"The Prophet Isaiah"
A Supreme and Awesome Unity:
God and Other Ultimates in Historic Religions
The Axial Age and Universalist Religion
Historic Religion in the West
A Personal Supreme Being
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
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 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
Historic Religion in the
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
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
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
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,