How did everything come into being? Do I continue to exist after I die? Why is there anything at all? We have all at times pondered these big questions about existence, about the nature of what is. For millennia these questions have been central to human spirituality, often focused on the figure of “God”.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, so central in the West, the Biblical name of God, “Yahweh” most probably came from the Hebrew word “hawa” to be. To the ear of the Israelites, Yahweh may have sounded something like “He Who Causes ‘That Which Is’ To Be”.
This connection of God to being is not unique to the West, though, and although God is given many attributes in many different cultures, “being” remains a central common motif. The universality of God throughout history and different cultures, together with the numinosity that the figure of God evokes, clearly points to God being an archetype. In essence then, God is the archetype of Being. Let’s explore some of the different way this takes shape.
- The source of being. One of the central attributes of the God archetype centres around God as the source of being. This obviously encompasses God as creator but in other traditions God is viewed as being the sum total of everything, pantheism. In Taoism the interest is in the way things are, the Tao. Sometimes in the modern West, God as being finds expression as “the universe”.
- Consciousness of being. Within Eastern spiritual traditions there is an emphasis on God as consciousness of being and our path to the divine as being a process of deeper knowing, of enlightenment. In Hindu thought Atman, the inner knowing self, is the first principle and consciousness is the primal substance. Interestingly this has been taken up in the West by Carl Jung who identified the God archetype with the Self and the spiritual journey as the path to self-becoming (individuation) and self-understanding.
- The unity of being. Islam begins with the concept of there being only one God. Buddhism expresses the unity of God and being in terms of non-dualism, that everything is essentially the manifestation of one essential reality.
- Transcendent Being. The earliest expressions of the God archetype are encounters with the transcendence of being. The gods of polytheism were seen as embracing common archetypes such as warrior, mother, river, spirit yet at a transcendent level, above and beyond our ordinary experience of them.
- The quality of being. God is love says St. John within the Christian tradition. God has also been identified with wisdom, compassion, majesty, justice and any combination of these attributes which explore what the nature of God’s being might be like.
- The wonder and mystery of being, To balance talking about God as a quality of being the mystical tradition often strives for the opposite and talks about God as the mystery of being which is unknowable by us but which evokes awe.
- The personal nature of being. The God archetype allows people to relate to the personal dimension of being and have a relationship with it.
- Being itself. There is a philosophical spiritual tradition which wants to acknowledge God directly as being. So Paul Tillich identifies God as “The ground of being” and others as “Holy Being”. Still others, influenced by evolutionary thought describe God as “Becoming”.
Many things are said about the “true” nature of God from a variety of traditions so it is often helpful to keep in mind that they are trying to approach the archetype of God as being from different angles. I find that it enables us to see what each tradition uniquely offers us as we struggle to come to terms with these questions of existence.