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Whereas polytheism conceptualizes sacred power as many different forms, dualism conceptualizes sacred power as two distinct forces that are either in conflict with one another or that work together to bring balance to the cosmos.

Dualism and Cosmic Balance.

Indigenous Chinese religion conceived of a force that orders the universe.  That force is called the Dao (the Way).  The Dao is actually made up of two basic principles: yin is the negative, dark force that is usually associated with the feminine; yang is the positive, bright force that is considered to be masculine.  The interplay between these two forces is responsible for both balance and change in the universe. Although one principle may dominate for a while, the imbalance that is created when one principle dominates cannot be sustained. The natural tendency is for the Dao to be balanced.


Dualism in Cosmic Struggle

The ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism illustrates how divine power can be conceptualized as forces that are in conflict with each other.  Zoroastrianism arose in Persia in the Seventh Century BCE, although there is some debate about the exact date of origin. The prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) received a revelation that there was one God, known as Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd).  The spirit of Ahura Mazda (known as Spenta Mainyu) is opposed by an evil spirit known as Spenta Angra.

In this cosmic struggle between good and evil, every individual must take sides. The world is moving toward a climactic battle in which the forces of good will defeat the forces of evil. Ahura Mazda. This triumph will result in a transformed creation, and the dead will be raised to eternal life.

Although early Zoroastrianism seemed to indicate that both the good and evil spirit emanated from Ahura Mazda, later Zoroastrianism assumed a more radical dualism in which the evil spirit was the creator of the material world, and was virtually co-equal in power with Ahura Mazda.  This kind of dualism would find its way into some Christian thinking, especially in Gnosticism and Manicheanism.

Gnosticism is a name given to a number of distinct groups in early Christianity.  Although the particulars of their beliefs might vary, they generally held that the material world was created by an inferior God whom they equated with the God of the Old Testament. This material creation has entrapped the divine spirit which is the real nature of humanity. Consequently, the Supreme God sent Jesus to impart the secret knowledge that human beings need to escape from their imprisonment in matter.

In the third century, the teacher Mani combined elements of Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism to formulate a philosophy that came to be called Manicheanism.  According to this world view,  the world was created by the basic elements of light (soul) and dark (matter).  The intermixing of the two led to the soul being polluted by matter. Mani thus concluded that humans must seek to free themselves from evil (matter) through prayer, abstinence, and self-denial.  Like the Gnostics, Mani believed that Jesus did not have a material body and did not actually die.  The influential Christian theologian Augustine was a Manichean for nine years before abandoning the philosophy.