Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

“There is but one God”: Do There Exist Multiple Individual and Unique Gods?

Throughout Forgiveness in Islamic and Christian Tradition, I have been grappling with how every religion uses their beliefs to justify their conflicts with others. Even though many religious beliefs coincide, all religions preach similar underlying principles. In John Hick’s chapter, “Whatever Path Men Choose Is Mine” in the book Christianity and Other Religions, he argues that all of the leading world religions practice the same things in different ways. He claims that “when you visit the various non-Christian places of worship,” each space contains people “coming together to open their minds to a higher reality.” They utilize different forms of dress, places of worship, and languages of scripture. However, their objectives are still the same, to connect with God. Which presents the question: do all religions worship the same God just with different names?

Hick presents three possible alternatives for the existence of God across religions. He begins by proposing that there exist many individual Gods, which coincides with the beliefs of polythetic religions, as within themselves, multiple Gods exist. However, each religion believes that their God is the creator of the world, and all that exists in it. Therefore, there cannot be multiple Gods who created this one world. While the existence of many Gods coincides well with polytheistic beliefs, it goes against the belief shared by monotheistic religions. For these reasons, it is unlikely that there exist individual Gods for each religion.

Hick goes on to present his second alternative, “one faith-community […] worships God whilst the others vainly worship images which exist only in their imaginations”. The second alternative is similar to the thought many religions hold; there exists a “right” and “wrong” way to believe. However, in his paper, Forgiveness in Islamic Ethics and Jurisprudence, Russell Powell mentions that the Charter of Medina created a theological framework for interreligious tolerance. In this, he outlines that other religions are not wrong, for they too are children of Allah; they are not on the right path to Him. As for Christian religious tolerance, one of the ten commandments is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Accepting your neighbor where they are at in their belief is one interpretation of this commandment. Furthermore, the Christian God is one of love and forgiveness so that he will forgive the wrong-doings of humans, which extends to forgiving those who believe in the “wrong” faith.

The thought that there is a singular “correct” religion is further disproved when looking at different sects within the same religion. In Christianity, while all sects follow the same writings and prophets, they each have different ideas of how God is. Some see Him as a “stern judge and predestinating power,” while others see God as a “gracious and loving heavenly Father.” Based on Hick’s statement, one sect of Christianity worships the “correct” God, while all others worship the imaginary. However, they worship the scripture says they worship the same God. This dichotomy shows that even within the same religion, there are different images of the divine. Thus, there is no way to say that one religion has the “right” image of God.

Hick outlines reasons why the first two possibilities for the existence of different Gods across religions are not possible before outlining the third, and most probably, possibility that:

There is but one God who is maker and lord of all; that in his infinite fullness and richness of being he exceeds all-out human attempts to grasp him in thought; and that the devout in the various great world religions are in fact worshiping that one God, but through different, overlapping concepts or mental images of him. 

The third argument Hick presents is arguably the most compelling as God is too vast for just one group of people to be right about who he is. It is most likely that all religions are correct about some facet of God. As part of his lecture, Jafar Mahallati explained that in Islamic tradition God has 99 attributes, his “beautiful names” include the Graceful, the Forgiver, the Creator and the Benevolent, while his “magnificent names” are the Just, the Revenger, the Destroyer, and the Accounting. Through these names and many others, we see the facets of God expresses. Even within this one religious tradition, God is too vast for just one attribute.

Furthermore, Giana Volonte depicts the multiplicity of God in her lecture. She explains that there is no way to know for sure why God gave humanity the ability to sin. It is possible that God is imperfect and is capable of sin, and because humans were created in God’s image, they too must sin. Another possibility is that God is a teacher, and without sin, God would not be able to teach humans right from wrong. Lastly, God possibly gave humanity the ability to sin to show them mercy. In this small example, we see several different facets of God: God, the imperfect being, God, the teacher, and God, the merciful. There is no way to determine which one of these is “true.” Following Hick’s thinking, these are all true, as God is too vast to be one. 

In his writing Rabbinical scholar, Jacob Neusner writes about the existence of a singular God in the three monotheistic religions. In his paper, Do Monotheist Religions Worship The Same God?: A Perspective on Classical Judaism, Neusner poses the question, “is the monotheism of Judaism in its classical statement different in its characteristics from the monotheism of Christianity or Islam?” He concludes by explaining that because of the logic of monotheistic religions, “all religious systems that affirm the unity of God necessarily speak of one and the same God.” The claim that there must be one God across religions supports the argument against the existence of multiple Gods because monotheistic religions believe in a singular God. In addition, the claim supports Hick’s argument that there is one God too vast for any singular religion to encompass all of him. Because God is incomprehensibly vast, every religion sees a different facet of Him.

Ultimately, I believe that all religions worship the same God by different names. However, the existence of polytheistic religions presents a flaw in this understanding of God. If polytheistic religions were examined through the lens that all religions worship one God, their view would be “wrong.” Although, all polytheistic religions may see the various components of God as individual Gods. I cannot say for sure because there is a lack of polytheistic scholarship surrounding this view. 

Throughout this paper, I have argued in support of Hicks’s conclusion. All religions worship one God who is both too vast and too all-encompassing to be fully understood by humanity. I make this argument with the help of work by Volonte, Mahallati, and Neuser. Bringing this back to the larger question of why religions use their beliefs to justify conflict, I am left with more questions than answers. How can some people be non-believers if all people believe in the same God? If there is one God, how can war be waged in the name of God if all are praying to the same? How can one people be the chosen people of God if all groups of people are of the same God? These are questions I hope to continue to explore through future readings in Forgiveness in Islamic and Christian Tradition.

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