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What is God?

By Todd Leopold

Jack Miles
John Lennon
John Shelby Spong

(CNN) -- Images and ideas of God range far and wide.

In the movies, God is George Burns -- an avuncular, agreeable figure in the "Oh, God!" movies -- and Alanis Morissette, less avuncular and agreeable in "Dogma."

John Lennon sang, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." Emily Dickinson wrote, "They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse."

Armies and football players invoke a partisan God. Clerics put forward an expansive God that can encompass any of these ideas. Atheists don't believe in a God at all.

"All definitions of God are human," says the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, via e-mail. "They die and are born constantly."

In "God: A Biography," author Jack Miles drew a picture of God as presented in the Bible. God emerged as sometimes benevolent, sometimes petulant, and full of paradoxes -- in other words, rather human.

Religions all have their ideas of God, many of which boil down to God as unknowable.

"For a sincere Muslim, man cannot apprehend God by his five senses or by any form of intellectual speculation," writes Malek Chabel, director of a French Arab-Muslim cultural study center, in "The Great Religions: Essential Questions" (Assouline). "The veneration of God cannot be imposed from outside or practiced under duress ... each believer must strive to perceive it for him or herself."

Rabbi Carol Ochs, director of graduate studies at New York's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, quotes from the Talmud. "God is the place of the world, but the world is not God's place," says Ochs. "If you put everything together, you still don't have [a full idea of God]."

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