When you hear the word “God,” what do you think? Some folks have a snarky reaction. For them, God is a human invention and they’ve outgrown the need for childish fantasies. Just like kids finally discover that Santa Claus isn’t real and doesn’t squeeze down the chimney on Christmas Eve, God isn’t real and has no direct or indirect influence on life here and after death—if an afterlife even exists, they say.
These snarky types tend to be happy when things are going well for them. They’re happily married, getting lots of action, and making a good living. What more could they want?
Suddenly, however, they discover that wifey has been having an affair, wants a divorce, and is getting legal help to make sure she gets half the matrimonial fortune. This could go the other way, of course. Many decent wives discover that hubby has been having sex on the side and likewise seek divorce and an equitable settlement.
The snarky doubter can respond in at least two different ways here. They may become utterly depressed and even suicidal, believing that life is meanless and nothing more than a cruel joke. Or perhaps they ‘find God’ and life opens with a whole new meaning they never imagined up to that point.
But even if they believe they found God, did they really find God? What do they mean by the term “God”? Maybe they just found a new experience that isn’t God or perhaps we could say, as high and complete as our experience of God can be.
In fact, there are many different definitions and understandings of God now and throughout human history. The concept of God is deeply personal and varies widely depending on one’s culture, religion, personal beliefs, experience, and often where someone happens to be in their life journey.
Speaking for myself, I had a lot of unusual experiences in India but never did the non-Christian ones compare to the Christian. They may have been impressive, unconventional, and even mind-expanding. But only the Christian ‘light’ lifted me up. Most of the others spaced me out or made me feel like I was a big important guru in training—which by the way, I’ve come to realize is a total sham.
By way of contrast, I once had a friend who said she “saw God” in a swimming pool. I didn’t believe or disbelieve her. The problem was, I couldn’t know exactly what she had experienced and how that measured up with my own range of experiences. And I think if we’re honest, we all have this problem.
On the dark side, I had a professor once who apparently could not only read minds but total situations.
Well maybe at first. That may have helped them to woo and maybe even bed some of their students.
But over time I realized that this person was using their ‘mystic info’ in an underhanded, hostile manner. So I came to believe more in the New Agey idea of ‘dark psychics’ along with the Catholic idea of ‘spiritual warfare.’
We won’t, however, elaborate on that there. Let’s stick to God and the most common definitions and understandings that are still found today, sometimes in accord other times in conflict.
- Monotheistic God: This is the concept of God found in Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which posits the existence of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God who created the universe and governs it.
- Polytheistic Gods: In polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism and ancient Greek and Roman religions, there are many gods, each with their own distinct powers, attributes, and personalities.
- Pantheistic God: In pantheism, the universe itself is seen as God, and all things are considered to be part of the divine.
- Deist God: Deism holds that God created the universe but is not actively involved in its workings. Instead, God set the universe in motion and then stepped back to let it run its course.
- Agnostic God: Agnosticism holds that it is impossible to know whether God exists or not.
- Atheistic Non-God: Atheism asserts that there is no God or gods.
- Personal God: Some people understand God as a personal being who interacts with people in a personal way, while others see God as an impersonal force or energy.
Okay, those bullet points are from Chat GPT, I admit it. But allow me to talk a little further about some of the things I find interesting about how we tend to look at God.
In monotheism, God is often seen as omnipotent, omniscient, without err, and entirely loving. God creates and rules over all of the creations. God is also said to be transcendent but immanent, which means God dwells in creation but is ultimately beyond it. When he dwells in creation we feel it. But this isn’t merely a chemical buzz but more a supernatural feeling. It’s spiritual, not physical—a point that many materialists just don’t get. Just as a cup without water inside isn’t very useful, a body without the spirit probably couldn’t survive.
Sometimes the word pantheism applies to the idea of many gods, often ruled over by a master deity (e.g. the Greek Zeus). Other times, as we see in the list above, it just means nature. To clarify, religion scholars tend to make a distinction between pantheism (as the many gods of polytheism) and natural pantheism (or naturalistic pantheism or more recently scientific pantheism) to mean God as the observable universe but nothing more.
Meanwhile, some non-Catholic Christians say that the Catholic saints degrade Christianity by inventing a form of polytheism. To me, this is a misunderstanding because Catholic saints simply intercede – i.e. mediate – through contemplative prayer, not unlike people living on Earth who pray for others.
Further, some maintain that the Christian Holy Trinity is polytheistic. But this, too, is open to debate because Christians generally agree that the three persons of the Trinity share a unity of substance which is One.
Similarly, some say the Hindu gods and goddesses are polytheistic. But most Hindus point out that their deities are manifestations of the Brahman, an unmanifest ground of All That Is. I’m not saying the Hindu experience is the same as the Christian experience. But if viewed schematically and not experientially, there is perhaps some homology.
Relating to God
One monotheistic approach to ‘being with God’ is described by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber talks about an I-Thou relationship we have with God, experienced with a
- feeling of awe
- healthy fear of offending the deity
- keen sense of personal humility
But there are other ways people believe they relate to God. One is to not just ‘relate’ but say they are identical to God. This way has been academically divided into three types:
And last, as I’ve said, some relate to God simply through phenomenology, that is, from the perspective of their unique experience. These people might not care so much about books, temples, churches, and canons, but more about as Michel Henry (1922–2002) put it, sensing the “essence of Life.”
I suppose there is some merit to this approach but I think we should also stay open to the possibility that some revealed dogmas really were revealed, and not shut ourselves off to that possibility.
What do you think? Or should I ask, experience?
I’d love to hear.
To me, it seems so many folks are hesitant to share in this area partly due to the hegemony of psychiatry, which tends to uncritically accept ‘groupthink’ about religion (i.e. established churches) but is not so open to individual exploration.
There are a plethora of reasons for this. I touched on some of them in academia but lately have become even more aware of just how political and perhaps economically motivated psychiatry can be—not only American but Chinese and Russian psychiatry as well.
Related » Agnosticism, Atheism, Deism, Mythic Dissociation, Mythic Subordination, Ontological Argument, Panenhenism, Panentheism, Panpsychism, Theism