A Two-Level Definition of God

Concepts of God-

Some religious traditions that inspire the seeker make extensive use of the symbol God: God is described as the ultimate point of reference, ultimate concern, ground of all being, or otherwise. Among these traditions and even within them, the concepts of God irreconcilably vary, God being a person, some abstract thing (nature, something of which no thing greater can be conceived), or a process. There are also traditions which tend not to use the symbol God, or leave it open, even if they do consider some form of ultimate metaphysical reality or mystery. This pluralism is reflected in the various views of theologians, making proposals of how to see God.


As a definition of God, Kaufman proposes: “God is the name, of that to which we can give ourselves without reservation, that in terms of which human life in the world can most properly be oriented, of that which designates the ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else must be understood.” This leaves open the question as to whether God should be thought of as a being, as non-being, or in some other way.

Thus, an essential element in the proper business of theology for the seeker is analysis, criticism, and construction of concepts of “God”, such that it helps seekers in ordering and guiding their life. The question remains what criteria seekers could use to see what helps them in ordering and guiding their life.

Here, Kaufman uses a two-level approach. The first level is a level that discusses the word God at an inter-religious level: What does the word mean in English language, how can it be properly used between believers and nonbelievers, and what is the overlap in meaning of the word God among various people who worship specific differing concepts of God?

At this first level, the definition of God that Kaufman offers is: “God is the name, of that to which we can give ourselves without reservation, that in terms of which, human life in the world can most properly be oriented, of that which designates the ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else must be understood”. This definition is rather formal: For each individual it can be combined with a specific individual view, that is, a description of what it is that deserves our giving without reservation or what it is, that we use as orientation in the world.

It is exactly this extra that is added when giving a description or definition of God at the second level. The second level of definition is an individual level, possibly, but not even necessarily, shared by people of similar religious faith. For Kaufman the first level definition leaves room for a lot of possible second level definitions of God, and as per epistemology there is no compelling reason to choose any one of them.

Using this two-level approach, seekers can escape possible incoherence in their use of the word God. Using the first level, God can be used among seekers in their discussions and worship, as that definition does not assume that God exists or is a symbol that is necessary. It is a descriptive definition, describing the actual use of the word of God by religious seekers.

In the meantime, using a second level definition of God, the specific religious view of an individual seeker can be clarified and examined. For that individual, such a definition can be normative, as that individual may believe that — that is the only, or the best proper way, to worship God.

By making this distinction in the use of the word God, the issues with the use of that word are solved. As the level one definition is not normative, the freedom in the search for truth and meaning is guarded. Possible differences in the concept of God between various seekers and between the various sources of faith used by them do not necessarily lead to polytheism for the individual seeker, as in the level two definition of that particular seeker, God may be unique and single.


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