Throughout human history there have been many ways in which societies have conceived of their god or gods. The idea of god that a society develops offers a deep insight into the character of the people in that society. In modern Western society, where we are encouraged to be individuals, it becomes more difficult to maintain collective ideas and especially collective ideas of god. Whilst it is important to think for ourselves and to discover our own unique personality, this makes attempts to create a collective identity more difficult.
The 7 different conceptions of god described in this article exist in many of the major religions but I have used the Christian tradition because it is the one I am most familiar with. Some of the god characters I will describe are considered as aspects of a single god. Some are complementary but others are mutually exclusive. I believe it is important to understand all of the different interpretations of god because it can help us to better understand ourselves. Which god do you believe in?
3 god personalities
One version of god is the warrior-king who leads his chosen people into war against the non-believers, the pagans, the heathens and the infidels. If this is our god, we see ourselves as soldiers; crusaders who are entitled to impose our version of the truth on others. We believe that those who don’t hold our beliefs are lost. We do not question whether or not this is just, we simply follow orders.
Another version of god is that of the good shepherd. The good shepherd looks over his flock of sheep, making sure none are lost. He keeps them all together following the one true path. Sheep like to be just like all the other sheep — they mimic one another because they want to fit in. God is viewed as the good shepherd by those who conform to social norms because they yearn to be accepted and to fit in.
God the father is a third god character. God as a father allows us to remain as children with no responsibility other than to obey instructions.
The warrior-king, the shepherd and the father are personalities of the same god. This is different from polytheistic religions, where personalities are actuality different gods that form a pantheon of gods. Examples of polytheistic religions include the ancient Greek Olympian gods and the Roman pantheon. When the different personalities are aspects of one god, then the term Henotheism (Greek meaning ‘of one god’) is used. Zoroastrianism and Hinduism are usually identified as Henotheistic religions, although some scholars classify Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.
An important consequence of identifying god with personalities is that we create god in our own image, while also identifying god as separate from us and above us. This creates in our minds a hierarchy of power in which we are submissive, subservient and disempowered. Each of these ideas of god demand, request or expect obedience. It is no surprise that political authorities support these notions of a seperate and superior god because they create a passive and obedient populace.
God as spirit
A fourth conception is god the spirit. A spirit is everywhere, it flows within and permeates everything. Here god is the soul of the universe. This is referred to as panentheism (god in everything). Many indigenous cultures identified the spirit world as present around them but invisible. The spirit originally did not refer to supernatural beings but to ‘air’ and ‘breath’. The difference between a living and a dead body is that the former is breathing and the latter is not. In these cultures, the first cry and the final breath represented the entrance and exit of the life force from the human body.
While this brings god closer to us, we maintain a separation between the spiritual and the material. This can also create a mental hierarchy of value, where the spiritual world is superior to the material world, heaven is more important than the reality of the earth and the afterlife is more important than this life. Whenever we imagine god as a personality or a spirit, we mentally construct god as a ‘thing’. Whether tangible or intangible, the divine is outside of us and beyond us. These notions create in our minds the concept that the beautiful and the perfect is outside, while within we are ugly, imperfect sinners.
God as everything and nothing
The next version is one in which god is not a thing but everything. This is referred to as Pantheism (god is everything). In the pantheistic view, god is the whole of which we are a part. We are god, our neighbours and friends are god, our enemies are god, outcasts and non-believers are god. Plants and animals are god. Air, water and rocks are god. This notion of god allows us to love our enemies and love ourselves. We are all god. This is difficult to accept when we are accustomed to dividing the world into good and evil, including ‘good’ people and dangerous terrorists. If we believe that god is everything then we love those who might do, or be, the opposite of what we consider good. This god embraces opposites like good and evil. In the beginning god created day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, male and female and it was all good. In the garden of Eden, heaven and earth were together, man and woman were together and mankind was a part of nature. Eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is to claim to know that some things are good and others are evil. That is, to divide everything that is good into categories of good and evil. Daytime and the light are now good, while the night and darkness are evil and full of terrors. This separation of heaven from earth, man from woman and mankind from nature is a construct in our minds. Diabolo, the Greek word for devil, means one who divides. Do we embrace all or do we divide?
The sixth version of god is one in which god again is not a thing but is nothing. This is the god who has no name as in the early Jewish faith. To name something is to create an entity that is separate from other things. His name shall not be spoken. This god is the void, the emptiness, the space and time from which all creativity is born. In the beginning was the void out of which everything was created. After six days of creative work there is a day of rest, another void. This god is a guide as to how we might live. Rather than endless work and a never to be completed ‘to-do’ list, we might live in cycles of work and rest, work and rest. That is, we stop, empty our minds of the clutter of life, meditate, contemplate and through this gain clarity as to what to do. We then work productively for a time before we rest from work, reflect, re-evaluate and set our eyes on the next path forward. Indeed recreation occurs in the time and space when we rest from work, relax, re-invent or re-create ourselves so we can start afresh.
God as verb not an noun
That’s six different ideas about god. Three personalities: the warrior-king, the good shepherd and the father. Then there are three more abstract conceptions: god the spirit, god as everything and god as nothing. All of these attempt to grasp the idea of god. To grasp at something is to think in terms of nouns — what kind of thing, or not thing, is god. The seventh and final version of god requires that we think in terms of verbs rather than nouns. God is your actions, my actions, the sum of the consequences of all our collective actions. God is your works — good works and bad. We are god, collectively creating the world through our daily actions. All the major religions identify the struggle or tension between faith in god and good works. Does salvation come through faith or good works?
Which god do you believe? What does that say about you? The god you have faith in is very important because it creates the mindset that determines what you do; how you live your life. Do you go out and commit violence in the name of god? Do you just do what everyone around you does just because you want to be accepted? Do you think for yourself or do you only do what you are told? Perhaps, for you, this world does not matter because it’s corrupted anyway. Only heaven and the afterlife matter? All of these attitudes influence our actions. The things we do, day by day, creates the world we live in.
Steven Liaros is a Director of town planning consultancy PolisPlan.com.au and author of ‘Rethinking the City’ — an exploration of the philosophical, religious and economic ideas that underpin the organisation of cities. His next book examines how these ideas are being transformed in the Information Age. With qualifications in civil engineering, town planning and environmental law, Steven is currently undertaking a PhD research project at the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy.