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The Evolution of the Concept of God

01/28/2008

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    Religious thought has evolved over thousands of years. God has always been at the center of religion but has taken varying forms. The early communities and tribes worshipped spirits or deities. The classical concept of God as the Creator did not exist. The deity was in fact the creation of those worshipping it. Worship of deities continues in some tribes and families even today. The purpose of this worship is to keep the deity pleased because of the belief that it can grant benedictions, save from suffering, and also punish if displeased.

    Evolution of religious thought has proceeded along with intellectual development of man (and woman). As the mind developed it looked to higher values in life, generally aimed at maintaining peace of mind in the midst of increasing physical, mental, and social activity. Man also tried to understand the meanings of religious beliefs and questioned them. There have been enlightened souls in all ages that were able to guide the people. This brought in the concept of a guru, preceptor, or spiritual teacher. As intellect developed and people started getting educated the teachings were put in writing and the scriptures came into being.

    Out of the current organized religions believing in God, Hinduism is the oldest. It has the concept of God but also has a large number of demigods and goddesses that are worshipped in temples have their idols installed therein. The Hindu religion has a large number of scriptures which are highly venerated. Their latest scripture, the Bhagvad Gita, meaning the song of God, is at present the most popular, with Krishna as the Godhead. It emphasizes the unity of God, while discouraging, but not rejecting, worship of gods and goddesses (Gita, 7:23). Hinduism is therefore polytheistic. It retains some rituals and the caste system (Gita 18:42-44).

    Up to about 3500 years ago, multiplicity of gods, goddesses, spirits, and idol worship was common even outside Hinduism. The concept of a single God came with the covenant that God made with Moses on Mount Sinai and the first monotheistic religion, of the Jews, may be said to have been founded. The Jewish religion itself is older with its origin traced to Abraham, as recorded in the Old Testament (OT). There is also a view that monotheism started with Abraham being blessed by God. The Jews, Christians, and Muslims acknowledge the OT as their scripture. God created the earth, its sky, and all the creatures and gave guidance for conduct in the form of Ten Commandments (Exodus:20).

    Varying understanding about God in the successive belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and culminating in Sikhism shows how the concept of monotheism evolved.

    The covenant between God and Moses recognized one God and is like a bilateral agreement with God saying: “I shall take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7). This made God exclusive to the Jews and seems like a person. He is shown as errant because he repents for having created man (Genesis 6:6), he works for six days and then needs a day’s rest (Genesis 2:2). He is jealous and punishes many generations for inequities (Exodus 20:5) thus instilling fear.

    The Christian scripture the Bible comprises of the OT and the New Testament (NT). The NT, which covers the period of Jesus and shortly afterwards, describes God as Jesus’ father in heaven. Jesus is His only begotten son (John 3:16) born of a virgin mother (Matthew 1:23). It says Word was God (John 1:1) but later says the flesh (Jesus) became God (John 1:14). Jesus who is believed to resurrect after crucifixion tells his disciples “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). The Christian missionaries however preach that God is trinity comprising of these three although the NT does not say so. God in NT is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Matthew (20:32) and not of the universe. A religion that was meant to be monotheistic has in effect become polytheistic going against the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

    Christianity as presented in the NT has posed many problems. Some Christians found they could not believe in God and at the same time accept the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus, trinity, and miracles. This led to the concepts of Deism, Pantheism, and Atheism as found in Western countries like Great Britain, France, and the USA.

    The Deists believe in God but see everything in the light of nature and reason. They do not conform to any religious tradition. Their concept of God is one who created the universe but then withdrew from it. One of the often-heard arguments is that if God exists why he allows violence and suffering.

    The followers of Pantheism believe that God is identical with nature which is an expression of His being. God is not a person. They take the real universe and nature as starting and finishing point, not any preconceived idea of God. They do not subscribe to the ideas like supernatural powers or miracles.

    The Atheists do not accept the existence of God. This may be by choice or inability to believe religious teachings which seem incredible to them. It is not due to ignorance.

    Islam followed Christianity in the seventh century CE. The religion is strictly monotheistic. Its fundamental belief is “There is no true god, but one God, Mohammad is the messenger of God”. The Muslim Scripture the Quran quotes God as saying “Do not give status to anyone equal to God” (2:22). The worship and prayer is to God alone. Compared to the concept of an exclusive God in Judaism and God part of Trinity in Christianity, the Muslims accept God’s absolute powers over the universe and He is called ‘Rabbul-aalmin’ meaning God of all the worlds. The Quran refers to Jesus frequently but rejects the concepts of his being the Messiah or being equal to God. God is quoted as saying “If I asked Jesus if he had asked for worship of him and his mother along with God, Jesus would say it did not befit him to say such a thing, and O’ God you know what I said and what is in my mind” (Quran 5:116).

    Some Muslim preachers say that God prefers Muslims to others. The relevant verse in the Quran says “Surely the religion with Allah is Islam (3:19)”. However the meaning of the word Islam is surrender or submission to the will of God and covers all those who believe in God alone.

    There was a scientific and industrial revolution in the 15th, 16th, and 17Th centuries. This was preceded by advances in education and human intellect was equipped to view everything with a sense of discrimination. Social systems were changing and resentment against inequalities based on religion, caste or gender could be felt. Communications were improving resulting in greater interaction between people geographically separated from one another. This called for mutual understanding and respect.

    It was under these circumstances that Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikh religion came to this world in 1469 CE and was succeeded by his nine spiritual embodiments up to 1708. The Sikh scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) contains the compositions of the Sikh Gurus as well as saints and bards of other faiths reflecting respect for all religions. It highlights the full majesty of God, fatherhood of God and brotherhood of mankind in the entire universe; One Father, we are all His children (SGGS, P 611). The term father is used generically otherwise He has no gender: “God remains in steady-state deep contemplation; is difficult to describe, being neither man nor woman” (SGGS, P 685). Gender equality has thus become unique to the Sikh religion.

    In the Gita and the Bible God is shown in man-to-man conversation with Arjun and Abraham/Moses respectively and thus looked at as a person. On the other hand in the SGGS, God is spirit residing within the human body and realized with the grace of the Guru: “The formless Master, free of fear or jealousy resides in the body; He is so near but not seen; He is realized through the Guru’s word” (SGGS, P 720).

    God having created the universe looks after it with love: “God’s creation is of numerous types and hues; He looks after it with love; that is His greatness” (SGGS, P 6).

    God belongs to all: “God is not the monopoly of a group or person; any one can receive His grace through love and devotion” (SGGS, P 658).

    Caste, color, or creed is no consideration before God: “God does not consider the color or looks; nor does He consider the ancestry of the devotee” (SGGS, P 979).

    The Semitic religions have the concept of the Day of Judgment and consequent heaven or hell. Similarly the Hindu religion has the concept of heaven and hell. In the Sikh teachings, God does not permanently condemn any one to hell, but keeps giving opportunities for reform. Using the metaphor of parent-child relationship: “The way a child naturally commits mistakes; the father admonishes and instructs, but still hugs him; God forgives past mistakes and guides man for the future” (SGGS, P 624). There is thus no concept of hell as a place or region. The soul overcoming evil and merging with God is heaven. Until it is able to so merge with God the soul keeps going through cycles of death and rebirth. This is temporary hell. God is compassionate and merciful.

    -By Rawel Singh

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