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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Among the religions of the world, the concept of the deity differs considerably. One of the main objects of the study of comparative religion has been to clarify the different ideas of God or the deity professed by the major religious cultures of mankind. See COMPARATIVE RELIGION.

God of Christianity. In the Christian tradition, God is an individual, self-sufficient, all-perfect, unchangeable being. He is intelligent, living, personal, almighty, and all-knowing. The creator and upholder of the universe, He has no origin, is dependent on no one, and is separated from His creatures by an infinite gulf. He will judge all mankind, according to that law of right and wrong which is present in all men by nature, and on the basis of their knowledge of His revelation to the world.

In Christianity, God is also conceived as possessing one nature in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. According to the Christian faith, the Blessed Trinity is one God because the substance common to the three Persons is really and numerically one. One the other hand, the three Persons are really distinct. The Father is from no one, the Son is from the Father only, and the Holy Spirit is from both the Father and the Son equally. Together they are all one substance, equally great, equally all-powerful, and equally the creator of all things. See GOD; TRINITY.

Judaic Concept. Other outstanding faiths believing in one God are Judaism and Islam. Both are derived from the ancient Mosaic law and both are uncompromising in their official teaching on the existence of one God. See MONOTHEISM.

Throughout the Old Testament there are many passages regarding the Hebrew Concept of God. But the closest that postbiblical Judaism has ever come to a dogmatic creed is the 13 articles of faith developed by Moses Maimonides, a leading Jewish theologian of the twelfth century. His first two articles summarize the traditional Judaic concept of deity.

I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the Author and Guide of everything that has been created, and that He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is a Unity, and that there is no unity in any manner like unto His, and that He alone is our God, who was, is and will be.

Consistent with their view of the messias as an earthly leader, Jews reject the doctrine of the incarnation and divinity of Christ and also of the Trinity. Although God is personal, He has only one person according to Jewish belief. See JUDAISM.

The Oneness of Allah. Moslems are particularly emphatic in their expression of monotheism. When he founded this religious system early in the seventh century, Mohammed seems to have been reacting against belief in multiple gods (polytheism), which was held by many Arabs of that time. He was influenced by the monotheism of both the Christian and Jewish religions. See POLYTHEISM.

On almost every page of the Koran, which is venerated by the Moslems as a heavenly revelation, Mohammed stressed the oneness of the deity. He condemned the Christians for what he mistakenly thought was their doctrine of three gods. The Moslems address their deity as Allah, which in Arabic means “the God.” In the Moslem sense, Allah means “the only God,” and He is described in the Koran as follows: “Allah, there is no God but He, the living, the Everlasting. Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep; to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth.” Yet, though He is “the All-high, and the All-glorious,” He is not removed from His creatures. For “Allah is the Protector of the believers; He brings them forth from the shadows into the light.” Like the Jews, Moslems deny a trinity of persons in God. See ALLAH; ISLAM; KORAN.

Two Ideas of Buddha. In contrast to strict monotheism is the Buddhist position, which must be carefully distinguished in its two main forms. These divisions took place in about the last century before the Christian Era and were the result of differences of opinion regarding the teaching of Buddha. Buddha was an Indian sage who lived about six centuries before Christ and whose teaching has been the greatest single influence on the Asian world. Original Buddhism had no deity and therefore no teaching concerning God. While it respected the collection of gods which formed the Indian pantheon and the heavens in which they dwelt, it considered them as representing only different, happier kinds of existence and the rewards for a good life.

In the first century before Christ, Mahayana (greater “vehicle” of salvation) introduced the theory that Buddha had a divine as well as a human element. “I am the Father of the world, the self-born, the healer, the protector of all being,” is the way Buddha describes himself according to the Norther Buddhist scriptures. The dominant philosophy in Mahayana maintains, however, that no positive statement can be made about the Absolute, and that the Ultimate reality is an “emptiness.” Thus, even these passages about Buddha’s divinity are subject to an atheistic interpretation. Yet in the popular form of Mahayana, he became a supreme deity, like Krishna or Vishnu in Hinduism.

Hinayana (lesser “vehicle” of salvation) has remained more true to its ancestry. It either denies or ignores an ultimate deity outside and above man. Instead, the concern of Hinayana is to spare man from the trial of continuous rebirths by extinguishing all the individualism of self in nirvana, an exalted state beyond all reality. See BUDDHA.

Philosophies of Hinduism. The Hindu religion falls between the extremes of monotheism and polytheism. Specific beliefs depend on the tradition and school of philosophy which a particular Hindu follows. The average Hindu believes in and worships many gods but takes one as his chief god, who is invoked as Krishna or Rama, incarnations of the supreme deity. He may or may not have a vague idea of Brahman (the first Hindu deity), but is quite satisfied to consider his patron god the only deity. Such beliefs are not condemned by the Hindu scriptures, which sanction the worship of God under any form or aspect.

The intellectual Hindu follows the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures). He believes in one absolute God, Brahman, and tolerates lesser gods in the Hindu religion only on the ground that they help the uneducated people to pray. Salvation for him means the realization of Brahman. However, the most influential school of thought in intellectual Hinduism is Advaita (nonduality), which claims that there is only one reality in the universe, namely Brahman. Atman (the self) and Brahman are identical. See UPANISHADS; VEDAS.

A third type of Hindu, educated in the universities and influenced by Western thought, favors an agnostic attitude toward deity. This viewpoint has been explained by Sri Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a twentieth-century Indian educator, who sees in the history of religion in India an inability to solve the mystery of God’s relation to the world. Thus he suggests that “a wise agnosticism is more faithful to the situation” than are devices for evading the problem or authoritarian creeds which pretend to give the answer. See HINDUISM.

Chinese Concepts. The religion of China is really a mixture of three systems, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The only one of these religions to originate in China, Confucianism is mainly a moral philosophy and only secondarily a religion. Nevertheless, it recognizes and encourages the worship of a supreme being, who from at least the twelfth century before Christ was called Ti (the Ruler), or more often Shang-ti (the Highest Ruler). Later the name T’ien (Heaven), alone or with such adjectives as August and Immense, was applied to the deity.

Early in the history of Confucianism, the idea of a supreme deity was diluted by certain devotional customs of the Chinese. They worshiped the earth and paid honor to the heavens, and their preoccupation with filial piety or ancestor worship led them to regard the deity as twofold, in the manner of parenthood. Later, the concept of a deity was further confused by mingling a pure monotheism with nature worship. Monotheism never disappeared but became heavily obscured.

Zoroastrianism. In a class by itself and not clearly tied in with any other religious tradition is Zoroastrianism, whose origins go back to 600 B.C. Although the modern Zoroastrians - the Parsis of India and the Ghebers of Persia (Iran) - have tended toward monotheism under the repressive influence of Mohammedanism, their traditional doctrine has been identified as an extreme kind of dualism. See DUALISM.

There are two ultimate principles in the universe, according to historic Zoroastrianism. One is good and the other is evil. The good deity, called Ahura-Mazdah, is the God who sees all and remembers all. He is omniscient, supreme, good, and merciful, but he is the creator only of good creatures. In trying to solve the problem of evil, Zoroaster, the founder of the religion, created a second deity, a rival of the first, whom he called Angro Mainyu. This deity, whose name was simplified into Ahriman, is the spirit of evil. He exists independently of the good deity and is in constant opposition to Ahura-Mazdah.

Modern Parsis have modified this original theory by interpreting the Avesta (Zoroastrian scriptures) as advocating only moral dualism. They now explain that the spirit of evil represents subordinate, created powers that become evil because of perverse choice and not by reason of their nature. See ZOROASTRIANISM.

General Patterns. As a general rule, it appears that those religions which have descended from ancient Judaism or been influenced by it are openly monotheistic. These include Christianity and Islam, and the religion of the Sikhs in India.

Primitive peoples in Africa and elsewhere favor the idea of a single High God, even when lesser deities are worshiped as minor objects of veneration. By comparison, the religions of the Far East show considerable variation in their tendencies. The popular religions tend to be henotheistic in worshiping many gods while favoring one. Among the intellectuals, there are many monists, who blur the distinction between the reality of God and the world, and many agnostics, who maintain that the human mind cannot penetrate the mystery of the Ultimate. See HENOTHEISM.


Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
Vol. 3, 1965, pp. 436-439

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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