A Confusing Concept
by William P. Meyers
“Do you believe in God?” is possibly the most common religion and philosophy question asked by human beings.
The problem with the question is that “God” is a confusing concept. People who say they “believe in God,” are willing to argue and sometimes even fight with each other about what that means. Among Christian sects actual war has mainly been conducted between Catholics, who believe that God speaks through the Pope, and Protestants, who think God is willing to chat with just about anyone, if only through the Bible. Yet what Protestants hear (or believe they hear) from God is inconsistent on matters such as: the weight to be given to the Old versus New Testaments; the status of women; homosexuality; church organization; and even which translation of the Bible is the best representation of God’s word.
The more you assert that you are perfectly clear on the definition of God, the more you have to admit that billions of people in the world are confused because they differ with you.
Most, but not all, Christians believe in the Trinity. There are innumerable interpretations of the Trinity. In the early days of Christianity more Christians were killed in arguments over the Trinity than were killed in the occasional persecutions by Roman emperors. The Trinity it is certainly a point of theological weakness for Christianity. The monotheism of Judaism and Islam is simpler, though that in itself does not make it true.
Retreating into the past, we know that before the time of Jesus humans worshipped many spirits or gods. Even the Old Testament indicates the Jews took some time to accommodate to the One God idea. The concept of the Trinity reflects that viewpoint. Except for motivation, how different is the story of Zeus manifesting himself on earth to have sexual relationships with women from the story of God manifesting himself as Jesus to save mankind? The Holy Spirit part of the Trinity has always bothered most Christians who thought about it. But true monotheism in the early Christian church would have diminished the stature Jesus, so all tendencies in that direction were labeled heresies and exterminated.
The more you look at God and gods, the more confusing things get. The idea of multiple gods did not swoon into oblivion with the birth of Christ or even the conquests of Islam. Hinduism still has numerous followers and a pantheon of Gods. Smaller groups that believe in a plurality of Gods include Voodoo and Santeria as well as those groups that maintain traditional ancestral religions.
Many theologians will say that my canvas only shows that many humans are still mired ignorance and hence confusion, but that the concept of God is clear and agreed upon. Some like to say that almost everyone agrees on a supreme God who is the creator of the universe. They like to point to commonalities of belief between groups as diverse as Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians. This is nice; it is friendly; it is tolerant. It appeals to those of us with friendly natures. Unfortunately, it isn’t true.
Before looking at the “supreme God who is the creator of the universe,” definition, two other important points of confusion need to be looked at: good versus evil dualism, and impersonal ideas about God.
Christianity really has four gods: God the Father, the Holy Spirit, Jesus (God the Son), and the Devil, or Lucifer. The first three are a sort of spiritual tag-team fighting the fourth, which seems a bit unfair, but if that is what it takes to keep evil down, most people are for it. The problem of evil in the world becomes God’s problem if God is supreme. In simplistic dualism (the Christian kind) the blame for evil is put on off on someone else so that God can have created everything, but not be responsible for anything that goes wrong in His creation. Evil is due to the Devil, or to God allowing humans Free Will, which they use to do wrong. The Old Testament is filled with this theme: it is a vicious circle of Jews doing wrong and bad things happening (famine, plague, and war mostly) because God punishes people for exercising their free will.
Dualism is clearer in ancient religion of the Magi, Zoroastrians, or Parsees. Creation itself is a battle between Good and Evil, or Truth (Asa) and Lie (Druj), the good god Mithra and the evil god Ahriman.
In Buddhism we see the makings of an impersonal God, though many Buddhist denominations corrupted the religion so that Buddha became worshipped as a god if not God. In Buddhism the world we know is an illusion, but it is an illusion with rules, the rules of Karma. By knowing the rules of Karma, any person, can eventually obtain freedom from the sensory, illusory world. This freedom from illusion is called Enlightenment. That makes Buddhism a religion where God is a set of rules rather than a person, being, or all-powerful creature. The other well-known example of this kind of view is the Theism of 17th and 18th century western scientists who saw God as something that set the universe in motion, but then left it to run according to the rules. Newton’s idea of the planets working like a clock, and implying a clock maker, is a typical (if simplistic) example.
We might even make a number system out of human ideas of God. Atheists have 0 gods. Monotheists have 1. Dualists 2. Christians 3. We lump everything else into the 4 or more category.
Suppose you accept, however, that God is the Supreme Being and Creator of the universe. Let’s skip over the problem of how much this God might interfere or care about every day life on earth, whether he ever sent sons, daughters, angels or prophets to earth or some other planet in some other galaxy.
The problem is that once you have defined the term “God,” that way, the term has become even more confusing. Because confusion is being mislead, or lead away from the truth. And now you have four problematic terms to deal with: supreme, being, creator, and universe.
The verb “create” is easy to understand in ordinary context: John created a brick out of clay and water using heat; Joan created a poem; Newton created calculus. A standard observation of physics is that while matter and energy can be transformed, together they can not be created or destroyed. How the matter and energy of the universe came to be here scientists do not know. Religious men believe that creation involves a creator, as a watch-maker is needed to create a watch. But we also know that things can be created by natural forces: rain is created by cooling water vapor. Let us admit that creation out of pre-existing materials, and creating the material of the universe itself out of nothing, would be two very different actions, requiring different verbs to express them.
But positing a Creator of the universe simply put us in a loop. If all things must be created, then the Creator needs a precursor-Creator as well. The Greeks may have been trying to deal with this dilemma when they gave gods like Zeus and Hera parents, the Titans. At some point either everything does something beyond human vocabulary and understanding, or there has to be a loop, and even the loop does not get us out of the dilemma because why should a loop be any more self-creating than a straight line of time?
Somewhere there has to be self-creation. You can say that God is self-creating, but that is weaker than saying the Universe must be self-created.
Being does not add anything to any definition, unless you mean by it a self-aware entity. And if God can be self-aware, why not just believe the Universe is self-aware? It may not be. How would you test such a proposition?
Supreme does not help us. It implies a multiplicity; you can’t be supreme without a subordinate.
That leaves us with the Universe. The only reasonable definition for Universe is it is the totality of everything that exists (including the past and future). It can be considered supreme in its totality; a being because it exists; and its own creator, because any creator would be encompassed by this definition.
You can argue, and some people do, that God and the Universe are One. Unfortunately when they use the word God they are not using a word that very many people identify with the Universe. They are using a word which can mean many things. They are adding to the confusion of the human world.