We must begin with God, because God is the beginning of everything, and the end. Who or what is God? Who or what do we mean when we speak of God? That is the question that we must consider first of all.
During the long, long story of the human race very many ideas about God have been believed and taught. We need not concern ourselves with all of these; in fact, we could not if we tried, because we do not know what all the different peoples and teachers and races and tribes have believed about God since human beings began to think and to argue. But of the ideas that have been held in comparatively modern times, that is to say, in the last four or five thousand years, by the most civilized people that have lived on the earth during that time, certain broad classifications may be made which will help us to understand wherein people have mainly differed from each other in their ideas of God.
There are, broadly speaking, three main classes of belief, namely Theism, Deism, and Pantheism. We will look at each of these separately.
Theism is a Greek word and really means God-ism, from the Greek word for God, which is Theos. The Theists believe that God is an Infinite Being who has created everything. But He is more than just a Being. He is a Person who knows and loves and cares as well as creates. He creates by an act of will, and He sustains what He has created and is creating by a continual effort of will. He has also planned what He has created and is sustaining, and that implies that He has, or is, perfect mind as well as perfect will and power. More than that, He loves what He has created with perfect and unending love, and is willing to have contact and communication with such of His creatures as are able to perceive Him and communicate with Him–that is to say, with beings who have sufficient intelligence-intuition to reach out to Him in some way or other, and to understand what He can reveal to them about Himself and about themselves, and about all the rest of creation.
That is the idea of the Theists. Good examples of them are the Jews, the Moslems, and most Christians. Their main idea is that God is quite distinct from what He has created, and is utterly beyond and above it, but He is very fond of it, and is always trying to help people who have sufficient intelligence-intuition to understand what He is doing and what He wants. In technical theological language God, in this view is both Infinite and Personal.
Deism is a Latin word, and it also means God-ism, from the Latin Deus, which means God. But the ideas of God which the Deists hold are rather different from those of the Theists. The Deists also believe that God is the Being who made the world and all other worlds and everything that is in the world and belongs to it, both visible and invisible. They think that He is utterly beyond us and infinitely great, but, so far as they can ascertain His feelings, He is not particularly fond of the universe that He has created. He has given it laws–the laws of nature–and left it to look after itself, and does not Himself interfere any more. In this view, miracles, though not impossible, are not to be expected and do not often, if ever, happen. And whatever help human beings want in their efforts to be good and sensible people, and to live together happily, and to understand the universe in which they live and its Maker, and eventually to become perfect, they must get from their own natural reason and from the light that is in them. It is no use for human beings to pray and worship. God is too great and too big to be concerned with the prayers of human beings, and, besides, there is no need for them to pray; all that they have to do is to be up and doing, and to use their own wits and their own powers. That, roughly, is what the Deists think.
Deism has not been systematized to the same extent that Theism and Pantheism have; that is to say, there are not many great religious systems like Christianity or Islam that can be described as definitely Deistic. Deists do not usually organize themselves, but are usually found as individuals or philosophical schools or sects. However, the former State religion of China, Confucianism, is a basically Deistic religion. The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics were primarily Deistic, and much of the philosophy of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle may be described as Deistic. So was the teaching of some of the so-called Christian heretics, such as the Nestorians and the Pelagians, but they had no significant or lasting influence beyond even a generation.
The main point to remember about the Deistic idea of God is that it separates God from man very sharply. God is a Person, but rather like a very great man, not infinite and not very loving. The God of the Deists is rather cold and not very lovable; nor does He seek to be loved.
Pantheism is another Greek word meaning All-God-ism. In its baldest form Pantheism asserts that the universe and God are the same; that God is everything and everything is God. More philosophically stated, it teaches that there is only one eternal and infinite substance of which all things are modifications with no permanent individual existence. The English poet, Pope, has well expressed the central idea of Pantheism in his Essay on Man:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul.
The idea is that we are all parts of God, yet not detached from God. God is all that is and much more. God is working a purpose out gradually and progressively. He is Himself the purpose, and we and all others are God working that purpose out. On this theory creation is still going on, and we cannot tell at present when, if ever, it will be finished.
Pantheism is found today in the philosophy of India, but if we look closely at the mystical traditions of all religions we will find some form of Pantheism at least hinted in the words of all illumined souls.
Which is True?
Now which of these is the truth–Theism, Deism, or Pantheism? Actually they all contain elements of truth which, if extracted from each one, will enable us to get as near to the intellectual expression of truth as we can expect to get with our very limited human intellects. We must remember that it cannot be intellectually proved that there is a God at all, any more than it can be intellectually proved that there is not. In this matter we have to rely on our intuition–that is to say, on an inner perception of truth. And that is why meditation is the very essence of our spiritual quest. When it is suggested to us that there is a cause of everything that exists, we feel that statement is true, though we cannot prove it by argument or mathematics. That inner consent to a proposition is intuition.
There is something in all of the three forms of belief about God that we have considered which we intuitively can feel are true. This, for instance:
God is simply unimaginable–inconceivable. If the universe is as vast as scientific research reveals it to be, then how unimaginably great must He be who is the Cause of it all. When we think of God in this way we are thinking of what philosophers call the Absolute, that is to say, the One who is infinite and independent of everything; the Self-existent. The Absolute is at the back of all universes, the uncaused Cause of all. We cannot imagine Him, so we had better leave off trying. That really is what we mean by God. And that is what the best Theists and Deists have in mind when they speak of God as infinite; and that is what the Indian Pantheists have in mind when they think of “One only Essence without a second” (Ekam Evam Adwitya) or Brahman.
But if we cannot imagine Him or That, He or It is not of much use to us for practical purposes. It is not much use attempting to worship, still less to pray to, that which we simply cannot imagine. What we want to discover is the God who made us and knows us and looks after us. When Jesus spoke at the end of his earthly career of having been in the glory of God before the world existed and of returning to God, he was speaking on behalf of us all–and most especially when he declared to God: “Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
For although God is the Infinite Absolute, He is a Person, as well. That is to say, He wills and loves and thinks as we do (for we are His image and likeness), only very much more so. Thus He is our God and Father–though immeasurably more than that. He made us and is still making us. We have come forth from Him and we are returning to Him. We are of the very same essence as He. We are fragments of Him, yet not divided off or separated from Him. “For in him we live, and move, and have our being,” since “by him all things consist” (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17). It is He Whom our Lord Jesus lovingly called “Father,” and taught us to do so as well in the Lord’s Prayer.
We can worship Him and pray to Him as much as we like without having the feeling that He is so great and so far off that He cannot possibly take any notice of such little beings as ourselves. For being infinite, He is beyond the distinction of “too great” or “too small.” And being all things, He must of necessity see us as His own–indeed, His own self. He knows all that is going on in our world. We are all in His consciousness, and His life is our life; we derive life from Him. We are part of Him and connected with Him, so that we can draw as much as we will and as much as we can on His power and love and wisdom. We are all in Him, and the Whole of Him is in or behind each of us. He is “all in all” (I Corinthians 12:6; 15:28; Ephesians 1:23). He is all in all–panta en pasin; Totu in Omnibus. And our efforts to draw on His strength and love and wisdom, our efforts to reach back or up to Him, our efforts to be at our best, to be spiritual rather than material, are efforts to get back to our own source, our origin, our Father. That is what He wants us to do, and those efforts of ours, which constitute our religion, are His efforts within us to regain His own level. “Our hearts are ever restless till they find their rest in Him.”
That is the supreme essence of the teaching of Theists, Deists, and Pantheists combined. And it is that which our intuitions, purified by meditation, will assent to as truth. It is of God in this sense that we should ever be aware in both heart and mind–He who is both The Absolute and Emmanuel: God With Us.
All Are True
So the Theists are right when they think of God as infinite. The Absolute is infinite. And the Deists are right in saying that we cannot understand what He can be, and that we ought to rely on our own resources more than many Theists do. And here the Pantheistic view comes to our aid and reconciles the other two where they disagree. The Pantheists tell us that our own strength and our own resources are God’s strength and God’s resources, so that in relying on them we are really relying on Him. The Pantheists again agree with the Theists in that they tell us that God is transcendent as well as immanent; that is to say, that He is infinitely beyond and above every manifestation of Himself as well as within those manifestations. He is above all, as well as in all and through all. And it is to Him as above us and beyond us that we lift up our hearts when we worship and lift up our minds when we pray. And it is He, the Transcendent God, the Father who loves us, and, in response to our efforts to worship Him or reach up to Him, pours down His love upon us in such volume as almost to overpower those efforts of ours. Our efforts release His love and His power and bring them pouring down upon us, though we are rarely aware that it is so. That is what we mean by God–Infinite, Personal, Transcendent, and Immanent.