Types of God

If this blog is about spirituality, then I can’t get away without talking about the sacred. More to the point I can’t avoid talking about god. But growing up in the south, the mere mention of god raises my hackles, which is really too bad, because god can be an incredibly meaningful and powerful motivator. It’s one of those special ideas, that can transform the texture of life and infuse the ordinary with a heightened sense of meaning. But this all depends on what type of god we’re talking about.

This question is important to the question of spirituality because the type of god one relates to is going to affect how one engages the world. The impersonal force of the Tao is going to evoke a different response than the call for submission to Allah. And within a religion there are incredibly different ways of thinking about god.

We can parse the differences in many ways. One of the most basic distinctions is the one I made above: god as personal or impersonal. A personal god has a will and plan, has knowledge, acts in the world, can hear prayers… is well, like a person. An impersonal god is more like a force, a current or a principle. For those of us raised in a Judeo-Christian culture it’d hard to even conceptualize this metaphor without attributing some personal tendencies to it. But like gravity a sacred principle would dictate the order of the universe.

Getting into the specifics of each isn’t my point, I’m just trying to say this distinction exists. But it gets more complex than simply saying that Christianity has a personal god and Taoism has a sacred principle. Within Christianity you can find plenty of mystics and theologians who speak about god as a principle. They’re not mainstream but they’re there.

And the diversity of gods only spreads from here. Another classic distinction that psychology studies love to focus on is a positive versus a negative view of god. Whether god is a person or a principle we shade the intentions of that god to be either loving, nurturing, and healing or judging, punishing, and demanding. There’s good evidence that this distinction is largely influenced by our relationships with early caregivers. Ana-Maria Rizzuto wrote the seminal work on those relationships.

In many of the studies relating spirituality and health, this distinction between a loving or punishing god is one of the strongest correlates of well-being. Predictably, you’re better off believing in a loving god. But if that belief is partially based on early childhood, it’s not quite so easy to just switch between these two.

Of course the diversity of gods doesn’t end here either. J. B. Philips outlined a variety of different types of personal gods in his book Your God Is Too Small. You’ve got the Grand Old Man god who’s plenty wise but maybe a little slow to keep up with modern progress. Or there’s the god of Absolute Perfection who demands loyalty and flawless performance. The Heavenly Bosom god is a great comforter, offering infinite solace but not demanding anything in return. She’s quite distinct from the Resident Policeman god who acts like a hall monitor in middle-school. Those are just a few of his illustrations.

These differences have become more rigorous in scientific studies that try to understand what a person believes about god. The classic measure was developed by R. T. Lawrence in 1997. This image of god scale measures six different characteristics of god, each on a spectrum. So whatever type of god you’re carrying around in your head, it’s going to have some measure of: Influence, Providence, Presence, Challenge, Acceptance, and Benevolence. It’s not quite as relatable as Philip’s candid names, but it grasps most people’s idea of the sacred.

These differences are fascinating to me because I believe they influence how we engage the world. The idea of god is such a powerful organizing principle, that how we view that god is going to affect how we view others, the environment, ourselves… everything.

Yet, at this level of diversity, the different metaphors for god are often held implicitly and unconsciously. People don’t exactly choose to believe in a Heavenly Bosom god. Some blend of personality, culture, experience and necessity lead one to believe in that type of god. Like the difference between a loving god and a punishing god, these implicit models of god are more difficult to uproot and change than simply moving around furniture.

But I believe that the first step to gaining fluidity between these models is to recognize which ones we are operating with or reacting against. Once you start seeing these differences, they become immediately apparent when you’re listening to others. You begin to see what type of god people are carrying around with them.

People avoid thinking about this diversity of gods, because it immediately points to the fact that we create these ideas. Every idea of god is created by us. Either consciously or unconsciously, we make them all up. Or some old man thousands of years ago had an incredible experience, tried to describe it and other old men have fought about it ever since.

So while the type of god we believe in defines our spiritual path, our spiritual path may also involve abandoning an idea of god that is no longer life giving. That may feel like an immense loss or betrayal. But I believe it reflects a much deeper trust in whatever god there might be. That fluidity, that willingness to see what type of god we believe in and then choose if it’s working for us requires a trust that life, and god, can be even bigger and deeper than it already is. I’ll close with a quote from Gandhi that beautifully embodies this trust:

“If I had to choose between truth and god, I’d choose truth.”

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5 Replies to “Types of God”

  1. I admire Ghandi for his integrity. Fortunately I don’t think we have to choose.
    I wonder, do we create ideas about God or discover them? Mathematicians’ don’t create mathematics, they discover it.
    Perhaps / probably the only way that we can really know anything about God is by him revealing stuff to us. You will know little of me, except what I have revealed through what I write and say. For me, that’s what is most valuable about listening to what Christ had to say.

    1. The question of whether mathematicians create or discover mathematics is still very much up in the air. You, believing that mathematics is discovered, are a Platonist or rather a neo-Platonist.

      I think mathematics, and god, are somewhere in-between discovery and creation. The difference in ideas of god between cultures and time all point towards our creation of god. The similarities could point towards revelation or they could point towards the commonalities of human experience… But maybe that’s not so different from revelation!

      1. I understood that mathematicians refer to ‘discovery’, and it seems appropriate. I’m an engineer and appreciate that for some situations there is a perfect solution that we are trying to discover. We often use iteration / evolutionary approaches to try to find it, but it can in simple terms be done analytically. It’s interesting to see that the evolutionary process in nature has led to common solutions from very different species (see the work of Simon Conway Morris).
        But behind all of that is the question of ‘why’ or ‘is there any meaning to it’, which humans perhaps alone ask. And perhaps therein is the desire to connect with the ‘meaning’ .. or God. We can infer that he is there, but how to communicate and learn from him (I use ‘him’ but don’t imply gender by the way). We can guess, or ask him, or test whether what others say he said to them seems reasonable. But perhaps we never stop asking and seeking?

  2. Yea, I would agree that the existential question of purpose and meaning drives much of the desire to connect with the sacred. I also think that the process of asking and seeking is how we do connect (at least some of us!).
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts MC! I’ll have to check out Simon Morris’ stuff, it sounds intriguing.

  3. A very interesting post. As you said, people have ‘God’ in their heads. Truth however can only be found in our hearts, not in our heads.
    My own experience is more like what you call the ‘Heavenly Bosom’, but as the picture of ‘God’, as it was forced on me as a child, is far removed from that, I prefer to call it Spirit, as explained in my book http://themysteryofself.wordpress.com/
    Thanks for following my blog! 🙂

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