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The Existence and Nature of Deities

Project Theme 1

Many religions in the world involve beliefs about the existence and nature of deities that transcend the material universe. We will address philosophical issues concerning these ideas by discussing what relationships exist between the deities and the universe, what we can learn about their attributes through reason or religious or mystical experiences, whether they explain the origins or current state of reality, and whether belief in such supernatural existence is epistemically justified.

The specific research questions related to this theme that we ask include, but are not limted to, the following:

  • The Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism is based on the belief that Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities, is an all-powerful, all-knowing and morally perfect being. The Vaishnava view is, in this respect, similar to the Judeo-Christian monotheistic view of God. Nevertheless, the Vaishnava view should perhaps not be considered in a monotheistic framework in the Western sense because Vaishnavism also allows Vishnu to take many distinct forms. Vaishnavism can therefore be construed as a form of polytheism, which postulates many gods, but it can also be interpreted as Henotheism, which allows many gods within a single divine essence. Furthermore, it can also be construed as polymorphic monotheism, which allows many distinct manifestations of a single God. Which interpretation is most compelling? How can any interpretation avoid metaphysical problems raised by Abrahamic monotheism? What unique metaphysical problems arise for each interpretation?

  • In most traditional African religions, God is described as the creator, sustainer, provider and owner. Moreover, God is also often characterised as the greatest being and the source of all life. Thus, how, if at all, does the African conception of God differ from that of the Abrahamic tradition? Prominent expositors of traditional African religion have been Christian, including John Mbiti, Bénézet Bujo and Desmond Tutu. Have they claimed too close a correspondence between the two conceptions of God? Might, for example, Kuwasi Wiredu and Oyin Oladipo be correct in maintaining that, for many Christian thinkers, God is an ex nihilo creator who is beyond time, whereas the African God (or at least the conception of God that is prominent in West Africa), is distinguished by being construed as an artist who fashions pre-existing materials in time (and perhaps even in a particular place)? Given the extent of their differences, which conception is more likely to fit reality? Which conception of God is philosophically and theologically more compelling?

  • Some Islamic theologians, such as Abu al-Qasim al-Ka'bi and Abu'l-Husayn al-Basri, develop a unique view of God’s omniscience. They believe that God’s foreknowledge does not affect states of affairs in the world because it follows, or is a follower of, the states of affairs known by God (not vice versa). Is it possible to interpret this view as a response to the question of the compatibility of God’s foreknowledge with free will? Does the response require backward causation? Is such a response metaphysically tenable?

  • Does Jewish monotheism, especially as developed by Jewish mystics, entail acosmism, pantheism or panentheism? How are we to understand the mystical doctrine of tsimtsum (divine contractions) that made space for the world? What exactly is the debate between those who espouse tsimtsum kipshuto (literal contraction) and tsimtsum lo kipshuto (non-literal contraction)? Does God, in Judaism, especially in light of the apophatic tradition of Maimonides, have any attributes? How are we to understand the mystical doctrines about the eyn sof (divine endlessness)? Furthermore, what are the connections between divine attributes, the eyn sof and the sefirot (the ten attributes in the Kabbalah)?

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