Student Zone
Philosophy of religion » Nature of God » Introduction

Assuming that God exists, we still need to ask, 'What is God like?' Given the obvious imperfections of the world, can we believe in a God who is both loving and all-powerful? Can our own experiences tell us anything about God? How should we communicate with God and how does God communicate with us? Is faith an essential part of the relationship, or can we go beyond faith, to knowledge? Is the doctrine of the Trinity a hindrance or a help to our understanding? And if we are made in God's image, how does that help us to look at ourselves?

Most religious people are united by a belief in God - but what is 'God'? There are many different answers to this question and quite clearly the nature of belief will be affected by the nature of the god that is believed in.

Gods in the image of man

In ancient times some cultures had anthropomorphic gods - that is, gods that are human-shaped and have exaggerated human qualities. In Ancient Greece, like in Ancient Scandinavia and Ancient Rome, there was a whole family of deities to be worshipped, served and understood. The gods were also associated with actual places and actual events and worship of them tended to be limited to the area around those places and where people remembered those events.

Worshipping deities

Worship usually involved bringing the god(s) gifts which were often handed to priests or priestesses who were thought to know just how and when to offer what gifts in order to win favour. Temples were built close to the places associated with the god(s) and at these temples, when people gathered to give their gifts, they shared stories and legends about the god(s), sometimes in the form of epic poems or songs, perhaps with parts acted out or danced.

Victory legends

The legends of these gods often related to legends about great heroes of the past and worship was bound up with respect for the ancestors and national pride. People believed that their local god was stronger than other gods, they did not believe that their god was the only god to exist. Nevertheless people are people and often competed with each other in telling stories of their gods, claiming that their god(s) were stronger or more cunning than others. Victories in battle or good luck in a harvest were put down to the gods' favour - and defeats or famines caused people to question their god(s), even to find other deities to worship.

Cultural identity

Images of the god(s), often depicted as part of a scene from a famous legend, became a mark of a particular culture - they might be placed on pottery, currency or other items for export. When a culture was economically sucessful the images of their deities would be found far and wide, sometimes causing other peoples to adapt their local legends to show how their god(s) related to these powerful god(s) from abroad. Thus the people of Rome identified members of their family of gods with members of the Greek family of gods and claimed that they worshipped the same gods with different names.

Gods linked to animals or the elements

Other cultures developed to have animistic deities, gods with animal as well as human qualities, or gods which were responsible for the elements - the sun, the moon, the tides or winds. Belief in these Gods had the potential to go beyond local and national boundaries. All people have contact with and depend on animals, all people are affected by drought, floods and storms. These gods were less personal but believed to be more powerful. People believed that they were mysterious, that they did not necessarily care about human beings, even those who worshipped them, at all.

Appeasing angry gods

Worship could be more about appeasing the god(s), stopping them from being angry, rather than about communication. In some cultures appeasement involved great sacrifice; priests believed and told the people that they must give up large portions of their crops or livestock, even children, to be burned or drowned in the hope that this would satisfy the appetites of the god(s). The priests came to be very powerful and mysterious, identified with the inhuman appetites of the gods they served and able to humble kings and princes by demanding things on their behalf.

Understanding such gods

Understanding animistic and elemental gods was believed to require special abilities coupled with years of study and practice. Priests used astrology and the study of the natural world for omens and portents as well as all manner of means of entering trance-like states in which they received symbolic revelations. People from outside the priesthood had no hope of understanding the god(s) themselves and therefore bound to employ priests to explain and foretell their fortunes. Kings and emperors hired teams of learned magi to tell them when to fight battles, who their next enemy was likely to be - even who to marry. The magi had enormous political power and influence. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament gives some insight into this.