The nature of God in Western theology

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The nature of God in monotheistic religions is a broad topic in Western philosophy of religion and theology, with a very old and distinguished history; it was one of the central topics in medieval philosophy.

The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all affirm monotheism, or belief in one God.[1] These religions each give different answers as to the details, and those details are very important to the adherents of these religions; but together they share a tradition of asking the same or similar questions, and proposing the same or similar answers, about what, precisely, God is or is supposed to be.

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Background: on investigating the nature of God

Upon being asked what God is, it is natural for some to answer: "I don't know—no one knows. And that's as it should be. God is totally beyond the comprehension of mere finite beings such as ourselves, and we should not go about pretending that we can know what God is." There is something paradoxical about this position, namely, if one believes that the nature of God is totally unknown, but one nevertheless says that one believes that God exists, then one cannot even say what it is that one is believing in. Suppose a person states; "I believe that trinini exist, but I have absolutely no idea of what trininis are." This appears to be nonsensical. At least some minimal conception, therefore, seems required.

Even mystics, who believe that the nature of God is essentially mysterious to human beings, concede that one must have at least a minimal conception of God. If one has anything like a traditional Jewish or Christian belief, for example then in fact one does have some conception of what God is: God is an eternally existent spiritual being who created the world, and so forth. Many Christians further affirm: "There is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that there are three aspects to God, and while we may not know the precise meaning of this doctrine (of the Trinity), nonetheless we can know that it is true."

Philosophers know all too well, from dealing with for example the problem of substance and the problem of universals, that general "What is" questions (ti esti questions) give an overly simple appearance to what is in fact a very complex affair. The situation is no different with the question, "What is God?" What is it exactly that we are asking when we ask this? If all we wanted were a definition of "God," there are many of those available. What else is needed?

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