“God” comes in a huge variety of forms and images – and that’s a problem. Religions differ widely in their concepts, despite some overlap, and even within each faith the word can be understood in a kaleidoscope of ways. The most familiar concept is of God as a supernatural being. Known as theism, from the Greek word for God (theos), it holds that God is a personal being existing independently of humans and their world, but acting within it from time to time to achieve the divine purposes. This God has revealed himself (some would add “herself”) through prophets and in other ways, but especially, in the Christian tradition, through Jesus.
Muslims, members of the Jewish faith and most Christians would say they are theists, or more precisely monotheists – believers in one God. Today, however, some scholars are questioning whether Christianity is really theistic at all.
A quick sweep back over the past 4000 years shows why. Before monotheism emerged in the Middle East and Europe as the dominant understanding of God, a raft of gods was believed to hold sway over the forces of nature, and over various tribes and territories. People invoked or appeased them through religious rituals to keep life on an even keel. Gradually, however, those gods lost their hold as new ideas developed around them.
Chief among them was belief in one God only, because people became convinced that made the best sense of their experience of life. In time the logic of monotheism led its followers to claim for their God a universal validity: if there is only one God, it must obviously be the God for everyone. Christians could be sure of this because their God had revealed himself to humankind in Jesus.
Belief in revelation by a supernatural being proved both the buttress of this view of God and, latterly, its Achilles’ heel. That is because neither the assurance of divine revelation, nor the objective reality of the supernatural, are as self-evident today as once they seemed, especially in societies that have been exposed to secularising influences.
With the advance of knowledge in so many spheres, a sea-change has occurred in our understanding of the way the world functions. One evidence of this is the gradual undermining of a theistic view of God, though many still affirm it for want of a more persuasive alternative.
In the past 400 years or so, people began to think of God in new ways, resulting in a smorgasbord of options for using the word “God”. In the 17th century, for example, the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza developed the philosophy of pantheism (“all is God”), which holds that God and everything in the universe are one and the same. That makes God neither personal nor transcendent. In the 18th century deism emerged as a way of talking about God (deus in Latin) as creator and sustainer of the universe, while rejecting miracles and supernatural interventions that cut across the laws of nature. In deism, God is more an infinite intelligence than a personal being.
Panentheism (God is en or “in” everything) was an attempt by German philosopher Karl Krause in the early 19th century to find a middle way between theism’s over-emphasis on the otherness of God and pantheism’s over-emphasis on God’s immediacy in everything. Sir Lloyd Geering sums up: “Panentheism is the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe in such a way that every part of it exists in God, but God is more than the universe.”
If a pivotal word such as “God” can carry so many meanings, the question arises: Is it useful any more? Some think the churches should look for another word that doesn’t mean so many different things to so many different people.
That will not happen, nor should it. For one thing, the word is too culturally ingrained. For another, there is no substitute that can carry all that the word God points to and still have instant recognition. The job is rather to rethink the term and, for westerners, to give it a robust content consistent with our secular culture, rather than with the worldviews of presecular cultures.
A parallel rethinking happened long ago, when monotheists rejected the old gods as inadequate but kept the word for their emerging concept of the one God. It happened again when the early Christians radically revised the concept of God to incorporate the human, because that is where their experience of Jesus led them.