Essential Theology: God is One

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I believe that God is in some essential way One, a unity, united in being or at least in goodness, fellowship, and purpose. Although the overall spiritual realm may be diverse and inhabited by beings of different sorts and characteristics (more on that shortly); God as the highest Reality is united, stable, and in consistent harmony in his character, intention, and oversight.

I believe in an Ultimate Being of ontological oneness. In particular, I believe in a monotheistic God. As a Christian, I believe monotheism allows for a Trinity of persons within the one God; though expounding on such a view is largely outside the scope of an  interfaith, “consensus” series such as this.

I think many of the arguments in this post will help support this notion of God being ontologically one in his being. But I am also arguing that minimally, even if there were more than one being in the Highest Ultimate, they must at least be united in goodness, fellowship, and intention.

I believe God is one because this is widely affirmed about him or the Ultimate. There is belief in one God in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism.

Most Hindus see one monistic Reality as the Supreme Being behind our illusionary world and the numerous deities worshipped herein. Some see this Reality as God; others as a less personal Being.

In Buddhism, there is one state of Nirvana which is sought. In Lakota religion, Wakan Tanka seems to be conceived of as a unified conglomerate of spiritual powers. Greco-Roman philosophers reflected on “the One.” The Tao of Taoism is considered One. Many religions gravitate toward talk of a singular highest God.

Many sources of sacred authority also teach or assume that the Ultimate is one.

For example,  in the Tanakh’s Shema, the central confession of Judaism, God is declared to be one. This is why Israel was to worship no other gods but him alone. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

While Christianity holds to the controversial and paradoxical belief that this one God is made up of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); it and the New Testament also affirm that there is only one God. “There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

The Qur’an presents a particularly strict vision of God’s singularity called Tawhid. According to it, the one God’s divinity cannot be shared or divided. This is why orthodox Muslims reject the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

“There is no god save Allah” (Surah 47.19). “Allah does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, but He forgives anything other than this to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with Allah, he devises indeed a great sin” (Surah 4.48).

In the Vedas, Brahman is conceived of as the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe. “That [Brahman] is one, without a second” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1). “They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān. To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan” (Rig Veda 1.164.46).

In the Tao Te Ching, the Tao is called “the One without differentiation” (10). The Sikh Adi Granth affirms that God is one: “There is one God, Eternal Truth is his name…” (1:1). In Zoroastrianism, one of the names of God is “A-dui,” which means “One without a second.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/101_Names_of_God

This broad consensus is also backed up by (mystical) experience and rational and pragmatic reasoning. Many people have vivid religious experiences that are consonant with and interpreted by them as an encounter with the One true God.

Perhaps these experiences are structured and pre-disposed towards by the participant’s monotheistic faith. It’s true that people from various religions tend to have religious experiences in line with categories and figures of their religion. But the experience of an (apparently) singular, unitive, all-encompassing spiritual Reality is widespread and encompasses a number of religions and even people of no religion or ones from religions that are not taught to expect this.

Such experiences include perceptions of becoming united with God, united with all of nature or the universe, united with Brahman, or experiencing  a comprehensive self-emptying in realization of Nirvana. Although different in many respects (e.g. is the Real personal or impersonal), these experiences tend to be of singular unitive Being.

Experiences of other types of spiritual entities do not necessarily challenge this. God is understood to have created many lesser types of spiritual creatures. Also, some finite entities encountered in religious experience claim to be messengers of the one God.

That God is one or of a united nature also seems to fit with the “big” conception of him that I’m trying to defend in these posts. David Bentley Hart makes a wonderful contrast in his book The Experience of God between gods and God.

Gods are finite objects within the universe. They can be added or subtracted without any fundamental change to the world. They are anthropomorphic and limited. God, on the other hand, as understood by classical theism, is Ultimate Being itself, the personal Power that “donates” existence to everything else and who bears necessary existence within himself. He is not simply another object in the universe. He is the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, unchanging, and fundamentally good Reality that is more real, more fundamental, than anything else. Because he is good, Ultimate Reality is fundamentally on the side of the good. Love and justice aren’t merely incidental or based on a finite and arbitrary god’s whim.

The connection here to God’s singular unity is this: could there really be more than one Entity  like that? How could there be more than one “that which no greater can be thought?” How could there be more than one Supreme Being? The notion, although perhaps not strictly impossible, certainly seems less intuitive and perhaps less parsominous than there being only one such God.

I suppose since God does not occupy “space” in the way we do, it could be that there are any number of infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Beings. One wonders why in religious experience people tend to perceive the Ultimate as One rather than many? There is the issue of parsimony. No major theistic tradition would accept such a notion of God – even definitionally.

If there are more than one “Being,” one wonders about their relation to one another. Since (in this scenario) there is differentiation between them – they are not the same singular Being – can differences of opinion arise between them? How would they be settled? Since each “God” is the same in excellence and might, how could any one prevail? Would humans simply be caught up as pawns in an eternal unwinnable struggle? If they disagreed or were even in contention with one another, how could any one of them or their combined community serve as our perfect moral exemplar? Perfect source of beauty, harmony, etc.? How could they offer us hope of peace and salvation?

As I will get into in my next point, even if there were more than one divine being in the Godhead (whether this be multiple theistic “Gods” or polytheistic ones), both religious experience and pragmatic reasoning imply that they exist and act in harmonious union with one another.

That gets to my next point, and that is that even if there were a diversity of some sort in the highest Divine, there are pragmatic reasons for thinking they are united in some essential way. Let’s consider some of the possible configurations of spiritual beings to illustrate what I mean by this.

Virtually all worldviews that believe in a spiritual realm acknowledge diversity in it. There are good and evil spirits and maybe some that seem neutral or in-between. There are beings of different types and degrees of power. Christians and Jews acknowledge angels and demons. Muslims believe in Jinn. Hindus and Buddhists acknowledge a range of gods and demons at this lower level of insight (they both think the Highest Reality is ultimately unified). Obviously polytheists believe in more than one god. Most traditional religions believe in many powers, spirits, or gods.

So in arguing that the Highest Ultimate is unified, I am not saying that it did not also create or emanate a multiplicity of lesser beings. There is room in monotheism for many spiritual (and other) entities. The question is what is this highest Reality like? Is it unified or diverse, and in what ways?

Let’s consider the options: It could be that atheists are right and that there are no actual spirits, gods, or God. It could be that there are a diversity of powerful but finite gods who make up this upper echelon. Although paradoxical, I’ve mentioned that at least in theory, it is not impossible that there is more than one theistic God. It could be that there is only one polytheistic god. Or it could be that there is only one monotheistic God.

I think one monotheistic God sits better with the attributes I’m defending in this series and (many) people’s spiritual experiences of the Ultimate than the other views. I also think there is room in this Divine Oneness for a Trinity of persons. Having said that, I don’t know that any of these things can be proved absolutely.

I said earlier that minimally, the Highest Ultimate must at least be united in goodness, fellowship, and intention. Why do I say that?

Think what would follow if there were a diversity in the highest Divine and these diverse beings lacked a common character, harmony with one another, and/or common goals for the world. What would that do to our ability to know what path to take in life (following which Guide?) or to be able to trust the divine (which one, or which faction?). How could we confidently hope for eventual peace and salvation (from which being? How not undermined by the others in contention?). How can bickering deities serve as perfect moral exemplars of love or unity to humans?

When I look at Greco-Roman polytheism or other comparable varieties of it, it doesn’t seem like it can adequately ground morality or transcendent hope. When one reads the Iliad, one can’t help but see how divided and petty the Greek gods were. They scheme against each other and draw humans into it. When a character placates one, he often crosses another. There’s no way to win and there’s no real hope of escape from the arbitrariness of it all. In the same way, none of the gods can truly be said to be a perfect moral exemplar.

Monotheism, including Trinitarian monotheism, would certainly give us the unity and moral grounding we need for transcendent hope. Arguably though, other types of polytheism might also give us this. If we conceived of the gods as a harmonious tribe or family made up of good individuals who had a common aim, potentially they could serve to fulfill this hope. Presumably, in this case, they would not be feuding with one another or resentful over humanity’s imperfect worship of them, granted it was sincere. I don’t believe in polytheism, of course. But I see this kind of vision as a minimal threshold of sorts.

One side-note that is relevant to my Trinitarian faith: Arguably, there might also need to be some kind of diversity in the divine unity, whether it is through a unified polytheism of this sort or through a Trinitarian monotheism comprised of several loving, intra-communal persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This might best explain God or the gods’ being good in an essentially personal or loving way, analogous to what goodness typically means to us. I’ve written on this elsewhere, but won’t pursue it more here.

So I love and trust the One who has no second. The Oneness of God is widely agreed upon, taught in many sources of sacred authority, suggested by our religious experiences, and is rationally and pragmatically necessary for wholehearted worship, trust, hope, and emulation. God is united, stable, and in consistent harmony in his being, character, intentions, and oversight.

 

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