"The Prophet Isaiah" 
by Raphael, 1511-1512


A Supreme and Awesome Unity:
God and Other Ultimates in Historic Religions

Chapter Outline:
Historic Religion:
   The Axial Age and Universalist Religion
Historic Religion in the West
   A Personal Supreme Being
   Near Monotheism
   The Evolution of Jewish Monotheism
   The God of Western Theologies
Historic Religion in the East
   Non-Eastern Great Numinous Forces
   The Taoism of China
   Ultimate Reality in Religions of India
   Talking about the Incomprehensible

Historic Religion
Around 600 BCE, give or take a century or two, a worldwide shift in thought occurred that has been termed the “axial age.”  This era marked the beginning of a widespread tendency toward systematically logical thought and argumentation.  In this time, human consciousness began to seek a universal order and unity to the world.  This search is reflected in the axial age religions.  These religions shared several characteristics, including belief that there is a unity to all things, that the unity is beyond the limits of this world, that the source of this unity is a reality of total perfection, and that this perfection is an Absolute. Some historic religions also exhibit elements of world-rejection and “demythologization,” a reinterpretation or rejection of old myths.

Historic Religion in the West
The major Western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—believe in a universal and unifying order to reality that is created and maintained by a single personal Being.  This type of belief is called monotheism.  Although forms of near-monotheism appeared long before the axial age, the development of Jewish monotheism in the axial age marked the general beginning of lasting historic monotheism.  The Jewish-Christian-Islamic God can generally be described as omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, personal, and beyond any limitations. 

Historic Religion in the East
The major centers of Eastern historic religion were in India and China.  Both of these civilizations produced religious movements that centered on an ultimate, nonpersonal numinous reality.  The Aztecs of Central Mexico may have believed in such a power. Ancient Greek philosophers did also.

The Taoism of China
Between 600 and 300 BCE two writings appeared in China that formed the foundations of Taoism.  These documents strengthened an ancient Chinese belief in the yin/yang pattern—two opposing but complementary forces from which the natural order of the universe flows.  These two forces together arise from the Tao, an ultimate nonpersonal source or force.  All events of nature can be considered manifestations of the Tao, which is understood to be incomprehensible and defined as indefinable.


The Ultimate Reality in the Religions of India
Although India has had a very broad range of different religious movements, this chapter will discuss only the ideas of early Buddhism and the Hindu tradition.  The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, defined ultimate reality as the condition of nirvana, a kind of self-extinguishing.  In the Hindu tradition, ultimate reality is defined in a number of ways.  Many of these ideas are addressed in the Upanishads—sacred Hindu documents that appeared in the axial age.  In some ultimate reality is called Brahman, thought to be the single Ultimate Power in the universe.  In others Atman, or “Self,” is the name for ultimate reality.  Every person has an individual inner self that is part of this infinite, all-encompassing Self.  These two concepts have been resolved in various ways.  Some Hindu thinkers have argued that Brahman and Atman are different names for the single ultimate reality.  Others claim that the true Ultimate is without any characteristics at all.


Talking About the Incomprehensible

Western religion, Taoism, and Hindu Brahmanist thought all came to a single conclusion: the existence of an Ultimate, a reality that transcends all boundaries and comprehension.  Popular forms of these religious traditions, however, tend to rely on more anthropomorphic ideas.  Formal philosophy or theology tends to say that such language are only symbols of an Ultimate which is beyond comprehension.

End of notes to Chapter 3.

This page last changed Tuesday April 27, 2004

In The Presence of Mystery


















      Statue of the Buddha in
     Luang Pho Phet, Thailand