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Ways of Conceiving the Divine: Part Three

Basically, your text presents three main positions in understanding the divine. These three positions must be understood as part of a continuum or spectrum. 

I. Deism

The main characteristic of Deistic understandings of the divine is that the God or gods are understood as individual beings. There is some degree of separation or transcendence from the ordinary world.  Deistic understandings can be polytheistic or monotheistic.  

A. Polytheistic Deism

 Polytheistic deism holds that there are many gods/goddesses.  Although they are to some degree separated from the ordinary world, they are usually thought of as belonging to the natural order. The example that is found in your text book is the Navaho understanding of the “Holy People.” These are   beings with great power, but their power has limits. Note also that they are not necessarily morally perfect beings. They have weaknesses and are subject to jealousy, bribery, etc. A similar concept is found in the religion of ancient Greece.

B. Dualistic Deism

Dualistic deism is always monotheistic. It holds that there is a divine creator or source of all things that completely transcends the natural order.  Since the deity is ultimately transcendent, he is not directly involved in the natural order. Dualistic deism understands God as a cosmic clock maker. He made the universe, wound it up and then let it run on its own.  The best examples of this understanding of the divine is Aristotle's concept of the "unmoved mover." Deism was very popular in the 18th century and a number of influential leaders (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) in both the American colonies and Europe were dualistic deists.

II. Pantheism

Pantheism is the belief that all things are an expression of a single underlying reality.  Put another way, "God is everything, and everything is God."  Some forms of pantheism may be classified as monism: the belief that there is simply one substance and any perceived separation of distinct objects is an illusion. Like Deism, pantheism can be divided into two categories.


A. Dualistic Pantheism  holds that the natural order is a a manifestation or superficial appearance of One Divine Reality.  Generally some sort of enlightenment (philosophical, religious, etc.) is needed to apprehend this unity.

Examples of dualistic pantheism include the philosophy of Sankara who argued that Brahman is the One Eternal soul.  Brahman is thus the One that is all and is in all.  In Buddhism, the complex doctrine of emptiness (Shunyata) believes that emptiness or the void is the essential reality underlying all things. In Chinese religion, the Tao is the one force present in all things.

B. Materialistic Pantheism  believes that only the physical universe is real.  Thus, the unity of all things is found in the material world.  As examples your text book cites the Greek Philosophyer Epicurus (341-270 BC) who argued that eternal atoms are basis of all things.  A form of materialistic pantheism is the scientifice materialism of Karl Marx.


III. Transcendent-Immanent Positions

Standing between the transcendent concept of deism  and the immanent concepts of pantheism is a position that the author describes as "transcendent-immanent."  This understanding of the divine is always monotheistic.  It holds that God is both beyond and within the world.  On the one hand, God is completely transcendent - totally different from the natural order (remember Otto's idea of the "wholly other"). On the other hand, God is present in the world.  For example, in Judaism, God's presence is in the Torah. Christianity, holds that God is present in the world through the logos (word) that was incarnate in Jesus. Moreover, the transcendent-immanent position holds that while God is transcendent, he is also active in the world.  Common ways in which God is believed to be active are the spirit or the voice of God.


Your text points out that the concept of "spirit" is often used to help conceptualize the divine. Interestingly, in a number of traditions, the word "spirit" is derived from the same word that means "breath." It can signify the life force of a human being (sometimes translated "soul") and/or the divine agency that empowers humans. Of interest is the concept of the kami in the Japanese religion, Shinto. Kami are thought of as "spirits" of places, nature, deities or ancestors.  The kami have the ability to bring blessings and harmony to one's life. The goal of Shintoism is to live in harmony with the kami.

In Judaism, the "spirit" is used to conceptualize the force that issues from God to endow people with knowledge, discernment.  It is God's spirit that also bestows leadership abilities and the ability to prophesy.

In Christianity, it is believed that the ministry of Jesus was empowered by God's spirit.  Consequently, the church came to hold that the spirit of God (the "Holy Spirit") was a distinct person of the Trinity, equal with God the Father and the Son. In religions with a transcendent-immanent position, God is often thought to be immanent - active and present in the world - through the spirit.