What is God?
by: Alexander Khaleeli
When we are trying to explain God to others, we must try to look beyond our own religious traditions and offer an account that is universal and grounded in reason, argues Alexander Khaleeli

I remember a Christian friend once lamented to me: 'The problem with some Churches is that whatever question you ask, it always has an answer.' I was puzzled; surely getting answers to your questions was a good thing! 'No,' he said, 'you see, no matter what question you ask it's always the same answer: Jesus.'

Recently, I had a chance to witness this first hand when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appeared on LBC's morning call-in radio show to answer questions from listeners. About twenty minutes in, a gentleman who said he had followed the teachings of Jesus all his life and was now in his nineties came on air and asked: 'What is God? As a young lad I never really understood the word. What is the definition of God?' The Archbishop hesitated for several seconds before answering: 'All of us, everyone throughout history has had trouble with that question. And God answers it through Jesus: When you look at Jesus, you see God... he translates being impossible to understand into human form so that we can understand Him.'

For the rest of the hour, the Archbishop fielded questions on such varied topics as homosexuality, the ordination of women and the environment, from callers who were sometimes less than sympathetic and occasionally implacably hostile. But I honestly do not think that any question he faced in that hour was nearly so challenging as this elderly pensioner who asked, with complete innocence: What is God?

As a Muslim, I do not - of course - accept the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation, but this is not the central issue I take with the answer given by the Archbishop. By playing the "Jesus card", he tacitly conceded that he could not provide a coherent rational account of God (being impossible to understand), so instead he had to retreat to the safety of a faith-based one. The problem with such an account is that it is not universally accessible: only someone who has already accepted the faith in question will find it satisfying. Logically, if an atheist asks me about God and I respond by invoking scripture, he will ask why he should accept my scripture's account of God. If I say that he should accept my scripture because it has come from God, then I have made a circular argument - my understanding of God depends on scripture, and my belief in scripture depends upon my understanding of God.

Because belief in God is logically prior to belief in any particular scripture or religion, any account we offer of God must be grounded in reason and able to stand on its own merits. The basis of all our religious practice and belief is our knowledge of God: if religion means worshipping God, then obviously this requires us - before anything else - to know who it is we are worshipping, for it is this knowledge of God that imbues our words, our deeds and our very lives with spiritual value. However - as the above example illustrates - it is often difficult for us, as people of faith, to detach ourselves from our respective scriptures and traditions, and think of God in a way that is accessible and understandable to everyone, whether they belong to a particular faith or are of no faith whatsoever. This over-reliance on scripture for forming our foundational ideas about God can also lead us to thinking of God in rather illogical terms (for instance, believing that God has a physical body like ours). Therefore it is essential to paint a coherent rational account of God not only for the sake of explaining our faith to others, but for understanding our own faith too.

Of course, some atheists would argue that the real reason the Archbishop could not provide a coherent rational account of God was that the very idea of God itself is incoherent, whether because there are so many "gods" or so many different beliefs about God, or because many of the beliefs we hold about God are contradictory and result in absurd paradoxes. However, these paradoxes are often based on flawed understandings of God by theists and atheists alike; in fact, many of these supposed paradoxes are found in the books of theologians themselves! Take for example the paradox they say occurs if we believe that God is both all-knowing and all-powerful: If God is all-knowing then He knows the future, but if He already knows the future He cannot change it, or else this would mean He was not really all-knowing. Hence He cannot be all-powerful. The problem with this paradox is that it places God within the limitations of time and space and treats His knowledge as analogous to ours; when we say that God is beyond time and space (being the originator of both!), this paradox disappears as there is no "future" for Him to change.

So how can we offer a proper account of what God is?
First, I think it is important for us to analyse the question we are asking. Normally, when we ask someone 'What is X?' we expect them to tell us what it means to be an X; the essence of X. This is called, in the terminology of Islamic philosophy, a things mahiyya, which literally means "what is it-ness" (this stands in contrast to the fact of its existence or its wujud). This is a question that usually applies to species of things; chairs, human beings, rhinoceroses and so on. So when we ask 'What is a human being?' one might respond 'a rational animal.' Such a definition covers the entire species of human beings, while excluding all other species. It does this by stating a category (animal) and qualifying it with an attribute that distinguishes it from everything else in that category (rational thought).

But the question 'What is God?' differs qualitatively from the question 'What is a human being?' In the case of human beings, we have a frame of reference (the animal kingdom) with which we can compare them and against which we can define them. But what frame of reference do we have for God? As the Supreme Being, God is utterly beyond the categories which we use to define everyday things, as these categories ultimately derive from the limitedness of the things we are looking at. We can only provide exhaustive definitions for things because there are limited and contingent; the word definition literally means "to set boundaries," but God has no boundaries for us to set.

On appearance, one might think this means we cannot provide an answer to the pensioner's question; God is transcendent, therefore He is unknowable. Perhaps the "Jesus card" wasn't such a bad idea after all! But this conclusion is premature; it is true that we cannot describe or define God in the same manner as we describe a rhinoceros, but there are fundamental statements about God which we can affirm. For example, whereas for all other things, their existences and essences are two distinct things (as there is nothing which says chairs, rhinoceroses or human beings must exist in reality in of themselves) God's essence is identical with His existence; what distinguishes Him from all other beings is the fact that His existence is necessary in of itself.

This is not special pleading. If we claim, as the famous thinker Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i does, that God is the reality of pure existence; or, as George Cantor, the German mathematician does, that He is the absolutely infinite, then we are describing Him without limiting Him. This is not the same as pantheism, which says God is identical with the Universe, as our assertion maintains a clear distinction between God and His creation; He is infinite, we are finite; He is absolute, we are contingent; He is necessary in His existence, we are merely possible. Moreover, in conceiving of God as pure existence (i.e. reality itself), we are still able to assign Him meaningful attributes such as knowledge - as He is present with all things - and power - as He is the cause behind all things - without falling into the kind of paradoxes outlined above.

However, this theoretical understanding of God must not mark the end of our efforts to know our Creator. When God says in the Qur'an: 'I did not create the jinn and the humans except that they may worship Me' (51:56), the purpose of this worship is to know God. As the famous sacred tradition reads: 'I was a hidden gem that desired to be known, so I created the Creation to know Me.' Such direct knowledge of God cannot come from only engaging in abstract philosophical discussions - it must come through having an active relationship with God, through self-purification and moral refinement, which is the very purpose of religion.

But we cannot nurture such a relationship unless our fundamental understanding of God is first set on solid ground, requiring us to offer a coherent, universal and above all rational answer to the pensioner's deceptively simple question: 'What is God?'

Alexander Khaleeli is a researcher and student in the Hawza 'Ilmiyyah of Qum. He earned his BA and MA at the Islamic College in London.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 20 vol.2 | June 2014. It has been republished here with permission.