When people refer to something as divine, they employ one of the most basic concepts found in any religion. This generalized idea points to a person or a power that is recognized as superhuman, supernatural, godlike, or supremely good. Every religion around the world contains such references. Most of them in daily use are personifications of the supernatural, portrayed in terms that the local population can understand. Even abstract notions about the divine, such as the "ground of being" or "uncaused cause," still emphasize the importance of divine influence in the world, a presence noticed in events that range from private experiences to cosmic phenomena.
Religions in several parts of the world revere a great many separate divine beings, represented in human and animal forms, male and female. But in contemporary Europe and the Americas the predominant orientation is monotheistic. The oldest such tradition is Judaism, whose exclusivist worship of Yahweh or Jehovah dates back to at least the fifth century b.c.e. Forms of Christianity that evolved from Judaism claim this monotheistic focus, too, holding the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as expressions of a single divine being. Islam, the third important faith to emerge in Western culture, professes belief in only one true God, Allah, who is known primarily through revelations made to the prophet Muhammad. Variations and secondary materials related to these monotheistic figures abound, but the primary written sources for information about Jehovah, the Trinity, and Allah are the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament and Apocrypha), the Greek New Testament, and the Arabic Qur'an.
Religious expressions are products of the cultures in which they are formed. Interestingly enough, such expressions often continue long after their nurturing cultural context has changed. The Judeo-Christian tradition still perpetuates references to God as royalty—for instance, using words such as "king," "lord," and "majesty"—even though democracies have replaced most monarchies in modern times. This is perhaps proof that concepts of divinity convey the notion of transcendence or distance from the mundane to maintain dignity and to command respect. Sometimes language about God tends to emphasize power and other fearful aspects associated with divinity. These references are accompanied by stress on human sinfulness and the need for repentance. At other times the central features emphasized about divinity are gentleness and warmth. These positive characteristics usually elicit such human responses as love and thanksgiving.
Cultural change has greatly affected references to divinity that are tied to gender language. Traditionally, the three major Western religions have referred to God as a male, describing divinity usually as an elderly, bearded patriarch. This divine person is naturally described as having the physical appearance that is to be found in the varying ethnic cultures around the globe. In contemporary America, however, this male dominance has been challenged. Some theologians argue that any gender references at all are too restricting, but the majority of critics, affected by the women's liberation movement, have called for simple parity. If the divine can be called "Father" and considered almighty in masculine terms, then divinity should also be called "Mother," they argue, and revered as well in nurturing, feminine terms. Those who seek reform in this area also suggest that biblical terminology should either avoid gender specifics completely or use both male and female forms of language when describing divine activity. This contemporary expansion of references to divinity is not debasing the concept but rather highlighting additional characteristics that can enhance human devotion.
On a more philosophical or abstract level, some people maintain that references to divinity should have no connection with gender or human personality at all. Anything that traps God within categories of this world is, they argue, too demeaning to honor the true nature of divinity. So instead of confining the divine to human form, they suggest it is better to think of God as the fundamental cause of all existence, the creative process that is at work in nature, the ultimate law of cause and effect at work in all of physics and morality. Process philosophers continue such reasoning today as a means of keeping discussions of divinity above mundane trivialities. Many others in contemporary America find this approach agreeable because it allows them to infuse religious commitment into their ecological concerns. Seeking the divine in nature as a sublime ideal, they can move beyond the standard Western religious traditions and yet serve high ideals while working to improve the natural environment around them.
American culture today has also produced a number of groups whose adherents seek divinity in ways that are openly antagonistic to the ways mentioned in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On occasion people of this sort deliberately call themselves witches, meet in covens, and pursue contact with divine beings known variously as Kore, Gaia, Mother Goddess, and Horned God to worship them. Others lay claim to reviving Neolithic sorcery cults. Feminine references predominate in these forms of worship, but male forms are mentioned, too. As multiple expressions of divinity abound, one finds a range of ideas stretching from polytheism to pantheism. Membership in these modern, expressly "neo-pagan" groups is small, their teachings are variable, and their leadership is more dependent on personal charisma than organizational strength. But the presence of such associations as Feraferia, the Church of All Worlds, and scattered clusters of Wiccans is evidence that modern life displays a great many ways in which people refer to divinity. While most contemporary Americans remain content with traditional references to divinity as described in the Bible and the Qur'an there are those who seek religious affirmation in other philosophical concepts, alternative altars, and speculative lifestyles.
Farley, Edward. Divine Empathy: A Theology of God. 1996.
Johnson, Paul G. God and World Religions: Basic Beliefsand Themes. 1997.
Schaefer, Lothar. In Search of Divine Reality: Science as aSource of Inspiration. 1997.
Summerell, Orrin F., ed. The Otherness of God. 1998.
Henry Warner Bowden
di·vin·i·ty / diˈvinitē/ • n. 1. (pl. -ies) the state or quality of being divine: Christ's divinity. ∎ the study of religion; theology: a doctor of divinity. ∎ a divine being; a god or goddess: busts of various Roman divinities. ∎ (the Divinity) God. 2. a fluffy, creamy candy made with stiffly beaten egg whites..