Mortimer Adler muses over the fact that everyone uses the word “God” but almost no one can explain what they mean by it. He defaults to St. Anselm who thinks the word “God” means “that than which I can think of nothing greater” i.e. the (singular) supreme being. God is unique in that it cannot not exist and its existence is like and unlike the existence of everything else, and one unlike feature is that God is uncaused or self-caused (aseity).1
Dagobert Runes defines God thusly, “In metaphysical thinking a name for the highest, ultimate being, assumed by theology on the basis of authority, revelation or the evidence of faith as absolutely necessary.”2 However he also defines [the] One as the Supreme idea (Plato), the absolute first principle (Neo-platonism), the universe (Parmenides), ‘being as such’ (Plotinus), the metaphysical world-ground or the ultimate reality, or the world-soul or the principle of the world conceived as reason (nous). The One may be conceived as an independent whole or as a sum, as analytic or synthetic, as principle or ontologically.3
Runes also defines The Absolute as the terminus or ultimate referent of thought or the Unconditioned. He tells us that Fichte uses it to mean the “Ground of the Real’ and Schelling as a spiritual unity behind all logical and ontological oppositions, that is, the self-differentiating source of both Mind and Nature. Hegel uses it to mean a timeless, perfect, organic whole of self-thinking Thought. The Absolute may also refer to the All or totality of the real, but conversely in the East the Wu Chi (Non-Being), Tai Chi (Being), even the Tao (The ‘Way’). In Indian philosophy the Absolute may be seen as Brahman (the Real), Bhutatathata (Thatness), or a pure eternal consciousness. In the West the All may refer to substance (Spinoza). 4
God as ultimate reality can have other connotations as well. For the Hebrews, Jahweh self-defines for Moses as the “I AM.” Zarathustra suggests it is Arta (“Righteous Order”), the “Good” or perhaps arkana (“Infinite Time”). The Stoics imagine an aether endowed with Mind or ‘divine providence.’ Mohammed sees a living, self-subsistent, unity with 99 names or traits.5 Nicolas Cusanus implicates a high order Mathematics while Bruno translates the universe into an infinite and divine being which is both immanent and transcendent. Montaigne and the Christian Neoplatonists think God is entirely ineffable.6 Berkeley argues God is the source of all the ideas underpinning a purely immaterial reality. Hegel thinks God is Absolute Spirit incarnate in history. Others see ultimate reality as the Perfect Being, or as a Whole or Absolute Causality (Schleiermacher), as Organism or Process (Whitehead), or even Infinite Being as the ground of finite being (Tillich).7
We surmise from this presentation that Ultimate Reality, at least as expressed in the term ‘God’ or the divine, varies from thinker to thinker and particularly over time. Ontologically it is typically inclusive of the universe and all existing things. It is is identified as supreme, perfect, infinite, and self-existent. It may be as much the ground of reality as its creator and may represent a process as an organic rather than fixed entity. It has many non-physical attributes including intellect, spirit or soul, goodness, and mathematic elements. Fewer thinkers take the opposite approach and define God negatively either as totally incomprehensible or as a state of complete nothingness. We will need to take a step back from this diversity of opinion next time to configure the meaning we will use for the rest of this section.
1Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 96-100. One is impressed how well the quantum vacuum of the physicist fits Anselm’s description.
2Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.118.
3Ibid., page 219.
4Ibid., page 2.
5Brandon, S.G.F., Idea of God from Prehistoy to the Middle Ages in Wiener, Philip P, (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973, pages 331-346.
6Collins, James, Idea of God from 1400-1800 in Wiener, Philip P, (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973, pages 346-354.
7Gilkey, Langdon., Idea of God Since 1800 in Wiener, Philip P, (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973, pages 354-366.