You’ve heard this one, right? “Can God create a rock He cannot lift?” It’s meant to disprove the concept of an omnipotent God.
The reasoning goes like this: “If God is all-powerful, then He ought to be able to create a rock He can’t lift. If He cannot create a rock He can’t lift, then He’s not all-powerful. Likewise, if He can’t lift the rock, He’s not all-powerful. Therefore, an omnipotent God cannot exist.”
This rationale rests on assumptions about both God and human beings. The assumption about God is that God is a creature like us, to whom the physical activity of lifting is applicable and meaningful. The assumption about human beings is that we understand the concept of omnipotence as it applies to God.
I was raised with a distinctly Christian idea of what or who God was, tempered by my parents’ insistence that I look to the life and words of Christ to understand this Big Idea. Hence, I came to the conclusion that Christ was a reflection of the glory of God as seen in a mirror, to use the Apostle Paul’s metaphor. Yet I was aware that some Christian doctrine conceptualized God as a sort of super human—a being who could be material or spirit at will.
At a recent presentation I gave on the progressive nature of revelation, a friend from China expressed his difficulties with the question ”Who is God?” Coming from a completely secular society where the idea of a supreme being that could be spoken of as a ”who” was alien, his question was “What is God?”
His question made me wonder: what do the scriptures actually tell us about the nature of God?
One of the oldest extant scriptures we have so far discovered is commonly known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead (more literally translated from the Egyptian as Book of Emerging Forth into the Light). The texts that make up the collection of tablets included in the book go back to the third century before Christ. The following is from around 1250 BCE:
God is one and alone, and none other existeth with Him—God is the One, the One who hath made all things—God is a spirit, a hidden spirit, the spirit of spirits, the great spirit of the Egyptians, the divine spirit. God is from the beginning … He hath existed from old and was when nothing else had being. … He is the Father of beginnings—God is the eternal One, He is eternal and infinite and endureth for ever and aye—God is hidden and no man knoweth His form. … His name is a mystery unto His children. His names are innumerable, they are manifold and none knoweth their number. – Papyrus of Ani.
Beyond the idea that human beings cannot ”see” or perceive God directly, the Papyrus of Ani poses a seeming paradox: God’s “name” is unknown, but manifold. According to scriptures both ancient and modern, the names of God are His qualities, attributes and virtues. Those names include the Merciful, the Kind, the Omnipotent, the Omniscient, etc.
An essential teaching of Baha’u’llah—and other divine messengers—is that God (or whatever you choose to call the Creator) is unknowable in its essence. God is unknowable for the simple reason that it is a different kind of being than we are. Our intellect is a reflection of the Creator’s intellect, but only a reflection. God is absolute and independent; we are dependent:
But beyond My visible nature is My invisible Spirit. This is the fountain of life whereby this universe has its being. All things have their life in this Life, and I am their beginning and end. In this whole vast universe there is nothing higher than I. – Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 7:5-7.
Gautama Buddha referred to this Spirit as the Absolute and the Lovely and addresses its nature thusly:
There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, formed. – Udana 80-81.
Christ affirmed: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4: 24.
This raises the question: How can we know God? The answer is given through example in the passages cited above, but Baha’u’llah made direct reference to it throughout his writings:
… since there can be no tie of direct intercourse to bind the one true God with His creation, and no resemblance whatever can exist between the transient and the Eternal, the contingent and the Absolute, He hath ordained that in every age and dispensation a pure and stainless Soul be made manifest in the kingdoms of earth and heaven. Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. … These Essences of Detachment, these resplendent Realities are the channels of God’s all-pervasive grace. … They are commissioned to use the inspiration of Their words, the effusions of Their infallible grace and the sanctifying breeze of Their Revelation for the cleansing of every longing heart and receptive spirit from the dross and dust of earthly cares and limitations. Then, and only then, will the Trust of God, latent in the reality of man, emerge … – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 65-67.