What Does “God” Really Mean?

by on September 22nd, 2010
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The problem with the ever-engaging God question, or the relentless up-skirt of the metaphysical continuum, is that the very nature of “God” cannot even be agreed upon. Adherents of countless religions hold countless views as to God’s quality. Fundamentalists from each religion scour their sacred texts, but even at their earliest stages, religions didn’t agree on what God was.

In contrast, scientists quibble over the supernatural as a matter of hard scientific evidence, or lack thereof. Philosophers postulate the ethical ramifications of God, or lack thereof. Mankind’s effort to describe in metaphysical terms what they cannot understand–Godism, in other words–has been a serious ideology for millennia, yet it still has not developed any real universal definition for the many things we name “God.” However, the many different methods used to uncover the mystery have unwittingly become, in and of themselves, definitions of God.

Generally speaking, most people seem to use the words “religion” and “God” interchangeably. Yet, just as religions are many and multifaceted, so also, as religious studies professor at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, unabashedly proclaims in the title of his latest book, “God is not one.”

Surely, when a pastor forcefully utters that each individual must accept God as their savior, it is the Christian God, Jesus, who is thought to be doing the saving, not any Hindu or Islamic God. In the same vein, when devout Muslims say that only God is great, of course they are speaking of Allah, and not Jesus or Gautama Buddha. Prothero points out that “When it comes to divinity… one is not the religions’ only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe in thousands. Moreover, the characters of these gods differ wildly.”

In most cases, then, it would seem that the religions are Gods. In fact, if God is meant to be one who is worshiped, then religions readily fit the bill. The many doctrines, rituals, and traditions of religions are often so important to be followed by adherents that they seem to be venerated themselves. Christian baptism and Holy Communion, Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and Buddhist meditation are all examples of sacred customs that are necessary for the followers of different religious incarnations to practice. Speaking of Yoruba religions such as Santeria, Prothero describes “trance dancing” rituals as possession by gods. Clearly then, in some cases, to define God, you must first identify which religion is being discussed.

Even in the earliest and most basic sacred texts of each religion there is no consensus in their Godism. It is actually the fundamentalists that seem to diverge sharpest in teaching, from religion to religion. The Jewish Torah describes their God as one of war; the Christian New Testament says that “God is love;” The Hindu Mahabharata depicts gods as surprisingly mischievous, displaying hints of humanity. Looking at scriptures based on which denomination claims them again leads us to the thought of religion being God. As extreme fundamentalists from Osama Bin Laden to the Ku Klux Klan have taught us, taking scripture and religion too literally can prove disastrous.

Yet, the context in which the Christian Bible relates that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (King James Version, 2 Tim. 3.16) is very interesting. In most cases this scripture is applied to represent God’s hand in writing the Christian Bible. However, this book, a private letter to a friend, was written long before the Bible was compiled, or even completely written. It is very likely that if the author had known his writing would be seen by the entire world and viewed as doctrine, he probably wouldn’t have written all that he did. Of course this is merely speculation.

What is truly thought provoking is that the author actually viewed all sacred writings as inspired straight from God. Is it possible that God can really be understood by studying the scripture of all religions and not just a narrow dogmatic collection? Could they all have a common message? Perhaps, if you are so inclined, they could. In reality, what can be gained is what Prothero calls “a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate… Both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.”

On the other hand, there are also many scientific contributions to Godism. Even the latest theories of the scientific community are the subject of extensive debate. Although those “of faith” tend to see God’s presence in every aspect of “creation,” physicists have given much more scrutiny to the structure of the universe. In his book, The Grand Design, the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, confesses, “It is not necessary to invoke God to… set the universe going.” He argues that the law of gravity, quantum theory, and string theory, with the theoretical existence of a multiverse would account for spontaneous generation of universes. In short, it is entirely within scientific possibility for the universe to have come from nowhere. Could it be that Godism is a futile pursuit and there really is no God?

Perhaps the real pursuit should be, not the meaning of our existence, but the meaning of God’s. Perhaps we should ask, not why we were created, but why we created God in the first place. I believe the ethical implications are the most profound to be considered. Even if we never give up our Godism, we can realize that all religions have had their own version of God and that these doctrines and traditions need not be deified. We can build tolerance and respect through understanding, defining God according to the entire human experience as opposed to creed.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, “The Grand Design,” New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Stephen Prothero, “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Rule the World,” New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.

“Holy Bible: King James Version,” New York: International Bible Students Association. Print.

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