DEITY . As a symbol, deity represents the human struggle at its highest; it represents humanity's effort to discover its identity in confrontation with the limits of its universe. Deity is the symbol of what transcends the human being and the symbol of what lies hidden most deeply within. While other creatures merely accept their environments as a given, human beings exist as such only when they realize both their solidarity with the universe and their distinction from it. In the journey toward self-identity humanity encounters deity. In a cross-cultural context, deity symbolizes the transcendence of all the limitations of human consciousness and the movement of the human spirit toward self-identity through its encounter with the ultimate. Deity symbolizes humanity's knowledge that it is not alone nor the ultimate master of its fate. And yet this knowledge, dim though it may be, associates humanity with this same deity. Deity both transcends and envelops humanity; it is inseparable from humanity's awareness of its own identity and yet is always elusive, hidden, and for some, seemingly nonexistent.
The Polysemy of the Word
Deity is a word with a diversity of meanings. It is an ambiguous and often polemical word. The different interpretations that it has been given show that it is also a relative word.
The word deity is ambiguous. It is not a proper name. It is not even a common name, since its possible referents are hardly homogeneous. It is the product of many and heterogeneous abstractions. Most names referring to divine beings or the divine were originally common names singled out in a peculiar way. What was general became specific, concrete, and, like a single being, evocative of emotion. Thus Allāh probably comes from al-illah, that is, "the God." Ñinyi or Nnui, the name for God among the Bamum of Cameroon, means "he who is everywhere"—and thus is at once concrete and elusive. Yahveh means "he who is" (or "he who shall be"), which becomes being par excellence for Christian Scholasticism. Śiva means "auspicious, benign, kind"—what for the Śaivas represents the highest symbol of the deity stripped of any attribute.
In short, there are gods called Allāh, Nnui, Yahveh, Śiva; but there is no god called Deity. One worships Viṣṇu, or even the Buddha, but one does not worship deity as such. One may worship only a particular deity. We often speak of "major" and "minor" deities in religious traditions. The word deity, in short, has a higher degree of abstractness than does the word God.
In Western antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and up to the present, deity in its adjectival or pronominal form is a word applied to creatures and used without theological misgivings. Works and persons are called "divine" and "deities" because they share in deity in a way in which they would not be said to share in God. Spiritual writers or popular heroes are called "divines" in many languages. The word simply denotes a character of (divine) excellence, which can be shared by many creatures.
The word god was also originally a common name, but soon became the proper name of the one God of the theists (and also of the atheists, for many atheists are merely anti-theists; both live within the mythic horizon of the one personal God, accepting or rejecting it). By extension scholars speak of the African gods, discuss the nature of a supreme god, and the like.
At any rate, deity is not identical with god. One does not believe in deity in the individualized sense in which one may believe in God. Yet one may accept that there is something referred to by the word deity. The referent will always retain a certain mystery and show certain features of freedom, infinity, immanence, transcendence, or the like. For others, this mysterious entity becomes the highest example of superstition, primitivism, unevolved consciousness, and a pretense for exploiting others under the menace of an awesome and imaginary power. The ambiguity of the word is great.
At the same time deity is also a polemical word. It has sometimes stood against some conceptions of God without rejecting the divine altogether. The philosophical Deism of the last centuries in Europe, which developed a concept of the divine more congenial to the natural sciences emerging at the time than to the idea of a personal god, could serve as an example. The deity of the Deists was to substitute for and correct the theos of the theists without discarding the belief in the existence of some supreme being or first cause. Yet this polemic was not new to the eighteenth century. The prolific Greek writer-priest at Delphi, Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 46–c. 119 ce), our first source for the word theotēs, uses it in his polemic against the mythological interpretations of historical heroes as they appeared in the work of Euhemerus of Messina (fl. 300 bce). In the New Testament this word, in the only passage in which it appears (Col. 2:9), is translated by the old Latin deitas, whereas the Vulgate uses the more current divinitas —a word unknown before Cicero (106–43 bce). In the Letter to the Romans 1:20 we find the word theiotes derived from the adjective theios and also translated as divinitas in the Vulgate.
Deity is not only polemical in regard to a personal conception of God. It is polemical also as a symbol of the political use of the divine. We should not forget the wars of religion, the attempted legitimation of power and use of violence in the name of God, gods, and divinity, nor the justification of so many ideologies by slogans such as "In God we trust" or "Gott mit uns." Deity has been all too often the cause of strife and war, sometimes under the guise of peace.
From the perspective of a sociology of knowledge, the modern use of the word deity could be interpreted as the Western effort to open up a broader horizon than that of a monotheistic God but without breaking continuity with tradition. God was a common name. It became a proper name: the Abrahamic God. And it was then that this God came to designate the one God, which Muslims or Christians wanted to propagate around the world. All others were "mere" gods or, at most, inappropriate names for the true God. It is interesting to see how Western scholarship today tries to disentangle itself from its monolithic and colonial mentality. Is the word deity the last bulwark of this attitude?
We may draw two opposing conclusions from the paradoxical fact that this word denotes both the most communicable and the most exclusive aspects of the "divine" reality: everything that is shares a divine character, and nothing—no thing—that is can be said to embody or exhaust the divine, not even the totality of those things that are. In sum: the word says everything, every thing, and nothing, no thing. One legitimate conclusion from this ambiguity may be that one should avoid the word altogether or speak of deities in the plural as special superhuman (divine) entities.
There is another possible conclusion, however. Precisely because of its polysemic nature, this word may become a fundamental category for the study and understanding of religion. The subject matter of religion would then be related to deity, and not just to God or to gods. Polysemy does not need to mean confusion. It means a richness of meanings, a variety of senses. Deity could then become a true word, that is, a symbol not yet eroded by habit, rather than a univocal concept.
I should now try to describe the field of the symbol "deity" and study its structure. Regarding its field I shall analyze the means of approach to this symbol in its broadest aspect. Then, I shall examine the structure of deity by analyzing the different avenues, contexts, and perspectives under which deity has been studied. I shall then mention the structure of human consciousness when referring to deity. I shall further briefly compare deity with other equally broad categories in order to get a more accurate picture, and finally I shall try to summarize my findings.
An Approach to Deity
This article does not deal primarily with the concept of God as it is generally understood in the Western world, and therefore it is not necessary to discuss, for instance, atheism or the nature of God. Further, this essay's cross-cultural perspective requires that the viewpoints of other cultures be integrated with our own instead of simply reported. Still we are engaged in what is predominantly a Western activity: taking a perspective from one tradition (as betrayed by the very use of the word deity ) and expanding it in order to achieve a more universal viewpoint.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) provides us with a caution: "Deity appears only in the highest performance of thinking." We must keep in mind at the very outset that discourse about deity is unique, because the locus of deity is beyond both the things of the senses and the things of the intellect. Yet the way to deity belongs to the dynamism of our intellect. This is expressed in the first sentence of the Brahma Sūtra: "Athāto brahmajijñāsā" ("Now therefore the desire to know brahman "). The text refers to the "desiderative knowledge" or the "knowing desire" (jijñāsā ), which arises out of an existential situation (atha ). It liberates us from the weight of selfishness (ahaṃkāra ), permitting us to soar in the search for deity. The process follows both an existential and an intellectual path, with no separation between pure and practical reason. Deity is as much at the beginning as at the end of the human quest—and also in between. The search requires purity of mind, strength of will, and a change of life.
While speaking of deity we have already had occasion to refer to God, and we now introduce brahman. Do all these words designate the same "thing"? Or have they at least the same meaning?
Brahman is certainly not the one true and living God of the Abrahamic traditions. Nor can it be said that Shang-ti or kami are the same as brahman. And yet they are not totally unrelated. Can we affirm that all those names refer to deity as a broad category? Is deity perhaps the common name for God, the godhead, the divine, brahman, mana, and so forth?
To begin with, it must be stressed that brahman and God, for instance, are not the same. The one is passive and does not need to care, it is at the bottom of everything and is the very condition of possibility for all that there is. The other is active and provident; it is above everything, personal, the creator of all that is. But they are not so different as to make the translation of the one by the other totally inaccurate. The Christian Scholastics, while affirming the ineffability of divine names, did not deny that some names are more applicable than others. We shall call brahman and God homeomorphic equivalents, because they perform corresponding yet different functions in their respective systems.
It is tempting to use the word deity as an abstract noun for all such homeomorphic equivalents. Deity would then refer to God, kami, brahman, Zeus, Rudra, Tien, the Dao, El, Baal, Urðr, Re, Kālī, and so on. This enterprise is relatively simple as long as we remain within more or less homologous cultures, making it easier to find common properties like infinity, omniscience, goodness, immutability, omnipotence, simplicity, unity, and so on. But when we attempt to include such properties as futurity, nothingness, or illusion, we find that these attributes are not at all common and are incompatible with the previous ones. In point of fact there is no common structure other than the purely formal one of being a vague something different from and perhaps superior to human beings, and sometimes only apparently so. Deity would then be a purely formal concept with no significant content whatsoever.
We may note the tendency, especially common to the West, to universalize what is familiar, as in the following sentences: "The Christian God is an absolute value for all; modern technology is fit for the entire world; the natural sciences are universally valid; truth is universal." We shall have to avoid such pretension if we are to take other cultures as seriously as we take Western cultures. The word deity cannot encompass all that other traditions have said about what in one group of cultures can be rendered by deity. Were we to use the term brahman or kami instead of deity, our meaning would change. The context being different, the results would also be different. Thus we must be careful in making extrapolations and avoid generalizations that are not warranted by the self-understanding of the different cultures of the world.
With these preliminary warnings in mind, we may now examine the distinction between God and deity. This distinction was known to medieval Christianity and was given clear expression by Meister Eckhart in his distinction between the godhead and God. The godhead, or deity, is as far from God as heaven is from earth. Deity is here the inner and passive aspect of the divine mystery and is related to the deus absconditus that was much commented upon during the patristic period. God, on the other hand, would be the outer and active aspect of the same mystery. Be this as it may, however, we will use the word deity, in distinction to godhead, to mean not just God's essence (as in Thomas Aquinas) or the "God beyond God" or the ground of God (as in Eckhart), but simply that divine dimension elusively present everywhere, which only our highest thinking performance can glimpse and which is the goal of our existential human quest.
Deity, then, not only may denote God or gods as substantial beings but also may be used as a generic name connoting all those forces, energies, entities, ideas, powers, and the like that come from "above" or "beyond" the human realm. In this sense deity represents the element of reality that belongs neither to the material world nor to the merely human realm but is above or beyond the sensible and intellectual order. Deity may thus stand for one of the three dimensions of reality that practically all human traditions reveal. First, there is the realm of heaven: the gods, the superhuman powers, the supraintelligible. Then there is the realm of the human: consciousness, ethics, life, mind, the intelligible, and so forth. And finally, the realm of the earth: the cosmic, the material, the spatiotemporal reality, the sensible, and so on.
We cannot proceed further in the study of the human approach to deity until we examine the nature of the "thing" we are trying to investigate. It is irrelevant now whether the world of deity is the paradigm of the human world, in which case the latter would be only a shadow of the real, or whether on the other hand the divine universe is only a projection of the unfulfilled desires of humans. The fact remains that the human experience crystallized in language witnesses to the existence of such a divine world, be it populated by daimones or by theoi, by deva s, elohim, spirits of all types, the one God, or by nobody. Have we a common name to designate that universe? Can we say that this is the world of deity? For this we need a historical interlude.
How have human beings come to the notion of deity? For some scholars this notion has been the result of an inference of some type of causal thinking. Deity is then a supreme being or beings, of a celestial or other type. The human question about the origin of life, the world, and the like triggers the search for a cause that then will be "located" in whatever place appears to be more appropriate for the dwelling of a supreme being or beings, whether in the heavens or in the earth. Others would see the origin of deity not so much in the intellectual quest as in the existential anxiety of the human being facing the elemental mysteries of life and nature. Still others have seen the search for deity as based neither on causal thinking, nor on anxious feeling, but on simple awareness.
For others deity is the disclosure of a supreme being through its own initiative, which explains why man has come to the idea of deity. If such a supreme being exists, even if its "revelation" is progressive and related to the intellectual development of the peoples concerned, it is always from that power that the first step comes.
Contemporary discussions are the aftermath of that great controversy of past decades about the origin of the idea of God, a controversy that resulted from the conflict of the emerging theory of evolution with traditional beliefs in God. Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), rejecting the evolutionary scheme, searched for traces of a primitive revelation of a "primordial monotheism" among primitive peoples. Schmidt was elaborating the insights of Andrew Lang (1844–1912), who had argued for the existence of a belief in supreme beings among archaic peoples, in opposition to the then pervasive theory of primitive animism, represented by E. B. Tylor (1832–1917). Finally, atheistic movements—scientific, dialectical, or historical—will make of deity a superfluous hypothesis, an artificial tool for the subjection of humans, an undue extrapolation of our present ignorance, a mere illusion to console us in the midst of our impotencies.
It seems fair to say that the most universal, primordial human experience is neither monotheistic, nonatheistic, nor polytheistic but rather a deep-rooted belief in a divine world, a world populated by different kinds of superhuman beings or forces. Whether those beings are one or many, whether they represent a polytheistic hierarchy or an Urmonotheismus, is not the most important point. What is most important is that these beliefs express a human experience that says that man is not alone in the universe and that the sensible world is not all there is to reality. This is made clear not only by innumerable oral traditions and written texts in nearly every culture but also by the existence of a veritable jungle of names for the divine. All human languages have an enormous treasure of words denoting the super- or extrahuman realm. It belongs to a second moment of human reflection to try to put order into that world, to assign to it its degree of reality, to decide what kind of hierarchy reigns there, and to elucidate the relationship of that world with the human world and the rest of the universe. One does not prove the existence of deity in a primordial civilization. The gods are simply there.
The Structure of Deity
Historical investigation is only a part of the question about deity. How people have come to this idea is less important than the structure of the idea itself. This structure is not an "objective" datum, however. It is in part a function of human interest. We have here an example of how any human enterprise is motivated and conditioned by human interests and prevailing myth. Because deity has no detectable referent outside human consciousness, its structure depends in part on one's opinions about it and on those of any human consciousness for which the notion makes sense. In other words, what deity is is inseparable from what people have believed it to be.
We must try then to make sense of the ideas and experiences humankind has had on the subject. For this we must attempt to understand the context in which the problem has been put. This leads us to distinguish between the methods that can be employed to elucidate the question and the horizons within which the problem of deity is set. The main methods are theological, anthropological, and philosophical. These methods are all interrelated, and distinguishing them is really a question of emphasis. The possible horizons of the problem consist of the presuppositions that we make about what we are looking for when we set about asking about deity and its origins. Horizons are a function of our universe and of the myths we live by. I shall distinguish three such horizons. Combining these with the methods just mentioned would give nine different sets of notions about deity. Brevity requires, however, that I do not develop these nine representations of the divine. I will describe only the three fundamental horizons that predetermine the question of deity.
In order to understand what kind of deity we are talking about, it is essential to reflect on the horizon of the question. Is the deity to be conceived as absolute consciousness? As a supreme being? As the perfect, ideal individual? Or as the creator of the world? In short, where do we situate the divine? Where is the locus of deity? The horizons are, of course, dependent on the culture of any given time or place. Viewed structurally, however, the function of deity always seems to provide an ultimate point of reference. We may situate this point outside the universe or at its center, in the depths of man (in his mind or heart), or simply nowhere. Cosmology, anthropology, and ontology offer us the three main horizons.
The human being in ancient times lived facing the world. The main concern was the universe as a human habitat. Humanity's vision is directed toward things in heaven and on earth. The horizon of deity is precisely this universe, but not just as one thing among others. The locus is metacosmological. Deity is here related to the world. Certainly, it may be identified as immanent to the world, or more probably transcendent to it, but deity is the deity of the world, and the world is the deity's world. What type of function or functions deity is supposed to perform and what kind of relation it has with the world are left to the different cosmologies and traditions. In any case, deity is a kind of pole to the world, a prime mover that sets the world into motion, sustains it, directs it, and even creates it. A temporal metaphor can be used to say the same thing. In this case, the deity is represented as the beginning, present before the big bang, or at the end of the evolution of the physical universe, as the omega point. Or the deity may be both alpha and omega, at the beginning and at the end of the universe. The most common name for this deity is "God," whether this be Varuṇa, "supreme lord, ruling the spheres" (Ṛgveda 1.25.20), or Yahveh who "made heaven and earth" (Gn. 1:1). This God is "that from which truly all beings are born, by which when born they live, and into which they all return" (Taittirīya Upaniṣad 3.1). This God is the pantokratōr of many traditions, Eastern and Western. Even the deus otiosus belongs to this group. Deity is here a metacosmological category. Its most salient feature is its infinity. The world we experience is contingent, and all things are transient, finite. Only the deity is infinite.
At a certain moment in history the main interest of humanity was no longer nature or the world outside, above and mysterious, but humanity itself. Humanity's visions were directed toward the inner recesses of the human spirit: the feelings, the mind. The locus of deity is here the human realm, but not just a human field made wider. It has to be deeper as well. The locus is meta-anthropological.
Here deity is seen as the symbol for the perfection of the human being. The notion of deity does not come so much as the fruit of reflection on the cosmos or as an experience of its numinous character as it does from anthropological self-awareness. Deity is the fullness of the human heart, the real destiny of man, the leader of the people, the beloved of the mystics, the lord of history, the full realization of what we really are. This deity does not need to be anthropomorphic, although it may present some such traits. Deity is here ātman-brahman, the fully divinized man, the Christ, the puruṣa, or even the symbol of justice, peace, and a happy society. Here deity may be considered immanent or tran-scendent, identified with or distinguishable from man, but its functions are related to the human being. It is a living, loving, or menacing deity, inspiring, caring, punishing, rewarding, and forgiving. In this deity all pilgrimage ends, all longing disappears, all thoughts recoil, and all sin is blotted out. The deity is a meta-anthropological category.
The vexed problem of divine personality belongs here, as do psychological analyses of human belief in deity. The most salient feature of this horizon, however, is the attribute of freedom. The deity is here freedom itself, liberating man from his often painful limitations. Modern theologies of liberation belong here, as does the notion of a god acting in history.
We are told that the culmination of man's development is self-awareness. The power of reflection makes Homo sapiens the superior being that he believes himself to be. The locus of the deity here cannot be just a superman or a ground of the world. It has to be a superbeing. The locus is meta-ontological.
Humanity is proud of the human power of abstraction. Deity is here not only beyond the physical world but also outside any natural realm, including that of the human world, the intellect, the desires, and the will. Deity is totally above and beyond nature, including human nature. The transcendence or otherness of deity is here so absolute that it transcends itself, and thus it can no longer be called transcendence. Deity does not exist; it is meta-ontological, beyond being. It is not even nonbeing. The apophatism is absolute. The deity neither is nor exists, nor is it thinkable or speakable. Silence is the only proper attitude toward it, not because we are incapable of speaking about it, but because silence is what befits it. This silence neither hides nor reveals. It is silence because it says nothing, there being nothing to say. Possible names for this deity are śūnyatā, Neither Being nor Nonbeing, Huperon, and so on. Deity is here a meta-ontological reality. Seen from below, as it were, it belongs to the unthinkable. Seen from within, it belongs to the unthought. To think about it would be idolatry.
Here we encounter the problem of the nothingness of deity, the radical apophatism developed in many traditions. The most salient feature here is immanence and transcendence, the two belonging together. Deity is the immanence and transcendence inserted in the heart of every being.
We should hasten to add that these three horizons are not mutually exclusive. Many a thinker in many a tradition has tried to elaborate a conception of deity embracing all three. Within Hinduism, for instance, nirguṇa brahman would correspond to the third type, saguṇa brahman to the first, and īśvara might be the personal deity of the devotee. Similarly, the Christian Scholastic tradition would like to combine God, the prime mover (the first type), with the personal God of the believers (the second type), and that of the mystics (the third type). How far all three can be reduced to an intelligible unity is a philosophical and theological problem that different traditions try to solve in different ways.
The morphological traits of deity may be summarized according to these three horizons, suggesting a threefold structure for deity. The ultimate experience of the meta-ontological deity is the character of the "I." Deity is the ultimate "I," the final subject of activity. "Who am I?" The "I" who can respond to this question without further questioning is the ultimate "I," the deity.
The meta-anthropological deity represents the experience of the "thou." In the human urge toward the deity this latter appears as the ultimate "thou" with whom dialogue and human relations can be established.
The deity as the ultimate cause and prime mover of the world is the "he, she, or it" that only an inference discloses. One speaks of this deity always in the third person.
We may now turn to the different methods used in the attempt to understand deity. Whatever deity may be, it is neither a sensible nor an intelligible thing. The deity is neither a visible thing nor a mere thought. Modern hermeneutics speaks of "pre-understanding" as a necessary condition of understanding, of a "hermeneutical circle" that is needed in all interpretation. Within the realm of sensible or intelligible objects we may be able to ascertain what pre-understanding is. We acquire an idea of the whole, which we may modify while investigating the parts. It is on the basis of this pre-understanding that a given method is applied to understanding an object. But how can this be done in the case of deity? If every method implies a proleptic jump into the alleged object, a coming back to our starting point, and a methodical process afterward, it is difficult to see how such a method can be applied in our attempt to understand deity. We do not know in which direction we should make the first jump nor with what instruments to approach it—unless we start from the received tradition or with an authentic mystical experience. This amounts to saying that we renounce finding a method of searching for deity and replace it by methods of research, interpreting the opinions of people about it. We know, further, that if we start with some "instruments," the results will greatly depend on the nature of those instruments. We can then neither jump (if we do not know the direction) nor come back (if the subject matter is beyond the senses and the intellect). In a word, the method for seeking the deity is sui generis—if indeed there is a method at all.
How do we come to a pre-understanding of deity? We may receive it from tradition. In the case of a direct mystical experience there is not a pre-understanding but an immediate insight that the mystic afterward explicates in terms of the culture in which he or she lives, and so ultimately it comes to the same thing. The mystic needs a post-understanding, as it were, in terms of his or her time and culture, which amounts to an initial pre-understanding for all the others. The pre-understanding of deity is, therefore, a traditional datum. Now, there are three main attitudes toward this datum. If one accepts it as a starting point and proceeds to a critical effort at understanding it, this is the theological method. The theologian tries to clarify something from within. If one tries to bracket one's personal beliefs and attempts to decipher the immense variety of opinions throughout the ages regarding the idea of deity, this is the phenomenological method. The datum is then the sediment of the history of human consciousness. Finally, if one reflects on one's own experience, enriched as much as possible by the thoughts of others, this is the philosophical method.
These methods are not mutually exclusive, and all three play a role in the human quest for deity. All are required and they imply each other. We distinguish between them for heuristic reasons only. Each one presents divisions and subdivisions. Sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so forth are among the important disciplines within these three approaches, each with its own particular methods.
We refer to methods in the plural, for there is not one single theological, phenomenological, or philosophical method. Each of these approaches presents a variety of methods. What we describe here is only a general pattern of methods, which acquire a proper physiognomy when applied to particular cases.
The theological method begins with an accepted datum: there exists a world of the gods, the world of deity. We will therefore have to clarify and eventually justify the raison d'être of such a world, but we do not necessarily have to prove its existence. In short, the origin of the idea of deity is the deity itself—whatever this deity may be. This forms the core of the so-called ontological argument and of any religious enterprise that wants to clarify the nature of deity. Deity could not be known if it did not exist. The theological problem here consists of determining what kind of existence this is. When Thomas Aquinas, for instance, ends each one of his five proofs for the existence of God by saying "and that is what all call God," he shows his theological method of clarifying the existence of something that we already call God. The deity was already there, certainly, as an idea, but also as a reality that hardly anyone doubted, although its rationality had to be demonstrated and its existence verified as real and not merely apparent. Theological proofs thus presuppose faith and only prove that such faith is rational. They are a form of fides quaerens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding").
We have already indicated that each combination of method and horizon yields a distinct picture of deity. In fact, theological methods have been mainly combined with the cosmological and the ontological horizons. They have been less conversant with the anthropological one, and this explains the uneasiness in theological circles when dealing with the emerging sciences of man, like psychology and sociology. The theological dialogues with Freud, Jung, and Weber are typical examples. There are serious studies on the psychology and sociology of religion, but little attention has been given to the psychology and sociology of deity from a theological perspective. Hans Urs von Balthasar's work on a theology of aesthetics is a notable exception.
The phenomenological method could also be described as morphological, or even historical, since it is used in the new science of religions, often called the history of religions. On the whole there is a consensus regarding the phenomenological method, as the study of people's beliefs drawn from their own self-understanding, as reflected in the critical consciousness of the scholar. Here is the place for a typology of the conceptions of deity. This method is important today, in a world in which people of different religions mingle in the concerns of daily life, that is, in the stresses of technological civilization.
Use of the phenomenological method uncovers an immense variety of types of deity. We find the so-called animistic conception of deity as an all-pervading and living force animating everything that there is. We find so-called polytheism, the presence of many "gods" as supernatural entities with different powers and functions. We find so-called deism as the belief in a supreme being, probably a creator, who is afterward passive in relation to his creation, a notion that excludes any kind of specially revealed god. We find monotheism of the type of the Abrahamic religions, religions of a living, provident, and creator god. We find the various theisms that modify the exclusiveness of the monotheistic model, and pantheism, the identification of the deity with the universe. We also find all sorts of atheisms, as reactions to theism and especially to monotheism. And of course we find a number of distinctions and qualifications of these broad notions that are intended to respond to the demands of reason or answer difficulties raised by particular or collective experiences.
These types, and the changes that they have undergone through the ages, have been the subject of many useful and comprehensive studies by well-known scholars like Mircea Eliade, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Geo Widengren, Kurt Goldammer, W. Bede Kristensen, and Friedrich Heiler. With the possible exception of Widengren, none of these authors uses the notion of God as a major religious category. Even Widengren, who emphatically wants to distinguish religion from magic, while affirming that "faith in God constitutes the intimate essence of religion," has a very large idea of what God means. All the others recognize that there is a particular sphere that is at the center of religious life.
The philosophical method proceeds differently, although, in ways, not totally disconnected from those of the previous ones. Pascal's famous mémorial, which was found stitched in his coat after his death, "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars," has since served in the West to emphasize this difference. Without entering into the discussion of whether the "living God" is the actus purus or whether one can fall in love with the prime mover, the quintessence of the philosophical method consists in the willingness to question everything. The philosophical method is that of the radical question, be it the question of salvation, mokṣa, happiness, or whatever form in which it may be conceived. It is within this framework that the question of deity appears. Here in a cloud either of knowledge or of unknowing, in a science of good and evil, lies the philosophical locus of deity. This locus is the ultimate question, even if there is no final answer.
When this ultimate locus is considered to be being, the question of deity turns out to be what Heidegger calls an "onto-theology," a reflection on the being of beings. Here, the philosophical method meets the historical controversy. Is deity the highest being or is it being as such? In the latter case it cannot be a supreme being. The ontological difference is not the theological one. The history of religions puts the same question by simply asking how the supreme being is related to the entire reality. This polarity between being and supreme being permeates most of the conceptions about deity. We could phrase it as the polarity between the deity of the intellectuals (being) and the deity of the people (supreme being). A more academic way of saying it is this: deity may appear as a result of a thinking reflection (discovering being) or an existential attitude (requiring a supreme being). For the former, deity is the subsisting being, source of being, the foundation, the being "being" in all beings. For the latter, deity is the supreme being, the lord, the divine person, the ultimate in the pyramid of reality. The former conception will have to clarify the relation between deity as a ground of being and an undetermined and general ens commune. The latter will have to define the relation between deity as esse subsistens and the rest of beings that the deity creates, rules, and directs.
Is deity being (Sein, sat, esse ) or the supreme being (höchstes Seiendes, paramatman, ens realissimum )? One can think about the first, but one cannot worship it. One can adore the second and trust in it, but this God cannot be reasoned about; it is corroded by thinking.
If the philosophical locus of the deity is the ultimate question, we may find as many conceptions of deity as there are ultimate questions. Thus the many and varied answers. The diversity of religions can also be explained from this perspective. Religions give different answers to ultimate questions, and the questions themselves are different. But philosophical reflection may ask still further: what is it that prompts man to ask the ultimate question, whatever this question may be? Why is man an asking being, ever thirsty for questions?
In a word, the issue of the deity has to do with the peculiarity of man as a questioning animal. "God acts without a why and does not know any why," says Meister Eckhart. What prompts man to question is ultimately the consciousness of not being realized, of not knowing, of being finite. This consciousness can be expressed as the anthropological discovery that man is imperfect, still in the making; the cosmological observation that the universe is moving, that is, also still becoming; or the ontological thought of nothingness lurking over being. In sum, the problem of becoming emerges here as the theological problem par excellence. If becoming is possible, it is because being is still "being." What covers this gap between being and becoming (encompassing or not encompassing the two) is the locus of the deity: it keeps open the flow of being.
The Texture of Human Consciousness of Deity
The different perspectives on the human approach to deity that we have found end in a healthy pluralism: reality is itself pluralistic. We cannot, of course, encompass this plurality in a unified scheme of intelligibility on a universal scale. Yet if we keep in mind our particular situation in time and place and its various viewpoints and prejudices, we may venture some further valid considerations.
Our point of departure is the lost innocence of our present situation. Whatever deity may be, whatever peoples of other epochs have felt, thought, or believed about deity, even if they have told us that it was the deity itself who spoke to them, it remains always the conviction of contemporary man that all relation to deity takes place in and through human consciousness. This in no way weakens the reality or the objectivity of deity. It only affirms that human consciousness is always a fellow traveler in this journey. If we want to reach a consensus regarding the many opinions on the nature of deity, we shall have to fall back upon the texture of our consciousness, even while accepting that deity may be much more than an act or content of consciousness and that this consciousness may vary with time and place and even be shaped by the power of deity.
In view of the many opinions about deity we have to rely upon the one factor that is common to them all, namely the human consciousness that uses the word deity or its homeomorphic equivalents. Deity has this one constitutive feature: it is disclosed to us in an act of consciousness, an act of consciousness that, in spite of having a transcendent intentionality, has no verifiable referent outside of consciousness. The reference of the word deity, in fact, is neither visible nor intelligible, and yet every culture in the world witnesses to the fact that men constantly speak about a "something" that transcends all other parameters. We have then to rely on the cultural documents of the past and the present that witness to this tertium we call deity.
We rely on the fact that people have meant something when using this word or its equivalents. The analysis of deity is based therefore not on the empirical presence of the object nor on the immediate evidence of thought but on tradition in its precise and etymological meaning, that is, on some cultural good that is being transmitted to us. One exception seems to be the case of mystics, who say that they have directly experienced this extra-empirical and supra-intellectual reality. Yet the moment that the mystics speak they have to fall back upon their consciousness. The thought and speech of the divine belong to that unique field of human consciousness whose contents are disclosed in the very experience that has them and nowhere else. This explains the elusive character of the divine and also accounts for the fact that the question is more important than the answer.
Deity is visible only in its alleged manifestations—and there is no way to make visible the manifesting power beyond what is manifested. Nicholas of Cusa says pointedly that God is the invisibility of the visible world, just as the world is the appearance of the invisible God.
Nor is deity intelligible. It would cease to be divine if we could grasp its meaning as something belonging to the human or worldly sphere. The divine is not subject to observation, nor can there be a science of the divine. Thus Meister Eckhart says that we must transcend not only the things of the imagination but even those of the understanding.
Long before Śaṅkara, the Indian world made crucial the distinction between appearance and reality and recognized that the latter transcends both the senses and the mind. The short Kena Upsaniṣad is perhaps one of the best scriptural texts to underline the transcendence and immanence of the deity:
That which cannot be expressed by words but by which the word is expressed … That which cannot be thought by the mind, but that by which, they say, the mind is thought … That which cannot be seen by the eye, but that by which the eyes have sight.… It is not understood by those who understand; it is understood by those who do not understand. (1.5ff, 2.3)
In sum, of the divine there is only logos ("word"): theologia. But it is a logos irreducible to nous; that is, it is a word only revealed in the experience itself. This does not allow us to conclude that the divine is just a subjective state of experience. All things are related to states of experience, but of all others we have a communicable referent; we can get at the res nominis, that is, at the thing named. This is not the case with the divine. The res nominis is in the ratio nominis, that is, in the meaning of the name itself. And this is what has made theological and religious disputes so uncompromisingly serious. The names of God are all we have. Considering names as mere labels of things (as in nominalism) is the proper procedure of modern science, but this method is not adequate if applied to deity. Without the names we have no way of reaching the referent.
The names of deity are also different from abstract names like justice and beauty. We may infer the meaning of justice by observing a certain pattern of behavior among people and acquire some sense of beauty by contrasting some of our experiences with similar ones of other people. Both human behavior and sensible objects fall in the category of commonly shared experiences. In other words, the referent in all these cases is verifiable outside of consciousness although not independent of it. This is not the case with deity. We cannot verify it as an object outside the field of our own consciousness, nor can we compare our states of consciousness as we can in the case of other abstract concepts. In this latter case we can point to the things or acts reflecting, revealing, or somehow defining the meaning we give to such words. In the case of deity we can certainly infer the idea people have of it from what they say and do, but there is one difference: a dimension of transcendence, of ineffability, inadequacy, ultimacy, or uniqueness, which necessarily leaves a gap between the manifested and its source. This is the reason why some traditions have postulated a special "seventh" sense related to the divine, which is neither reducible to the five senses nor to the "sixth" sense of the intellect.
Now, to affirm that all the names of deity mean ultimately the same thing assumes at the start that "our" name is the real one. We make of our conception of it, expressed in the name we give it, the pattern for all other conceptions. The name we give it would then name the "thing" that is supposed to have other names as well. This is not the case. Not everybody is looking for the same thing, either the ultimate cause, the ground of being, or absolute nothingness, if any of these is what we mean by deity. Much less are the worshipers of Kālī ready to give up their practice and worship Allāh, or true Christians ready to deny Christ and adore Caesar. Deity is not a Kantian "thing in itself." Words matter. The conception we have of deity is certainly not identical with its reality. But it is our way of access to it, which we cannot deny without betraying ourselves. Martyrdom for the sake of a name is a human fact not reducible to sheer fanaticism.
The name we give it, or the name anyone else gives it, does not exhaust the nature of deity. Strictly speaking we do not name it. We only refer to him, her, or it. Or we simply believe, call, pray, shout, dance, or whatever. Deity is not an object of naming but of invocation. Deity is what we appeal to, implore, and worship precisely because it is beyond our apprehending faculties.
In the Greek tradition theos is a predicative name. Things are divine, and a particular entity is godly. Theos is an attribute. God is not a concept but a name. But when the name loses its power no amount of conceptualization can give it back.
There has been a shift in the idea of deity from the predicate to the subject. This is a great revolution. In the West this could be said to represent the genius of the Abrahamic traditions. While many traditions say that light, love, or goodness is God, that is, divine ("Truth is God" was a slogan of Mohandas Gandhi), the New Testament reverses the sentence and affirms that God is light, love, or goodness. Something similar could be said of the great Upanisadic revolution: in the Upaniṣads we witness the passage of the god of the third person (the Vedic gods) to the god of the first person (aham brahman, "I am brahman ") by means of the second person (tat tvam asi, "that thou art"). The revelation of the "I" dawns in the very realization of the aspirant to liberation; the "I" is not a third person (he, she, it, or even they). The language of the deity cannot be the third person. The deity has to be the first person. It is only the real "I" when it says "I," or rather when "I" says "I," and more exactly when I say "I." This is what is called realization—the realization of the I (by the I). Only the I can say "I."
At any rate the divine is so linked to our state of consciousness that there is no way of deciding what ontic status it has outside the ontological statement. Or, rather, the deity has no ontic status. An ontological statement has an accepted currency only with people who share in the same myth, one in which a particular form of the divine is taken for granted.
The claim to universality is the temptation of any complex and sophisticated culture. This aspiration to universality is built into human nature. But we often fail to recognize that we cannot make a claim for universality in our own terms, which are far from being universal.
Meaningful talk about the divine is thus restricted to those belonging to the same mythical sphere. Others will hear but not really understand. Each culture or subculture has a myth in which their particular form of the divine is possible and talked about. In this sense it cannot be generalized. It is restricted to those of the same faith, to the initiated. Properly speaking, we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the divine. We are already taking it for granted, which is the function of any myth, that is, to offer the unquestioned horizon of intelligibility where our words are meaningful.
And yet the world of deity is an ever-recurrent world in the history of mankind. What do all these traditions refer to? If asked, believers might answer that the divine is not just a purely subjective state of consciousness; most will assert that they refer to the highest realm of reality, a realm so high that it is beyond the reach of human powers. And yet they continue to speak of it. It belongs to their myth. The myth is the locus of belief. It is only when pressed by those outside their group that they concede that there is no possibility of showing any referent in the world of common human experience. At most they may point to an homeomorphic experience if they have found a language of communication.
What is, then, the content of such an experience of deity? We have said that the content of the experience is inseparable from the experience itself, so that it cannot be "shown" outside the experience: the divine is neither sensible nor intelligible. Is there something else? Common sense and historical evidence say that of course there is something else, since everybody seems to speak about the divine in one form or another. The critical mind will say that it makes no sense to speak about something that we cannot think. That is why many a philosopher feels more comfortable calling the content of that experience nothingness. All theology ends by being apophatic.
From these considerations we may infer that there is something in human consciousness that points to something beyond, and yet we are unable to "locate" it outside that consciousness. God has been described as a "transcending center of intention" (John E. Smith). No wonder that many thinkers in both the East and West then identify deity with consciousness in its highest form. Others defend a sort of transcendental dynamism of human consciousness toward a superior and perfect form of consciousness, which they then call divine. Still others affirm that it is only a pathological growth of our own consciousness, triggered perhaps by fear of the unknown or fostered by religious priestcraft for the sake of power. Finally, while recognizing both the divine immanence of human consciousness and the human intentionality toward a divine transcendent consciousness, some do not dare to consider deity as the all-encompassing reality but only as a dimension of it. Reality is primary to consciousness. Consciousness is always consciousness of, of reality, of being, even of itself. This last is the noēsis noēseōs of Aristotle, the absolute reflection of Hegel, and the svayamprakāśa ("self-illumination") of Vedānta. Now pure consciousness cannot be of anything, not even of itself. This is what lets Vedānta say that brahman is not even conscious of being brahman. It is Īśvara, the Lord, who is the full consciousness of brahman. Something similar could be said of the Father, the plenitudo fontalis of the Christian Trinity.
The Deity between God and the Sacred
Having tried to present the problematic of deity in its broadest aspect, we may ask whether speaking of "the divine" is not preferable to speaking of "deity." It may better describe what we are looking for, namely a super- or metacategory that can serve to express the religious phenomenon in its universality. In fact, deity, because its grammatical form is substantive, suggests a certain kind of substantialization that is inappropriate for many religious traditions, which we could call the nāstikā s or anātmavādin s (such as the Buddhists who say that there is no God because there is no substance). Thus, in spite of some modern efforts at adaptation, the Buddhist world, for one, feels uncomfortable with the word deity —although not, of course, with deities.
There is another category of similar generality that has often been presented as the center of the religious traditions of humankind. Every religion, we are told, deals with the sacred. It was Nathan Söderblom who, in 1913, described the notion of holiness as even more essential than the notion of God. For Söderblom, there is no real religion without a distinction between the holy and the profane. Mircea Eliade is today the most important spokesman for the centrality of the sacred as the religious phenomenon par excellence. But, we may ask, if the sacred is the central category of religion, what is the place and role of deity?
There is a danger in wanting to reduce the immense jungle of man's religious experience, as crystallized in the different religions of the world, to a single category or even to a single set of categories. Even if this were possible, its only purpose would be to give a panoramic and coherent picture of the whole. But what cannot be universalized is precisely the perspective of the observer. Let us assume that the sacred is a convincing category for understanding and describing religious phenomena. It would still be true that it is only a suitable category for us—that is, a very special class of readers in time and space. If our parameters of understanding change, then the perspective must also vary. In short, we cannot universalize our perspective, and a "global perspective" is obviously a contradiction in terms. There is thus room for more than one attempt to focus the religious experience of man. Let me try then to point out the locus of deity in the panorama of human religious experience and distinguish it from the sacred.
One feature seems to permeate all the varied meanings of deity: personality. Deity does not need to be a substance nor a person in the modern sense of the word. But on the other hand, deity does not denote merely a character of things, as does the word sacred. Deity is a source of action, an active element, a spontaneous factor: it is free. Its actions cannot be anticipated; it has initiative. We cannot deal with deity as with an object that we can imprison in the web of our thoughts. Deity has a mysterious quality of being able to act and not just react, to take the lead, even if in a purely passive way.
We should distinguish between personality and person on the one hand and person and substance on the other. We may recall that the concept of person in the West was developed not as a meditation on man but as a theological problem. To speak of the personality of deity is no more an anthropomorphism than is speaking of God as a supreme being, which some would call an anthropomorphism simply because man is also a being. Here the polemical aspect of the notion of deity comes to the fore. Almost everyone will admit that there is a third dimension in reality, since man and the world, as they are experienced by us, do not exhaust that other pole that is neither man nor the world as we experience them now. But not everyone is prepared to admit that this third pole has personality, that is, that it is endowed with freedom, is a source of action, has an identity, and is relationship.
In this sense, the concept of deity is not just the idea that there is a third pole in reality. Nor is it identical with the concept of God. It stands between the sacred and God. It shares with the former its immanence and with the latter its personality (in the sense we have indicated). But while the concept of God seems to imply a certain substance, the idea of deity does not need to present this characteristic. It says only that this third dimension is not a mere mental hypothesis, a piece of mental equipment necessary for making sense of reality or merely something to fill in the gaps in our understanding. The notion of deity affirms boldly that this other dimension is real, that is, active, free, efficacious, and powerful on its own account. But it does not make it independent of the two other poles and thus not even independent of our conceptions of it. In a word, deity connotes the highest form of life.
This cross-cultural approach to the mystery of deity has one liberating consequence. It liberates us from the many aporias that, for centuries, have tortured the human mind as it attempts to consider God as the supreme being. Among these are the questions: is it personal or impersonal? If almighty, how can it condone evil? If infinite, what is the place of finite beings? If absolutely free, why can it not make two and two equal five? If omniscient, what about human freedom? Subtle theological and philosophical answers have been put forward. But the answers could be made simpler by cutting the Gordian knot of a universal theory about God and rediscovering the divine as a true dimension of reality.
Whether the word deity means a plurality of divine beings, absolute consciousness, perfect happiness, the supreme being, a divine character of beings, or being as such, thought about deity has no referent. At the same time it seems to be one of the most unvarying and powerful factors in human life throughout ages and across cultures. Words referring to deity or its homeomorphic equivalents are unique. Philosophy avers that the intentionality of human consciousness, while pointing outside itself, cannot show in the realm of the sensible or the intelligible the referent of this intentional act. In a word, there is no object that is deity. Either human consciousness transcends itself, or thought about deity is an illusion, albeit a transcendental illusion of historical reality.
We should return now to one of our earlier queries. Is the word deity broad enough to include all the types of the mystery we have tried to describe? We know that its original field is the cosmological, but we have also noted that we distinguish it from the name God precisely to allow it other horizons.
The word deity may partially fulfill this role on one essential condition: that it strip itself of all connotations coming from a single group of civilizations. This amounts to saying that it cannot have any specific content, because any attribute, be it being, nonbeing, goodness, creatorship, fatherhood, or whatever, is meaningful only within a given cultural universe (or a group of them). Deity becomes then an empty symbol to which different cultures attribute different concrete qualifications, positive or negative. Deity would then say something only when translated into a particular language.
I am still critical of such an option, however, and would like to propose a compromise that may appear obvious once explained. Were this article to be translated into Chinese, Arabic, or Swahili, what word would we use to convey this idea of deity? Either we would coin a new name or use an old one with the connotations of the particular language. So we can say that for the English language deity may be a convenient name to use to transcend the provincial limits of certain groups of cultures such as the one that thinks, for instance, that Buddhism was not a religion and Confucianism only a philosophy because they do not accept the Abrahamic idea of God. But we should not elevate the word deity as the name for that metacategory. It is only a pointer toward the last horizon of human consciousness and the utmost limit of human powers of thinking, imagining, and being. Now, an abstract name like the Ultimate or a metaphor like horizon are equally dependent on particular cultural systems or ways of thinking. Perhaps the word mystery is more adequate, in spite of its Hellenic flavor. Or should we say brahman, kami, numen…?
At any rate we should insist that this does not mean that all those quests search for the same thing but in different places. The quest is different in each case, and so are the ways or methods involved. We leave open the question (ultimately as a pseudo-question) whether we use different methods because we look for different things or whether we find different answers because we use different methods. Both possibilities are intrinsically related, and their relation does not lie on the level of the logos but on the level of the mythos, as we have suggested. All our ways and means, all our quests and perspectives already belong not only to the searching but also to what is sought. Deity is not independent of our own search for it. If we radically destroy all the ways to the peak, the entire mountain will collapse. The slopes of the mountain also make the mountain.
Scholars may debate whether humankind is or is not monotheistic, whether a personal god is a universal truth or there actually is a creator, whether the so-called atheists are right in denouncing anthropomorphisms and dogmatisms of all sorts, whether there is a divine origin of this universe or a glorious or catastrophical Parousia. One thing seems to emerge as a cultural universal and a historical invariant: besides the world and man there is a third pole, a hidden dimension, another element that has received and is still receiving the most varied names, each name being a witness of its power and of the impotence of human beings to reduce everything to a common denominator.
The human being both individually and as a species is not alone. Man is not alone not only because he has an earth under his feet but also because he has a heaven above his head. There is something else, something more than what meets the eye or comes into the range of the mental. There is something more, a plus that humans cannot adequately name but that haunts them nevertheless. This plus is freedom and infinity. Deity stands for all that is unfinished (infinite) and thus allows for fulfillment in one sense or another. Man needs—and discovers—an opening, a way out of the strictures of the exclusively empirical or ideological affairs of daily life. The idea of deity can provide such an opening, provided that it can be kept free of any particular content. It would then become a symbol for the emerging myth of a human race that can no longer afford to transform cultural discrepancies into a cosmic tragedy.
Anthropomorphism; Evolution, article on Evolutionism; God; Gods and Goddesses; Otherworld; Sacred and the Profane, The; Study of Religion; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā; Theism; Theology; Transcendence and Immanence; Truth.
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Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theodramatik. Einsiedeln, 1978.
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Gilson, Étienne. God and Philosophy. New Haven, 1941.
Heidegger, Martin. Holzwege. Frankfurt, 1950. Offers distinctions between concepts of God, deity, the sacred, and salvation.
James, E. O. The Concept of Deity. London, 1950. A historical treatment.
Kumarappa, Bharatan. The Hindu Conception of the Deity as Culminating in Rāmānuja. London, 1934.
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Panikkar, Raimundo. The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Rev. & enl. ed. New York, 1981. See pages 97–155.
Panikkar, Raimundo. Il silenzio di Dio: La risposta del Buddha. Rome, 1985. An analysis of the Buddhist idea of the emptiness of deity.
Pettazzoni, Raffaele. "The Supreme Being: Phenomenological Structure and Historical Development." In The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa. Chicago, 1959.
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Schmidt, Wilhelm. Der Ursprung der Gottesidee: Eine historisch-kritische und positive Studie. 12 vols. Munster, 1912–1955. A response to the evolutionary hypothesis concerning the concept of deity.
Benard, Elisabeth, and Beverly Moon, eds. Goddesses Who Rule. New York, 2000.
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Leeming, David, and Jake Page. God: Myths of the Male Divine. New York, 1996.
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Raimundo Panikkar (1987)
de·i·ty / ˈdēitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) a god or goddess (in a polytheistic religion): a deity of ancient Greece. ∎ divine status, quality, or nature: a ruler driven by delusions of deity. ∎ (usu. the Deity) the creator and supreme being. ∎ a representation of a god or goddess, such as a statue or carving.