Ancient Greek religion. These local gods are paradoxically worshipped as though they are the God, but still the existence of One God — Zeus and Brahman, respectively in these cases — is not forgotten. Ancient Greek religiosity also in many ways parallels, and likely was heavily influenced by, ancient Egyptian religion. And it is interesting to note that the pantheon of ancient Egyptian religion for a brief time took the back seat to “Atenism,” which is often viewed as the earliest example of monotheism in human history.
Another example we can point toward is the Yoruba religious tradition of West Africa, in which everyone strives toward connection with the supreme God Olorun (also known as Olodomare). This is done primarily through fostering a personal connection with one of the “Orishas,” who are anthropomorphic intermediate gods that each embody different qualities of Olorun. All of these religions are normally deemed as “polytheistic,” but they all still believe in one overarching God and simply see the worship of lesser deities as an extension of their belief in God.
Even the God of the Western monotheistic religions is not confined to a single representation. In the Hebrew Bible, God tells Moses that “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Because of this, God must take on the forms of things that are more familiar to human beings: a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a pillar of cloud, a booming voice, a whisper. Furthermore, there are passages from other works of Jewish literature that closely echo the Hindu concept of seeing God in many forms, like the following, from the Jewish Talmudic writings: “[T]he Holy One said: Because you see Me in many guises, do not imagine that there are many gods — for I am He who was with you at the Red Sea, I am He who was with you at Sinai, I am the same everywhere. ‘I am the Lord thy God.’” So even scripturally, God is said to recognize the need for human beings to represent Him in different metaphorical forms.
The words of scriptures, prophets, and other messengers of God remind us that religions are aware of their own metaphorical nature. Nevertheless, behind the cipher, God is understood to be One, as reflected in the most important Jewish prayer, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad,” which translates to “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Similarly, the most central component of worship for Muslims is the frequent affirmation of God’s oneness (known as “Tawhid”) through recitation of the phrase, “La illaha illallah” (no god but Allah). This is also expressed clearly in the Qur’an: “Your God is the one God: there is no god except Him, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.” (2:163) And still, Muslims too represent God in a plurality of forms — not visually, but through the 99 names for God in the Qur’an, which once again represent different qualities of the same one God. Rounding out the three Abrahamic religions, all Christians believe that God is One, but many sects also believe in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: that this one God is manifested as the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit.
For most people, it is easier to strengthen the feeling of authentic connection with God by imagining God as something concrete and relatable. Many of us are likely familiar with the visual trope of the Abrahamic God as a great man in the sky with a big grey beard, an image that has been reinforced through a long history of Western artistic depictions of God. But as the art historian Ernst Gombrich notes of such depictions, it was clear to the artists and their patrons that, “God is not a man with a beard, but that among all sensible things of which man can have an experience on earth, a beautiful and dignified fatherly ruler of infinite splendor is the most fitting metaphor our mind can grasp.” Our mental and sensory equipment as human beings have clear limitations. When the concepts and phenomena we are trying to contemplate exceed these limitations, we turn to metaphorical depictions.
This is true not only of religious and metaphysical concepts, but of material and scientific ones as well: we make use of countless models, illustrations, and artificial colorings to visualize what we cannot see with the naked eye or easily grasp with our minds. What a model lacks in technical detail and accurate correspondence to reality, it makes up for in convenience and wieldiness. As anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes, there is something similar going on with religion, and particularly with the concept of God: “In each person there is both an ‘official’ concept — what they can report if you ask them — and an ‘implicit’ concept that they use without being really aware of it.” When it comes to day-to-day worship practices, prayers, and even just conversational speech, people typically operate with their implicit God concepts. We might not “believe” that God is actually a man with a beard but may still find ourselves referring to God with male pronouns or other anthropomorphic language. Partly, this is due to the historical inertia of convention, but it is also a tool of ease to allow us to reference an abstract and mysterious concept more expediently and concretely in conversation, trusting one another that we all have some common understanding of what we mean when we say God.
In Hindu artistic depictions of God, it is also common to see humanoid figures, which correspond to particular gods and goddesses. Hindus recognize the validity and truth inherent in all the deities of the vast pantheon, but typically each person will have one primary or favorite deity known as their “Ishta-Deva.” The famed scholar of comparative religion, Huston Smith, explains why:
“The Hindus have represented God in innumerable forms. They all point equally to God, but it is advisable for each devotee to develop an abiding attachment to one of them. Only so can its presence deepen and its power be fully assimilated. For most persons the most effective ishta will be one of God’s incarnations, for the human heart is naturally tuned to loving people.”
The gods and goddesses, as manifestations of God with qualities that our minds can comprehend, are like doorways. All religious devotees are understood to be reaching toward the same inner space, the “atman” (roughly, “soul” or “inner self”) which can be understood as the presence of God within each of us. What is important is the activity of focusing on the transcendent, and often this is best achieved by associating the transcendent with a physical symbol that people can relate to more readily. The particular conception of God that each person chooses to implement in pursuing this shared goal is akin to one liking the color yellow or the other liking green. Everyone has some colors they are drawn to more than others, just as everyone finds themselves to be drawn to some gods and goddesses more than others. If your favorite color is green, it will be easier for you to focus your attention on a green object and to more deeply experience its beauty. So it is with focusing on a particular god or goddess. And just as most of us would not find a difference in favorite color to be cause for serious conflict between one another, different preferences for gods and goddesses do not divide Hindus, but simply illustrate the beautiful diversity inherent in any population.
But what about the so-called “nontheistic” religious traditions like Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism? Actually, there are cases to be made here as well for the acknowledgement of One God. The main reason why the concept of God seems absent from these religions has to do with the degree of emphasis placed on God. As opposed to the Western monotheisms, in which everyday worship is centered around God, actual lived religion in the above-named religions has very little to do with God directly. God is seen as too transcendent to foster a clear relationship with, and so worship focuses more on spirits, ancestors, and cosmic forces of cause-and-effect.
As scholar of religion Todd Tremlin observes, “in religions that teach the existence of some ultimate power or impersonal divinity — the forces of Tao, Brahman, and Buddha-nature, the creator gods of many African tribes and of early American deists — such ideas are almost completely ignored in favor of more personal and practical deities.” In the case of ancient China during the emergence of Daoism and Confucianism, scholar Ruth H. Ching describes the phenomenon of focusing attention on local gods rather than the One God, a description that just as well could apply to the religious landscape of India.
While the official religion focused on a supreme Heaven, people outside the ruling court, however, mainly worshipped local cults and deities. They were more concerned with the practical abilities of divinity, and their conception of gods and spirits concentrated on things that affected people’s welfare. Making propitiation was of greater importance than understanding where the powers came from, or why the powers even existed at all.
Heaven (“Tian,” which literally translates to “sky”) is the term used in these religious traditions for an abstract and impersonal power that is sometimes seen as an analog to God. Heaven is not represented anthropomorphically and hence not a popular target of day-to-day worship. However, it is still thought to be very powerful and influential on human life. In the Analects of Confucius, one of his companions remarks that, “I have heard it said: life and death are a matter of Destiny; wealth and honour depend on Heaven.” A closer analog to God in Confucius’ day might be the anthropomorphic God called “Shang-di,” or simply “Di.” It is akin to something like Zeus, a supreme God ruling over a pantheon of other anthropomorphic deities that were thought to directly affect people’s welfare. But neither Tian nor Di — powerful and important as they are — find their way prominently into the mainstream religiosity of China, then or now.
The closest we get to God in these religions, however, is a singular source of creation that precedes even Heaven. It is referred to simply as “the One” and is described as a “ruler” by the Daoist sage Chuang Tzu:
“Heaven and Earth are vast,
and their diversity comes from one source.
Although there are ten thousand forms of life,
they are one in their order.
Human beings are multitudinous,
but they are governed by one ruler.
The ruler is rooted in Virtue and perfected by Heaven.”
There is an agnostic unwillingness to describe God with any definitive qualities, but nevertheless an affirmation that a singular source of creation — which we may very well call God — must exist. Reflecting further one the question of a single ruler governing over all of life, Chuang Tzu goes on to say,
“It is as if they have a Supreme Guidance, but there is no way of grasping such a One.
He can certainly act, of that there is no doubt,
but I cannot see his body[…]
There must be some Supreme Ruler who is over them all.”
Linguistically, God is anthropomorphized as “he” and “Supreme Ruler,” but given the absence of any humanly visible qualities, the religions of Confucianism and Daoism choose to leave God as a blank open mystery rather than ascribing any definite attributes, metaphorical or not. The existence of God is deemed to be logically apparent, but unimportant to the more socially practical affairs around which popular religion is focused.
Buddhism is arguably an exception to the claim that all religions believe in One God. Indeed, the belief that there is no God, no single source of creation, no transcendent and conscious higher power, is quite central to the theological beliefs of the religion. Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha, who was originally born Hindu and came to reject certain aspects of his native religion. One of the most primary deviations was the Buddha’s teaching of “anatta” (no self), which was a direct rejection of the Hindu concept of an “atman” — the higher self within all beings that exists as a manifestation of God. It is described briefly in this passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “My highest nature, the imperishable Brahman, gives every creature its existence and lives in every creature as the [atman]. My action is creation and the bringing forth of creatures.” (8:3) On this subject, the Buddha was clear that there is no atman and hence no God (Brahman). Still, the fact that a rejection of God is so central to Buddhism means that it too demonstrates the fact that thinking about God is common across all religions, even if the answer is ultimately an atheistic one in which the ultimate nature of reality is one of impermanence.
My research into the commonalities across religions has led me to conclude that the differences between “monotheisms” and “polytheisms” in their conceptions of God are not as major as many of us are taught to believe. In brief, the strict divisions between monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic religions both oversimplify their complexity and also cover up their more fundamental similarities. When we closely examine the words from the great prophets and scriptures across religions, we see that religions actually showcase a great deal of commonality, and the concept of one God is no exception. These commonalities become all the more clear when we remind ourselves of our shared biology and cognitive structures, as well as the fact that many ideas and stories from across religions are meant to be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally.
The important conclusion to draw from recognizing the commonalities across religions — in this case, one God — is not that all religions believe the same things or arrive at the same answers, but that they are all addressing similar questions and doing so for similar purposes. The Dalai Lama, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, said that “I believe all religions pursue the same goals, that of cultivating human goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings. Though the means might appear different the ends are the same.” Conflicts over religious differences result from people focusing too much on the differences in means and failing to see the common ends. As the Dalai Lama points out, the ends of religion have to do with pursuing happiness in life through the cultivation of universal love and compassion.
But another important end served by religion is that of satisfying our need for meaning-making. Harvard University professor and psychologist Robert Kegan sums up the depth and universality of this need in his book The Evolving Self, writing, “it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making.” All religions, belief systems, and fields of study throughout human history have been responses to this shared human need to make meaning out of the chaos and mystery of the world around us, with the concept of God being the ultimate tool of meaning-making. As sociologist Georg Simmel puts it,
“The essence of the notion of God is that all diversities and contradictions in the world achieve a unity in him, that he is — according to a beautiful formulation of Nicolas de Cusa — the coincidentia oppositorum. Out of this idea, that in him all estrangements and all irreconcilables of existence find their unity and equalization, there arises the peace, the security, the all-embracing wealth of feeling that reverberate with the notion of God which we hold.”
The universality of the concept of God directly corresponds to the universal need for meaning-making that defines our species. Our brains are constantly working to unify our various life experiences and observations into a single internal worldview that is meant to approximate the outer world. Nobody does this perfectly and because we all have different experiences, we all have at least slightly different worldviews.
According to Kegan, our worldviews also differ according to different degrees of complexity in our meaning-making. In his book In Over Our Heads, he explains this in terms of his “orders of mind” developmental scheme. He identifies five orders of mind which people progress through over the course of their lives. All of us start out with order 1 minds in our infancy and order 2 minds in childhood. Most adults naturally age into order 3 minds, but many do not make it to order 4 and most do not make it to order 5. As the systems by which we make meaning grow and change over time, so too do our beliefs.
Consider, as an example, the belief in Santa Claus. When we are children, we believe literally in Santa Claus as a man who lives in the North Pole and delivers presents to children across the entire world during the single night of Christmas Eve. Hearing this story at an early age and with our order 1 and 2 minds, we have no reason for doubting its validity. But by the time we are adolescents transitioning into order 3 minds, we are making meaning differently. We question such beliefs by evaluating whether or not they accord with what we know about the rest of the world: we stop believing literally in Santa Claus because the feats he is said to perform are simply not physically possible and thus do not fit in with our new worldviews. But we do not completely discard the concept of Santa Claus, as the spirit of what he represents — generosity, jolliness, warm-heartedness — are still emblematic of the gift-giving nature of Christmas. So we go on “believing” in Santa Claus, but in a different way.
I am not suggesting that believing in God is childish or that God, like Santa Claus, does not exist. The point of the analogy is that when we teach children about God, they are not making meaning in complex enough ways to grasp the full mystery of the concept. We have to introduce God in a more concrete way as essentially a literal human being who lives in the sky and created the universe in much the same way that someone might create a table or a chair. As order 3 minds, we usually discard such beliefs but do not necessarily stop believing in God altogether — we simply make meaning of the concept differently. In my case, I believed until the age of 62 that the Bhagavad Gita, the scripture that I had admired most growing up, was directly uttered by Lord Krishna (an avatar of the god Vishnu), who came to earth in human form. I no longer believe that the Gita is the literal word of God, nor that any god has literally walked around on Earth, but its teaching of Nishkam Karma (selfless action) has been and, continues to be, my life’s mantra since early adulthood. My development through different orders of mind have changed the way I think about both God and scripture, but it has not completely erased my belief in either. I still believe ardently in the profound teachings of the Gita, but I interpret the teachings of the Gita in my own context. Fortunately, Hindu religion not only allows for this, but actually encourages us to update our beliefs over time as we gain access to new information and new experiences.
However, not everyone has had the same educational opportunities as me, or the same exposure to different cultures, both of which heavily facilitated the increased complexity of my meaning-making. People of all cultures and societies have different levels of education, different exposures intellectually and physically, and differing capacities for abstract and critical thinking. As a result, people make meaning in different ways that best suit their own abilities and needs and it is important to respect this. Instead of reacting angrily or derisively to people’s different conceptions of God, we should remember that real differences in meaning-making do exist and are influential in how people form beliefs. Seen this way, the orders of mind framework can be a very powerful tool of empathy that allows us to understand why people believe the things they do, even if their beliefs differ from our own. What matters most is that we are all making our own attempts at meaning making.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the orders is that, while they become more complex with time, there is no order that is inherently better than any other order just as a more complex idea isn’t necessarily more valuable than a simple one. In fact, according to Occam’s razor — a guiding principle in science and philosophy — simpler models of reality are actually given preferential treatment over competing models that are more complex. People can be kind or unkind, just or unjust, moral or immoral at any order of mind, so it is impossible to measure a person’s worth by looking at his or her order of mind, or the religious beliefs they hold. My mother, for instance, is an order 3 mind who does believe literally that God does incarnate on Earth and has been the source of holy scriptures. But she is the very embodiment of love and compassion and definitely superior to me as a human being in many ways!
Depending on the degree of complexity with which people make meaning, some will prefer to view God as an anthropomorphic being, while others might prefer to imagine God as more of a transcendent impersonal force. In any case, the longing for God that pervades religion is fueled by an inner feeling that there must exist a perfect unified order to the universe that exists independently of us, along with the innate desire for a meaningful relationship with this unity.
Religion, then, constitutes a variety of means for satisfying a kind of hunger that can be sated only through a constant ongoing process of meaning-making. We can explain this further by adopting a culinary analogy employed by anthropologist Pascal Boyer:
“Suppose you were a Martian anthropologist and observed that all human beings sustain themselves by eating food […] You would study the chemistry of cooking, which would reveal that there are only a few ways to process food (marinating, salting, roasting, smoking, boiling, grilling, etc.) and a large but limited number of ingredients. You would soon be able to report that the apparently unlimited variety of human cuisine is explained by combinations of a limited set of techniques and a limited set of materials. This is precisely what we can do with religious concepts, moving from the table to the kitchen and observing how the concepts are concocted in human minds.”
Just as we satisfy our hunger by cooking and eating, so too do we satisfy our need for meaning-making through religion. The common ways of processing food correspond in religion to things like storytelling, rituals, contemplative practices like prayer and meditation that allow the nutrients of religion to be absorbed effectively and pleasurably. Cooking and eating also involve the use of similar tools — pots and pans, plates and utensils — just as all religions have temples, sacred books, priests and prophets.
Different cultures make use of different foods and flavoring spices, just as religions all differ in their specific practices and beliefs, but there are still lots of general similarities. Adequate nutrition depends on a balanced consumption of a few basic food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, protein — which correspond to the common themes across religions. Everyone needs to make meaning out of certain basic phenomena and questions in life like the nature of death and the afterlife, how to treat others, and of course the question of God. But there are many equally effective ways to serve up these basic food groups in our daily meals. All of this is to say that differing beliefs across religions and across individuals need not invalidate or be in conflict with one another — all beliefs are equally valid to the extent that they provide adequate meaning-making nutrition.
Our conceptions of God look different because the various contextual dimensions of different people have been diverse and changing over time. We all make use of the unique ingredients available to each of us. This is why there are so many different types of cuisine. Applying this same principle to religion, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, explains that, “Each religious genius spells out the mystery of God according to his own endowment, personal, racial, and historical. The variety of the pictures of god is easily intelligible when we realize that religious experience is psychologically mediated.” Similarly, the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics tells us that the language we learn mediates the possibilities of our thoughts. There are certain words that are nearly impossible to translate from one language to another; correspondingly, there are certain thoughts and even feelings that simply cannot be experienced by the speakers of languages that never developed words for those particular thoughts and feelings. In much the same way, our cultural, historical, and environmental genetic moldings influence the “language” by which we describe and define God. But these differences amount to descriptions of different aspects of God, just as untranslatable words describe different ways of experiencing life as a human being.
This idea is also given voice in the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, wherein each man comes to a different conclusion about the identity of an elephant based on which part he is touching, thus describing a diversity of equally valid aspects of the same phenomenon. Just as the elephant is too large for each man to be able to perceive in its entirety, so too is God too mysterious for any one religion to describe in full. The totality of human experience similarly defies full description by any single language, culture, religion, or other category of humanity, as Robert Kegan points out.
“Even in the midst of charged and often irritable relations between men and women, East and West, we have the opportunity to drop back to consider the whole of which we are a part. When we do, something quite beautiful and moving appears: a single community of people who together give expression to the full complexity of being alive; a universality which each of us can find reflected in ourselves (the woman in every man, the Easterner in every Westerner).”
Our differences do not divide us — they complete us. When we see that we are all attempting to make meaning out of the same ultimate Reality, calling it by different names, we can learn to live like one big family, no longer at odds with one another over differences of race, rank, region, or religion.
We can even find personal enrichment from each other’s differences, just as my Christian friend’s daughters found enrichment in the Hindu expressions of God, which they came to make use of in their own lives. To return to our culinary analogy, two instructive examples of cultural artifacts being transplanted successfully to very different parts of the world are the tomato in Italy and the pineapple in Hawaii. From our present-day perspective, it is hard for us to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, but the tomato is not native to Italy and did not arrive until brought over from the Americas in the 16th century. Nor is the pineapple native to Hawaii, despite now being one of the most recognizable symbols of not just Hawaiian cuisine, but Hawaiian culture as a whole.
Notwithstanding allergies and other individual obstacles, most humans can digest and derive nutrition from most foods, regardless of where they might have originated. It is common for people to make use of many different cuisines in their kitchens, just as it is common for people to speak more than one language. If these different cultural systems can peacefully coexist within a single person, then why should there be so much interpersonal conflict over other cultural systems like religion? All religions are aimed toward making meaning, just as all cuisines provide nutrition and all languages serve the function of communication. Furthermore, just as the variety of cuisine options enrich our lives, the rich tapestry of God concepts reflects the vividness of our collective human imagination. Our effort to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, to describe the indescribable — this is the power of the human spirit achieving its fullness of expression through this plurality of forms.
One of the most beautiful sentences I have found on the subject of religion was from a friend who wrote, “Divinity is found in the empathetic interconnectedness of our existence.” We all stand atop the same Earth and below the same sun and moon, which provide us with the same light. We are born the same way, in our mother’s womb as a result of the union between the egg of our mother and the sperm of our father, and 99% of our genes are identical. We all have the same anatomy, the same internal systems — the digestive, circulatory, endocrinal, excretory, respiratory and immune systems are all the same across the human species. The basic structure of our brains and nervous system is the same. The chemical composition that runs through our veins is within the same expected range regardless of skin color, ethnicity, etc. We have the same emotions — joy, anger, sadness, curiosity, fear, etc. — and similar facial expressions corresponding to those emotions. The instinctive love a mother feels for her child has always been the same across all human civilizations.
Given all these similarities, is it so far-fetched to think that there is one God behind it all? This is the conclusion that just about all religions seem to arrive at. And if all religions believe there is a single God, then isn’t it logical to assume that this one God is the same God across all religions, simply being represented in different ways according to different cultural expressions and modes of worship? It should therefore be a natural corollary for all religions to agree that human beings across the world and throughout history have all been worshipping the same God and that we were all created by the same God. As the Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reasons, religion was never meant to divide us.
“Inasmuch as our God is one God and the Creator of all mankind, He provides for and protects all. We acknowledge Him as a God of kindness, justice and mercy. Why then should we, His children and followers, war and fight, bringing sorrow and grief into the hearts of each other? God is loving and merciful. His intention in religion has ever been the bond of unity and affinity between humankind.”
Religions, regardless of their particular depictions of God, teach us to extend unconditional love toward every member of our species (and other species of life as well), as we are all children of the same mysterious source of creation.
We should not judge people harshly based on their differing conceptions of God. Just like every individual deserves our love and human dignity, so too does their conception of God, as the differences in these conceptions are simply reflective of the differences in meaning-making complexity among us. Similarly, different religions arose in environments with differing circumstances. The techniques developed by each religion for pursuing the shared innate need of establishing relationships with ultimate reality were designed to be suitable for the particular circumstances in which that religion was situated. These differences do not indicate any kind of superiority of one religion over another, as all are making meaning with the tools available. And when we stop looking at each other’s belief systems in terms of superiority and inferiority, beyond “rightness” and “wrongness,” I believe we will naturally come to love each other more.