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"A Historic Evolution of the Concept of God"


Syed Zia Hussain Shah

Before we embark on the journey of outlining the evolution of the concept of God, I would

like to make clear a distinction between the two agencies, which often go hand in hand, yet

must be kept separate- religion and God. According to Northbourne, religion is an agency that

provides an effective link between God and man; it is has transcendental origins and has three

principle elements: doctrine, rituals and ethics (2). On the idea of God, however, Northbourne

posits that God is the manifestation of consciousness of Reality and to truly understand God,

man will have to be greater than God, which obviously is not possible (Northbourne 24).

Religion, therefore, is an instrument that allows us to recognize but not understand, the

existence of God because God is a metaphysical abstraction that is beyond comprehension. For

the purpose of this paper, it is important for us to realize that the aim here is not to define or

describe God, for the simple reason that language is in itself limited while the existence of God

is limitless; instead, the primary objective here is to discuss theidea of God as it developed

through ages along with the evolution of the human intellect. Also we will be highly mistaken if

we attempt to conceptualize God the way He is, because it is beyond the capacity of our human

minds to fathom the existence of The Supreme Metaphysical Being Who created us, sustains us

and will annihilate us at a time He deems appropriate. Hence, we will conceptualize Him within

our linguistic and intellectual boundaries, with the hope to exhaust our creatural expression –

only the way we can and not the way He is. Imam Ali (as), who is known for his wealth of

metaphysical knowledge says in one of his sermons, “Lord! You are the one whom imagination

and mind cannot comprehend, deliberation and meditation cannot grasp and who cannot be
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brought within the bounds of conception” (NahjulBalagha 253). Following this line of thought,

Northbourne identifies another difficulty that weface: Owing to our anthropological limitations,

concerning the efficacy of our mind–the human mind canmake an image of only what is inferior

to it and therefore our metal tendency to categorize/ picture the higher Reality of Superior

Existence into a lower existential context, naturally,undermines the superiority of what is

beyond the limits of our three dimensional world (Northbourne 25). Keeping in mind the

monumentality of the task at hand, this paper will hope to conceptualize God through His

creation which, if not more, will at least lead to an ontological appreciation of the Devine

existence. Furthermore, we will use the notion of understanding the mystery of God’s existence

through Divine attributes, coupled with the historical evolution of Divine epistemology in major

world religions.

Religion is an institution that is developed by human intellect based on a Divine revelation

to put the transcendental existence of God into a certain socio-political and economic

framework. In its attempt to institutionalize metaphysical existential realms, every religion has

felt the need to define the role of God in a way that the followers of that religion would be able

to relate to the Superior Being. Many ancient religions, practiced in the historical civilization of

Mesopotamia, which date back to almost 3500 BCE formed the center of all economic, social

and political activities (W.G Lambert 117). Every city state would be built around a temple

which was devoted to a city god and according to their beliefs the gods had created human

beings to relieve themselves of the daily labor for producing their food and other necessities;

therefore it was upon the ruler to attend to the needs of gods by providing them with a certain

amount of food and clothing which the king’s subjects produced (W G Lambert 118). The
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Sumerian and Babylonian gods had patronage of different city states and each pertained to

some form of personification of the forces of nature and these personified gods were viewed as

super humans (W G Lambert 120). Often a single god would be invoked using different names

in different city states which resulted in far too many gods, Marduk who was the patron deity

of the city of Babylon had fifty names but over the course of history through the process of

unifying gods with similar attributes the number of gods dramatically diminished. Marduk later

became the head god of the Mesopotamian gods’ pantheon and the religion converged

towards monotheism as many theologians identified all male gods to Marduk (W G Lambert

121). One feature of these earlier conceptualizations of godswas their depiction as

anthropomorphic creatures or composite monsters which were often the subject of religious

art, producing statutes of gods which were placed in the Mesopotamian city temples (W G

Lambert 123). Another perception of God found in Mesopotamiancivilization from the 3rd

millennia BCE is the idea of man-god or the king-god. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is one of

the earliest known written texts dating back to almost 2800 BCE, deals with the issue of

existential nature. Gilgamesh in the story is portrayed as a king-god, who has to learn to live

and lead his people but also has to come to terms with his nature as man and learn to die

(Abusch 614).

Similar conceptualizations of god were witnessed during the same era of history in Egypt

where the idea of God was brought down from abstraction to a more humanized form, from

the transcendental realm to the worldly realm in order to make it recognizable (Shafer,

Esko13). KingNarmer’s pallet is one of the earliest religious depictions found from the Egyptian

civilization where divine entities are portrayed as human, anthropomorphic and animal
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manifestations. The distinction between human and divine attributes are blur and similar to

Mesopotamian concept of gods.The Egyptian gods were humanized, yet they maintained a

super human stature through exercising power over different forms of nature (Shafer, Esko17).

Horus, the falcon headed god, can also be seen on the Narmer’s palate in Figure 1, is identified

as one of the most important god in the Egyptian theology. Horus, also known as the king of

god, is sent down by the gods of heaven down on earth to mediate the affairs between men

and the gods (Meeks 120). The people on earth responsible for carrying out the affairs of the

gods were the pharaohs, who were king-god, similar to Gilgamesh and other Mesopotamian

king-gods. The pharaohs were men with divine mandate, who had divine origins and functions

(Meeks 188). The pharaohs were thought to be immortal beings because once they died, they

would become Osiris, the god of death (Mark 2009).

As the Egyptian civilization developed the concept of God gradually evolved towards Unity,

which in about 1350 BCE was actively put in place by Amenpohis IV, who superseded the

Figure 1

ancient polytheistic religious traditions by exclusive worship of the sun god, Ra (Haupt 356).

However, soon after the death of Amenophis IV, many reverted back to their original ideals of

god and polytheism found its way into Egypt again (Haupt 357). As a response to the rule of
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polytheist Pharaohs and their idea of God, first of the three Abrahamic traditions found its

origins in 1200 BCE in Egypt. This is when Moses, literally meaningDeliverer, who was the son-

in-law of a monotheist priest of Heliopolis, received the Old Testament on the Mount Sinai

(Haupt 355). Moses, is considered to be a prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who

brought down the message of Unity of God, the One God. The Hebrew traditions sort to

deanthropomorphisize the concept of God without making it an unfathomable abstraction by

relating to God as the Father in the heavens (Gardner 908). This father was called Yahweh

whom Patai, in his paper identifies as the continuation of the concept of Elohim “the Supreme

God” that dates back to 1500 BCE and therefore is not unique to Moses and the later

monotheistic tradition (Patai 1182). The Universal father is a Hebrew idea of God, which is also

found in Christianity, who is the source of all things and the Creator and Sustainer of all forms

of life in all realms of existence; and the ultimate goal of the human race, referred to as

children, is to find the eternal God and the Divine Nature (Gardner 17).

While the Abrahamic traditions gained ground in Middle East, Hinduism which was a

territorial religion, specific to the land of Indus was evolving as a major religion. Although

Hinduism claimed to be a monotheistic traditionwith belief in the one true God, there were

some reservations to this claim. Hindu doctrine departs from the concept of unity of God when

it stipulates that the supreme God, Parabhama being incorporeal could not create corporal

beings therefore He created the three gods, whom Hindus refer to as the holy trinity- Barhama:

the Creator, Vishnu: the Sustainer and Shiva: the Annihilator(Casartelli 861). Following the

Hindu religious text, Rigveda, there are thirty three gods who are personifications of different

forces or phenomena of nature; these gods fall into three major categories –earth, atmosphere
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and sky (Reading pack 74). Such Divine perception was evident in both the Mesopotamian and

the Egyptian civilization prior to their ideological penchant towards Unity of God. Hinduism

claims to be one of the oldest religions in the world, dating back to almost 6000 years when the

Risis or the “seers” who “saw” the articulations embodying the eternal truths later became the

foundations of the Hindu religion (Sopher 69). The Hindu mythology plays an important role in

conceptualization of Divine entities however, like the Greeks, the Hindus in an attempt to put

God into perspective through mythology and relief sculptures highly humanized the whole

affair of divinity (Lancaster 336). Both the Greek and Hindu mythologies are highly sensualized

and instill an image of gods who are human-like, and only concerned with base desires such as

war, sex, power and children (Casartelli 871).

The archaic period also witnessed the inception of another stream of religions which

were focused on ending the worldly suffering through moral up righteousness, meditation and

wisdom and did not concern themselves with the notions of Divine existence. Buddhism was

one of the first of these religions, which was an off shoot of Hinduism and remains one of the

mostly widely practiced non-theistic religions. The focus of Buddhism was on relieving the

humans from the suffering of this world and the cycle of rebirth. Buddhism denies the existence

of the soul, and asserts that following the eight fold path of righteousness a man can achieve

nirvana and escape from the cycle of rebirth (Sopher 170). Buddhists believe that if there was a

God who created this world then He must be responsible for all the suffering of

mankind.Therefore, unlike all the religious traditions we have discussed up till now, Buddhism

rejects the idea of God as the creator (Holm, Bowker 11). Although, Buddhists recognize the

higher forms of Reality, however, this ultimate reality for Buddhists is conceived as a state to be
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achievedi.eNirvana and has nothing to do with notion of personalized gods or a single God

(Holm, Bowker 9). One reason why Buddhists disregard conceptualization of God is the sensual

humanized forms of Hindu gods, which for the Buddhists were mere metal imaginations of the

spiritual world and therefore worthy of contempt (Yamamoto 65).

Around the same time as the rise of Buddhism, in 5th century BCE, the western

civilizations, except Greeks, were converging to the idea of One Supreme God as brought down

by the Abrahamic traditions. The Indians in South Asia were largely polytheists following the 33

million Hindus gods while in the East Asia non-theistic forms of religion were on the rise.

Confucianism was one of the two major flowering philosophies of East Asia which attempted to

deal with the suffering of the common man, following on the Buddhist ideals of morality and

social uprightness (Yao 32). Confucius believed that it was more important to deal with the

problems of this world and put in place an ethical system, than to concern oneself with the

metaphysical ideas of God and the notions of ultimate Reality (Yao 32). On the extreme end of

that spectrum Lao Tzu, who lived in the same time as Confucius, founded the notion of Tao-Ti-

Qing which was grounded on the metaphysical ideals but did not attempt to conceptualize god.

His idea of Tao was close to the Idea of One God in the Abrahamic traditions but he emphasized

that “The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao; the Tao that can be named is not the

eternal name” (Neville 20). Both these philosophies, despite their ideological discrepancies

isolated the idea of God and the existence of a divine entity from the East Asian thought. Since

we are thinking beings, exclusion of the notion of God from our thought implies exclusion of

God from our lives (Northbourne 24). Due to the exclusion of God from their religious
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framework, the East Asian traditions evolved into mere forms of social order and governance

(Northbourne 25).

In a retrospect, this period before the rise of Christianity was of ideological conflict

between the East Asian traditions which observed non- theistic beliefs and the western and

south Asian religions which assumed a monotheistic or a polytheistic conception of the ultimate

Truth. Following these developments of different concepts of God and metaphysics, the

Abrahamic idea of Unity of God was reinforced by the coming of Jesus. The miraculous birth of

Jesus, which is also referred to in the Quran, led many followers of the Christ to believe that he

was the son of God, rather; God as a Son(BBC religion). Although the basic principles of

Christianity were in line with those brought down by Moses, however, a novel element of the

Holy trinity including God- the Father, Jesus – God the son and the Holy spirit- God who fills all

human beings was introduced (George 110). Christians believe that Christ was the self-

revelation of God to man and Christ became the presence of God in this world (Bonhoeffer

181). Christian concept of God therefore understands the historical participation of God as a

gesture of God to make himself known to the man by participating in the realm of the temporal

time and space that humans occupy (Bonhoeffer 181).This participation only takes place at one

point in history thus leading to the notion of God’s “Once-ness”.Theidea is, that we humans can

only know God as much as we did through Jesus because God chose Jesus to reveal himself to

man and further understanding of God is in no way possible for mankind (Bonhoeffer 181).

However, Christians further argue that when God was revealing himself through Jesus, it did

not exclude God’s ability to manifest His being elsewhere, this existence of God’s elsewhere

converges to the idea of the Holy Spirit (Bonhoeffer 181). The notion of God’s participation in
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history may not be unequivocally unique to Christianity since it is comparable to the earlier

ideals of man-gods and king-gods and the Hindu belief of Vishnu’s reincarnation and his

participation in our realm of mortality, however, the perception and the rationale behind the

Christianized notion of God is very unique.

Almost 700 years after the death of Christ, Muhammad (saw) came with the teachings

of the same God as Moses and Jesus, claiming to be the seal of the Abrahamic line of Prophets.

Muhammad (saw) came with the reinforcement of the idea of Unity of God and in Quran, the

word of God according to Islamic thought; the reference is made to the same God that Moses,

David, Josef, Christ, Abraham, Noah and over one hundred thousand other prophets referred to

in their teaching over the course of human existence on Earth. Islamic teachings are based on

the idea that one cannot truly understand the Supreme existence of The Almighty God;

however, Islam defines some attributes of God which are not an exhaustive list of attributes but

are for humans to base their understanding of Divine existence on them. Ibn-e-Sina and Al

Faraabi both regard the attributes of God as properties and not the essential definition of His

existence and consequently, point out that these attributes are found in man too.However, God

perfects them and the purpose of our existence is to become God by perfecting these attributes

(Elkaisy-Friemuth).

Given the limits of this paper, I have only pointed out the overarching themes of

concepts of God in a historical perspectiveand have only touched upon the notions from major

world religions. Nonetheless, we can suggest that the idea of God over the course of human

history has, to a certain extent, has arguably converged to the notions of Oneness and Unity of

Divine entity. We see that the earliest conceptualization of gods in known history pertained to
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particular naturalized or personified form of God who was closely associated to the ruler and

the kingdom or the city state. The idea of God was transcendental in essence; however, in order

to make the Divine entity more relevant to the common man the conceptualization of God was

humanized and sentimentalized. More often than not, this was done through combining the

institutions of religion and kingship, thus the legitimacy of the ruler was dependent on the

priest’s affirmation of the king’s divine mandate. Furthermore, the amalgamation of

zoomorphic characters in the religious imagery was also one of the methods of conceptualizing

God in the earlier civilizations. In terms of how religions conceptualize God in modern times,

Hinduism comes closest to these earlier ideas of God. Moreover, we witnessed that the

polytheistic ideas of God were not sustainable and even the earlier civilizations went through a

gradual process of unifying gods based on their attributes. The Abrahamic traditions, have

historically been a major agent in promoting the idea of Unity of God. On the other hand the

East Asian traditions and Buddhism have made very little or no attempt to conceptualized God,

rather they have focused on ending the suffering of man in this world through righteousness,

morality, concentration and wisdom. Overall, we see a historical convergence towards the idea

of Unity of Divine’s existence. However, it will be naïve of us to make such sweepingconclusions

regarding the evolution of the God through history because even within religions the

conceptualization of God differs, not only on traditional lines, but also on an individual level. It

will, nonetheless, be safe to say that there has been a gradual acceptance of the Monotheistic

notions of God over the course of history and it is not only evident through the trend of

unifying Divine attributes and convergence to unity of ancient religions but also the dominance

of the monotheistic religions in the modern times that supports this claim.
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