Monotheism is the belief in, and worship of, only one God. While numerous religious traditions define themselves as monotheistic, nonetheless, there are nuances between how various religions define monotheism. As a singular example, those Christians who believe in the Trinity see themselves as monotheists, and practitioners of Islam also declare themselves to be monotheists. However, because the Trinity speaks of “three persons” whose relationship constitutes “one God,” Muslims typically do not accept Christianity as a monotheistic tradition. Indeed, the Qur’an frequently points out that the Trinity is not—according to Islamic definitions—monotheistic. (See, for example, Sūrah 4:171, 5:73. See also 2:135, 6:106, 12:108, 41:6, 9 & 47, 43:57-59, 68:41, etc.) Thus, below we will look at traditions which define themselves as monotheists, but which may have their own specific definition of monotheism.
Judaism is one of the oldest of religions extant today, and one the oldest (if not the oldest) to define itself as monotheistic. It only accepts one God, though it acknowledges that its scriptural text—the Hebrew Bible—is not always clear on that fact. For example, one source notes:
“God said: ‘Let us make man in our image . . .’ (Genesis 1:26) and ‘Come, let us go down, and there confound their language’ (Genesis 11:7). To whom does the ‘us’ refer? Is it talking about the Trinity or about God’s connection to Humanity?…
Trinitarian Christians maintain that Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 11:7 are proof-texts of an alleged tri-unity god, but this claim is erroneous. The inference that ‘Let us make man in our image’ (Genesis 1:26) refers to the plurality of God is refuted by the subsequent verse, which relates the creation of man to a singular God, ‘And God created man in His image’ (Genesis 1:27).
In this verse the Hebrew verb ‘created’ appears in the singular form. If ‘let us make man’ indicates a numerical plurality, it would be followed in the NEXT verse by, ‘And they created man in their image.’ Obviously, the plural form is used in the same way as in the divine appellation 'Elohim, to indicate the all-inclusiveness of God's attributes of authority and power, the plurality of majesty. It is customary for one in authority to speak of himself as if he were a plurality.
Hence, Absalom said to Ahithophel, ‘Give your counsel what we shall do’ (2 Samuel 16:20). The context shows that he was seeking advice for himself' yet he refers to himself as ‘we’ (see also Ezra 4:16-19).”
Thus, while the Hebrew Bible occasionally sounds either trinitarian or even polytheistic, Judaism holds that any plurality therein is simply a reflection of God’s complex and all-inclusive nature.
It is worth mentioning that some scholars and historians have argued that Judaism was initially a monolatrist religion—monolatry being the belief in more than one God, but the added belief that it is only appropriate to worship one God. This monolatry transitioned into monotheism, according to these same sources, during the era of Jewish captivity (under the Babylonians, circa 6th century BCE). It is important to understand, however, that Jews generally reject this theory—holding that Judaism is unquestionably a religion which has always only accepted the existence of a singular God.
The Persian tradition, Zoroastrianism, has regularly been assumed to be pyrolatrist—meaning a tradition that worships fire as its God. However, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Zoroastrian position on the divine. While the Parsees (a common name used for Zoroastrians) do use fire as part of their worship, the flame is simply a symbol of God’s light and presence. Thus, fire is not the God of Zoroastrianism. Rather, Ahura Mazda is the name of their one and only God. Using fire in their worship is akin to the Eastern Orthodox using icons in their worship, or Roman Catholics using a crucifix in their worship. Each of these traditions recognize that these physical items are only symbols, but they help the worshiper focus his or her attention on the divine.
While Zoroastrians are definitely monotheists, some of their scriptural texts were inherited from the ancient Vedic religion known as Aryanism, in which Zarathustra (the founder of Zoroastrianism) was reared. As a consequence, the polytheistic language in those sacred texts has caused some to erroneously assume Zoroastrians worship various polytheistic deities common in Aryanism. Again, such is not the case, and they are emphatically monotheistic in their theology.
Generally speaking, Christianity has traditionally been understood as a monotheistic tradition. There are non-Trinitarian denominations of Christianity (such a Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarian-Universalits, Christian Scientists, etc.); and even the early Christian Church (starting in New Testament times) evidences a strong sense of subordinationism, wherein the Son is depicted as subordinate to the Father. For example, Jesus stated: “The Father is greater than I” (NIV John 14:28). When called “Good Teacher” by a man, the Lord responded: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (NRSV Mark 10:17-18; see also Luke 18:18-19; Matthew 19:16-17). The Apostle Paul informs us that “God is the head over Christ” (CEV 1 Corinthians 11:3). Jesus told the Jews that “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing” (NIV John 5:19), and “I don’t do anything on my own. I say only what my Father taught me” (CEV John 8:28). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul noted that Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (NIV Philippians 2:6-7). Though these are but a sampling of the many subordinationist Christological teachings present in the New Testament, they do establish a pattern in the Bible wherein Jesus is depicted as subordinate to the Father. This has caused some Christians to reject co-equal interpretations of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Indeed, there are some who look at the Trinity—with “three persons” constituting “one God”—and see this as nothing shy of bi-theistic if not polytheistic.
All of that being said, the bulk of Christians perceive the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a singular, monotheistic God, co-equal and co-eternal. Of course, there are numerous approaches to the Trinity, and a variety of explanations as to how the three “persons” can constitute “one God.” As a result, some Christians are “Psychological Trinitarians,” some are Modalists or Sabellianists, and some are “Social Trinitarians,” etc. But each still argues firmly that there is only one God in this, the largest of all of the world’s religions.
Islam is one of the most emphatically monotheistic religions today. Repeatedly, the Qur’an states “There is no God but Allah”—the name Allah meaning “the God.” (See Sūrah 2:164 & 256; 3:3, 7 & 19; 5:74; 6:103 & 107; 7:159; 9:31 & 129, etc.) As noted above, the Qur’an calls out the Trinity (e.g., Sūrah 4:171, 5:73.) as polytheistic, and Islam is entirely unsupportive of any model of the divine that suggest God has a spouse, any helpers, or any offspring (Sūrah 5:72, 6:79, 43:15-16 & 45, 72:3).
Of course, like every other monotheistic religion we’ve discussed, there are aspects of Islam that make it look non-monotheistic. The main one in Islam is Allah’s consistent practice of using the pronoun “we” when referring to Himself. Outsiders have seen this as either polytheistic or Trinitarian. Islam argues that it is neither. As one source noted: “The use of the pronoun ‘we’ to connote divine majesty is an ancient Arabian rhetorical device that has fallen into disuse in both modern Arabic and modern English. This has led modern readers to misunderstand pronominal references to God using the majestic ‘we’ as a Quranic justification for the Trinity or for idolatry.”
Because Sikhism began in India—and had many early disciples who came from the Hindu tradition (including its founder, Guru Nanak Dev Ji)—many assume that it is a polytheistic religion. Another complicating factor can be that, in India, the lines between various religious traditions (including Sikhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) are sometimes blurred by practitioners and also Indian culture. For example, one can visit the famed Sikh “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, India, and find Sikhs, Hindus, and Jains all worshiping there. Hence, an outsider might falsely assume that this monotheistic tradition (Sikhism) is actually polytheistic.
One of Guru Nanak’s most important teachings was that there was not only just one God, but you and I—no matter what we call the divine—are actually all worshiping the same deity… even if we do have various ideas about God’s nature and various names by which we know God. Nanak argued that religious people should quit fighting about who is right and who is wrong, accept that there is only one God, and unitedly seek to move forward the work of God, regardless of which religious tradition we are a part of. Thus, while Guru Nanak was emphatic that there was only one God, he didn’t worry so much about the fact that some religions (like Hinduism) didn’t seem to grasp that. He ultimately felt that the various polytheistic religions really were worshiping the same God as the Sikhs, but they just didn’t realize that all of their various Gods were simply different ways to see the one and only God—whom Sikhs often call Ek Onkar, meaning “One God” or the “One Supreme Reality.”
While Voodoo (or Vudou) is not an “organized” religion, per se, nonetheless, it is an actual formal religious tradition, which had its beginnings in 16th-18th century Haiti. The name of God in this Haitian-born tradition is “Bondye,” which means “the good God.” That name, and the fact that many practitioners focus on having encounters with the Iwa (or “spirits”), often causes outsiders to assume that this faith practices a form of polytheism—with more than one God and many spirits. Because Bondey is the “good God,” this has added to the misconception that there must be a “bad God” or other “less good” Gods. Similarly, because Bondey is beyond comprehension—causing practitioners to try to experience Bondey through the Iwa—the tradition appears polytheistic to outsiders and the Iwa are sometimes falsely perceived as the “Gods” of Voodoo. But, again, this religion emphatically holds to a monotheistic construct of God—and a deity so exalted that no human can comprehend or directly experience Him.
Bondey is the creator of all things, the highest power and principle in the universe, and is sometimes called by the Haitian Creole term, Gran Maître (or “Great Master”). Practitioners of Voodoo often believe that the degree to which we practice good in our lives and in the world determines the degree to which Bondye’s power is manifest in our lives and in the world around us.
Tenrikyo is a Japanese religion, founded by Miki Nakayama (in 1938). In this tradition, God is the monotheistic creator of the universe, who is the “Parent” of us all, and who has revealed Tenrikyo as a means of enabling us to live lives filled with joy and meaning. God is both omnipotent and omniscient. While God is not usually referred to as omnipresent (in this tradition), the fact that the universe is perceived as “God’s body” ultimately makes the divine omnipresent—though they tend to say God is “immanent” rather than “omnipresent.” (The fact that God has personhood, and is the Father of all, makes “omnipresence” a difficult attribute to apply to Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto, or the divine).
Definitions asside, practitioners of this faith do not all perceive God the same way—even if they do believe there is only one God. The faith’s official website offers the following definition: “God not only created human beings and the world but has always been and will ever be the source of life and the sustainer of all things. The followers refer to God as God the Parent in the sense that God is the original Parent of human beings and, in prayer, [they] glorify God as Tenri-O-no-Mikoto. According to Tenrikyo, ‘The universe is the body of God.’ It is thus said that the world is filled with God the Parent’s workings.” Elsewhere we learn, “Tenrikyo followers vary in their understanding of this creator, from the early understanding of spirit (kami, god/deity [in Shinto]) through the underlying natural causality (Tsukihi, moon-sun) and eventually to an understanding of a parental relationship between the creator and themselves (oya, parent). This progression of understanding is a key teaching of Tenrikyo, where it is accepted that everything must proceed ‘step by step’—by small stages of understanding instead of by great leaps of faith.” In the end, even though the slippery term “kami” has opened the door to some fluidity in how practitioners understand God, nevertheless, knowing that God is their only Father, they are unquestionably monotheistic in their theology.
In the Baha’i tradition, there is only one God, and He is uncreated, imperishable, and incomprehensible. God is a personal being, who thinks, reasons, and feels emotions, like love. This does not mean that God is anthropomorphic or that we (as His creations) are theomorphic. Only that God, in whatever form He exists, is conscious of us and wishes to reveal Himself to us.
God is only accessible through His messengers or prophets, typically referred to as the “Manifestation of God.” These messengers or prophets include biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, but also other founders and prophets of the various great religious traditions, like Buddha, Zarathustra, and Muhammad. More recently, Baha’u’llah (the founder of the Baha’i faith) was one of God’s prophetic messengers, and practitioners of Baha’i expect more messengers or prophets at some point in the future, because divine revelation is slowly and progressively given as the needs of society change. Thus, God will send more Messengers throughout the history of this world.
Baha’is believe that all the major world religions experienced—at some point in their history—at least one manifestation of the divine and, thus, are part of part of the essential unity that exists between all religions. Therefore, Baha’is respect all human beings, regardless of creed, and seek peace between all peoples, governments, and religions. According to Baha’i teachings, though various religions believe different things about the divine, one religion’s view about God are not necessarily more accurate than another’s. Rather, people believe different things about the divine because these variant views evidence that different people have needed different things from God at different times in the history of the world. Thus, the Almighty revealed truths as specific peoples needed those—in words and ideas that would be meaningful to them. Nonetheless, these many world views on God do not constitute a multiplicity of deities. They only evidence that there are many ways to understand the divine—to the degree that finite beings can understand the infinite. What we can understand about the incomprehensible God are the virtues and attributes which He has revealed through His “Manifestations” (or messengers), whose lives reflect God’s created attributes and nature, even though these men were not incarnations of God or His essence.
Caodaism (or Cao Dai) is a Vietnamize monotheistic religion that started early in the 20th century. The name of God, in this tradition, is Cao Đài—which means “high tower” or “high place,” and is said to symbolizes the location from which God the Father presides over the universe. As in Baha’ism, this tradition accepts “a blending, or mixing, [of] religion because it holds values and beliefs common to many other organized faiths.”
For practitioners, Cao Đài is believed to be the one and only God, and the God of all religions—He being ever-present in the lives of all people. Individuals may practice Confucianism, Taosim, or Buddhism, they may believe in Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, or some other God but, regardless of their religious tradition and in spite of what name they know God by, they are really worshiping Cao Đài—the one true God of not only this monotheistic religion, but of all religions and all peoples.
Some question the monotheistic nature of Caodaism, as this tradition profess a belief in both God the Father and Holy Mother. However, Caodaiists insist they are monotheistic because—just as the three persons of the Trinity constitute “one God”—Father and Mother are two sides of the same singular deity in Caodaism. One source explains:
“According to Cai Dai, before God existed there was the Tao—the nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. At some point, a cosmic event occurred, out of which God was born. The universe could not yet be formed because God controlled only Yang. Therefore, God shed a part of himself and created the Goddess, who is the master of Yin. In the presence of Yin and Yang, the universe materialized. The Goddess is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the universe. Thus, Caodaiists not only worship God, the father, but also revere the Goddess. The Goddess is master over Yin but is not a part of Yin, which is female. In some Cao Dai literature, the Goddess has been identified with the Mysterious Female of the Tao Te Ching. However, Caodaiists consider themselves strict monotheists.”
Consequently, Caodaiists are not worshiping two Gods, but one God who separated Himself into two connected and complementary parts (Yin & Yang)—but who are ultimately two sides of the same divine “stick.”
Rastas profess to be monotheists who believe in the God of the Old Testament, whom they refer to as “Jah” (a shortened version of the tetragrammaton, YHWH)—and whose “seat” is Ethiopia (the intended and ultimate home of all African peoples). Their understanding of Jah is quite different from what Jews and Christians traditionally believe and, thus, some argue that Rastas don’t actually believe in the same God as Christians or Jews. It has been said that “Rastas believe that” the Ethiopian emperor “Haile Selassie is both God the Father and God the Son of the holy Trinity, while it is themselves, and potentially all human beings, who embody the Holy Spirit. Thus, the human being is a church that contains the Holy Ghost.” This certainly diverges from the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of Jah (or YHWH) and Jesus Christ and, for that matter, most Christian’s understanding of who or what the Holy Spirit is.
Most Rastas (though not all) believe that Jesus Christ’s second coming happened through Haile Selassie I (the Ethiopian emperor, who was coronated in 1930). Indeed, their name comes from Emperor Selassie’s pre-coronation given name, “Ras Tafari.”
While Rastas are certainly monotheists, some Christians are quite uncomfortable with that claim and, more particularly, with the claim that they are even Christians—though, for Rastas, they are not only Christian monotheists, they are the “true” Christian monotheists descending from the Davidic lineage of the Bible. For Rastafarians, their understanding of the nature of God and Christ (as manifestations of a single being) is more monotheistic than the Trinitarian doctrine espoused by many Christians today.
Eckankar is a religious movement started in 1965 by the spiritual guru or “Mahanta,” Paul Twitchell—and it is sometimes pejoratively classed as part of the “New Age Movement.” Its name—Eckankar—is said to mean “co-worker with God,” and its root, “ECK” is seen as a synonym for the Holy Spirit.
While Eckankar defines itself as monotheistic, its definition of the “one supreme God” doesn’t speak so much of a divine “being” as of divine attributes which can be experienced and manifest by human beings. They define God as follows:
“Do Ekists believe in God? Yes, and more so, they experience God. There are no words to adequately describe the reality of God. Eckankar teaches that there is one supreme God, the Creator; neither male nor female. God’s spiritual essence is divine love, and this life-giving current—the ECK—can be experienced as Light and Sound. Symbolically you can say God is the Ocean of Love and Mercy. Light without shadows. It’s the source of all unconditional love, consciousness, and existence—formed and unformed.”
Thus, this most modern of monotheistic traditions—which draws heavily upon ancient yogic elements and the doctrines of various Asian religions—professes a singular divinity but describes that divinity in abstract ways that focus less on the worship of God and more on the “experience” of light, sound, love and life-giving current.
1/14/2022 6:50:14 PM