Religion 101

(We here continue with our “Ten Essential ‘-isms’,” which we began listing and describing in the previous post [“Part 1”].)

By way of wrapping up our discussion of polytheism (begun at the end of Part 1), it’s important to add here that polytheism also remains present today within many so-called “indigenous religions” — that is, the native religions of various local and often pre-literate indigenous ethnic cultures. The traditional religions of many Native American, African, Aboriginal (Australian), Maori (New Zealand), Inuit (Canadian), Pacific Island (Oceanic) and many other indigenous cultures typically feature belief in multiple gods — often gods of various natural forces and principles (the sun, the moon, the weather, fertility, disease, war, etc.).

Polytheism frequently occurs in indigenous religions blended almost seamlessly with animism (from the Latin anima, meaning “life,” “life force,” “soul,” “spirit”), a view which holds that the world is filled not only with gods per se but also with a vast multitude of spirits of all sorts. Life or “spirit” is ubiquitous, according to animism, with even seemingly “inanimate” objects — rocks, mountains, rivers, wind — often regarded as “alive” insofar as they are each believed to be “ensouled,” each such natural feature possessing a separate and distinct spirit of its own. Add to this mix of gods and nature spirits the lingering (and often meddling, or otherwise influential) spirits of deceased ancestors, and the spiritual universe of polytheistic and animistic cultures begins to look like a pretty crowded place!

6.  Deism.  This term comes from the Latin deus, which (like the Greek theos) simply means “god.” (Such terms as “deity,” “divinity,” and “divine” are also etymologically related to deus.) Accordingly, deism literally translates as “god-ism” (just as theism does, too). One might therefore be forgiven for assuming that deism and theism are synonymous — two alternative terms for the exact same thing. However, such an assumption would be incorrect. In practice, Deism as a distinctive term has come to refer quite specifically to a particular religious perspective (one quite distinct from the monotheism of traditional Christianity) that came to prominence during the 17th and 18th centuries, in the wake of the European Enlightenment. Deism holds that God initially created the universe, but subsequently left it to its own devices, allowing it to run unencumbered by further divine adjustment, guidance, or meddling. Deists therefore do not believe that God ever interferes with natural law, or intervenes in human history; hence Deism affirms no miracles, no prophecies, and no divine revelations. Deists consequently reject such popular cornerstones of evangelical Christianity as belief in the divinity of Christ as an alleged incarnation of God (or Son of God), as well as belief in the inerrancy and the divinely revealed (or divinely inspired) nature of the Bible. It’s worth noting that many of the American “Founding Fathers” were Deists, rather than Christians — a fact of history that is helpful to keep in mind when listening to contemporary debates, currently raging in some circles, over whether the framers of the Constitution ever intended for the U.S. to be a specifically “Christian” nation.

7.  Henotheism.  This one is probably the most obscure of all of the “-isms” in this list, but it’s actually quite an intriguing one. This term comes from the Greek heis theos, which literally translates as “one god”; however, henotheism is not merely a synonym for monotheism. Rather, the term is used to refer to the practice of worshipping just one god in particular, while nevertheless recognizing the existence of other perfectly valid gods. In other words, henotheists need not deny the existence of multiple gods, all of whom may be legitimately worthy of worship, but they choose to devote themselves only to one specific god (out of all the available gods). Henotheism therefore might be defined as “one-god-out-of-many-ism.” Hindus, for example, may choose with equal legitimacy to worship Vishnu, or Shiva, or the Goddess in any of her variant forms, or any of a number of other Hindu deities, all of whom are viewed as being perfectly valid objects of legitimate worship. Henotheism is somewhat related to a similar concept, that of monolatry, which is much more exclusive: in monolatry, other gods may exist, but the particular god to whom one “pledges allegiance” is regarded as as the one and only god who is genuinely worthy of worship. Some biblical scholars suggest that ancient Israelite religion in its early stages may have initially been monolatrous, rather than monotheistic (a trait that evolved much later in Israelite history). Such scholars point out, for example, that the First Commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) does not deny the existence of other gods, but merely demands sole and exclusive allegiance on the part of Israel to their own God alone (e.g., they are to faithfully worship only the God of Israel exclusively, as opposed to any of the various foreign gods of other nations).

8.  Pantheism.  The prefix “pan-“ is Greek for “all” (as in Pan-American, panacea, panchromatic, panorama, etc.). So, “pan-theism” is literally “all-god-ism” (or perhaps “all-IS-God-ism”), referring to the belief that God is everything, and everything is God; God and the universe are regarded as identical. This stands in sharp contrast to many more traditional monotheistic views, according to which God is both personal and radically distinct from creation (God as the “Wholly Other”); the pantheist view instead maintains that there is no personal God as such, and that “God” and creation are one and the same. Whereas traditional monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam typically maintain that God alone is divine, pantheism asserts that everything is divine, because everything is God. Like everything else, pantheism comes in various forms; some versions of pantheism amount to little more than reducing God to a synonym for nature or the cosmos, which is considered sacred in and of itself.

9.  Panentheism.  As its name suggests (“pan-en-theism” = “all-IN-god-ism”), this is kind of an expanded variant of pantheism. Whereas straight pantheism insists that God and the universe are identical, panentheism allows that God “contains” the universe within him/her/itself, while also extending beyond the universe (so that God is not limited to, or exclusively contained within, the cosmos). According to panentheism, we are literally “in” God, and God is literally “in” everything. Whereas pantheism emphasizes God’s immanence (his direct, immediate presence within creation), and monotheism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence (his existing or extending beyond creation), panentheism emphasizes both that God suffuses and supersaturates everything that exists, while simultaneously also existing or extending infinitely beyond the universe.

10.  Monism.  Strictly speaking, this is a philosophical rather than a religious or theological position per se; monism (literally “one-ism”) is the view that, despite appearances to the contrary, all of reality consists solely of one single, undivided Unity. In contrast to the commonsense view that reality consists of a vast number of entirely separate and distinct individual things (atoms, molecules, people, planets, galaxies, etc.), such multiplicity is merely relative or even mere illusion; at a much more profound and fundamental level, the universe actually consists of only One Thing. In specifically religious versions or variants of monism, this unique, all-encompassing Singularity is regarded as divine, and is typically identified either as God or as some non-personal, non-monotheistic equivalent (which I suppose one may label “God” if one wishes, assuming one is willing to use the term “God” to apply equally to non-personal, non-monotheistic conceptions of the single Divine Reality). Religious monisms therefore also assert that God is everything, and everything is God. Everything is divine, because there is nothing that is not God; God is all that is, because God simply IS all that there is.

There is obviously considerable overlap between monism, pantheism, and panentheism. Much Hindu theology (such as that of its Vedanta school of metaphysics) is monistic and/or panentheistic in character; the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads affirm that everything — including, notably, human beings — is ultimately identical to Brahman, the infinite and eternal (but non-personal) ultimate divine Reality. All is Brahman, because Brahman is all that is; since Brahman is divine, it follows that we too are divine, since in the final analysis we are Brahman, even if we don’t realize it (so “realizing it” becomes the primary religious or spiritual goal). Reflecting upon how the very atoms that compose us were formed in the furnaces of faraway stars, the late astronomer Carl Sagan once observed (on his PBS TV series Cosmos) that “we are star-stuff”; a monist or a pantheist might somewhat similarly observe that “we are God-stuff.”

In conclusion: Being equipped with a basic understanding of the meaning and significance of these ten terms (or “-isms”) may go a long way toward helping to make reading about, and reflecting upon, the world’s various religious traditions and spiritual pathways much clearer, more systematic, and more comprehensible.



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