Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

The nature of God in Western theology

The nature of God in monotheistic religions is a broad, important topic in Western philosophy of religion and theology, with a very old and distinguished history; it was one of the central topics in medieval philosophy.

Note: begin wikification here. Warning! The following has not yet been wikified, and therefore has not yet been rendered from the neutral point of view! (It is part of a college lecture; see Larrys Text.) --LMS

The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all affirm theism, or belief in God. These religions each give different answers as to the details, and those details are very important to the adherents of these religions; but together they share a tradition of asking the same or similar questions, and proposing the same or similar answers, about what, precisely, God is or is supposed to be.

Table of contents
1 Background: on investigating the nature of God
2 Questions about traditional definitions of God
3 Mysticism and anthromorphism

Background: on investigating the nature of God

Upon being asked what God is, it is natural for some to answer: "I don't know--no one knows. And that's as it should be. God is totally beyond the comprehension of mere finite beings such as ourselves, and we should not go about pretending that we can know what God is." There is something paradoxical about this position, namely, if one believes that the nature of God is totally unknown, but one nevertheless says that one believes that God exists, then one cannot even say what it is that one is believing in. Suppose someone tells you, "I believe that flibits exist, but I have absolutely no idea of what flibits are." This appears to be only so much nonsense. But surely believers do not want to say that their talk of God is nonsense. At least some minimal conception, therefore, seems required.

Even mystics, who believe that the nature of God is essentially mysterious to human beings, concede that one must have at least a minimal conception of God. If one has anything like a traditional Jewish or Christian belief, for example then in fact one does have some conception of what God is: God is an eternally existent spiritual being who created the world, and so forth. Many Christians further affirm: "There is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that there are three aspects to God, and while we may not know the precise meaning of this doctrine (of the Trinity), nonetheless we can know that it is true."

Philosophers know all too well, from dealing with for example the problem of substance and the problem of universals, that general "What is" questions (ti esti questions) give an overly simple appearance to what is in fact a very complex affair. The situation is no different with the question, "What is God?" What is it exactly that we are asking when we ask this? If all we wanted were a definition of "God," there are many of those available. What else is needed?

It is one thing to give the traditional sort of definition of "God," but it is quite another really to understand the terms used in the definition.

Questions about traditional definitions of God

What follows is a typical definition of "God," which, perhaps with some adjustments, would be acceptable to many within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths:

God is an eternally existent spirit that exists apart from space and time, is the creator of the world. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and also all-loving.

Several aspects of this definition appear, to many thinkers, to need some explanation. There are two different kinds of questions we might raise about aspects of the definition. First, what do various important terms in the definition really mean? Second, how could we possibly get the very concepts of certain properties, described by those terms, properties which are not properties of anything in our ordinary everyday experience? What follows is a limited sample of problems. We begin by examining two relatively minor problems and then one much more important, overarching problem.

First, some say that God is eternally existent. Some theorists take this to mean that God is timeless--categories of past, present, and future just do not apply when we are talking about God. Others hold, instead, that "eternal existence" means that God exists at all times. In other words, if God is eternally existent, he has already existed for an infinite amount of time, and he will continue to exist for an infinite amount of time--his existence never began and will never end. (See eternal existence.)

It is common to deny that we can understand God's eternity. Suppose we wish to deny that we can understand what an actual infinity is, and therefore we cannot understand what (God's) eternity is. In that case, part of what God is--his eternity--is something we cannot understand. Nevertheless, we want to have some notion of what God is that is adequate or robust enough for us to be able to say we understand what we mean when we say that God exists. The mere fact, if it is a fact, that we do not understand eternal existence, may not, by itself, be enough to show that we do not know what we are talking about when we say that God exists. Maybe we could still make sense of the claim, "God exists," without any clear notion of eternal existence, or maybe we could make do by understanding God's eternity by way of our closely related concept, of a potential infinity.

Second, we say that God is "all-powerful," or to say the same thing, omnipotent (see omnipotence). Some philosophers have brought up some puzzles that are supposed to cast some doubt on whether the notion of omnipotence is coherent, or that are supposed to force us to rethink our notion of what omnipotence might be, anyway. The basic notion of being all-powerful can be understood well enough, it seems, at first glance: something is omnipotent, or all-powerful, if the being can do anything we can think of. But here is something we seem to be able to think of: a square circle. We may not be able to imagine a square circle, and of course, such a notion is self-contradictory. For all that, we do know what a square circle would be: a shape that is both square and circular. One might argue, then, as follows: if God can do anything, then he could create an actual square circle. But square circles, being self-contradictory, cannot exist. Does this mean that it is in God's capacity to do impossible things?

Along the same lines there is this hackneyed conundrum: would God's omnipotence allow him to create a stone that he could not lift? On the one hand, he is omnipotent, so he could create anything; but if he created this stone, then he could not lift it. It does not seem to solve the problem to say that, just as a matter of fact, God does not make square circles, or stones he cannot lift. The question, after all, is not whether God does such things, but whether he could do such things. The claim that God is omnipotent is, after all, a claim about what is possible, about what God has the ability to do, not about what is actual.

Many philosophers and theologians regard this puzzle about omnipotence as not a very serious problem. What they often say is that God can do whatever is logically possible. God cannot create contradictions, they say, but that is no real limitation of God's power. To talk about an actually existent contradiction is just nonsense, they claim; that God cannot create a stone he cannot lift, or that God cannot create an actually existent square circle, is not any serious limitation of God's power. So, they say, we could say that God can do anything that does not imply a contradiction.

Mysticism and anthromorphism

Theologians and philosophers also debate a broader issue about the nature of God: how are we to understand what sort of thing God is? Consider these three things we say about God: first, God is a spirit; second, God is the creator of the world; and third, God exists apart from space and time. All three of those things are said, in the big monotheistic religions, of the same being, which gives rise to some puzzles about the sort of thing that God is supposed to be.

Consider the first claim, that God is a spirit, by itself. What does this term "spirit" mean? Please note: if we regard the above definition of "God" as a genus-and-difference definition, then the genus of God is "spirit," since God is a particular kind of spirit. The rest of the definition of "God" is supposed to tell us what kind of spirit God is. Therefore, on anyone's account, if we do not understand what spirits are, then we have no grasp on what sort of thing God is. So a great deal of philosophical and theological work on the nature of God surrounds the issue of the nature of the divine spirit and what its relationship to the world might be.

On one possible view, we might say that the word "spirit" means no more than mind. We might suppose we have a better conception of what minds are, because we are all (the private language argument notwithstanding) intimately acquainted with our own minds. We then, on this view, have a concept of what God is: God is a mind, like our own minds, only much more powerful. Now, those who say that God is a mind face special problems of their own. Let us now bring up the second and the third claims about God that listed above: God is the creator of the world, and God exists apart from space and time. On the view in question, then, it is a mind that created the world, and this mind exists apart from space and, significantly, time. But how can we understand what a mind is supposed to be that creates physical bodies out of nothing and which exists (on one conception of eternal existence) timelessly?

Skeptics and mystics point out that we cannot really understand what it means for a mind to create anything physical. We do, they say, have a notion of what minds can do, based on observation of our own minds. Our own minds can think thoughts, perceive the world, experience feelings, and make decisions. The decisions we make result in the actions of our own bodies. The only way in which we are familiar with minds impacting the world is via the bodies that are associated with those minds; in other words, it is only when we decide something, or have a strong feeling that causes us to act out of excitement or anger, that our minds cause our bodies to act.

But now compare that with what is being claimed about God. God is supposed to be a spirit, which, on the view under consideration, is a mind, albeit a divine mind; this divine mind is supposed to have created physical objects, the physical objects that make up the universe, out of nothing. We certainly do not have any experience of minds creating physical objects out of nothing; from a first-person perspective, we surely have no nothing of what that would even be like.

Now, I suppose what we do, in order to understand the notion of a mind creating something out of nothing, is to use our imaginations in a certain way. We imagine someone thinking very hard, with nothing in front of him; and then the next moment there is something, like a tree, in front of him; and, whatever this would mean, we imagine that his thoughts have caused the tree to appear in front of him. And remember, since God is suppose to be just a mind, without a body, that we shouldn't imagine a human being sitting there and looking like he's concentrating hard just before this tree pops into existence. That wouldn't be an accurate representation of the situation. We would have to imagine a mind, somewhat like our own mind, all by itself causing the tree to pop into existence. Now, we may be able to imagine this, in a way; but the question is whether we really are imagining a mind creating a tree out of nothing. Because, when we get to the part about a particular decision that causes the tree to appear out of thin air, we draw a blank. We have absolutely no experience of anything like that sort of decision. So I would doubt that, in fact, what we really are doing is imagining the creation of the tree with a mere decision.

So that is one problem about the notion that God is a mind -- namely, it is hard really to understand the very notion that a mind can create physical objects out of nothing. We might imagine that we understand this, but I don't think we really do understand it.

But now here is another problem about the notion that God is a mind. Now we said that God exists eternally, and that "eternal" has two different interpretations, meaning either existing timelessly or existing at all times. Well, suppose, as many people do, that God's mind is supposed to exist timelessly. In other words, when we think about what this divine mind is supposed to be, we can't apply categories like "past," "present," and "future" to it. God's mind does not pass from earlier thought to later thought; he doesn't make plans and then, later, act on those plans. To say those things would be to imply that God's mind does not exist timelessly.

But see here, this makes the very notion of the divine mind exceedingly strange. Think now of how you understand what your own mind is: it is, as far as you can ascertain, a series of experiences, thoughts, judgments, feelings, decisions, and so forth, coming one after another. We are saying that God's mind, or rather the mind that is identical to God, has no such series of thoughts, decisions, and so forth. Because the divine mind is timeless: the categories of before and after just don't apply here. So it is hard to say that the divine mind even has such things as thoughts and judgments, because a thought, in any sense of this word that we are familiar with, is, presumably, something that has a beginning and an end. God's mind is sitting in the same state for all of eternity. A very complex, grand, incomprehensible state. It is hard to call this state, or any part of it, a thought or a decision or anything like that.

It's worse than that, though. Because ordinary traditional Christianity, for example, holds that we can pray to God and God answers prayers; that God speaks to prophets and perhaps even to us individually, sometimes; and so forth. But in order for God to do these things, God must, at least in some sense, exist in time.

Let's step back now and consider what is being claimed about God. God is a mind, but this mind differs radically from the human mind, because, first, it has the ability to create physical objects out of nothing, just with a thought; and, second, it does not have any series of thoughts at all, but remains in the same mental state, apart from time, or as it were throughout eternity. And yet, straining our powers of interpretation, God is supposed also to perform individual acts, such as doing miracles and answering prayers, at particular times. Those, at least, are the claims we?re examining at present. They stem from the basic notion that the sort of thing that the divine spirit is, is a timeless, creative mind.

But honestly, then, can we really call this being, that differs so radically from the human mind, a mind at all? If God is in a single state throughout eternity, and with a pure spiritual act can create a tree, then surely it would be, as Hume says, an abuse of terms to call God a mind. Minds have successive thoughts -- thoughts that succeed one another -- God is no such thing. God is supposed, at least by many people, to be unitary, and simple, and unchanging. And so we would be most accurate not to call the divine spirit a mind but instead to stick with the word "spirit."

Well, I'll bet you know what I'm going to say next. Remember, what we?re trying to figure out now is what sort of thing God is. We say that he's a spirit; and we have concluded, for the time being, that God's spirit is not a mind. What, then, is a spirit, if it isn't a mind? Do we have a concept of this non-mental spirit, and if we do, then how did we come by this concept?

Now there are some people who will throw up their hands at this point and say, "Too many questions! This is pointless! No, God is not knowable. God is a mystery. We do not understand what God is. Maybe people who have visions and go into mystical ecstacies and so forth can, somehow, understand what God is, by coming into some close contact with God. But ordinary people using our finite, ordinary, worldly concepts just cannot fathom what is divine and otherworldly." People who say they believe that God exists, but who also believe that we cannot have any concept of what God is, except by a very unusual sort of experience, are known as mystics and their view is called mysticism. The unusual sort of experience which they say gives them some insight on the nature of God is called a mystical experience.

How are we to react to mysticism? Well, I can tell you anyway how I react. The trouble with mysticism, as far as I can make out, is something I've already hinted at. Namely, if the mystic thinks we can have no concept of God whatsoever, then it is contradictory for the mystic to claim to believe that God exists. If I have a belief that something exists, then I have to have a concept of the thing that exists. If I believe that Elvis still exists among us, then I have to have some acquaintance with who Elvis is supposed to be. If I hold that unicorns exist, I have to have a concept of a magical horse with a horn. And so forth. But if I have absolutely no concept whatsoever of God, then it is literal nonsense for me to say that I believe that God exists. Beliefs, in order to be beliefs, must have contents. It is nonsense to say that I believe in something of which I have no notion whatsoever.

It seems to me that the only way I could, as an extreme mystic, honestly maintain that I believe in God, is if I have a mystical experience and come to experience directly what God is. Then I may not be able to describe what God is to other people, but, having had an experience of what God is, my concept of God has some content. Then, when I say that I believe that God exists, I can be understood to mean: "That indescribable divine being which I experienced exists." I am just not going to take the time to examine the plausibility of this view. Really, this attitude is beyond the purview of philosophy: if the nature of God cannot be described or conceived of by ordinary concepts, then evidently there is nothing for any philosopher, who like myself is equipped only with ordinary concepts, to examine. I suppose I might try to try to raise some objections to the very idea that someone has any mystical experiences; but I am not going to try to do that. That would take us far afield.

But why not accept a less extreme mysticism, a moderate mysticism if you will, according to which a few things can be understood about God. That, for example, God created the universe; that God is spiritual; and so on. In other words, we can understand the gist of the definition of "God" that I gave before; but we cannot understand the details. The idea then is that we have some vague, fuzzy notion of what God is, but we cannot elaborate, when pressed, on many essential parts of this notion, such as what a "spirit" is that is not a mind, and so forth. I will leave it up to you as to whether you ought to think that any such vague notion is good enough, so that indeed you can honestly think that you have a notion of God. I won't tell you what to think about that.

But some of you may hear all this and say, "By George, this is excellent reason to reject mysticism. If a mystical view of God really does mean that I don't know what I'm believing in, and thus that I really can't honestly be said to have a belief at all, then I am going to compare God more directly to humans. I will say that God is not "timeless," but that he does have successive thoughts, feelings, decisions, and so forth. That is, after all, more consistent with many elements of a traditional faith."

This point of view on the nature of God may be described by a term often constrasted with "mysticism," namely anthropomorphism. The term "anthropomorphism" comes from two Greek words, anthropos meaning man, and morphos meaning shape or form; so "anthropomorphism" describes any belief according to which something non-human, such as God, animals, and plants, is thought of as being like human beings. Usually this term is taken as a term of abuse -- an insult. It doesn't have to be taken that way, but I think it usually is. So if you call someone an "anthropomorphite" you are accusing him of being a little stupid or silly in a way, because he thinks that something that is totally non-human is like human beings. For example, when children attribute feelings to thunderstorms -- "The thunder is mad at us," they say, not understanding that, unlike humans, the weather doesn't have feelings. Hardly anyone believes that God has a human body, but of course many people historically have believed that their gods had bodies and that those gods could roam the earth. We could use the phrase "physical anthropomorphism about God" to mean the belief that God has a body. But then we might also use "spiritual anthropomorphism about God," meaning that God has a mind something like a human's.

The idea then is that we get our concept of God's qualities -- his ability to create, his knowledge, his feelings for us, and so forth -- by analogy with experience of our own minds. Of course, even the anthropomorphite isn't going to say that God's mind is exactly the same as a very smart human mind, of course. There are some extremely important differences. But God's mind is enough like our minds that we can make good sense of the claim that the sort of thing that God is, is indeed a mind. Now we've already looked at some of the problems for this view, and I don't plan to go over any others. If you think those problems, and other similar problems we might raise, can be overcome, that's fine. I've just given that view a name, spiritual anthropomorphism, in order to contrast it with mysticism.

But what if I conclude, after trying to make sense of what God is, that the word "God" is really nonsense? What if after consideration I decide that I really can't understand what people are talking about when they use this word? There are a good many philosophers this century who have come to this conclusion -- philosophers like the Englishman A. J. Ayer, and other so-called positivists. I mean, suppose that I do my very best, trying to understand what this definition of "God" is supposed to mean. And I end up saying to myself: "The extreme mystical conception of God is not a conception of anything at all; the moderate mystical conception of God is too flimsy, because it just gives up explaining what the definition's terms mean at a certain point; and the anthropomorphic conception of God is totally implausible simply because it is not a conception of a mind at all. Therefore, as far as I can tell, no good sense can be made of this word, ?God?." For convenience, let's call this the no concept view of "God" talk; it's the view that we, or I anyway, have no genuine concept of what "God" is supposed to mean. Now if I come to that position, am I an atheist, an agnostic, or what?

Maybe this view could best be considered a kind of agnosticism, for the following reason: it rejects both the belief that God exists and the belief that God does not exist. But this is a totally different sort of view from an ordinary agnostic. An ordinary agnostic does believe she has some at least rough-and-ready conception of God; she simply doesn't know whether or not such a being exists. Either she hasn't decided; or she thinks the evidence is equally weighted on both sides and she thinks it's most responsible to suspend judgment; or, in the most extreme case, she thinks she cannot know whether or not such a being exists. Those are the usual sorts of agnosticism.

But if I take the no concept view, and say that talk of God is really just nonsense, it's not as though I have trouble making up my mind whether or not God exists; it's not even as though I believe that the existence of God cannot be known. Rather, I would not think the question, "Does God exist?" made any sense at all. For the question, "Does God exist?" to makes sense, the word "God" would have to be given some good meaning. So if my opinion is that the word "God" in fact cannot be given good meaning, or at least that I don't understand its meaning, then I would give you blank stare if you asked me whether God exists. As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether God exists is ultimately no more comprehensible than the question of whether flibits exist. So I would neither affirm, nor deny, nor suspend judgment on the question of the existence of God. It would be better to say that I would want to unask the question. All this is why I think that the no concept view is best regarded as a distinct, fourth view in addition to theism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Let me be fair to the theists among us now. I am quite sure that defenders of traditional religions including Christianity would, after our discussion so far, want to say that the no concept view is unduly critical, fastidious, or exacting. Such people will, I suppose, either believe that moderate mysticism is correct, and provides a sufficiently clear notion of God for human purposes; or that spiritual anthropomorphism is correct, and that it really does give us a way to conceive of the divine mind.