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.

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less