Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

What is God?

Question: Who or what is God?

Karen Armstrong: We can't say, and that's my answer to you.  We can't say what God is, and until the modern period, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians in the three God religions all knew that.  They insisted that we have no idea what we meant when we said that God was good, or wise, or intelligent.  God is not good, or wise, or intelligent anyway that we know.  So, people like Maimonides in the Jewish tradition, Eboncina in the Muslim tradition, Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition, insisted that we couldn't even say that God existed because our concept of existence is far too limited and they would have been horrified by the ease with which we talk about God today. 

When I was a young girl, I had to learn this definition of God.  "God is the supreme spirit who alone, exists of himself, and is infinite in all perfections."  Now, I always found that rather dull and I was eight years old when I learned that and it really didn't mean very much to me.  But I now also think it's incorrect because it takes it for granted that it's possible simply to draw breath and define – and the word define means literally to set limits upon a reality that has to go beyond anything we think or know. 

The trouble with a lot of modern theology and a lot of modern thinking about God, is that we think of God a sort of being like ourselves, but bigger and better with likes and dislikes similar to our own.  Now, as the great Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich said, "That's an idolatry.  That's making a God in our own image."  And that's where some of the awful atrocities of religion happened when people assume that God shares your likes and dislikes.  The Crusaders when into battle to kill Muslims and Jews and cried, "God will's it."  That was their battle cry.  Obviously God willed no such thing.  The Crusaders were simply projecting onto a deity they’d created on their own image and likeness, all their hatred and loathing of these faiths and made it endorse some of their most awful prejudices and lethal prejudices.  And modern terrorists do the same.  And that is why the theologians insisted before the modern period, that it was really better to approach God in silence. 

In ancient India, they developed what I think is an authentic model of theological discourse, religious talk about the ultimate.  It was called the Remaja Competition.  The priests would go out into the forests; we're talking about the 10th century before Christ.  And they would make a retreat and put themselves into a different frame of mind.  And that's very important, because you can't talk about God in the same way as you would have an argument with a colleague or discuss an abstruse point in law, in politics, or in business.  You put yourself in the receptive frame of mind with which we approach music or poetry, which you can measure the difference on a neurological scanner.  When they came back the priests would begin the competition and the challenger would kick off and give a description of the Brahman, the ultimate reality that lay beyond the Gods.  He would pour into this definition all that he could think, all his knowledge and insight and found a verbal formula, puzzling, illusive, and difficult.  But that's what Brahman is. 

And then his opponents would have to build on that and respond to him.  But the person who won the competition was the person who reduced all of his opponents to silence.  And it was in that silence that the Brahman was present.  The Brahman was not present in the wordy definitions.  It was present only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.  And Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians all developed similar disciplines, similar rituals, to help people realize that when we talk about God we are at the end of what words and thoughts can do.  

Well, nowadays, we've forgotten all about that.  We talk about God as though he was like a **** or somebody.  We ask him to bless our nation, or save our Queen, or give us a fine day for the picnic.  And we actually expect him to be on our side in an election or war even though our opponents are also God's children.

So, we think about God far to easily and that's because of a lot of social, intellectual, and scientific changes that have taken place in the western world and that has made God very problematic for a lot of people.

"A History of God" author Karen Armstrong answers the biggest question of all.

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less

Your emotions are the new hot commodity — and there’s an app for that

Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Personal Growth

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.

Keep reading Show less

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
Keep reading Show less

Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast