Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1109 A.D.) said something like “God is that which nothing greater can be conceived.” From there he went on to argue the existence of God.
What is being done here is less lofty. I am only looking at the descriptions and beliefs in God. I begin by asking asking, “What is the least that can be conceived and still be God?”
I believe the least possible belief is that of atheists who believe nothing exists but matter and energy. God is a historical construct of a naive and superstitious past that lingers into the present. God does not exist in any real sense. There is no supernatural. There is no transcendence. There is no designed purpose or meaning to the universe.
Then there are some who do not believe in God as some kind of person, but believe there is some kind of divine energy or purpose to the universe. This might be because personality is seen as a sort of need to present oneself in a certain way which God would transcend. They might believe there is some kind of underlying spiritual reality and order to the universe. Perhaps we all share in one universal soul. Perhaps through karma and rebirth or mystical means we are returning to the divine even as everything is divine.
We humans seem to share a child like experience of life as a magical place of spiritual presence. The supernatural is all around us. The supernatural is with us in an “I – Thou” relationship. This natural relationship with an invisible presence seems to be the shared human experience of children and the non-reflective. (Justin Barett, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God.” Alta Mira 2004) Many people believe in God this way. They have a personal relationship with the divine, which is moderated by the context of their culture as they age.
Many persons believe in God, in the way that God is presented to them through their parents and culture. The family, education, religious institutions, arts, and media present the expectations of believing to the individuals. They are socialized by the need to belong, and do not find it difficult or unpleasant to do. There may not be much systematic thinking here, but that does not matter. Religion provides a context within which to live and understand life. God is real and in relationship with persons and society. For a non theistic Buddhist, god would be defined as the culturally presented deepest reality and purpose of life.
Some persons in a desire for coherence and personal responsibility study and develop, a systematic coherent understanding of God. These ones have rather definite ideas about God. They are in pursuit of clarity and certainty. These ones have strong beliefs about the Pure Land and Avalokiteshvara if they are Buddhists. They may have a clear understanding of Shiva or Vishnu and Moksha ki Samsara if they are Hindu. And as Christians they may well be certain about such things as the Trinity and substitutiary atonement. Muslims may likewise be clear regarding their practice and understanding of Islam.
Is this the peak? Is this where “God is that which nothing greater can be conceived” is fulfilled? I think not.
For me even if absolutes exist, our finitude presents a limit which we can never transcend. We are always able to learn more. And learning is a refinement or even a negation of what went before. Facing this reality we are not fully capable of answering if something is absolutely true or absolutely false. Rather we must limit ourselves to asking if something is more true or more false. What position is more inclusive of all the information and sustainable in the face of arguments? And just as important, what brings us moral uplift? What helps us to be a good human being?
A relevant God must now be connected with the scientific nature of the universe as we understand it, multiple religions, economics, and politics. This seems to me to be bigger than the God concept from any of the religions by themselves. This combined with the personal and communal development of righteousness and justice is the current edge for me of something like, “God is most evidenced in the most righteous, just, and inclusive ones of the universe.” Many opposites meet each other here. We are ourselves, but we are together. We are good and bad. We are human, and we are how hydrogen sees itself. We are separate and not separate from God.
The point is that God is not just a disembodied intellectual pursuit. God is something within us that calls us to truth. The atheist scientist, the non-reflective, the culturally conditioned, the systematizer, and the post-certain pilgrim all deserve a place at the community table of figuring things out, and living well together.
It probably was the brilliant Rumi who said you can tell the quality of the moth by the flame where it goes to die. In the same way because the flame of God is still emerging, we do not yet know “That which nothing greater can be conceived.” Our task is not to know… but to fly to the light!