“god” disambiguated

One of the biggest objections to the existence of God is the problem of evil. How can a good God allow evil and suffering in the world? As I pointed out elsewhere there has been a confusion of terms. Perhaps the most confusing of the terms is “god.”

When I was in basic school we were taught Religious and Moral Education. I remember a chart with the three main religions in Ghana lined side by side with their similarities and differences. As I have grown and have investigated these things for myself I now realise that they were very misleading. The chief mistake was in assuming god meant the same thing for Christians, Muslims and traditionalists. The other seemingly more inclusive term that was used “Supreme Being” was equally unhelpful.

“Supreme Being” is a deist term for god made popular during the Enlightenment era for a distant, non-personal, unknowable creator. When Christians use god they mean something completely different so does the member of the New Age, Buddhist, Sikh etc. God means different things to people of different worldviews and we need to recognise it does not have a univocal meaning.

In The Theology of Worldview I explained theology deals with questions of ultimate reality. By now I assume the reader knows “religions” are only barely superficially the same but at their core are very different and mutually exclude one other. I personally do not like the word “religion” because it is notoriously hard to define. I prefer worldview, which as the name suggests means how you fundamentally conceive the world and what it means.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis whittles all religions, or better still worldviews, into three major categories. We must take note that these are generalizations. The categories are based on the relationship between god and the world and what constitutes ultimate reality.

The first category is where the world is all that there is and there is no god. This has overwhelmingly been the minority view in the vast course of human history.  This ideology is known as atheism. Now we must be sure to understand that there is not only one form of atheism. Even those who adhere to materialism, the worldview that only physical reality exists, which is the dominant form of atheism in the West, do not hold uniform beliefs. Another form of atheism is Buddhism which classically has no concept of god. There are different atheistic schemes available. The term atheism is from the Greek. Theos is the word for god and the prefix a means without.

From a world without god we move to theism, a world where there is a god. There are two major theistic worldviews. The first is where god and the world both exist. The second is where god and the world are the same. The historically most dominant and enduring “god and the world” worldview is polytheism, which I talk about in a bit more detail in other posts. Polytheism is the belief in the existence of many gods. Examples of the second theistic category where the world is god and vice versa are ancient Stoicism, some strains of Hinduism and various New Age beliefs.

These three broad worldview categories have very different ontologies i.e. conceptions of ultimate reality. In the first the world is the ultimate reality. The second god is the ultimate. The third the god and the world are one and the same and it is the ultimate reality. These broad categories help sort somethings out but also bring some questions to the fore. For example these schemes do not really tell us what god or the world means.

God not meaning the same thing to everyone might come as a shock. The fact that not all human beings see the world in the same way is probably even more surprising. Surely we see the same thing with our eyes, and hear the same sounds? Our senses remain our senses and detect information. How we interpret what we sense in our environment both internal and external is another matter altogether. The Buddhist talks about several planes of existence whilst the materialist thinks there is only physical reality. They are both atheists, they think the environment is all there is, but they come to different conclusions about its makeup.

What these ontological schemes do tell us is humans have essentially two major concepts of reality broadly known as “god” and “world”. For the sake of simplicity and brevity in this piece we will ignore the more esoteric philosophical questions, which I am not remotely qualified to answer, and focus on a working definitions. “World” means the environment, which most people would agree humans are a part of. “God” is that which is superior to the environment or the normal human experience of it and is its originator. All our worldviews seem to wrestle with the relationship between the two, the mundane and the transcendent.

Now I would like to focus on theism which is the dominant worldview and has been throughout human history. But first a quick note regarding atheism. To define atheism as a lack of belief in god is very problematic because as we have seen the word “god” does not have a univocal meaning. There are various forms of theism and many of them are mutually exclusive. A negative definition is itself philosophically precarious since no one is omniscient and can therefore authoritatively say something does not exist. Ironically I also find many Christians falling into the trap of thinking god means the same thing to everyone.

Some months back I was having a conversation with a couple of friends about the Eckankar movement. One of their pastors had been doing an apologetic series on it. I knew very little about it but as they talked I realised it fit into the spectrum of New Age beliefs. They use terms like “God” and “Holy Spirit” and the pastor taught as if we Christians refer to the same things but they have got it muddled up. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Eckankar worldview falls into the god-equals-world category. This kind of theism is known as pantheism. (It’s interesting that in this worldview that the distinctions can be so vague it can collapse into a form of practical atheism.)

Monotheism has uprooted polytheism as the prevailing worldview among most of humanity. The differences between polytheism are too deep to cover here even though I have briefly covered it in other places. First and foremost, to say there is one god strictly narrows the possibilities. Either one being is the ultimate reality or not. There can be no middle ground. My old basic school chart committed a category error by equating the chief deity of traditional religions to the one god of Islam and Christianity. One could argue that pantheism is also a kind of monotheism since everything is god then there is only one god. Classical monotheism however conceives of god as something other than the environment and as well as its creator. Now deist concepts of ultimate reality could be either monotheistic or even polytheistic. However, deist deity is unknowable whilst classical monotheism teaches god is a knowable creator.

Now the major forms of monotheistic belief are found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Without going into detail I must say the moniker “Abrahamic faiths” can be very deceptive. (The word faith, as we have all seen, can be very misleading since we all, including the atheist believe something, even though our beliefs are largely disparate.) Modern Judaism and Christianity share common descent from the Second Temple period in ancient Judaism. Islam however does not have the same historical, cultural and even literary heritage. These three worldviews although they are monotheistic, have very different concepts of god. Dr Andy Bannister of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries used a wonderful analogy to illustrate this which I will adapt. Saying there is one god is like saying there is one president of the Republic of Ghana. You have described a category but not the sort of person who occupies it. One person might say it is J.A. Kuffuor another J.D. Mahama. Even though you acknowledge there can only be one, there is great disagreement regarding his identity. The very reason why we will vote in a few months’ time is to select one among many possible candidates.

Many rightly speak of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. We must of course acknowledge there are major differences between Jews and Christians but there are important commonalities. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of a wise, loving and just creator who is other than the world he made but is intimately involved in it moment to moment, giving life and sustenance to all things. He gave humans a mission to reflect his glory into creation. Humans failed bringing the world into disarray. He then chose Abraham and his offspring Israel through whom to rescue the world. The point of divergence from Judaism and even Islam is Jesus. Christians accept this quintessentially Jewish narrative which Islam completely rejects. This ultimate story of redemption requires god to have a certain personality or character which we do not find in the Koran. With this narrative you can clearly see YHWH is very different from Allah. Now the Church believes YHWH’s story reached its climax in and through the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the incarnate Word of God. The other worldviews categorically deny this, each for very different reasons.

From this quick survey of theologies and worldviews we can clearly see the word “god” is not so simple. Like in an election the word “god” is hotly contested with various worldviews vying for our vote. I personally believe the Biblical concept of god, the God of Jesus Christ, is not simply the best option. It is the only option because it is true.

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