Who or What is God?

Years ago, I read an argument against the idea that God has revealed Himself in all the world's great religions. The main jist of it was that the different religions have different conceptions of God: Judaism and Islam are strictly monotheistic, Christianity worships a Trinity, Hinduism is polytheistic, and Buddhism is agnostic.

It has always seemed to me, though, that when you read the scriptures of the world's great faiths, the descriptions of the Divine are remarkably similar. God creates and sustains the universe; He is omnipotent and omnipresent, known and unknowable, transcendent and imminent.

The real difference in conception comes from where each religion places its emphasis: some place an emphasis on God as a Person, while still acknowledging His transcendence; others emphasize the utter transcendence and unknowability of God, while still acknowledging His involvement in our affairs.

The place to start, I think, is to recognize, that when we talk of God, we are talking of something we really don't understand. If He were something our minds could encompass, He would not be God. In a very real way, each of us has his own individual "god" in that we each have a different conception of the Divine, and a very individual way of relating to It.

Both the "transcendent"view and the "imminent" view can be taken to extremes. When we acknowledge God only as an impersonal force churning throught the universe, He is unreachable. The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan said that a person who sees God as an impersonal force is not wrong, but he is "uselessly right". However, when we see God as a Person, intimately involved in our lives, then our conceptions tend to degenerate into childish, almost disrespectful notions. I am always dumbfounded when I see people praying to win a ball game, or to receive a package on time. It takes a great deal of gall to approach the Almighty over such trifles! Yet, I suppose, it's better than not approaching Him at all.

The only one of the religions that does not speak of a personal God at all is Buddhism. The Buddha, in fact, refused to explain many of the "big questions", saying that giving answers to these was not part of His mission. Buddha's focus was on the suffering of humanity, and how it could be ended. It is a mistake, though, to call Buddhism an "athiestic" religion. Buddha spoke of Nirvana as "the Unborn, neither created nor formed" as if it were an entity of sorts,although it is usually described as a the state of being reached by the fully enlightened. Many scholars believe that Nirvana is legitimately seen as the "Godhead", or God in the impersonal sense. Certainly, devotion plays a large role in the practice of many Buddhists, and some speak of a "Buddha nature" that pervades everything.

It is virtually impossible to speak of how God is conceived in the various religions without discussing how He stands in relation to the Founders, or Messengers, in the various religions. The title "Buddha", for example, means "awakened", and so while the Godhead is so impersonal as to seem almost nonexistent, the Founder of Buddhism is the most approachable example one can find. He makes only the claim that he had completed a spiritual journey that any one of us can make.

On the other end of the scale, we have the Messenger who is Himself God Incarnate. This idea is, of course, familiar to us from Christianity. Jesus is said to be fully God and fully Man, and this gives us the most "personal" conception of God in any religion in the world. Christians speak of Jesus in the most intimate fashion, an intimacy that is very appealing for the human heart. Yet it also gives us the complex idea of the Trinity, which Christians themselves often don't understand. And unlike Buddhism, where descriptions of the Divine are considered irrelevant, Christianity gives those conceptions first priority. One must not only "believe in Jesus", but believe in the correct Jesus, so that if one's perception of the relationship between Jesus and God is incorrect, them salvation is impossible.

The idea of incarnation is also found in Hinduism, where Ramas and Krishna are considered to be the Diety in human form. However, we in the west are reluctant to approach such "avatars" as they are called, because we are disturbed by the compromise made in the monotheistic concept of God. In Hinduism, however, it is understood that God, or Brahman, in His totality is too much for ordinary human beings to comprehend, so and individual god is understood to be only an aspect of God. In the Bhagavad Gita, the most beloved of Indian scriptures, it is said that it does not matter what god we worship, for all worship goes to God. This creates a wonderful thread of tolerance in Hindu thought that is lacking in the Western religions.

The other major description we find of the relationship between God and Messenger is that of the inspired prophet. We find in Judaism and Islam a strict monotheism that does not allow any mortal, no matter how great, any share in divinity. In fact, to worship anyone less than the One God is the worst of sins, a blight upon the soul, and an ugly falsehood. The believer should die rather than engage in such worship. Moses and Muhammad made no claim other than being a mouthpiece through which God revealed His Word. Neither of them are to be worshipped, only respected and emulated.

Less common, but still worth mentioning, is the idea of a Messenger that is more than man, but less than God. In Christianity, this was first known as the Arian heresy, which thrived in the fourth century. The leader of this movement, Arius, taught that Jesus was created by the Father and was, therefore, not coeternal. This idea has recurred throughout Christian history. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses are basically Arian in their theology. Many liberal Christians are basically Arian inasmuch as they don't see Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, but still feel that He is, in some sense, divine.

Another concept along the same lines is that of the "Manifestation" which is found in some Islamic offshoots, such as Sufism and the Baha'i Faith. Baha'u'llah (the founder of the Baha'i Faith) or Muhammad (in some Sufi schools) are seen as the embodiment of the attributes of God, the perfect vehicle of the Holy Spirit. While God Himself is ultimately unknowable, these Divine Messengers reveal God to mankind. This concept differs from Christian Arianism in that neither Baha'u'llah nor Muhammad is said to be the only such Manifestation. This status is given to other prophets as well, creating a very tolerant attitude towards other religions among both Baha'is and Sufis.

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