To write about God is, of course, to write about what others have felt, thought, and said about God. In the end, God is a symbol pointing to that which cannot be contained in words. God is transcendence, power, and mystery that, from the beginning, humans have felt but never been able to define simply and for all time. However, the history of how humans have struggled to define God has far more meaning than might be suggested when focusing only on the impossibility of defining God. This history has revealed that the struggle to define God has been nothing less than the struggle to define who we are as humans, both as individuals and as communities. In tracing the history of how God has been defined we are, then, tracing no less than our evolving identities.
There is in this history so much variation as to, at first, make the task of recounting the history impossibly complex. However, if we step back from the details, we start to see patterns that allow for basic distinctions, which, in turn, allow for an organization that helps to understand the nature of the struggle to define God. There are, it seems, three major distinctions to consider: that between gods and God, that between a personal and utterly transcendent God, and that between a transcendent and immanent God. We shall consider each of these distinctions in turn. The idea of there being one God may well have been common from the beginning, but the more prevalent idea seems to have been that there are many gods. Indeed, even in early biblical times, many Jews understood their Yahweh to coexist with lesser gods.
The gods have usually been tied to functions and localities. In being tied to functions, humans must have felt more connected to the different powers that they depended upon: the god of the sky where rain comes from, the god of the earth out of which crops grow, and so forth. Gods with specific functions, then, provide a more manageable way to carry on transactions designed to influence-for example, sacrifices and petitionary prayers-than does one, single transcendent but distant and mysterious God.
The fact that gods were often tied to regions or specific localities also served a useful purpose. Having one's own, local gods provides added security and can ensure a tolerance for others' faith that is often undermined when there is faith in one, overarching, and jealous God. For example, the plurality of gods during the heyday of the Roman Empire is said to have been a mechanism by which Romans could hold together diverse groups under one political roof. A plurality of gods could, then, ensure a modicum of religious tolerance.
However, the plurality of gods left humans divided, not only divided in terms of there being communities and groups divided from one another, but also divided in terms of individuals having no single focus to provide a sense of personal integrity, identity, and purpose. The struggle to define and have faith in one God arose, then, as a struggle for integrity, identity, and ultimate moral or spiritual purpose.
Perhaps the most concrete example of this struggle for unity is that of Muhammad and the birth of Islam. Before Muhammad, the Arab world was defined in terms of tribal loyalties, which promoted violence between tribes and an inferior ethic within tribes. Muhammad's success in promoting faith in the one, all-powerful and just God overcame these petty tribal loyalties and promoted an ethic emphasizing justice for all and charity for those in need. Similar stories can be told about the experience of the ancient Jews and early Christians; however, again, the story of Muhammad provides the clearest example of how monotheism or faith in the one God can affect both individual and collective unity. The rise of monotheism can, therefore, be partially explained as meeting the need to integrate diverse groups and help individuals subordinate their selfish desires to what is the greater good of all.
However, monotheism presented its own problem or dilemma, namely, the dilemma of being faithful to God who is transcendent, all-powerful, and mysterious but still having to find a way to connect to God in a personal way. Forging a personal connection was easier in the old, pagan systems. In short, throughout history, the faithful have always struggled between keeping God almighty and transcendent at the expense of making God remote, on one hand, and making God personal and intimate at the expense of God's losing power and transcendence, on the other hand. The solutions to this dilemma have been many.