Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses what religion studies and claims knowledge of—God. It examines two ideas of God, God as a Person and God as a non-personal entity, and presents examples of the second idea of God as it occurs in various religions. Then the two ideas of God are compared.
What does religion know? What is its domain of knowing? Religion claims knowledge of many different fields. Some religions claim cosmological knowledge, that is, knowledge about how the universe came into existence. Some claim historical knowledge (the Tower of Babel, Noah’s ark, etc.). Most claim moral knowledge, knowledge about how a person should conduct their life. Yet, most religions are only secondarily interested in cosmology, history, and even morals. Their primary concern is God. As a rule, religion—first and foremost—claims knowledge of God.
God. Does any other word evoke more contradictory images? Universal Father or mythical parent? Pure Truth or wish fulfillment? Our Creator or our creation? Source of all that’s good or source of religious wars and inquisitions? People certainly have many different ideas about God. Yet most people, whether they believe in God or not, think of God as a Person. Christians believe in the three Persons of the Trinity. Jewish people worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. Islamic nations proclaim Allah. In these traditions, the popular idea of God is a God who is a Person, not some impersonal, inanimate stuff that makes up tables and cars, you and I. Yet the world’s religious literature sometimes describes God as Eternal Substance, Ultimate Ground of Existence, and all the other terms of the previous chapter. Are these instances coincidental? Are they merely sloppy, inexact writing? Or are the writers trying to convey a picture of God very different from the popular image of God as a Person? Why would they? What’s wrong with thinking of God as a Person?
Is God actually a person? Richard McBrien, a Chairman of Notre Dame University’s Department of Theology, discusses this question.
Is God “a person”? We are not asking here the question of Trinity, whether there are three Persons in the one Godhead. We raise instead the question whether God is a separate Being among beings. . . . [T]he answer is “Of course not. God is not a person because God is not any one thing or being.” But if the noun person is taken analogically, the answer has to be different. Does the reality we name “God” have qualities which we also attribute to persons? Yes, insofar as we understand persons as centers of intelligence, love, compassion, graciousness, fidelity, and the like. What we mean by . . . God certainly must comprehend such qualities as these. In other words, it’s better to attribute “personality” to God than to deny it entirely and to look upon God as some impersonal, unconscious cosmic law. And yet the attribution is always analogical; i.e., God is like a person, but God is also very much unlike a person. ([M07],333).
McBrien asks “Is God a person?” and immediately rephrases “Is God a separate Being among other beings?” Why? Does being a person necessarily imply an entity separate from the rest of creation? It seems it does. An introduction to one of the works of “Dionysius,” translated by C. E. Rolt, discusses this point.
Now an individual person is one who distinguishes himself from the rest of the world. I am a person because I can say: “I am I and I am not you.” Personality thus consists in the faculty of knowing oneself to be one individual among others. And thus, by its very nature, Personality is (on one side of its being, at least) a finite thing. The very essence of my personal state lies in the fact that I am not the whole universe but a member thereof. ([D08],4).
McBrien and Rolt seem to agree that a God who is an actual Person is too limited, too finite. To be a person one must be able to say “I stop here. Everything outside of this is not me.” Rolt rejects this idea of God.
God, on the other hand, is Supra-Personal because He is infinite. He is not one Being among others, but in His ultimate nature dwells on a plane where there is nothing whatever besides Himself. ([D08],4).
Notice, as we travel from table to wood to atom to subatomic particle, we reach energy which dwells on a plane where there is nothing whatever besides itself.
Thinking of God as a Person may not be entirely satisfactory, but do the concepts of the previous chapter work any better? Does it make sense to regard the “mere” substance of the universe as God, not as some God who is a Person, but as God nonetheless? Many people, no doubt, would immediately answer “No!” because the concept of God as a Person is so pervasive and ingrained. Most people grow up with it. And, whether they believe in God or not, they usually think of God as a Person, as Jesus or Krishna, Allah or Jehovah. On the other hand, the idea of God as Ultimate Ground of Existence is a new concept for many people. Indeed, many have never even heard of such an idea of God.
Why? Why is God so often pictured as a Person, even by people who don’t believe in God? And why is God so rarely thought of as the Eternal Substance, even by people who are religious?
One possible answer is that monotheistic religion is much more common that monistic religion. Monotheistic religion teaches that God is a Person, separate from creation. The three major Western religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—are primarily monotheistic. And monotheistic ideas also occur in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. On the other hand, monistic ideas occur much more rarely. And they’re found in Western religion even more rarely than in Eastern religion.
But the answer doesn’t get to the heart of the matter because it doesn’t explain why monotheistic religion is so much more common than monistic religion. Why is religious monotheism so much more common than religious monism? We’ll return to that question in a later chapter, devoted to exploring the idea of Gods who are Persons. For now, let’s try to better understand the monist idea of God by exploring the idea of God as Ultimate Ground of Existence, Eternal Substance, and all the other ideas of the previous chapter. Before we do, however, we’ll need to say something more about monism itself.
The type of monism we’re now discussing—religious monism—differs from science’s type of monism. Scientists today accept a monist description of the physical universe. They believe every physical phenomena is a manifestation of one entity, energy. But they don’t regard energy religiously and they don’t call it God. Therefore, science’s type of monism isn’t religious, rather it’s natural and secular. Religion’s type of monism, on the other hand, does regard the single Ultimate Ground of all Existence as God, not necessarily as a God who is a Person, but as God nonetheless. The religious monist believes that God is the one entity which stands under all other entities, that all phenomena, natural or otherwise, are manifestations of God, just as ocean, snow, and steam are all manifestations of water.
Religious monism is often unknown or ignored. For example, a college dictionary ignores religious monism when it attempts to define monotheism as the
. . . doctrine or belief that there is but one God. ([F08],877).
The definition is faulty. Why? Because a proper definition describes the thing in question and rules out everything else. If it fails to exclude, it’s only a description, not a definition. For example, “a whole number between eleven and thirteen” could be considered a definition of twelve, while “a whole number between eleven and fifteen” could not, because it fails to rule out fourteen. So, the dictionary “definition” is faulty—it’s merely a description—because it describes monotheism and religious monism. It applies to either belief because both accept one God. Monotheists believe in one God who is a Person; religious monists believe in one God that is not a Person, but the unique, eternal, ultimate substance.
We’ll try to be clearer by always keeping in mind there are two very different ideas of God in question. To avoid confusing the two, I’ll use different terms. For the monotheistic idea of God—the idea of God as a distinct Person, separate from creation—I’ll use the phrase “God who is a Person” or “God as a Person.” And for the monistic idea of God, I’ll use the phrase “the God which is not a Person.” Other authors use the term “Godhead” instead.
Let’s now examine instances of monist ideas in the world’s religions. We’ll meet the statements of religious people who definitely thought of God as Eternal Substance, Ultimate Ground of Existence, and many of the other terms of the previous chapter. And we’ll meet the statements of religious people who may have thought of God in that manner. Because Eastern religions are more monistic than Western religions, we’ll begin with an Eastern religion, one of largest, Hinduism.
Monotheism teaches that God is a Person, a separate entity, distinct from the rest of creation. Religious monism teaches a God that is not a Person, but is the Ultimate Ground of Existence. In a word, monotheism says there is only one God; monism (religious or natural) says there is only One—period!
India has both conceptions of God. It has religions that worship Gods who are Persons such as Krishna, Kali and Shiva. And it has Vedanta, a religion that worships “Brahman,” the God which is not a Person. What is Brahman? The world of people and objects we see around us has an ultimate ground of existence. Science calls it energy. Vedanta calls it Brahman. In 1919 Swami Paramananda, a Vedanta monk, wrote that
Brahman is the vast ocean of being, on which rise numberless ripples and waves of manifestation. ([U03],107),
the manifestations, of course, being chairs and tables, you and I. He says
. . . nothing in the created world can exist independent of Brahman, who is the basis of all existence. ([U03],87),
. . . all created things have their origin in Him. He is the foundation of the universe. There is nothing beyond Him. ([U03],86).
But don’t the last two quotes refer to Brahman as a Person? Don’t “who is the basis” and “nothing beyond Him” show Brahman is a Person? No. Vedanta specifically says Brahman is not a Person. Why, then, would the Swami refer to the God that is not a Person as if It were a Person? This question is addressed in the chapter that discusses Gods who are Persons.
The Swami was a monk of India’s Ramakrishna order, founded by the 19th century saint, Sri Ramakrishna, who India considers one of its greatest holy men. Sri Ramakrishna teaches
God alone is real, the Eternal Substance; all else is unreal, that is, impermanent. . . . God is the only Eternal Substance. ([G03],81-2),
God alone is the real and permanent Substance; all else is illusory and impermanent. ([G03],179).
Ramakrishna, in turn, echoes one of his teachers, Totapuri, who says
Brahman . . . is the only Reality, ever-pure, ever-illumined, ever-free, beyond the limits of time, space, and causation. Though apparently divided by names and forms . . . Brahman is really one and undivided. ([L07],159).
Though relatively recent, these statements about Brahman could have been made at any time in India’s religious history. For example, Shankara, India’s great 8th century religious reformer, writes of Brahman:
It is the ground upon which this manifold universe . . . appears to rest. It is its own support . . . eternal . . . eternally free and indivisible . . . Though one, it is the cause of the many. . . . It is the one and only cause . . . It has no cause but itself. . . . It is unchangeable, infinite, imperishable. . . . It . . . appears . . . as a manifold universe of names and forms and changes. ([S11],71-2).
Even more ancient than Shankara’s writings are India’s oldest and most authoritative scriptures, the Vedas, written by ancient seers. The Upanishads are the philosophic part of Vedas. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, we find reference to an even older writing:
Concerning which truth it is written: Before creation came into existence, Brahman existed as the Unmanifest. From the Unmanifest he created the Manifest. From himself he brought forth himself. Hence he is known as the Self-Existent. ([U04],56).
And in another upanishad, the Svetasvatara Upanishad, we read of Brahman:
He is the substance, all else the shadow. He is the imperishable. The knowers of Brahman know him as the one reality behind all that seems. ([U04],119).
At this point, I suppose it’s entirely obvious what also deserves to be called “the imperishable” and “the one reality behind all that seems.” How ancient seers, such as the upanishad authors, discovered the eternal Basis of everything, thousands of years before science, is the subject of the next chapter.
Brahman is the Eternal Basis of the world we see outside. As such, it’s a religious analogue to what science calls energy. What about the world inside? Inside we see a world of emotion and thought. Is energy its ultimate basis, too? Science doesn’t say but Hindu Vedanta answers yes. It says “Atman” is the inner world’s Ultimate Ground of Existence and teaches that brahman and atman are identical; they are two words for the same Thing, seen from two different perspectives, from within and from without. Other religions also identify the inner world’s Eternal Substance with the Eternal Substance of the physical world. For example, some Buddhists call the universe’s Eternal Substance “mind”.
Buddhism is another major Eastern religion. Its founder, Buddha, is often said to have avoided any teaching about God, gods, and Ultimate Reality. For example:
The Buddha departed from the main lines of traditional Indian thought in not asserting an essential or ultimate reality in things. ([N05],v3,375).
Although Buddha does not speak of God or gods, he does speak of what we are calling the God which is not a Person. For in the Udana scripture (VIII.3), a very old Buddhist writing, he declares:
There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If [there] were not this Unborn, this Unoriginated, this Uncreated, this Unformed, escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed, would not be possible. But since there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is escape possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed. ([B14],32-3).
He also declares in another scripture that:
All things are made of one essence . . . as if a potter made different vessels out of the same clay. . . . There is no diversity in the clay used . . . ([C04],163).
Moreover, Buddha describes the religious quest as a search for that one essence.
[S]omeone, being liable to birth . . . seeks the unborn . . . being liable to ageing . . . seeks the unageing . . . being liable to decay . . . seeks the undecaying . . . being liable to dying . . . seeks the undying . . . ([C13],206).
Centuries after Buddha, The Awakening of Faith was written and attributed to Asvaghosha, a philosopher and poet. In an introduction, we read that
. . . the all-inclusive Reality, the unconditional Absolute, is called Suchness. . . . What is real is Suchness alone; all else is unreal, a mere appearance only, because it is relative, being devoid of independent self-nature or own-being. ([A15],12,15).
Science, of course, doesn’t teach things are mere appearances. But it finds them lacking independent existence because all physical entities ultimately depend for their existence on energy, suchness, the unconditional absolute, what Hindus call Brahman.
As we’ve noted, some Buddhists call the ultimate ground “mind”. For example, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation declares that mind is
. . . non-created and self-radiant . . . Reality . . . ever-existing . . . partaking of the Uncreated . . . self-born . . . ([T06],212,3,4).
This text also teaches that the external world is rooted in mind. Thus, we read
. . . matter is derived from mind or consciousness, and not mind or consciousness from matter. ([T06],213).
Is not matter derived from energy, which is non-created, ever-existing, uncreated, self-born?
More recently, Buddhadasa, a Thai Buddhist monk, divides things into two classes:
. . . conditioned, impermanent objects produced by causes . . . ([B13],34);
. . . free from the process of coming into being and ceasing . . . things uncreated by causes. ([B13],34).
He also mentions a state “free from coming into being,” that is, a state that’s unoriginated and unborn.
When . . . conditioned things are dissolved, an unconditioned, indestructible, self-existing state remains . . . ([B13],34).
Perhaps this describes a meditative state he has experienced. A later chapter discusses meditation.
Taoism is an Eastern religion indigenous to China. Huston Smith, in his The Religions of Man, distinguishes three senses of the word “Tao” and names the first “ultimate Tao.”
Ineffable and transcendent, this ultimate Tao is the ground of all existence. It is behind all and beneath all, the womb from which all life springs and to which it again returns . . . Tao in the first and basic sense can be known, but only through mystical insight . . . ([S15],199).
One translation of the Tao Te Ching, the most authoritative Taoist book, speaks of ultimate Tao when is says:
Ultimate reality is all-pervasive; it is immanent everywhere. All things owe their existence to it . . . (XXXIV, [T01],36).
And in another translation we read:
There was something formless yet complete,
That existed before heaven and earth;
Without sound, without substance,
Dependent on nothing, unchanging,
All pervading, unfailing.
One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven. (XXV, [W01],174),
. . . return to the root is called Quietness;
Quietness is called submission to Fate;
What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always-so
To know the always-so is to be Illumined . . . (Ch.XVI,[W01],162).
Like Buddhism, Taoism also speaks of meditative states. A Taoist story tells that Confucius, upon finding the Taoist Lao Tan in a deep meditative state, said:
Just now you appeared to me to be a mere lifeless block, stark as a log of wood. It was as though you had no consciousness of any outside thing and were somewhere all by yourself. ([W01],117).
Lao Tan replied:
True. I was wandering in the Beginning of Things. ([W01],117).
The Sikh religion is the last Eastern religion we’ll discuss. It was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469 C.E. and died seventy years later. His teachings about God have been summarized thus:
This Being is One. He is eternal. He is immanent in all things and the Sustainer of all things. He is the Creator of all things. He is immanent in His creation. ([M09],163).
And one of Nanak’s hymns, the Japji, opens
There is One God
His Name is Truth.
He is the Creator,
He is without fear and without hate.
He is beyond time Immortal,
His Spirit pervades the universe.
He is not born,
Nor does He die to be born again,
He is self-existent. ([H13],43).
In the last chapter we saw that energy is the self-existent, the eternal, the ultimate, the uncreated. In this chapter we gave energy another name: the God which is not a Person. For a religion like Vedanta, which accepts the idea of God, this name may be acceptable. For a religion like Buddhism, which does not use the idea of God, this name may be unacceptable; Buddhism might prefer “the supreme reality which is not a person” instead. Each religion speaks of what we are calling the God which is not a Person in its own words, using its own terms.
In Western religion, the idea of God is pervasive. Therefore, our term “the God which is not a Person” is probably more fitting, even though the idea itself occurs less frequently in the West. Yet it does occur. We’ll begin with a few examples from Christianity.
The Carthusian order, founded in 1086 by Saint Bruno, is one of Roman Catholicism’s most austere and conservative orders. Its monks remain anonymous and rarely publish. Yet one has written:
God is subsistent being itself. The word ‘being’ applies strictly only to God . . . For all other things, ourselves included, compared to that pure and perfect Substance, are not even shadows. That is why God gave his name when speaking to Moses as He who is. ([A06],101).
We’ve seen Energy is the pure and perfect Substance. It’s also “subsistent existence” since It’s the Existence underlying and subsisting under all existence.
The anonymous monk isn’t the only Roman Catholic who believes God is Subsistent Existence Itself. One of the greatest teachers of the Catholic Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the famous 13th century theology professor, writes:
Now existence is more intimately and profoundly interior to things than anything else . . . So God must exist and exist intimately in everything. (Ia,8,2, [A07],v2,113),
God exists in all things by substance . . . exists in everything as causing their existence. (Ia,8,4, [A07],v2,121),
God is sheer existence subsisting of his very nature. (Ia,44,1, [A07],v8,7).
To the religious Thomas Aquinas “God is sheer existence.” To the scientist, is not Energy “sheer existence”? Does not the Self-Existent subsist of its very nature, independent of any other entity?
Of course, for many Christians the definitive question would be: is there any evidence Jesus thought of God the Father as an impersonal entity? There is. Although some modern translations have Jesus using the personal pronoun “who” to refer to the Father, the King James version has many instances where Jesus uses the impersonal pronoun “which.” The following are all taken from King James.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. ([H08],Mt5:16);
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. ([H08],Mt5:45);
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. ([H08],Mt6:6);
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which are in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. ([H08],Mt6:9).
Other instances are Mt 6:18, 7:11, 16:17, 18:10, 23:9, Mk 11:25, 11:26, and Lk 11:2.
Which pronoun is correct? The New Testament Study Bible, Mark has ([N10],317) Mark’s original Greek side by side with an English translation. But the Greek seems to have neither “who” or “which.” I have no knowledge of ancient Greek, so I don’t know which interpolation is more justified.
Other references to the God which is not a Person occur in scriptures holy to Jews and Christians alike. For example, the Biblical book of Exodus records a conversation between Moses and God. From a burning bush, God commands Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, the God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. ([H08],Ex3:13-14).
“I am that I am” is a curious phrase which, I’m sure, has puzzled many a religious student. What does it mean? Solomon Nigosian discusses this question.
‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh’ is usually translated as ‘I Am Who I Am’, or ‘I AM What I Am’ . . . The word Ehyeh derives from the Hebrew root word hayah, which means ‘life’, ‘being’. The same root is also the antecedent of the word, or name, YHWH—the four letters of the ineffable name of God, never pronounced by Jews. Basically then, the Self definition of God as ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh’ is understood to mean that God is a BEING—an Absolute, Immutable Being, but beyond human comprehension. ([N13],19).
The Christian interpretation is similar. W. F. Albright, a “distinguished biblical archaeologist,” suggests it means “He who brings into being whatever comes into being” ([M07],285). If we paraphrase using impersonal pronouns we get “That which brings into existence whatever comes into existence”—a description of the First Cause and Ultimate Ground of Existence. In much the same spirit of the Carthusian monk who wrote “all other beings . . . compared to that pure and perfect Substance, are not even shadows,” the Jewish teacher Schneur Zalman teaches:
The fact that all created things seem to have existence and being in their own right is because we can neither conceive nor see, with our physical eyes, the Force of God which is in the created world. . . . There is really nothing in existence besides God. ([W08],56-7).
Might not a scientist say the same of energy?
Other hints of the God which is not a Person occur in the writing of various Jewish saints and mystics. A Jewish mystic called “The Besht,” for example, has a teaching similar to Schneur Zalman.
. . . [T]here is nothing in the whole universe except God himself, who fills the whole world with his glory. The essential part of this contemplation is that a man should think of himself as absolutely nothing, for he is really only the soul within him, which is a part of the divine itself. Thus the whole of reality is only the one God himself. ([W08],48).
And Dov Baer of Lubavitch, Schneur Zalman’s son, wrote
There is no reality in created things . . . [F]rom the point of view of the divine vitality which sustains us, we have no existence . . . From which it follows that there is no other existence whatsoever apart from His existence . . . (From Introduction, Dov Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy, 44-45 in [E04],136-7).
Obviously, nothing has existence apart from That which is the Ground of all Existence. On the other hand, if God is a Person separate from creation, then things exists apart from God, regardless of how they were originally made.
If Energy is the Root and Source of everything which exists, then things may be thought of as emanations of It. Just as light emanates from a fire, the world we see emanates from God.
How beautiful is the mystical conception of the divine emanation as the source of all existence, all life, all beauty, all power, all justice, all good, all order, all progress . . . The basis for the formation of higher, holy, mighty, and pure souls is embodied in it.
The divine emanation, by its being, engenders everything. ([K06],165).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, penned the last quotation. He also writes:
The forms that robe reality are precious and holy to us, and especially to all who are limited in their spiritual perception. But always, when we approach a life of enlightenment, we must not swerve from the perspective that light flows from the incomprehensible to the comprehensible, by way of emanation, from the light of the En Sof. ([K05],208).
A footnote describes En Sof as “The Infinite, a mystical term for God.” “The forms that robe reality” is a poetic image that well expresses science’s understanding of physical entities: they are forms which embody but at the same time conceal their eternal basis.
One last observation concerning Judaism. Solomon Nigosian writes that the famous Jewish writer Moses Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, teaches
God’s existence is absolute . . . It includes no composition . . . ([N13],20).
The dictionary defines “composition” as
1. putting together of parts, ingredients, etc., to form a whole ([F08],277).
Something produced by combining parts, elements, or components is created by composition and is therefore a “component entity” or “component object.” As we’ve seen, the Real is pure in the sense of unmixed and simple in the sense of composed of only one substance or element. It has no parts and includes no composition.
Islam is the world’s youngest major faith. Like the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, Allah is described with personal attributes in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Many of the 99 Islamic names of Allah, such as The Forgiver, The Knower, The Just, and The Wise, refer to a God who is a Person. Yet, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam has references to the God which is not a Person, too. For example, other names of Allah such as The Eternal, The Self-Sufficient, The Real, The One, and The Light, may be taken as applying to that God. Moreover, Allah is unborn: “Allah is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten.” (Sura 112, [K07],265). And Sura 57:24 describes Allah as “the Absolute” ([M10],389) in one translation and “self-sufficient” ([K07],109) in another. Allah is also described as “the Living One, the Ever-Existent” (Sura 20:111, [K07],231) in one translation, and as “the Living, the Eternal” ([M10],233) in another. Finally, being everywhere, omnipresent—“He is with you wherever you are.” (Sura 57:4, [K07],107)—Allah isn’t separate from creation.
We’ve seen that Energy is the unique absolute Reality on which the existence of everything else depends. So is Allah.
The central concept around which all Quranic teaching revolves is that of tawhid, the unity or oneness of Allah, the Quranic name for God. Such a concept emphasizes a rigorous monotheism, stating Allah to be a unique absolute Reality . . . Thus in Islam Allah is the sole reality on whom the existence of everything else depends. ([B16],316).
The idea that Allah is the unique absolute Reality seems more monist than monotheistic.
Islam has many other instances of a monist conception of Allah. For instance, Imam Ali Zain al-Abedin (680-712 C.E.) writes
O my Lord! Thou art the One. Thou art the Omnipotent. Thou art the Everlasting. All else perishes . . . Thou art and Thou alone! Thou art the High! Thou art superior to all. There is none else, save Thee, O my Lord! ([R04],47).
And Shah Wali Allah (1703-1763 C.E.) claims
. . . Reality is independent of any creator. As such, it is the Source of all existence and must exist before every other existence. This Existence is all-embracing. Anything outside it is non-existent . . . This Existence is, therefore, the Very Person of God. All that exists in the universe exists because of His Existence. ([R04],337).
Indeed, even the phrase “I am that I am” is applied to Allah. The Islamic seer Dhun-Nun writes Allah must be addressed as
Thou art who Thou art, eternally, in eternity. ([S04],44).
And the famous mystic Ghazzali sees that
He is everything, nay, HE IS THAT HE IS . . . ([A03],111).
Real Being is Allah . . . [T]here is nothing in existence save Allah alone . . . the Prime Reality . . . [T]here is no Existent except God . . . All existence is, exclusively, His Aspect. ([A03],103-5).
For Ghazzali, Allah is the “One Reality” ([A03],128), the “Real Existence” ([A03],172). Thus,
Every time you indicate anything, your indication is, in reality, to Him . . . ([A03],112).
Finally, Ibn al-’Arabi, considered “undeniably one of the greatest figures in the Muslim mystical tradition and probably one of the world’s greatest mystics ([I01],22),” realizes, as did Aquinas, that
He is Being Itself, the Essence of Being . . . ([I01],135).
Though many Africans are Islamic, others have a variety of religious beliefs. Even small, indigenous religions have references to the God which is not a Person, however.
A number of African peoples think of God as self-existent and pre-eminent. ([M06],43).
For example, the Zulu name of God, U-zivelele, translates
He Who came of Himself into being; He who is of himself ([A02],109).
And other Africans ([M06],43) believe God is uncreated and self-originating.
Zoroastrianism is the last religion we’ll discuss. It’s an ancient religion founded in northeastern Iran about six centuries B.C.E., and is sometimes forgotten when Western and Eastern religions are mentioned. Today, it’s a small religion, with followers in India and Iran. Once, however, it was the predominate religion of the Persian state. Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief show its influence. The Zoroastrian phrase for God is “Ahura Mazda.” In a catechism written in 1869 we find:
Q. What is the meaning of the word khuda?
A. It is a Persian word for God, and it means self-created, i.e. one who has no creator. The Avestan word is Ahura Mazda. ([K08],4).
So Ahura Mazda is Self-Existent. Zoroastrian Theology ([D06]) elaborates, describing Ahura Mazda as
. . . the supreme godhead of Zoroastrianism . . . the Being par excellence . . . He is not begotten, nor is there one like unto him. Beyond him, apart from him, and without him, nothing exists. He is the Supreme Being through whom everything exists . . . He is the most perfect being. He is changeless. He is the same now and for ever. He was, he is, and he will be the same transcendent being, moving all, yet moved by none. In the midst of the manifold changes wrought by him in the universe, the Lord God remains changeless and unaffected . . . ([D06],19-20).
Notice, the author uses the pronoun “he” to refer to Ahura Mazda, but he also writes:
Ahura Mazda is a spirit. There is no anthropomorphic trait in the lofty conception of Ahura Mazda, for he is devoid of all human imperfections. ([D06],20).
Another author writes of the Zoroastrians
. . . the name by which God is known in their scriptures is Ahura Mazda, which may be translated Eternal Light, or, by a figure of speech, Abiding Wisdom . . . ([D05],18).
As we’ll see later, the Ultimate Ground is often experienced as “eternal Light.”
Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zorastrianism—these religions speak of what we are calling the God which is not a Person; sometimes explicitly, sometimes obscurely. Of course, they also speak of another kind of God, a God who is a Person. Christianity speaks of Jesus and God the Father, Islam speaks of Allah, Hinduism speaks of Krishna. Are the two ideas of God—God as some Person and God as Eternal Substance—complementary, or contradictory? Is it necessary to choose between one or the other? Or are both ideas true? Are they two different but equally good ways of thinking about God? Perhaps they are. Perhaps both ideas point to the same Reality. Nonetheless, the two ideas themselves shouldn’t be confused. They really are different.
Not only are the ideas different, some writers say the realities are different, too. They say that Gods who are Persons are quite different from the God which is not a Person. For example, Meister Eckhart, a famous Christian mystic, says
God and Godhead are as distinct as heaven and earth. ([M12],114).
P. Coffey and Ken Wilber also believe the God which is not a Person can’t be equated with any God who is a Person. Coffey was an Irish professor of metaphysics in the centuries-old Scholastic tradition; Ken Wilber is a contemporary writer. Before we see what they have to say, we’ll need to examine three concepts they use: being, the Great Chain of Being, and the Absolute Being. After we discuss the concepts, we’ll see how Coffey and Wilber use them.
Let’s begin with “being.” What does it mean? As we’ll see, Coffey and Wilber use that word with two different meanings, even in the same sentence. Their first meaning of “being” is entity, that is, a particular person, thing, place, idea, etc. The second meaning is essence, ground of existence. Coming chapters avoid such ambiguity by generally not using “being” as a noun. Instead, the chapters use “entity” for being’s first meaning (person, place, etc.) and “existence” for its second.
Both meanings of “being” apply to our second concept, the Great Chain of Being. What is the Great Chain of Being? It’s a way of arranging everything that exists into a hierarchy by ranking entities that have more qualities higher than those with less. For example, rocks and birds exist, but rocks have only existence while birds have another quality, life. Therefore, birds are higher in the Great Chain of Being than rocks. Similarly, birds and people have existence and life, but people have reason, too. Therefore, people rank higher than birds (and rocks). In general, entities with more qualities are placed higher in the hierarchy than those with less.
People have qualities other than reason. They have knowledge, goodness, justice, power, truth and beauty, all in varying—but limited—amounts. Some people have more knowledge than others. Some have more goodness. But all have only a limited amount of knowledge, goodness, and other qualities. Imagine now the top of the Great Chain of Being, where there is unlimited life, knowledge, power, truth, goodness, reason, and other qualities. Can more than one (not necessarily human) person exist there? No. For example, two persons can’t have unlimited power because each would limit the other’s power. So, there can be at most one person at the top of the Great Chain of Being, a person who has unlimited power, life, knowledge, and other qualities.
Is there a person at the top of the Great Chain of Being? Coffey believes there is, and calls that entity the “Absolute Being,” which brings us to our third and last concept. For Coffey, “Absolute Being” (with capitalization) means the person at the top of the Great Chain of Being, the Person with an infinite amount of goodness, truth, beauty, power, justice, knowledge, and other qualities. Traditionally, the Absolute Being has been identified with some God who is a Person, a Supreme Person. But Coffey uses the same phrase, “absolute being” (without capitalization, however) to indicate something different. For Coffey, “absolute being” is absolute existence, the self-existent and self-caused essence of an entity. With this meaning, the phrases “absolute being,” “ultimate ground of being” and “ultimate ground of existence” are all synonymous. Wilber does something similar: he uses “Spirit” (with a capital S) for what Coffey calls absolute being; and he uses “spirit” (with a lower case s) for something similar to what Coffey calls Absolute Being. Confused? Perhaps things will be clearer after we’ve seen what Coffey and Wilber have to say.
Now that we’ve discussed being, the Great Chain of Being and Absolute Being, let’s see what Coffey and Wilber say about our two ideas of God. Coffey believes the Absolute Being (person) is the opposite of absolute being (the eternal substance). He writes:
[T]he being which realizes in all its fullness the reality of being is the Absolute Being in the highest possible sense of this term. This concept of Absolute Being is the richest and most comprehensive of all possible concepts: it is the very antithesis of that other concept of “being in general” which is common to everything and distinguished only from nothingness. ([C11],49).
Notice, in a single sentence Coffey uses “being” with two different meanings. He says the being (entity, here a person) which realizes the reality of being (existence) is the Absolute Being (Absolute Person, some God who is a Person). Notice, too, that even though Coffey’s “Absolute Being” is a God who is a Person, he uses the impersonal pronoun—“ the being which realizes . . . “
Coffey’s concept of the Absolute Being brings a problem to mind. Goodness, truth, beauty, power, etc. are positive qualities. One might wonder why the Absolute Being doesn’t possess, as well, an exceedingly rich, comprehensive set of negative qualities, such as evil, falsehood, ugliness, feebleness, injustice, ignorance, etc. Following Augustine, one answer is that negative qualities don’t really exist; they don’t have positive existence. In this view, evil doesn’t really exist but is merely an absence of good, just as darkness doesn’t have its own positive existence but is merely a lack of light. So possessing light in an infinite amount would naturally rule out possessing any darkness.
Ken Wilber also uses the Great Chain of Being to draw a sharp line between our two ideas of God. In Quantum Questions, Wilber uses Spirit (with a capital S) for the Eternal Substance, which he describes as ([Q01],18) “the Ground of Reality of all levels.” Wilber says Spirit has
. . . no specific qualities or attributes itself, other than being the “isness” . . . or “suchness” or “thatness” . . . of all possible and actual realms—in other words, the unqualifiable Being of all beings . . . ([Q01],18).
Notice that, like Coffey, Wilber uses “being” in two different ways. By “the unqualifiable Being of all beings” he means the unqualifiable existence or essence of all entities.
Wilber uses Spirit (with a capital S) to indicate the Ultimate Ground of Existence, but he uses “spirit” (with a small s) to indicate something entirely different, the ([Q01],17) “highest dimension or summit of being,” that is, the top of the Great Chain of Being. Wilber emphasizes that Spirit and spirit are different, and claims that many an
. . . outrageous philosophical sleigh-of-hand has been perpetrated. . . ([Q01],19)
by those people who confuse the two. Coffey also condemns people who confuse the two ideas of God.
Hegel and his followers have involved themselves in a pantheistic philosophy by neglecting to distinguish between those two totally different concepts. A similar error has also resulted from failure to distinguish between the various modes in which being that is relative may be dependent on being that is absolute. God is the Absolute Being; creatures are relative. So too is substance absolute being, compared with accidents as inhering and existing in substance. But God is not therefore to be conceived as the one all-pervading substance, of which all finite things, all phenomena, would be only accidental manifestations. ([C11],49-50).
Perhaps people would be more successful distinguishing two “totally different concepts” if less similar phrases were used to refer to those concepts. After all, it’s very easy to confuse “absolute being” and “Absolute Being”, or “spirit” and “Spirit”. Though our two phrases are also similar, the reader will probably find it easier distinguishing “the God which is not a Person” and “a God who is a Person.”
Coffey says Hegel and his followers commit the “error” of pantheistic philosophy. What is pantheism? A dictionary defines it as
1. the doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material universe and man are only manifestations. ([R01],961).
Is pantheism wrong? Coffey evidently thinks so because his last quote has “God is not . . . to be conceived as the one all-pervading substance. . .” Why not? The quote comes at the end of a chapter, and Coffey doesn’t explain why, in his opinion, God may not be thought of as the one all-pervading substance of which all finite things, all phenomena, all particular entities, are manifestations. After all, isn’t that exactly the God which is not a Person?
Is Coffey right? Is it wrong to think of God as the Ultimate Ground of Existence and Eternal Substance? The answer depends on which idea of God is in question. Recall the “work” illustration, where we saw there were two different meanings of “work” in question. Rather than use the word “work” we decided to use “everyday work” or “physicist work” depending on which of the two very different ideas of work we had in mind. The situation with the word “God” is similar. When most people say “God” they have in mind some God who is a Person. For such a God, pantheism doesn’t make sense. Pantheism is wrong when it’s applied to Gods like Allah, Jehovah, and Krishna. These Gods are not the one all-pervading Substance. Rather, they are Persons, separate from the rest of creation. On the other hand, when religious monists speak of God they have in mind the God which is not a Person. Pantheism describes this God very well. The God which is not a Person certainly is the one all-pervading substance of which all finite things are a manifestation.
So, there are two different concepts in question. Therefore, coming chapters use two different phrases to avoid any “outrageous philosophical sleigh-of-hand.” As long as one idea of God is clearly distinguished from the other, no confusion is possible.
Let’s pause now to see where we’ve been and where we are going. The first two chapters discuss the different ways of knowing used by religion and science. The second chapter finds the scientific way of knowing superior. This and the last chapter discuss the different domains of religion and science, and find a common ground: the Ultimate Ground of Existence.
For centuries, religions have spoken about the God which is not a Person (as well as Gods who are Persons, of course.) Holy men and women in the world’s religious traditions have described God as Existence itself, the Eternal Substance of all, the Self-Existent, the Blessed and Uncreated Light. Today, science also speaks of an eternal substance, a self-existent entity underlying everything. Science has finally arrived at an insight long known to seers and mystics—that the physical universe is a manifestation of a single, Eternal, Self-Existent Ground of Existence. But even with its superior way of knowing, science falls short of religion in a few ways.
First, participation in science isn’t available to everyone because understanding and practicing science demand certain intellectual, analytical, and mathematical abilities. Many people cannot participate. In addition, understanding and practicing science requires education, which depends on a standard of living not enjoyed by a large portion of humanity. To those struggling to survive, education is impossible. Such people cannot participate in science, even if they possess the necessary intellectual gifts.
Second, science doesn’t address the whole human being. In general, science offers much for the mind and body (science and technology are the basis of many industries), but little for the heart. Science gives us much to know and do, but little to love. It admits the existence of an eternal source, but places little value on it. The scientist’s relation to energy is cold and impersonal. How different is the relation of the religious devotee to the Father, the Mother, the Ultimate Ground of Existence!
Third, science fails to address some important questions. Why are we here? What is our place in the universe and our fate after death? Science is silent.
Lastly, science theorizes a root and source but offers no way to directly experience it. The ground of existence remains a mental concept rather than an actual experience. Science, as physicist James Jeans admits, has not yet reached contact with the Center. Jeans writes:
Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation . . . [I]t is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality. ([J01],150-1).
Will science ever attain “contact with ultimate reality”? Jeans doesn’t think so. He believes that for science
. . . “the real essence of substances” is for ever unknowable. ([J01],155).
But if the real essence of any and all entities is unknowable, then my own real essence must be forever unknowable, too. So, there’s a part of me—in fact, my most vital part, my real essence—that I can never know. Strange. How can I avoid knowing my real self? How can “I” never know “I”? Or rather does Jeans mean that I can know my own real essence, but not scientifically? that I can somehow reach contact with ultimate reality in some private way, inaccessible to science?
Whatever the answer, it seems natural someone would want to know their own real essence, and, if possible, the essence of other entities, even of the entire universe. In fact Albert Einstein, who differentiates three stages of religion, believes that the person whose religion is of the highest type
. . . feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveals themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. ([E03],38).
To this kind of person, continues Einstein, individual existence seems to be
. . . a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. ([E03],38).
In its present state, science offers no way to experience the universe as a whole, no way to experience the universe’s Root, Essence and Ultimate Reality, no way even to experience our own ultimate Essence. Yet without science, seers and mystics, some poor men and woman with no formal education, much less scientific education, claimed to have experienced the universe and themselves in this way. And their descriptions of their experience are often descriptions of energy. They discovered a truth that science found after hundreds of years of search and experimentation. How did they do it? How do seers and mystics know? Perhaps by seeing.