WE NEED TO COVER TWO DISTINCT AREAS TODAY. THE FIRST IS TO DISTINGUISH THE  major types of religious belief, and the second is to discuss the ways religious experiences have also been classified into types.

As I said, I need to keep thinking about your definition of divinity because I'm not prepared to accept it yet. But that needn't prevent us from examining the ways religious belief can be classified, and I'm very curious about what you're going to do with the notion of religious experience.

Despite your reservations about it, my definition of religious belief includes an important ancillary benefit: it affords a way to classify types of divinity beliefs which is extremely helpful in understanding the major religious traditions. Given that "divine" means the ultimate reality, how­ever that is further conceived, we can then classify religious beliefs according to how they understand the nondivine to depend on the divine. This simplifies things, as well as casts into sharp relief some important commonalities and contrasts between the major traditions. The fact is that every major world religion subscribes to one or another of only three basic ideas of that dependency, although there are a good many more ways the dependency of the nondivine on the divine could be thought of.

Let's take the most familiar type first - the one that holds the divine to be distinct from (to transcend) the rest of reality. This is the view of the three Theisticreligions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They all hold that God alone is divine and that everything other than God depends on God. Another way to put the same point is to say that God's Being is not the being of creation; God is not what creation is made of, since God's own being is unconditional and self-existent, whereas the existence of everything else is dependent on God.3 A diagram can help clarify this dependency relation. Using a solid line to represent the divine and a dotted line to represent all that is not divine, this type of religious belief can be schematized as in figure 1.

Figure 1

As the diagram shows, the theistic idea of dependency sees a basic discontinuity at the heart of reality. This discontinuity has been beautifully expressed by Will Herberg. Referring to the theistic idea as Hebraic and the other ideas as Greco-Oriental, Herberg says:

                                    Hebraic and Greco-Oriental religion, as religion, agree in

                                    affirming some Absolute reality as Ultimate but differ

                                    fundamentally in what they say about this reality. To

                                    Greco-Oriental thought, whether mystical or philosophic,

                                    the ultimate reality is some primal unper­sonal force ...

                                    some ineffable, immutable passive divine substance that

                                    pervades the universe or rather is the universe insofar as

                                    the latter is at all real.

                                         Nothing could be further from normative Hebraic religion...

                             As against the Greco-Oriental idea of immanence, of divinity

                             per­meating all things and constituting their reality, Hebraic

                             religion affirms God as a transcendent person, who has indeed

                             created the universe but who cannot without blasphemy be

                             identified with it. Where Greco-Oriental religion sees a continuity

                             between God and the universe, Hebraic religion insists on


This doesn't mean that God doesn't share qualities with creatures, or that He doesn't act in creation to make himself known, or isn't constantly present in creation. These are points all Theists affirm, and we can deal with them in more detail later. For now, the important thing is to make clear the contrast between this dependency idea and its rivals.

I have a question about this diagram. Why is the arrow between God and creation also dotted?

It indicates that even the relations God bears to creation are themselves created by God. Only the being of God is unconditionally real, so the most fundamental relation God has to creation is to be its Creator. But since God is not a creator apart from there being a creation, God brought into existence the relation being-the-creator-of-the-world along with bringing the world into existence. God, then, really has the property of being the Creator even though it is a property God called into existence.

Now contrast this theistic idea with another one, the one called “Naturalism” in philosophy. The term refers to the belief that something about the natural world – I mean the cosmos we live in that is studied by the sciences -  has independent reality. What we’ve been calling the divine is, according to philosophical naturalism, some part, force or principle in the universe (or is the universe taken as a whole). From this standpoint there is, therefore, no deep discontinuity at the heart of reality. There is but one continuous reality. And in that reality some single component of it is the divine element on which all the rest of it depends.

Figure 2

Ancient paganisms also located the divine within the world, but for them the divine wasn’t part of nature but a super-natural force that permeated nature. That is why in almost all paganisms the sun, moon and stars were invested with supernatural power, as were a host of personal gods. Cultic, ritual pagan­ religions that worship a divine force in the world are no longer major players in the world. But whereas their worship of manifestations of a supernatural divine power within the natural universe has been on the wane for centuries,5 belief in the divinity of one or another component of nature itself has not. Few people now worship a divine power in the sun or moon, for example. But philosophical Naturalists believe nature itself - matter, space, mathematical truths, or logical laws, for example, - to have divine reality. So religious beliefs of this second type do still exist.

I can see why on your definition of "divine" that would be true, but I’ll bet naturalists don’t appreciate having any of their beliefs called “divinity beliefs!”

 You’re right, they don’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that every version of Naturalism declares or assumes some kind of reality in the natural world to be the “purely X” kind that is the nature of whatever they take to have independent existence and to generate all else.

In fact, there is also a second type of Naturalism, a type that sees not one but two components of the cosmos to have independent existence. In this dualistic version of Naturalism, the idea of the relation of the divine to the nondivine looks like this:

Figure 3

Finally, contrast the Theistic and the two Naturalist ideas of dependency with the Pantheistic idea found in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. According to Pantheism, there is only one reality: the divine. Anything that appears to be nondivine - to be individual, to be limited, to change, to have different qualities - ­is in fact unreal. Strictly speaking, then, the Pantheist idea of this relation is that it holds between the divine and what only appears to us not to be divine. The difference between them corresponds to the difference between the ways we experience and conceive things to be, and the way reality actually is. In Hinduism, the divine reality is called Brahman-Atman; in Buddhism, it is called the Void, Dharmakaya or Suchness, among other terms. For both traditions, the way we naturally experience and conceive of things is the realm of illusion called "Maya." This type of dependency relation may be diagrammed as in figure 4.

Figure 4

I should add, however, that the circle for the divine in this schematic is misleading because in Pantheism the divine is infinite and unending, and there is nothing that is not contained within it. But since it's not possible to draw an infinitely big circle, this finite one will have to symbolize an infinite one.

This is very interesting, but I'm not sure why you've taken the time to deal with it. How does it contribute to our examination of religious experience?

It may help in several ways. First, contrasting the types of religious beliefs makes us better able to recognize them when and where they appear not only in religions, but in theories, literature, plays, essays, theories and in everyday conversation. Second, it can help us be more open to seeing the religious nature of beliefs that are very different from the religions we are used to. For example, because we are used to the Theistic traditions, we are prone to discount the religious nature of many teachings that take some part or aspect of the natural world to be divine, as the various forms of the Naturalist type of belief do. And finally, it may help clarify something we began to discuss last time: the way divinity beliefs can be presuppositions to other beliefs, such as those about human nature, happiness, and destiny. Contrasting these different dependency ideas can help us to see how each of them implies a distinctive range of views of human nature, happiness, and destiny. In fact, I can illustrate that right now by briefly contrasting the view each takes of human nature, specifically, its view of what's wrong with humans.

On the Theistic view, humans are creatures of God and will never be anything else. The biblical story of humanity's fall from grace portrays sin as the human desire to deny our creaturehood and instead regard ourselves as (at least partly) divine. The temptation in Eden was not merely to violate a dietary restriction, but to become divine. Remember? Satan says to Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit: “God knows that when you eat of it… you will be like God” (Gen. 3: 5). What is wrong with us from the Theistic view, therefore, is not that we have bodies and feelings; the fall from grace was not the discovery of sex, for example. It is not that our bodies are naturally evil, nor is it that we regard the world around us as real when in fact it is an illusion. What is wrong with us is that we don't love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, nor do we love our neighbors as ourselves. The order in which I listed those last two items is important. Sin, in biblical teaching, is primarily a religious idea and secondarily a moral one. At its core, it is substituting any­thing whatever in place of God, especially because any substitution allows us to pretend that we are at least partially divine. Our failure to love our neighbor, who is the created image of God, is secondary in that it is both a sign and a result of our failure to love God.

By contrast, one influential Naturalist view sees humans as having a nature that is a combination of a purely physical body and a rational (logical and mathematical) mind. What is wrong with us, therefore, is that we often allow the urges of our bodily nature to get the upper hand over our rational or good part. This is why Plato called the body "the prison house of the soul." Plato’s belief in life after death was also tied to this dualistic view of human nature: since the soul can know rational, everlasting, changeless truths, it might be enough like those truths to survive death.6

The Pantheistic view, over against the Naturalist and Theistic views, sees humans as encompassed within the one divine reality. We are already divine; what is wrong with us is that we don't know or believe it. Our individual identifying characteristics are as illusory as are the differences among the things around us. What is wrong with us, therefore, is that we take the illusion to be real; we value, plan for, and care about the illusory world. As long as we do that, we continue to suffer, since our attachment to the illusory world dooms us to be reborn into one lifetime of suffering after another. The deliverance from this cycle of rebirth is a mystical experience that leads us to reject the world of ordinary perception and thought as illusory, and to detach ourselves from all concern with it. This comes about through an experience of spiritual enlightenment. When that happens, our individuality and all else about us that is illusory will be absorbed into the divine "as a drop of water is absorbed into the ocean." This is the state of being called Nirvana.

The purpose of these summaries is to illustrate two points: (1) there are a number of ways of conceiving of the divine and of the way the nondivine depends on the divine, and (2) how we think of the divine and our dependence on it underpins our conception of human nature. And our conceptions of human nature, in turn, influence a wide variety of other beliefs. If that much is now clear, I think we can proceed to examine the types of religious experience, especially as they have come to be distinguished owing to William James’ landmark 1901 work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  

Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 7:01 AM