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Characteristics of Monotheism

The monotheism that emerged during the Exile became the foundational principle for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Monotheism in these western traditions generally indicates more than just a belief in one God. In fact, the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes specific beliefs about the nature of that God. These include the belief that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). In addition, God is believed to the self-existent (not created) creator who continues to sustain and be active in the created order. As such, God is incomparable and cannot be equated to any image or representation. The God of the monotheistic faiths is thus transcendent. Islam especially rejects the notion that any object can be equated to God. Anthropomorphism (describing God in human terms) is carefully avoided.

It may be that the monotheism of Islam is both the most transcendent and the most remarkable. It is most transcendent in that Islam jealously guards against equating any object, person, or even concept with God. God is totally beyond human comprehension. It is also more remarkable in that the emergence of the monotheism of Islam in 7th century Arabia was a most unlikely event. At the time of Muhammad, the Arabians were true polytheists. In addition, they also believed in animism: every object had a spirit. Mecca itself was a center of polytheism where a multitude of Gods from every imaginable tradition were worshipped. No one could have foreseen the emergence of a true, radical monotheism within a period of a few decades.

One may suspect that the monotheism of the western faiths makes the deity too transcendent. Yet, in their own ways, each of the faiths has also emphasizes the immanence of God. Both Islam and Judaism have their own mystical experiences in which the believer may experience God directly. In Judaism, the kabala (mystical tradition) emphasizes ten emanations of God in which the presence of God can be experiences. The mystical tradition in Islam (known as Sufism) also emphasizes a direct experience or union with God. Both traditions believe that God's self-revelation through word and deed has brought God into human experience and human history.

While Christianity has an abundance of mystical traditions, it can be argued that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses both the transcendence and immanence of God. In simplest terms, the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is One, but the one God is fully present in three distinct, but not separate, persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This doctrine has its roots in the Christian New Testament, but was only fully articulated by the Church in the 4th century. Through a series of councils and creeds, the Church expressed the doctrine of the Trinity that allows for the transcendence and immanence of God. God is transcendent, but has been made immanent in the incarnation in Jesus. At the same time, God's presence continues to be experienced through the Holy Spirit which lives in the individual. This is not to say that the concept of the Trinity.

Thus, the monotheism of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have a common origin as well as a very similar way of viewing God as both transcendent and immanent. In all three traditions, the one God is the creator who continues to act in the world. God is considered to be eternal, self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient, and just. As we will see in a later unit, the tension between the concept of the one God and the existence of evil in the world creates a special challenge for monotheism