A young chaplain at one of the colleges of Oxford University made it his practice every year to interview each new student in his college. He wanted to get to know each one and to explain something of the religious program in that college. On occasion, after the chaplain had made his case for the program, a freshman would explain a bit awkwardly that he did not believe in God and probably would not be active in the chaplain’s program.
The chaplain would then reply, “How interesting! And in which god do you not believe?” The student then would try to explain his atheism. The chaplain would smile and comment on the fact that he and the student had a great deal in common, for he did not believe in the existence of that god either.
Scholars have called Homo sapiens the religious creature. Wherever we find human beings, we find religious acts and religious language. God talk and human beings seem to go together. When a person speaks of God or of gods, what does he or she really mean? The common occurrence of the divine word in human language would seem to suggest that there is universal agreement as to its definition. However, the reality is quite the contrary.
Most of the gods that so-called unbelievers reject have never had any objective reality and are simply the goblin constructions of their own minds. The concept in their heads and the reality behind all things may have little relation to each other. The god before whom the sincere believer bows likewise may be a caricature that does little justice to the reality one believes oneself to be worshiping. The consequences for the believer whose mental understanding of God is skewed may not be as serious as would be the atheism of the person who denies God’s very existence, but it is still damaging. Error for the believer, as well as for the unbeliever, always carries its unfortunate consequences.
William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, insisted that if our concept of God is wrong, the more religious we get the more dangerous we are to ourselves and others. Our concept of God must be a true representation of the One Who Is, the God with whom all of us ultimately will have to deal. In fact, nothing is more important for anyone or for any society.
But how can we know what God is really like? Yehezkel Kaufmann is helpful here.1 In his signal work on the religion of Israel, he insists that all of the religions of the world can be put into two categories.
The first category includes all of those that are basically naturalistic and express themselves either in pantheism or polytheism. These religions see all things as an unbroken whole and the divine as part of that whole, or else they see the divine as a name for that whole in which we all participate. Some of these religions speak of the divine as that which permeates the whole and in which we all participate. This is pantheism as seen in Hinduism and contemporary New Age thought.
The other group in this category sees nature as containing the divine. The divine manifests itself in multiple forces, each of which has its own particular individuality and should be worshiped for itself. Thus, the Greeks could speak of Ouranos (the heavens), Gaia (the earth), Oceanos (the oceans), and Chronos (time) just as the Romans considered Sol (the sun) and Luna (the moon) primordial divine beings.
The cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world had the same basic pantheon but used different names. Thus, the Greeks would speak of Aphrodite and the Romans of Venus, but both were speaking of the same factor in human life. We draw our word aphrodisiac from the name of Aphrodite. In speaking about Aphrodite and Venus, the Greeks and the Romans were referring to the erotic force that attracts the male to the female and the female to the male. Such natural forces were ascribed personhood and were worshiped as individual gods.
We have known this polytheism classically in the religions of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Some version of it is found among most of the so-called primitive peoples of the earth. Today it is emerging in our postmodern world as New Age thought and practice.
Kaufmann’s second group, the monotheistic religions, contains three distinct expressions, each of which is rooted not in nature (as are polytheism and pantheism) but in history. They are Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. One immediately recognizes that these are the three historic religions related to Israel and the Hebrew-Christian Bible. All three go back to Abraham and to his world for their roots. These three religions see nature not as divine but rather as a created expression of a supreme God who transcends that nature. God is not a part of nature and must not be confused with anything within it.
For these three religions, to mix nature and the divine is to be guilty of idolatry, the worship of that which has no existence in and of itself but is the product of one beyond itself, from which it comes and on which its very existence depends. In other words, these monotheistic religions all make an ontological distinction between the Creator and the creation.
The accuracy of Kaufmann’s analysis is beyond debate. This means that we are indebted to him for simplifying our problem, especially if we feel the need for a God who can actually make a significant difference in the human estate, a God who can help us. Polytheism and pantheism ultimately have no answer to the problem of evil because both see evil as part of the divine world and of the human world. For them what we speak of as “evil” and “divine” are not separable, for the evil of the world is included in the divine. There is nothing but “us.” There is no “beyond” that is ontologically and morally different from us on which we can call or to which we can look for help.
Therefore, history, like nature, is seen as repetitive, and the future cannot be essentially different from the past since there is no transcendent, transhistorical personal reality that makes a difference. On the other hand, the concepts of the possibility of a new world, a new society, and a different kind of human person have come into our culture from the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures because of the nature of the biblical God.
Kaufmann has helped us take the first step, but the second is equally important. There is one transcendent God, but what is that God’s nature? A close reading of the literature of the three monotheistic religions will show radical differences among these three religious expressions and nowhere more than in their representations of the divine.