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New Worlds: One (True) God

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Monotheism is a comparative rarity in the history of religion. But it’s also not quite as much of a binary switch as it may seem — one deity or many? — so let’s take a look along the spectrum that leads to one true god.

Quite a few religions do have some notion of a supreme god, one who brought the others into being, possesses more spiritual power, and/or is in a position of authority over the rest. That last element shows up more, I believe, as society itself becomes more hierarchical and centralized: as above, so below (or perhaps as below, so above). Building off that, if you have a cadre of theologians pondering the nature of divinity, they may develop what’s sometimes called pluriform monotheism, the concept that all the lesser deities are emanations of that supreme one.

Some interpretations of the Christine doctrine of the Trinity view the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in this light, and this tradition also exists in Hinduism, for example — which is normally people’s go-to example for a present-day polytheistic religion, not a monotheistic one. But as the fancy term suggests, ideas like pluriform monotheism tend to be debated at the rarefied heights of those theologians, and the supreme deity underlying all those others is sometimes highly abstract, more of a philosophical concept than something anybody worships directly. Ergo, common folk going about their daily business may care very little about that supreme being . . . if they even know it supposedly exists!

Two other intermediate possibilities are henotheism and monolatry. The former is what you often see in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and fictional worlds with a similar flavor; under this approach, a given individual worships a single god to the exclusion of others, but does not deny the existence of other gods or the validity of worshiping them instead.

Where the D&D model tends to go astray, I think, is in having people be devoted to a single god, while also keeping the scope of that god’s power limited to a narrow set of concepts. If you look at the Greek goddess Artemis, she’s not just the goddess of things like the hunt and virginity; she’s also, thanks in part to syncretism, a goddess of vegetation, wild animals, marriage, fertility, childbirth, the moon, witchcraft, and more. Shiva, who in the Hindu Trimurti takes on the role of the destroyer, is often depicted in Shaivism (the tradition that holds Shiva to be the Supreme Being) as all three of creator, preserver, and destroyer. If non-clergy devote themselves to a single deity, it’s likely to be one they feel rules over many aspects of their lives, not just a few.

Monolatry goes a step further, and this may be what was enforced during the reign of Akhenaten in Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt. Our records aren’t really good enough for us to be sure what that pharaoh had in mind, theologically speaking: did he elevate the Aten to the position of the supreme god of which others were mere manifestations, insist on the worship of one god to the exclusion of other options, or deny the existence of any god save that one? That middle option, monolatry, may also appear in the Torah/Penteteuch, as references to “other gods” or the “gods of Egypt” imply that for the ancient Israelites, their deity may have been theirs rather than the only one.

Even the line demarcating the only one can be fuzzy. We’ve talked before about both saints and angels; the former are clearly humans who attain some kind of special status with the divine, but the latter are more ambiguous. In Zorastrianism, Ahura Mazda may have created the yazatas, but he is also described as the greatest of the yazatas, implying less of a clear-cut division than you might expect. Once again, the fine nuances here become a matter for theologians to debate; I suspect the average person, whether in ancient or modern Persia, Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt, or anywhere else, cares much less about the ultimate truth than about whether the harvest will be good and their sick child recover.

Finally, it’s worth noting what lies one step to the side, which is dualism. I’ve talked about this concept from a more generalized worldbuilding standpoint, the productive tension of two diametrically opposed concepts, but it also has specific metaphysical manifestations. Some of them are gendered, as with the Taoist notion of yin and yang, the Wiccan tradition of worshipping a God and a Goddess, or the Aztec Ōmeteōtl — literally the “dual god,” who divides into the male/female pair of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, and who also happens to be one of those abstract, conceptual deities that created all the others.

But a dualistic cosmology can also split along an axis of morality, and this is often what comes to mind for people when you mention dualism in religion. Manichaeism, which grew partly out of the Abrahamic faiths, focuses explicitly on the struggle between light and darkness, akin to the Ahura Mazda/Ahriman struggle in Zoroastrianism. This battle also featured in some forms of Gnostic Christianity, and the rhetoric in some corners of modern Christianity seems to lean the same way, elevating Satan to the status of an equal adversary to God.

The gradations between one vs. many don’t seem to show up much in fiction, at least so far as I’ve seen. Religion is either polytheistic, or it’s a straightforward monotheism — one that’s almost always, at least in English, a thinly veiled analogue of Christianity, and often the Roman Catholic Church in particular. This isn’t entirely surprising, since I suspect relatively few authors are invested in the theological niceties; they base their choices more in the social commentary they want to make, and in the West, Christianity is the main elephant in that particular room.

But as the above shows, there are so many more options! Where are our fictional Akhenatens, using their authority to abruptly stamp out the worship of all the other deities while elevating a relatively obscure one to the top? Where are the henotheists who attribute wide-ranging spiritual authority to a deity others see as having a more limited ambit? What metaphysical possibilities open up for the plot when a multiplicity of deities are simply different faces of a more distant, abstract godhead? Even if there truly is only one god, why does its nature have to look Christian, or even more broadly Abrahamic, instead of being something else entirely?

That latter, of course, requires more worldbuilding effort. But nobody reading this will be surprised that I’m all in favor of trying.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: One (True) God”

  1. Anthony Docimo

    an excellent read! thank you for making and sharing this.

    >the Ahura Mazda/Ahriman struggle
    This is *almost* monotheism, yes, given that their shared father left the universe to them (at least as i understand it), and the evil brother isn’t worshipped.

    I hadn’t known of the term “pluriform monotheism”, but i knew *of* it. 🙂
    (i wish i’d known the term last week when someone asked me to explain the Christian God without using the word “trinity”)

    thank you for this essay.

  2. Many Greek philosophers were both polytheists in that they believed that all the Olympian pantheon existed and they had no objections to their worship, and that there was one Supreme Being over all, the source of all being.

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