We tend to think of God as a big man with a beard, or some sort of powerful "person" like a human being, although one who can do amazing things. This is just the childish version, it is conditioned in our thinking by a pedestrian approach to religion.
There are religions that don't have a "God" per se, such as Buddhism. Essentially, there is no reason to think of God as a person, certainly not one with a corporeal body. That image, which is hinted at tin the Bible, is merely metaphor. Depending upon the religious tradition, however, one can have very abstract views of God which have nothing to do with a father figure or a mother figure.
There is a more abstract way to think about God: that is "Transcendental Signifier;" the notion of a metaphysical first principle that organizes everything into a metaphysical hierarchy. This is the more sophisticated view of God, and most of the works of the great Christian philosophers hint at notions of God in these abstract terms.
Anselm defined God as "that which nothing greater than can be conceived." He ended all of his arguments by saying "this thing we call God," as a means of keeping the exact nature of God open ended. This is because God is beyond our understanding, as the Bible says, but we can leave a "place marker" for the concept of God by understanding that the ultimate logical function of the God concept is that of the transcendental signifier.
Ground of Being
One of the sophisticated concepts used by great Christian theologians is that of "The Ground of Being." This concept indicates, not that God is the fact of things existing, but that God is the basis for the existence of all things. God is more fundamental to existing things than anything else. So fundamental to the existence of all things is God, that God can be thought of as the basis upon which things exist, the ground their being. To say that God is The ground of being or being itself, is to say that there is something we can sense that is so special about the nature of being that it hints at this fundamental reality upon which all else is based.
The phrases "Ground of Being" and "Being itself" are basically the same concept. Tillich used both at different times, and other theologians such as John McQuarrey prefer "Being Itself," but they really speak to the same concept. Now Sceptics are always asking "how can god be being?" I think this question comes from the fact that the term is misleading. The term "Being itself" gives one the impression that God is the actual fact of "my existence," or the existence of my flowerbed, or any object one might care to name. Paul Tillich, on the other hand, said explicitly (in Systematic Theology Vol. I) that this does not refer to an existential fact but to an ontological status. What is being said is not that God is the fact of the being of some particular object, but, that he is the basis upon which being proceeds and upon which objects participate in being. In other words, since God exists forever, nothing else can come to be without God's will or thought, and since there can't even be a potential for any being without God's thought, all potentialities for being arise in the "mind of God" than in that sense God is actually "Being Itself." I think "Ground of Being" is a less confusing term. God is the ground upon which all being is based and from which all being proceeds.
How Can "a Being" be Being Itself?
Part of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding of what is being said. I say that God is 'necessary being' not "a necessary being," not because I forgot the "a" but because God is not "a being." He is above the level of any particular being that participates in being, but exists on the level of the Being, the thing itself, apart from any particular beings. There is Being, and there is "the beings." This is a crucial distinction, but it leaves one wondering what it means and how it could be. I think the answer lies in the fact that God is ultimate reality. God is the first, and highest and only necessary thing that exists, and thus, had God not created, God would be the only thing that exists. Could one somehow ponder a universe in which God had not created, in which God was all that was, one might well ask "what is it to be in this universe where there is only God?" In such a universe the only conceivable answer is "to be is to be God." In that sense God is Being Itself.
1) Distinction Between Being and Existence.
The argument stems largely form the work of The great theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich said that God is "being itself," above and beyond the mere fact of any particular being. But Tillich uses the term being in a certain way, not like that of other theologians.
From website no longer on life
"Existence - Existence refers to what is finite and fallen and cut of from its true being. Within the finite realm issues of conflict between, for example, autonomy (Greek: 'autos' - self, 'nomos' - law) and heteronomy (Greek: 'heteros' - other, 'nomos' - law) abound (there are also conflicts between the formal/emotional and static/dynamic). Resolution of these conflicts lies in the essential realm (the Ground of Meaning/the Ground of Being) which humans are cut off from yet also dependent upon ('In existence man is that finite being who is aware both of his belonging to and separation from the infinite' (Newport p.67f)). Therefore existence is estrangement."
"Although this looks like Tillich was an atheist such misunderstanding only arises due to a simplistic understanding of his use of the word existence. What Tillich is seeking to lead us to is an understanding of the 'God above God'. We have already seen earlier that the Ground of Being (God) must be separate from the finite realm (which is a mixture of being and non-being) and that God cannot be a being. God must be beyond the finite realm. Anything brought from essence into existence is always going to be corrupted by ambiguity and our own finitude. Thus statements about God must always be symbolic (except the statement 'God is the Ground of Being'). Although we may claim to know God (the Infinite) we cannot. The moment God is brought from essence into existence God is corrupted by finitude and our limited understanding. In this realm we can never fully grasp (or speak about) who God really is. The infinite cannot remain infinite in the finite realm. That this rings true can be seen when we realise there are a multitude of different understandings of God within the Christian faith alone. They cannot all be completely true so there must exist a 'pure' understanding of God (essence) that each of these are speaking about (or glimpsing aspects of)...."
"... However in many cases his theology has been misunderstood and misapplied and this most notably with his statement that God is beyond existence (mistakenly taken to mean that God does not exist). Tillich presents a radically transcendent view of God which in fairness he attempts to balance with an immanent understanding of God as the Ground of Being (and the Ground of Meaning) but fails to do so. In the end, as we cannot speak of the God above God we cannot know if any of our religious language has any meaning and whether ultimately the God above God really exists. Certainly, according to his 'system', we cannot test Tillich's 'God hypothesis'. However an interesting dialogue may be had between Christian humanists who posit that God is bound within language and does not exist beyond it (E.g. Don Cupitt) and Tillich who posits that our understanding of God is bound within language yet presumes (but cannot verify) that God exists beyond it."(Grenz/Olson p.124)
2) Tillich's refusal to prove God.
Tillich believed that God was such an exhaulted concept that the attempt to prove was to deny him. He refussed to try and prove God but merely asserted his being. I feel that this is a holdover from the days of Frederick Schleiermacher (see eperince argument) and is based upon the origins of modern liberal theology in phenomenological attitude. I disagree with tht approch. The great theologians of the Greek Orthodox chruch also said that God was on the order of being itself, and that stands as the basis of all Western thinking about God in the Jeudeo-Christian tradition. I therefore, choose not to accept it. Making arguments to prove that there is a God, wheather successful or not, is often the best way to stemulate thinking about God and to refine one's theology..But I must acknowledge that while I am drawing upon the thought of Tillich, I am also going counter to one of the basic principles of his Theology.
Meaning of Phrase "Being Itself?"
Most people, when first confronted with this phrase, "being itself" assume that it means that the fact of our existence is the same as God. Naturally, that would be a nonsensical notion. How could the fact tht this desk in front of me, the computer I am writing on, and the lamp that illumine's the screen, the mere fact of all the things I see around me and i myaself existing be God? Some have concluded that by this Tillich meant that God is just a regularitive symbol for the fact of existence. But I will argue that this is not at all what Tillich or any of the other theologians to use this phrase mean. We, as temporal beings limited by our finitude cannot help but think merely of the fact of existence as the nature of being. But being must be more than that.
1) Being and God.
Tillich sees a fundamental connection between being and God. This connection is primarily phenomenological in nature. We can see the same idea expressed by Gabriel Marcell in the Existential argument. When we ponder the nature of being we come up with the answer of God.
Link to a really good website explaining more in depth about Tillich's Theology.
2) Being vs. The Beings.
John McQuarrey in his famous work Principles of Christian Theology, distingushishes between "Being" and "The beings." Being Itself is not the being of any prticualr thing in existence but stands above the level of indiviudal existing things in creation.This is being in the Abstract. Wheather or not it is merely an abstraction and has no acutality apart from the the beings, will be discussed below. But McQurrey does say that being is "present and minfest in the beings." This means that we only apprhend being in so far as it is exhibited in the beings, yet the distinction is very important.
"Nonbeing is experienced as the threat to being, which generates a sense of finitude. In other words, finitude unites being with nonbeing. Thus, the fundamental questions are of being and nonbeing, namely, to be and not to be. Human's finitude is incomprehensible without the concept of nonbeing because finitude is experienced on the human level. Nevertheless, we have the capability to operate our imagination to surpass our finitude and to point to infinity. Therefore, we are able to be aware of infinity. This awareness presupposes the question of God. Yet, this awareness of infinity is rooted in our awareness of finitude. The concept of the finitude is necessary for Tillich's works because this concept drives him to the question of God. For Tillich, we are able to ask the question of God, because we are aware of infinity. "The question of God is possible because an awareness of God is present in the question of God. This awareness precedes the question" (206). "The question of God must be asked because the threat of nonbeing, which man experiences as anxiety, drives him to the question of being conquering nonbeing and of courage conquering anxiety. This question is the cosmological question of God" (208). Accordingly a quest for God is inevitable for human beings.
God is the answer to the question implied in the human awareness of the finitude. God concerns us ultimately. Whatever we grasp as our ultimate concern we call "god." "god" must be encountered by us in concreteness (214). Tillich uses the lowercase "g" to stress the necessity of concreteness over against ultimacy in the idea of god. Yet, our ultimate concern must transcend every concrete concern. Therefore, Tillich uses the uppercase "G" to stress the transcendent dimension over the concrete concern. However, in transcending the finite, our ultimate concern breaks off the concreteness of a being-to-being relationship with us. This is the indispensable inner conflict in the idea of God. For Tillich, this conflict is the guide to examine the history of religion.
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