grace upon us. So, if you feel that you would like to begin a relationship with the great I AM and ‘test the waters’, then access the “Journey of faith” section of this website, beginning with “Can I really believe in God”.
The final section of this website explains the basics of Christianity. The first article, “Christianity explained” is sub-titled “God’s Beloved” for a good reason. It provides an overview of the religion:
- How God is to be understood within it;
- How we should engage with him;
- How we should treat our fellow human beings etc.
It includes descriptions of God’s personal nature, i.e. the ‘who is God’ stuff, as opposed to the nature of God’s being that has been the primary subject of this article.
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