Dynamism, Polytheism, Henotheism: Understanding Religious Traditions

From a lecture series presented by professor James Hall

In most religious traditions the central and most important fundamental idea that binds the religion together as a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions is the idea of “god” or “gods.”

Images of various religious icons for the article on Religious Traditions

Dynamism and Animism

Dynamism is a very ancient and widespread form of religion in which various cultures were convinced that there were powers that occurred in natural objects in the world, just sheer force. A particular rock or a particular gnarled tree might become an object of awe and veneration because it was deemed to be the location of tremendous power. The dynamist did not apparently associate any of the things that one might go looking for about morality or a plan for your future or anything of the sort. It’s just power; it’s just there.

Learn more: Religion—Its Meaning and Importance

One would be cautious and deferential in the neighborhood of such power in the same way one would be, I suppose, if one lived next door to a nuclear generator. It’s sort of there and it’s humming all the time, and you walk by with a certain amount of respect and keep your distance. Notice, there’s no particular personal relationship to these powerful beings in a dynamist’s worldview. There is no imputing of personality or character or intentions or anything of the sort.

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Contrast that to the animist who is close cousin. The animist tends to think that various objects in the world aren’t just the location of power but they are the location of discrete spirits. This tree or rock is not like a giant storage battery; this tree or rock has a certain personality or character and one can relate to it in a way. One can try to keep it happy or one can fail to keep it happy. In folklore, at any rate, this often crops up in imagery of volcanoes that get angry and that have to be placated, usually with human sacrifice or something of the sort.

Image of Large Oak Tree

Polytheism and Pantheism

The polytheist is likely to limit the number of such entities or powers or personalities to a certain extent. It’s not going to be just any old rock or any old tree. Furthermore, they’re very likely not to associate them with particular artifacts.

The polytheist is beginning to think of the gods perhaps as dwelling in another world and perhaps from time to time visiting or interacting with this one. Of course, the great era of polytheism is the era of Greek and Roman myths and legends.

Learn more: Practicing Roman Religion

We see there that the various gods and goddesses have particular areas of concern and interest that they rule over, but that they are perpetually in conflict with one another. This is one of the problems you run into with the multiplicity of such powers because there’s likely to be rivalry, and then of course you get the wonderful, rich tapestry of the myths of that era.

Of course, these myths are created as a way to try to explain some of the things that are going on in the world. The world is an arena in which even divine conflicts are being acted out, and that perhaps can help us understand sometimes why the world does not go the way we would particularly want it to go.

Photo of Greek Procession of Twelve Gods and Goddesses
Greek Procession of Twelve Gods and Goddesses

Pantheism is a different kettle of fish. It’s not familiar to most of us in this part of the world although it’s making an interesting renaissance in recent years in the ideas of some people who call themselves neopagans and are involved in Wicca.

Pantheists are inclined to think that maybe there is some sort of divine power or source, but, rather than its being focused in a gnarled tree or a rock or a volcano or, for that matter, in a half a dozen or so rather rambunctious individuals who live on Mount Olympus and play havoc with our lives, they see this power as uniformly distributed throughout everything, that the divine is an inherent and implicit and internal dimension of everything that there is.

Learn more: Practicing Greek Religion

If you begin to look at the world that way, then you can see a piece of the divine in an individual person or in a tree or in a sunset or in a set of events in history, all of it working out together. It’s a kind of cosmic organism in which the holy is an aspect or a dimension of everything seen collectively. Notice, however, that whether it’s dynamism or animism or polytheism or pantheism, at no point are we talking about one single, supreme other that is external to ourselves and distinguishable from ourselves and against whom our lives stand in judgment.

Henotheism

Henotheism is probably the stage of religious development that was going on about the time of Abraham. These people tended to think that every tribe or culture had its own special divinity, and to that extent they were like polytheists; that is, there were quite a number of gods. One way to put it would be to say that the gods individually belonged to a particular tribe.

Another way to put it would be that a tribe individually belonged to a particular god. From that standpoint, it was considered perfectly okay for the Hittites to worship their god and not another because the god of the Hittites was the god of the Hittites.

Stone carving showing Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld in the nearby Yazılıkaya, a sanctuary of Hattusa.
Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld in the nearby Yazılıkaya, a sanctuary of Hattusa.

It’s worth noting that at the stage of henotheism, the status of the god was tied up with the status of the tribe. The desirability and appropriateness of worshipping a particular god had a lot to do with whether or not that god could produce or deliver when your tribe was in conflict with another. It was not at all uncommon if one tribe conquered another tribe for there to be an immediate mass conversion. If a bunch of Uzites wiped out a bunch of Hittites and took over their area, then all of the Hittites would start worshipping the god of the Uzites because, obviously, he was bigger and better and stronger, because their side won. That is not totally unfamiliar in the 20th century for that matter.

Learn more: Facets of Religion—Divinity and Devotion

Dualism, Zoroastrianism, and Deism

Dualism, or bitheism, narrows it down to just two. It’s an interesting play against monotheism. The dualist says there are two supreme powers and frequently differentiates them morally, one being the god of the good and the virtuous, the other being the demonic power—if I may use the imagery of modern mythology, the “force” and the “dark side.”

Parsee Wedding, 1905

The Zoroastrian religion, still present in the world today among the Parsees in West India and those few who survive in Iran, is a good example of those who narrow it down to two powers, interminably locked in conflict.

Deism is probably more closely kin to ethical monotheism than any of these others we’ve mentioned, although it remains quite, quite different. The deists say that there is only one god; there could only be one. If something is supreme, then it’s supreme, and that’s that. If it is supreme, then everything else is subordinate to it, and to call anything else a god rather than the one supreme God would be an exercise in idolatry.

Learn more: Related Traditions—Zoroastrian Scriptures

You don’t worship anything that does not deserve to be worshiped, and nothing deserves to be worshiped unless it’s absolutely tops. On that, the deist and the ethical monotheists are congruent.

The deist, however, has a certain austerity to his or her conception of the divine that is a byproduct of the very extreme supremeness of it. It is so other, it is so transcendently beyond anything human, anything mundane, that the deist typically is going to say it could not possibly have any interest or concern with anything that goes on here and now, today. It is an object of austere veneration and respect from a distance—never the target of communion and fellowship and working together.

Keep reading:
Facets of Religion: Divinity and Devotion
The Origins and Rise of Buddhism
Do Souls Exist?
What Does the Christian Apocrypha Teach Us About Jesus? The Torch Podcast

From the Lecture Series: Philosophy of Religion
Taught by Professor James Hall, Ph.D.