What’s the Opposite of Strict Monotheism? A Question of Terminology

By September 8, 2015

Hanegraaff concludes Esotericism and the Academy by arguing that the two principal points that Enlightenment scholars of philosophy labeled as pagan heresy—the rejection of creation ex nihilo and the belief in the uncreated, divine part of the soul (or nous)—are in fact the chief traits of what we might term Western esotericism.

Hanegraaff calls the rejection of creation ex nihilo, cosmotheism, which he sees as a counterpart of strict monotheism. Quoting the Egyptologist Jan Assman, cosmotheism is one where “a divine world does not stand in opposition to the world of cosmos, man, and society; rather, it is a principle that permeates it and gives it structure, order and meaning … The divine cannot be excluded from the world.” Such, Hanegraaff argues, is “the logical alternative to classic monotheism, where the invisible and eternal Creator is strictly separate from this visible and temporal creation.”  Hanegraaff sees “a deep structural conflict between the dynamics of these two mutually exclusive systems and all that they imply” (371).

Barbara Newman also notes the clash between strict monotheism and what she calls “an inclusive monotheism” in her book, God and the Goddesses.  “Broadly speaking, in an exclusive monotheism other deities—‘false gods’ or demons—are enemies of the true God, while in an inclusive monotheism, subordinate deities are emanations or emissaries of the One God” (319).   Inclusive monotheism was a trait of Christian Platonism that allowed for belief in other divine beings like heavenly mother, that was common in the late middle ages. “With the Reformation, however, the clarion call of H. R. Niebuhr’s ‘radical monotheism’ rang out once more: ‘I and the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God.’ Banished by the reformers and subdued by Rome—though sheltered in a secret conventicle here and a mystic brotherhood there—the goddess dwindled until they faded from common sight; and with them, a remarkable era in the history of Christianity came to an end” (327).

Of course, such ideas did persist, but my question is, what is a good term for this alternative to strict monotheism: inclusive monotheism? cosmotheism? Cosmotheism seems a little problematic because Hanegraaff draws on Jan Assman definition for the term but Assman defines cosmotheism as being the same as Spinoza’s pantheism, or the universe as God, which doesn’t seem very Mormon to me.[1] I know biblical scholars note a clash between the strict monotheism of the Deuteronomists and earlier more dynamic forms. Do those scholars have a term for the alternative to strict monotheism? Or is cosmotheism good enough?

[1] Jan Assman, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 8.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I hear the pairing “ontological polytheism, functional monotheism” thrown around in Mormon-evangelical conversations. But I don’t actually think that works. *If* you separate ontology and worship, it works for the former but not the latter. Mormon worship isn’t actually strictly segregated to one member of the Godhead, or even theologized enough to make singular worship of one member of the Godhead possible. I know the membership, for fear of the specter of polytheism, pray *to the Father* *in the name of the Son*. But if Mormonism is forced into an orthodox Christian framework, there’s no escaping it’s functional polytheism (something which Joseph gave a nod to I think). In ritual, practical posture, perception, etc., Mormons ‘worship’ all three members of the Godhead. So in some discursive contexts, where the categories of monotheism and polytheism have to be confronted, maybe something like “unified polytheism” would work. But in other discursive contexts, maybe avoiding the categories altogether would be productive. I get that you want to define Mormon thought and its relationship to Christian thought, but I think coming up with a conceptual counterpart to monotheism rests on an artificial academic construction of Mormon *thought* that rests on an artificial academic binary between thought and practice. What would a conceptual counterpart to monotheism actually tell us about Mormonism?

    Comment by Bradley Kime — September 8, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

  2. Just to clarify, it’s not the counterpart to monotheism that I’m looking at but that of the “strict” or “radical” monotheism that promotes creation ex nihilo and rejects human deification. So I’m looking at what to call systems like the Platonic (or even pre-Deuteronomic) with a high God and lower gods that create out of matter and allow human deification. I kind of like Newman’s “inclusive monotheism,” but I’m wondering if that’s specific enough.

    And good points about practice, but my concern is more historical: unpacking and situating what Joseph Smith said. So for my research, I’m less concerned about what the implications are for contemporary worship.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 8, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

  3. My sense is that everyone, including JS, was misreading orthodox Trinitarianism. This continues today. Moreover, the rejection of ex nihilio creation really is the issue, more than the divine host. It makes sense to me to have a descriptor that acknowledges that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 8, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

  4. I’m not sure there is a good term. Inclusive monotheism is a good one, but probably applies better to Israel in early antiquity rather than Mormonism.

    Mormon doesn’t really allow for other deities being real but unworshipable. For one the line of worship is pretty blurry between the father and son or even father of the father. For an other we’d not say Zeus or some other entity is a real god. We want to limit the world of divinities to what Mormonism accepts as such. Yet we also have a complex (and really unstable) relationship to these divinities. (Look at the politics of heavenly mother, for instance – a being most Mormons accept but whose role is pretty ill defined)

    I think if anything the terminology is made that much harder by the scriptures and even major Mormon figures not keeping the terminology clear. So you have big differences over the meaning of Jehovah or Elohim or even Adam depending upon what era you’re speaking of. Throw in the question of whether there’s a Mormon version of the ouisa and it probably becomes hopeless, if only because it’s not really a focus for Mormons.

    Comment by Clark — September 8, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

  5. J. Stapley, it’s certainly possible Joseph was simply misreading trinitarianism (heaven knows it’s easy to misread and some argue is inherently incoherent). I’m not sure that’s really the issue. I’ve argued most of the Trinity proper is compatible with Mormon theology. I do agree though with you and Steve that the real biggest stumbling blocks are the essential embodiment of Father and Spirit and the issue of creation ex nihilo.

    I’m not sure we need a term for that. Just saying we reject creation ex nihilo seems fine. As I mentioned in the Timeaus threads I think we have to be careful. While we reject creation ex nihilo it seems we agree with some of the drive behind it – that is the problematic equating of creation with creator. It’s just that we solve it differently from the Trinitarians. We make God a kind of materialist demiurge but then simultaneously say there’s no ontologically higher being than he.

    We might have a hierarchy of beings if we follow the traditional readings of the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove by Joseph. But it seems to me that we reject this hierarchy as being an ontological hierarchy. Especially in more traditional theologies that see the relationship as primarily an anthropology rather than an ontology.

    I’ve long said that in many ways Mormons ontologically have most in common with atheists than with our fellow theists. That is we don’t mind talking about what grounds the universe just that semantically we fundamentally don’t think that is God. This becomes a problem reconciling us to more pagan religious traditions such as classic neoplatonism or late antiquity and the related gnostic or hermetic traditions.

    Comment by Clark — September 8, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

  6. It would be a mistake to equate ‘strict monotheism’ with orthodox Christianity, as your Muslim friends will remind you.

    Comment by D. Martin — September 8, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

  7. Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. D. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Christians were the only monotheists. In fact, I understand that Jewish attacks on the Trinity as not being really monotheistic always chafed Christians and probably played a role in trying to make it as monotheistic as they could.

    J. on misreading Trinitarianism, sure, since Trinitarianism is confusing, but I’m particularly interested here in what JS said in his 1844 speeches suggesting God(s) above God the Father. He seemed to open things up considerably in the KFD and Sermon at the Grove.

    And that point makes me question Clark’s assertion that Mormons don’t believe in Gods that we don’t worship. JS seemed to be saying that he did indeed believe in that in the Sermon at the Grove and even cited the scripture “there are Gods many and Lords many” to try to prove the point. In fact, W.W. Phelps made that point about Heavenly Mother in a letter to Williams Smith: “In fact the Jews thought so much of his coronation among Gods and Goddesses; Kings and Queens of heaven, that they broke over all restraints and actually began to worship the ‘Queen of heaven,’ according to Jeremiah.” Phelps seems to be saying that Heavenly Mother is there but the Jews who worshipped her were wrong.

    No doubt this has created all kinds of theological and devotional problems that we’re still trying to work out, but again, my focus is just on trying to categorize what JS said.

    And interesting point about atheism. I loved the line from Richard Dawkins that Givens quotes in Wrestling the Angel “God indeed can’t have just happened. If there are Gods in the universe, they must be the end product of slow incremental processes.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 8, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

  8. By Gods we don’t think are real I was more meaning the type of monotheism among polytheistic groups that’s usually seen as the OT view at least until from the return from exile. With other divine beings in prior creations it gets a bit trickier in Mormon history due to ambiguities in what we mean by worship. (Honestly I have a hard time making sense of “worship” as a category) while Phelps wrote that we have Brigham seeming to make things more complex to say the least. In any case I doubt a Mormon is going to acknowledge say Brahmah or Thor as an actual deity. In that way we’re unlike probably typical ancient pre-exilic Hebrew.

    Comment by Clark — September 8, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

  9. Right, but the idea that God delegated certain angels/gods over each nation was one that persisted and in JS’s time you see people saying such for planets. I’ll post more on that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 9, 2015 @ 8:10 am

  10. Well yes, but in the same way that many and perhaps even most Mormons today believe in guardian angels – often ancestors who passed through the veil but who come back to help descendants. This all hinges upon an ambiguity of god/angel. The terminology shifts in the Hebrew tradition as they become more monotheistic. Because of the terminological shifts things get tricky.

    Even in the older strains of Hebrew you have weirdly ambiguous things such as heavenly ascent literature in the Merkabah. So you have Enoch becoming Metatron and in other texts the creation of the Lesser YHWH. But how these are interpreted likely depends a lot upon the community in which they are found.

    I’d add that this is significant for Mormons both because of our own heavenly ascent and kingship ritual (the endowment) but also because of places like Mosiah 15 which seem very similar. (I know naturalistic critics often read it in terms of the modalism controversy, but I think it makes much more sense to read in terms of Kabbalah, Merkabah, and hermeticism)

    The other problem we have to address is of course the issue of animism. That’s a big deal for the pagans of course where often things are simultaneously common objects yet are also animated. By the time of late antiquity we still have this persisting where the stars are simultaneously daemons. Further in heavenly ascent texts either pagan or sometimes Jewish/Christian these are sentinels that must be passed on ones way to heaven. Often requiring keywords or signs to pass.

    So I think we have to draw a distinction between the structural elements where there’s a great deal of ambiguity and the meaning in a particular community where treated them as deities is often problematic.

    Comment by Clark — September 9, 2015 @ 10:44 am

  11. I should add that historically questions of prayer and worship are just inherently contradictory or ambiguous. So you see Catholicism adopting a lot of native beliefs as it conquers various regions in terms of religion. Yet these pre-established traditions get reinterpreted in light of Catholic dogma. So say praying to saints isn’t seen as praying to them but rather asking them to pray for us to God. Rather Rev 5:8 is used to justify saints interceding on behalf of people to God. Likewise praying to the Father through Christ seems a very confusing notion. Mormons are want to push a big distinction here but it seems to fall apart quickly. Further since Mormons put more difference between Jesus and the Father than Catholics it’s not at all clear how this is different from Catholic treatment of saints.

    Prayer and worship as seen structurally with intermediate figures gets confusing fast as these are put into tension with theology and dogma.

    Comment by Clark — September 9, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  12. Yes, the God/angel distinction does trip things up. A high God over lower gods isn’t a big deal in “inclusive monotheism” but in strict monotheism those lower gods have to be angels. And an interesting point about Mosiah 15. My next post may have some relevant material.

    And good points about Catholics. I like Barbara Newman’s summation God and the Goddesses: “Theology also responds to felt religious needs, and one such need that almost inevitably emerges in monotheistic systems is a yearning for mediation with the Almighty.” And even though Christ was the mediator, Newman argues, “In practice, since Christ was not only Savior but also Judge, the faithful quickly perceived a need for mediation with the Mediator himself. Not daring in their mortal frailty to approach the Sinless One, they cast about for supernatural helpers pure enough to win Christ’s favor, yet tender-hearted enough to overlook their faults. The God-Man, too remote and majestic for direct access, was envisioned as a mighty emperor who could be petitioned most safely through his trusted intimates and courtiers.” (322-23).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 9, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

  13. I believe there’s a new book (first of 4 volumes) that might help provide more context using Jesus as an example. Its called Jesus Monotheism Vol. 1 by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis. Published in e-book by Whymanity.com, and in paper by Wipf & Stock. The bibliography alone is worth the price. Exploring how Jesus is divine in the context of “monotheism” is fascinating and should add to this argument.

    Comment by Terry H — September 14, 2015 @ 11:12 am

  14. Thanks for the recommendation, Terry. No doubt a complex topic.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 15, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

  15. Do you have a link for the ebook? I searched but couldn’t find a Kindle/iBook version.

    Comment by Cark — September 15, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

  16. Looks like he’s selling it just off his website: https://jesusmonotheism.com/usd/

    Comment by Clark — September 15, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

  17. […] Supream Majesty of the Father, and the Throne of Glory of the Lord Christ” (26).  So just as Barbara Newman argues, inclusive monotheism allows for a […]

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  18. […] finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato’s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between […]

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