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A short commentary on the conception of religion and god

U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious

It is also experienced as overwhelmingly real and valuable—indeed, so real and so valuable that, in comparison, all other things appear empty and worthless. As such, it demands total surrender and promises total fulfillment. For one thing, it is doubtful that ultimate concern is either a necessary or a sufficient condition of a religious attitude.

A late pagan's attitude towards his gods was often too casual to be described as ultimate in Tillich's sense and yet was surely religious. Whether the Nazi's attitude towards his nation and party can be properly described as religious is doubtful, however.

Strictly speaking, then, Tillich's claim is probably false. Nevertheless, ultimate concern does appear to be a distinctive feature of the religious attitudes of devout members of the major religious traditions. These attitudes seem fully appropriate only if their object is maximally great—so perfect and splendid that nothing greater is conceivable. And, in fact, the major religious traditions have if only implicitly construed the object of their devotion in precisely these terms.

The nature of maximal perfection is controversial, however. For one thing, the form a religious community's ultimate concern takes and the conception of its object with which it is bound up varies from one religious community to another. Ultimate concern may take the form of worship, and involve praise, love, gratitude, supplication, confession, petition, and the like.

But it can also take the form of a quest for the ultimate good. The object of the quest is an existentially appropriated knowledge of the ultimate good or a union with it that transforms us and overcomes our wrongness.

The two forms of ultimate concern may be combined or exist separately. Christianity and theistic Hinduism combine both. In Theravada Buddhism and Taoism, on a short commentary on the conception of religion and god other hand, ultimate concern typically takes the second form but not the first.

In practice, a religious community's conception of the divine is largely determined by its conviction that the object of its devotion is maximally great, by the spoken or oral texts it regards as authoritative, and by metaphysical assumptions and valuations widely shared by the community's members.

Of course these sources aren't independent of each other. The form ultimate concern takes in a community incorporates its most fundamental evaluations, and the authoritative texts which express and shape its ultimate concern present pictures of the world and our place in it which include explicit or implicit metaphysical claims.

The Buddhist's picture, for example, expresses the vision of a world in constant flux—devoid of fixity or any kind of permanent substance. Since the form ultimate concern takes, the texts regarded as authoritative, and the metaphysical assumptions and evaluations inextricably bound up with these forms and texts vary from one religious community to another, it is hardly surprising that conceptions of maximal greatness vary as well.

The most striking disagreement is between those who regard the divine reality as personal and those who do not. Theists believe that even though the object of their ultimate concern transcends all finite realities it is more like a person than anything else with which we are ordinarily familiar, and typically conceptualize it as a maximally perfect person.

Persons are rational agents, however—beings who have beliefs about themselves and the world and act on the basis of them. The major theistic traditions have therefore described ultimate reality as an omniscient mind and an omnipotent will. Other religious traditions are non-theistic. Advaita Vedanta is an important example. If Brahman is all there is, for example,then there is nothing outside Brahman that could serve as an object of its knowledge.


And if it is devoid of internal diversity, there can be no self-knowledge either, for self-knowledge involves an internal differentiation between the self as knower and the self as known. Nor can the Brahman be a causal agent. If Brahman is maximally perfect, it must be unlimited. But it is limited if something exists outside it.

The Brahman must therefore be all there is.

Concepts of God

If the Brahman is identical with the whole of reality, though, and Brahman contains no plurality, then reality as a whole is an undifferentiated unity. The space-time world with its distinctions between times, places, and events is consequently unreal. Real causal relations are relations between two real things, however. So Brahman is neither the cause of the space-time world as a whole nor of the events in it, and is thus neither the space-time world's creator nor its ruler.

It follows from these considerations that Brahman is neither an omniscient mind nor an omnipotent and active will. It cannot be a maximally perfect person, therefore, and so cannot be God. The former is the Brahman without attributes. The latter is the Brahman with attributes, and is roughly described in the way that theists describe God. The nirguna Brahman is the Brahman as it really is, however, while the saguna Brahman is ultimately illusory.

The concept of the saguna Brahman is a useful tool for those who are still on their spiritual journey but is finally cast aside by the fully enlightened. Yet even though Advaita believes that, like all conceptualizations of the Brahman, the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, and all good cause of the space-time world is ultimately false, they regard it as superior to others.

Because Advaita refuses to ascribe either knowledge or activity to ultimate reality, though, it is essentially non-theistic. Its maximally perfect reality isn't the God of the theistic traditions—all powerful, all knowing, all good, the sovereign lord of heaven and earth.

  1. The space-time world with its distinctions between times, places, and events is consequently unreal.
  2. Our love and joy, on the other hand, are both actions and passions, partly voluntary and partly involuntary reactions of our animal nature. Among other religious groups, including Jews, mainline Protestants and Catholics, the most common view is that religions should adjust traditional practices.
  3. God creates, sustains, and governs the world.
  4. These figures have stayed about the same in recent years. The survey also finds that older adults are more likely than younger adults to say religion is very important in their lives, and women are more likely than men to express this view.

Some schools of Vedanta are theistic, however, and their response to Advaita is instructive. Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, for example, maintains that Brahman is personal and, indeed, the supreme person paramatman —creator and lord ishvara who leads the world's creatures to salvation. What accounts for this difference? In part, the suspicion that the Advaitin account of a maximally great reality is incoherent.

Furthermore, because cognitively grasping something involves classifying or identifying it as a thing of a certain kind, and things are classified or identified on the basis of their properties, one can't cognitively grasp a thing without properties. It follows that the Advaitin's Brahman can't be known, and that Advaita itself thus doesn't know it. Finally, Ramanuja argued that the denial of the reality of distinctions undercuts Advaita's appeal to scripture.

If the scriptures are valid, then some language accurately describes reality for scriptural language does so. But language necessarily involves distinctions between subject and verb, noun and adjective, and the like and so, if any language accurately describes reality, some distinctions must be real.

Therefore, if distinctions aren't real as A short commentary on the conception of religion and god maintainsthe scriptures it appeals to aren't valid. Advaitins aren't without recourse, of course. For example, they will deny that they are construing Brahman as a substance without properties. Since, in their view, no concept applies to the Brahman, neither the concept of a property nor the concept of substance applies to it. Again, even if conceptual cognition necessarily involves classification or identification, Advaitins will insist that not all cognition is conceptual.

The fact that Brahman can't be conceptually cognized thus doesn't entail that it can't be known. The important point in the present connection however, is that the Vishishtadvaitin's and Advaitin's disagreements on these issues are rooted in basic differences in metaphysics and epistemology—whether a reality without properties is possible, for instance, and whether cognition involves at least some conceptual content. Other differences are even more fundamental.

All the Vedantin schools profess to elucidate the true meaning of a common set of scriptures—the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and, preeminently, the Vedas a short commentary on the conception of religion and god their last part, the Upanishads.

In practice, though, both theistic and non-theistic Vedantins privilege some texts over others. Advaitins, privilege the Isha and other non-theistic Upanishads and interpret theistic sounding texts in their light. Theistic Vedantins, on the other hand, privilege the Bhagavad Gita and theistic Upanishads such as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, taking these texts pretty much at face value, and then explaining away apparent inconsistencies between their privileged texts and others which, on their face, seem clearly non-theistic.

These differences are themselves rooted in fundamental differences in spiritual practice. While these experiences aren't the aim of the Advaitin's quest, they are more or less explicitly regarded as a model of the unifying and transfiguring Brahman-knowledge that is the goal of their religious journey.

Theistic Vedantins, on the other hand, were Vaishnavas devotees of Vishnuand their attitudes, outlook, and actions were profoundly shaped by devotional practices designed to express and cultivate love of, and surrender to, Vishnu.

While theistic Vedantins did not deny the reality of monistic mystical consciousness, they downplayed its significance for, in their view, the ultimate aim of the religious life is an ecstatic and permanent loving union with God Vishnu. In short, while Advaitins and theistic Vedantins agree that the proper object of ultimate concern is maximally great, they disagree on just how maximal greatness should be construed. This disagreement, in turn, is rooted in metaphysical and epistemological disagreements, in differences in scriptural interpretation, and in differences in religious practice and aspiration.

The most fundamental difference, however, is, arguably, a difference in evaluation. Theistic Vedantins prize love in a way in which Advaitins do not. Since love is a relation between persons, it is not surprising that, in their view, maximal greatness necessarily includes personhood. But while theists agree that a maximally great reality must be a transcendently great person, they sometimes disagree over just what other attributes maximal greatness includes.

Most theists do think that God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and all good, although there are disagreements over just how these attributes should be construed.

Other differences are more radical. I will illustrate this point by examining the debate over God's impassibility in western theism and a dispute over God's relation to the space-time world in Indian theism. The doctrine of simplicity states that each of God's real or intrinsic properties is identical with his other real or intrinsic properties, and with his being or nature.

God's knowledge is identical with his power, for example, and both are identical with his being. Many classical western theists have also thought that God is timeless—altogether outside of time. God resembles abstract objects like numbers or propositions in having no temporal location or extension.

God isn't an abstract object, of course, but an infinitely perfect life or activity. One shouldn't think of this life and activity as being in time, however—not even as everlasting.

Thus God timelessly knows and wills that conscious life will emerge on earth after certain events and before others. But while temporality is a property of what God knows and wills, it isn't a property of God's act of knowledge or will.

The objects of God's knowledge and act of will are in time but God himself and his activity are not. God is also believed to be immutable. Something is immutable if its real properties can't change.

  • So perhaps those features of the Biblical picture of God which seem inconsistent with God's possessing metaphysical attributes can also be interpreted as metaphors or analogies or symbols;
  • In his view, persuasion or influence is a better or more perfect form of power than control, and knowledge of the contingent future is metaphysically impossible;
  • In the first place, impassibility seems inconsistent with God's knowledge of the world;
  • These differences are themselves rooted in fundamental differences in spiritual practice;
  • The objects of God's knowledge and act of will are in time but God himself and his activity are not;
  • One way of handling this difficulty is to claim that everything other than God is determined by him.

Immutability follows from God's simplicity. Real change thus entails that some of the object's real properties aren't identical. So if God is simple, he can't undergo real change. God's immutability also follows from his timelessness since change entails a temporal transition from one state to another. Finally, classical western theists have thought that God is impassible.

  • The upshot is that the body-soul relation is only fully exemplified by the world-God relation;
  • Classical Christian theology provides several attempts to reconcile God's compassion with his impassibility;
  • And, in fact, the dependence in the latter case is even more complete than it is in the former;
  • I know, for example, that the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Superbowl in 2006.

God creates, sustains, and governs the world. It depends on him both for its being and for its qualities.