GOD. The Ultimate Being or Reality. The Divine. There are several competing worldviews for what or how we conceive of this ultimate. So lets tackle the big question and explore what it really means to believe in God.
Pantheism and Panentheism
Pantheism is the belief that all the true nature of the universe is identical with the absolute reality. Pantheism can come in a variety of flavors. One choice facing the pantheist is whether to consider the absolute as “personal” or impersonal. For instance, some buddhists consider the entire universe to consist of a “buddhanature” or an “emptiness.” This true nature is also our true nature, and that true reality manifests as the things we see in our daily lives.
A wonderful explanation of this worldview as regards to Mahayana Buddhism can be found here at Lion’s Roar.
Buddhanature is the ground of all being. It is neither good nor bad, although it is not neutral. It has the flavor of compassion and clarity and promises relief from the mind that creates division and clings stubbornly to a separate self. Sometimes we say that everyone already has buddhanature, or in the words of Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen teacher, everyone is buddhanature.Everything is Buddhanature, Lion’s Roar (emphasis added)
Notice that while this buddhanature fits the generic description of an “absolute reality” it is never is personal. Based on how it is described here, we would not likely talk about the buddhanature’s will or plan. It is the ground of all reality and because it is the ground of our compassionate self it may be held in reverence, but it isn’t given a personal name like Jesus, Brama or Zeus.
Compare this to the Bhagavad Gita:
“Earth, water, fire, air, akasha, mind intellect, and ego – these are the eight divisions of my prakriti . . . but beyond this I have another, higher nature, . . . it supports the whole universe…I am the taste of pure water and the radiance of the sun and moon. I am the sacred word and the sound heard in air, and the courage of human beings. I am the sweet fragrance in the earth and the radiance of fire; I am the life in every creature and the striving of the spiritual aspirant.”The Bhagavad Gita Eknath Easwaran, Chapter 7
“When the day of Brahma dawns, forms are brought forth from the Unmanifest; when the night of Brahma comes, these forms merge in the Formless again. This multitude of beings is created and destroyed again and again in the succeeding days and nights of Brahma. But beyond this formless state there is another unmanifested reality, which is eternal and is not dissolved when the cosmos is destroyed. Those who realize life’s supreme goal know that I am unmanifest and unchanging. Having come home to me, they never return to separate existence. “The Bhagavad Gita Eknath Easwaran, Chapter 8
There is alot to unpack here. Krishna is the speaker in both quotes. Notice how Krishna identifies himself in the first quote with the created realities of the universe. Here Krisha, as an absolute reality, shows his immanence. However he also says he has a “higher nature” that “supports the universe” – transcendence.
Notice how in the second quote there is a “formless” that the universe merges into when it is time for “the day of Brahma” to end (Brahma is the creation deity in Hinduism, as in Hinduism there are many deities that are partial manifestations of the absolute reality). There is also “another unmanifested reality, which is eternal and is not dissolved when the cosmos is destroyed.” Krishna as the absolute reality is imminent in the universe but also transcends the universe.
This belief that that the Absolute is the Universe but also is beyond the universe is sometimes called panentheism and a good take on panentheism in Eastern religions can be found here.
Notice also that unlike the Buddhanature, Krishna the ultimate reality in the Bhagavad Gita, can say “I.” Krishna can speak, act and council. Conversely, the Buddhanature is not ascribed personhood. Specific Bodhisattvas (enlightened ones who help others realize enlightenment) may lead us to realize our Buddhanature and in doing so be manifesting the compassion of the Buddhanture themselves, but the Buddhanature as such is never given a personal name or considered to solely BE one of the bodhisattvas.
Ipsum Esse Subsistens and Classical Theism
Then there is the Catholic view. For Catholics God is Ipsum Esse Subsistens, the sheer act of to-be itself. But we also address God as “Father” (and Son and Holy Spirit, but we will deal with the Trinity later). Catholics walk a tight line. On one hand we do speak of God as a “who” but we are also very careful to not make him a creature that can have fluctuating emotions. Because of this, words for God (like “Father”) often take on a slightly different meaning than they do when they are describing creatures.
In the Christian view, God is pure being and as such is the cause of things that can be, but do not have being as an essential property. These contingent realities, are those things (e.g. anything that’s not God) that could hypothetically not exist. They do not exist due to “the power of their own essence.” They need God to cause them. However God is not the universe. God is held to create the universe, but not to be the universe itself. God remains separate from creation while he is creating and in creating God himself undergoes no change.
This is important for the classical theist because many arguments from God’s existence argue that anything that can change will need to be explained with an appeal to other causes. Meaning, for God to not have a cause, God himself must be unchanging. Theists often argue that pantheism and panentheism would necessitate us to attribute to God something that changes in the creative act, which would imply that something outside of God is needed to explain that change. (See the Argument from Motion, specifically Barron’s rejection of “energy” as the first cause).
God of the Philosophers
Sometimes people will speak of the “God of the Philosophers” when referring to a “First Cause” but without any pretense of relationship to this “divine.” It is clear, for instance, that Aristotle believed in a first cause of all motion, but he would not refer to God as “Father,” even as an analogy.
In a similar vein, a deist is someone who believes in a first cause but more or less believes that this first cause just serves as an originator of the universe’s motion.
Unity Between the Theories
I am not going to get into all the arguments for and against making the absolute personal or impersonal, pantheist, panentheist or theistic in this blog post, though I hope to explore all these ideas in more detail in further blog posts. What I do hope this blog does is get you to wrestle with what do you mean when you say “GOD” or the “DIVINE?”
One aspect that many of these theories have in common is this: there is a great unity to creation. In pantheism there is a same essence that pervades all creation. In theism all creation comes from the same heavenly Father. This means that there is a great dignity shared by all people and furthermore the divine can be encountered in some way in all things. Meaning no matter where you are, GOD is with you also, manifesting himself to you in someway.
Isn’t that beautiful?