A Theological Glossary

Here are the definitions of the various Theisms and related technical terms as I understand them, with links to Dictionary.com for comparison, when available. Some of these refer to specific movements historically (or at least, they started there), whereas others refer to more general concepts that occur throughout the world. Some of them may be also used as identity labels. The definitions as I give them below describe the concepts themselves, rather than describing people, or experiences.

Note: As this is a reference post, I am editing this over time to add more terms as I see the need, and sometimes to add a bit more to a definition, as I realize something was left out. I will NOT, however, substantially change the definitions given here without leaving some note as to what was previously said. I don’t anticipate major changes in my understanding of these words anyway, to be honest.

Theism – Belief in divinity, i.e. God[s].

Deism – a Rationalist belief in divinity exclusive of the supernatural. i.e. God as First Cause, that which prompted the Big Bang and defined the natural laws of the Universe, but does not intervene outside of those laws.

Atheism – Not believing in divinity, or, more strenuously, a belief that there is no divinity. Classical/Archaic usage refers to a person who, in a context that takes the existence of the gods as a given, nevertheless refuses to acknowledge, honor, or interact with Them.

Nontheistic – Not involving belief in divinity one way or the other. e.g. Zen Buddhism does not require, but does not preclude, belief in divinity in any way.

Agnosticism – Not knowing if divinity exists or not, or, more strenuously, believing it’s not possible to know.

Monotheism – Belief that divinity is singular, i.e. there is only one God.

Duotheism – Belief that divinity is dual, i.e. there are precisely two Gods. The only example I know of this is the Wiccan Goddess & God, which is not always in a context where those two gods are the only gods there are. Sometimes it’s in the form of All Gods Are One God and All Goddesses Are One Goddess, sometimes it’s that there are these two gods that go together, and countless others elsewhere. The latter is a form of Henotheism (see below).

Trinitarianism – The Christian belief that divinity is singular, but experienced in three distinct forms – the Godhead “Father”, which is the abstraction usually thought of as “God”, the manifest “Son”, Jesus, who spent a lifetime as a human person, and the indwelling “Holy Spirit”, which resides within each person. Sometimes construed as a form of polytheism, while emphatically defined as a form of monotheism by its adherents. Whether it qualifies as such depends tremendously on how concretely one interprets the word “Polytheism”. [Edit] There’s also the Hindu Trimurti, but that’s not quite the same concept as the Christian Trinity, and what exactly it represents depends on which Hindu tradition is involved. Attempts to equate the two are common, and usually erasive, in that they’re often born of a historical insistence that religions are only legitimate to the degree that they resemble Christianity.

Polytheism – Belief that divinity is plural, i.e. there are many Gods. This can be a belief in one specific pantheon, or a more general belief that all the gods of various cultures exist. Examples of both abound throughout history.

Omnitheism – A new-to-me term that seems to indicate belief that all gods are real in a polytheistic context, and holding respect for, if not actively seeking relationships with, all gods. (Apparently coined, at least this time, by Anomalous Thracian, but I haven’t been able to find the relevant post yet, sorry.)

Unitarianism – Belief that all gods are one god. Originally in contrast to Trinitarianism, rather than Polytheism. When paired with Universalism, used to emphasize that all depictions and experiences of divinity are equally valid, within a Monotheistic context.

Monism – Belief that All Is One, i.e. that everything that exists is part of a unified Whole. That whole may or may not be conscious, and may or may not be understood as divine. That whole does include the gods, if any are described. That whole does not necessarily unify a plurality of gods into one God before it unifies all of existence. Monism as we know it is usually pulled from certain Hindu beliefs which assert that everything is part of the Divine Whole, not just the various depicted gods.

Pantheism – Belief that All is Divine, i.e. that everything that exists is part of a unified whole, and that Whole is God. More simply put, The Universe Is God. Originally in contrast with the doctrine of a Monotheistic Divine Creator separate from Creation. In practice, Monism and Pantheism are usually the same today, although they started in different ways. Monism can be non-theistic, and Pantheism can be rationalistic. Connotatively, “Monism” is often used to emphasize the Oneness, whereas “Pantheism” is used to emphasize that all things are parts of God.

Panentheism – Belief that divinity is WITHIN all things. This is subtly different from Pantheism in that it is not describing a oneness of existence, but rather, that an essence of divinity dwells within all things separately. This is orthogonal to, and thus compatible with any number of gods. [ETA] Basically, a belief that divinity is immanent. As noted in comments below, this is not necessarily instead of divinity being transcendent. Christian theology consistently describes God as being both.

Animism – Belief that spirit, soul, and/or consciousness is a trait of all things, or at least all living things. This is not the same as Panentheism, in that Animism attributes both some level of consciousness, and some level of autonomy to things, whereas Panentheism attributes that indwelling spirit to a more general source.

Henotheism – Loyalty to a singular deity in a polytheistic context. “This is my God. There are other Gods, but this one is mine.” Common in the Ancient world, as many places or tribes had a local deity who was the patron of that group, to whom everyone in or from that group would direct all petitions, understanding that other locations and tribes had other patron deities. The Abrahamic tradition was Henotheistic before becoming Monotheistic, and it shows in the older scriptures, like the First Commandment.

Syncretism – The practice of correlating deities from other cultures to the deities of a particular culture (usually one’s own), and thus accessing one deity through the representations of another deity. Romans did this a lot, equating, for example, Thor with Zeus, and referring to their conquered countries’ gods as epithets of their own gods, e.g. Mercury-Hermes. Afro-Diasporic traditions did this out of the need to hide their traditions behind the veil of accepted Christian symbols, usually Roman Catholic, thus correlating all their traditional powers with Saints, Angels, Prophets, etc. Hence Ochun represented by Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, in Cuba. Over time, the correlation is so strong, the names are treated as totally interchangeable, e.g. San Lazaro IS Babablu Aye, and even non-Catholic practitioners of La Regla de Ocha may call Him that.

Orthodoxy – “Right Belief”, i.e. having the correct thoughts and beliefs accepted by a particular doctrine or group. Christianity in general is well known for being an Orthodoxic tradition, focusing on the nature of faith itself, and making sure that the correct beliefs are accepted and taught within any given denomination.

Orthopraxy – “Right Deed”, i.e. having the correct behaviors and practices accepted by a particular doctrine or group. Many indigenous traditions are Orthopraxic, focusing much more on the forms of respect than one what beliefs an individual may have behind them.

Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy are not in opposition to each other. Indeed, Dictionary.com treats them as nearly synonyms, and many traditions require both. In Religious Studies, however, they are understood to indicate different priorities. Most traditions placed one higher in priority than the other, and that can have a profound effect on the resulting group culture.

A side note:

Hard vs. Soft – How concrete vs. abstract, or otherwise how permeable the category definitions are, with respect to a particular belief above. I have heard this used only in three examples:

1: A Soft Atheist does not happen to believe in divinity, but their lack of belief does not address the nature of divinity. A Hard Atheist firmly beliefs that divinity does not exist, and that this nonexistence is a trait of divinity itself.

2: A Soft Agnostic does not know if divinity actually exists, but their lack of certainty does not address the nature of divinity. A Hard Agnostic firmly beliefs that it is not possible to know if divinity actually exists, and that this unknowability is a trait of divinity itself.

3: A Soft Polytheist believes divinity may manifest as multiple, but this multiplicity of experience does not address the nature of divinity. A Hard Polytheist firmly believes divinity is multiple, and that this multiplicity is a trait of divinity in itself.

By this standard, I am a Hard Polytheist, and I’m fine with that. I have heard an argument (from PSVL, but others may have similar arguments) that “Hard” vs. “Soft” has sexist connotations, and thus using them in this context is sexist. I do understand that our culture attributes hardness to masculinity and softness to femininity, and if that were the basis for this comparison, I would reject it too. However, I do not believe that is the source of this usage, and do not think that all usage of “hard” and “soft” as adjectives should be rejected just because they are inappropriately correlated to gender in other areas, so in this case, I respectfully disagree with PSVL’s analysis.

There’s also an entire conversation I need to re-post here about the difference between Polytheism and Monotheism w/ non-God Spirits, explaining why the Orixa, Lwa, etc., are not considered Gods in Afro-Diasporic traditions. [Edit] Here it is!

–Ember–

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About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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13 Responses to A Theological Glossary

  1. EmberVoices says:

    Note to Self: Add entries about Nirguna/Saguna and Apophatic/Cataphatic theology, as well as Non-Duality…

    -E-

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  2. Pingback: Godly Theories (Terminology + Polytheism) | Keeper of my Keys

  3. caelesti says:

    UU piping up! Both “Unitarian” and Universalist are historical holdovers- though they certainly inform our theology to some degree. In practice, it’s typically vague Deism or agnosticism/atheism, but being a UU polytheist is possible. (So far they haven’t kicked me out!) Unfortunately (IMO) Paganism in a UU context tends to be of the All Our Goddesses Are Belong to Us feminist style theology.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Yeah there’s been quite a bit of drift from where UU started and where it’s ended up – and a fair amount of variation between congregations. My parents were both raised Unitarian, and what their parents’ church looked like vs. what UU looks like locally now is quite different – but always makes sense in context.

      I have a lot of respect for the UU socially, but I don’t agree with some of the underlying ideas theologically. Still, if for some reason I had to have a more established church to go to, that would probably be it.

      –Ember–

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      • caelesti says:

        Yes, I am to some degree UU by convenience- I needed something saner, stabler & in a consistently bus-accessible location than the Pagan community could provide. I don’t agree with some of the predominant UU theological assumptions either- the Perennial Philosophy, all paths go up the same mountain type idea. Still I often find a more consistent commitment to social justice & ethics than among Pagans, sadly.

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        • EmberVoices says:

          The kind of Pagans I usually hang out with have a pretty strong commitment to social justice and ethics, thankfully, although we do all have to pick our battles in terms of spoon counting.

          But yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m talking about – and around here the UU churches are very strong allies of the Pagan community, being the first place many of us look when we need public facilities.

          –Ember–

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  4. Lon Sarver says:

    Reblogged this on Drinking From the Cup of Life and commented:
    Ember has put together a glossary of theological terms. This could be useful in future discussions… If we can agree to use it.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Well, I wouldn’t expect everyone to refer to my glossary before engaging in discussions of polytheism, but I do at least want to clarify that these aren’t MY definitions, these are the definitions I have been taught and/or have come to understand via a combination of being raised by a hobbyist theologian, a degree in religious studies, and quite a number of conversations with people over the years.

      But I’m sure there ARE instances where my understanding has actually caused me to misunderstand someone, because I heard the word, assumed what I understood was what was meant, and continued on without checking.

      I’m not sure, but I suspect a lot of people may be surprised to realize how specific some of these terms are, but how broadly they define any given person’s actual beliefs. None of these words describes a complete theology, only one or another aspect of it. Even a collection of these words won’t completely define a tradition, because these don’t do much to address the specifics of culture or experience, only broad conceptual structures.

      I happen to be a (Hard) Polytheist, an Animist, and a Pantheist-type Monist in that I believe that All is part of the Whole, and that Whole is divine. I don’t know whether the gods merge any sooner than the rest of us merge into that Whole – it certainly seems our experience manifests accordingly at times, but there’s a certain degree to which I must admit to Agnosticism – it’s not truly possible for us to conclusively KNOW the nature of divinity, no matter how firmly I believe any of the rest of it. Also, sometimes my practice is Syncretic, and if the term Omnitheism catches on, the description above applies to me as well.

      My point is, “Polytheism” isn’t a religious tradition, it’s a trait of countless religious traditions, and it doesn’t aways take the same form, nor is it always paired with the same other theological traits.

      -E-

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  5. aeddubh says:

    Reblogged this on The Words Swim, Waiting and commented:
    A very useful rundown. I’ve heard Panentheism defined a bit differently- IIRC, the belief that the divine interpenetrates the Universe, but also extends beyond it.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      *Nod* That’s a related way of defining it. Panentheism describes immanence, basically. Whether you combine that with a belief in a transcendent divinity or not isn’t necessarily embedded in the definition, as far as I know, but if it’s to make a distinction between Pantheism and Panentheism, it’s a relevant distinction.

      -E-

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    • EmberVoices says:

      I have added the clarification about immanence and transcendence to the entry. We still have slightly different understandings, but I welcome the opportunity to clarify mine, thank you. 🙂 -E-

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  6. Reblogged this on Loki's Bruid and commented:
    Good stuff on various theological terminology.

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  7. Reblogged this on facingthefireswithin and commented:
    Useful information.

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