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The term theism (from the Greek theos, or "god") commonly refers to belief in God, the view that all finite things are dependent in some way on one supreme, self-existent reality who is typically spoken of as having personal identity. God is usually understood to have characteristics that human beings are also capable of developing. Some scholars brand this aspect of theism anthropomorphism, but the term is highly problematic insofar as it results from viewing aspects and qualities originating in God as projected onto God by us. According to classical theism, God is described as having qualities such as goodness, love and other personal attributes that we find are also inherent in human beings, and that we also have the potential to develop through our effort and responsibility. Theism can also refer to a wide variety of religious or philosophical belief systems that assert the existence of one or several personal deities.

Classical Theism

Classical theism can be identified by a number of features: First, it involves a god who is active within the human world rather than detached from it. Second, theism places immense value upon the experience of god, either through symbolism, literature, or mysticism. Thirdly, this god is usually described as the ideal paradigm of moral perfection. Finally, the theist god is conceived of in highly personalistic terms and often comes to worldly fruition in the form of a human incarnation.

God as Immanent

Classical theism is often contrasted with the views of Deism. While Deism typically asserts that a deity created nature but does not interact with it, theism usually holds that god not only created the world but is also present within it as well. While deism emphasizes the deity's transcendence over humanity, classical theism stresses the immanent nature of God. For the deist, god exists as a mystery apart from the everyday world, whereas for the theist, the relationship between God and the world, and therein God and humanity, is far more involved. However, theism should also be juxtaposed with pantheism, the doctrine which identifies a highly immanent god with the universe itself. In contrast to Pantheism, theism considers the physical world to be essentially different than its Creator, the Ultimate being, and human life is in no way an iteration of the life of god. Theism should also not be confused with monism, the religious or philosophical principle that regards everything in the universe as a part or manifestation of some ultimate principle or being.

God Who Can Be Experienced

An oft-cited difficulty with theism involves the question of how a being whose essence is transcendent can ever be said to be experienced and "known." Critics point out that if God exists beyond human comprehension then any human statement about God's nature is highly suspect. Classical theists answer this charge by denying any claim to understand the mystery that is God in His true essence. Rather, they simply concede that the existence of a God is inevitable given the finite, contingent nature of everything else within the living world. This line of reasoning has been challenged because the existence of most things in everyday life is measured through sensory description of the given object or event's qualities. For theists, however, God is the exception to this rule: intuition as to the being of God can be claimed without committing to anything about his nature beyond the perfection or infinite nature typically ascribed to Him.

Furthermore, theists typically believe that this god can be met or encountered by humans in some form. Attributes such as "love" or "goodness" can be affirmed of God in ways which reflect his involvement in his creation. Most theist systems are further supplemented by some sort of doctrine concerning divine revelation where God is described as taking initiative in communicating with humanity. Deep faith is placed upon the idea that God somehow communicated with prophets in the past in order to write and compile the scriptures, and historical religious experiences are often given primacy in theistic systems. Religious experience can also occur more subtly within everyday occurrences which can be interpreted as teaching some "truths" congruent with the purview of God.

God as Morally Perfect

The theist God is often described as representing or embodying the ultimate in moral perfection. Simply put, God is perfect and eternally good. For example, in the Zoroastrian tradition, Ahura Mazda represents all the powers of good in the world, existing in direct counter point to Angra Mainyu, the spirit responsible for all things evil. This idea was adopted within the Abrahamic tradition, where God the Father, or Allah, representing all goodness, is placed in direct counterpoint to Satan or Lucifer, the fallen angel who exists in hell and represents the wicked. The coexistence of good and evil creates a difficult philosophical quandary which has persisted in theist theology: if God is only good, then how can evil exist within His creation? The existence of such entities as Satan has been crucial in mitigating the effects of such a problem. Regardless, human moral perfection is often taken to be the most important link between humans and divinity, oftentimes representing the means by which to measure divine involvement in the world. Thus, those human beings of the most highly cultivated morality, such as prophets and saints, serve an important function as embodied transmitters of the divine message.

God in Human Image and Incarnation

Another general motif in theism is that God is Himself in some way like the human beings he has created. Even the choice to refer to God by the male pronoun reflects this proclivity among theist religions to construe God in anthropomorphic terms. Typically, God in theism is conceptualized as having a human form, usually that of a man, as in the case of Judaism and Christianity, where it is put forth in the creation story in Genesis that "God created man in his own image" (1.27, KJV), albeit this verse has been interpreted in many ways. Furthermore, this God is commonly described as expressing various human emotions. For example, in the Hebrew tradition, God is frequently swept up into anger with the Isrealites for their misappropriations of His commandments, while at other times exuding a sense of warmth and compassion for His people. A common criticism of theism is the argument that human beings have limited their view of the infinite God to their own earthly forms. This type of God, it is claimed by such ethnologists as E.B. Tylor and James Frazer, is merely the penultimate extension of so-called "primitive" human beliefs such as animism, which project souls and personalities onto natural objects and phenomena.

Because of the importance of immanence, moral perfection and anthropomorphism as cornerstone traits in the theist conception of god, the tangible entrance of God into the physical world sometimes becomes a key feature for theist belief systems. In the case of Christianity and the Vaishnavite school of Hinduism, this idea is demonstrated in the doctrine of incarnation: that God can manifest himself directly in the living world in a purified, human or animal form. For Christians, this embodiment is Jesus, the son of God; for Vaishnavites, it is most commonly Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. These gods participate in the human world as humans for the general purpose of aiding humanity and proving their love to all people.

Examples of Classical Theism


An early example of theism can be found in Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Persians that still exists today. The supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, represents one of the first deities in human history to be described as inherently good and all-encompassing. Despite Ahura Mazda's transcendent properties, he is able to put into effect his will by way of six angels, or Amesha Spentas. These beings also represent indispensable moral principles. Since Ahura Mazda is capable of creating only good things, evil is said to come into existence by way of a lesser spirit, Angra Manyu. Angra Manyu, it should be noted, is actually the offspring of Ahura Mazda, along with Spenta Manyu, the spirit responsible for evil. This type of familial lineage marks the anthropomorphism by which Ahura Mazda was sometimes described.

Ancient Greek

The pattern for theism was laid out, in a philosophical sense, by Plato. Plato spoke of god mainly in mythical terms, stressing his goodness as well as his caring nature in such works as Timaeus. However, in his later works, most notably the tenth book of The Laws, he uses the analogy of circular motion (specifically the notion of a fixed center which is unmoving and a peripheral object which is in constant motion) to argue that entities can be in flux while simultaneously remaining constant. This system served as an analogue for the action of god; a being who could interact with the human world without changing itself. This unchanging God, according to Plato, has designed the world on the pattern of Forms, the perfected iterations of any given object, and above all a notion of the "Good," which is beyond thought and is therefore transcendent. This transcendence, in concert with the personalized, mythical deities described in Plato's earlier work, could be interpreted as theistic in scope. His combination of supremely perfect transcedence along with god's ability to change the living world, provided the groundwork for later theistic thought.


While the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, are for the most part henotheistic, the notion of one supreme entity or self becomes more prominent in the Upanishads, the culmination of the Vedas. This supreme self, called Brahman, is the basis of all things and is therefore immanent within the universe. However, it is also described as the essence of non-being, as well, hence retaining a sense of ineffability. Unlike Western forms of theism, there is little recognition in some schools of Indian philosophy that the idea that Brahman is involved in the physical world in a personal way. Likewise, the distinction between the higher being and the human being is not made. On the contrary, Brahman is said to be the very same as Atman (the human soul), hence the usual theist dualism of human and God is precluded.

However, monism and theism co-exist in the Hindu tradition. In the Bhagavadgita, a widely-read Hindu religious scripture, God appeared on earth in the form of Krishna for the purposes of restoring dharma (order) by educating Arjuna (representing humanity). This narrative marks the first significant scriptural notation of divinity's immanent, human aspect, thus setting in motion the development of theistic Hinduism. The Bhagavagita was particularly important in creating the impetus for the Hindu bhakti movement. This tradition of loving devotion to a particular god, which developed in medieval India, propagated the theistic tradition in India. Now, the worship of personal gods was seen to be the primary means for connecting with Brahman, as this kind of worship allowed for a personal, loving connection with god. The end result, according to thinkers such as Ramanuja (1017-1137) the founder of qualified non-dualism, and Caitanya (1486-1534), founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, was a marriage of the human soul with God. This lead to the development of traditions such as Vaishnavism and Saivism, whereby anthropomorphic conceptions of god came to be widely accepted in mainstream Hinduism. (Vaishnavites worship Vishnu, the god traditionally seen as the operator of the universe, or his avatars such as Krishna, as their supreme deity, whereas Saivites, on the other hand, worship Siva.) Prayers and rituals dedicated to these gods petition for their sustained positive action in everyday human life. These traditions have continued to maintain their popularity in contemporary Hinduism. For this reason, the Hindu faith is commonly classified as practicing monism and theism simultaneously.


The idea that the world has been created and is thereafter sustained by a supreme being is perhaps no more poignantly presented as it is in the Pentateuch. In the Jewish tradition developed therein, God is without a definite shape or form, and is the one god for the entire world. However, this does not render god as having an impersonal nature. Rather, the God of the Hebrew Bible displays a panoply of human emotions, such as love, care, jealousy and even wrath. While maintaining transcendent properties such as an all-encompassing and all powerful nature, God in the Jewish tradition is also involved in the world, taking a primary role in shaping its history. In addition, this god may also be addressed by humanity, although humans, as is typical in theistic thought, do not have the ability to perceive Him in His totality. In the famous story in Exodus 3, God reveals Himself to Moses through a burning bush petitioning him to rally the Israelites. When Moses asks God who he should say sent him forth, God replies, vaguely, "I am who I am" (3.14), perhaps hinting at the fact that His being is far too transcendent to ever be understood by humanity. While Moses wished to see God in order to obtain explicit proof of his existence, he was instead informed this is precisely what he could not have. Even though god was elusive, it is evident throughout the Hebrew bible that He was still able to communicate with human beings; thus, the Jewish God could be experienced. As well, this God represented the sole moral rubric for the Jewish people, as His actions foretold not only the rightful destiny of Israel, but also that of the entire human race.


The Christian conception of God is much like that of the Jewish tradition from which the tradition was spawned. God is described as dwelling in heaven and bears the all-encompassing traits of transcendence, while possessing the ability to interact in human history. However, Christians take the notion of god's interaction with humanity a step further by teaching the doctrine of incarnation. Jesus Christ, they believe, is the messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, the embodiment of God who has come to earth to aid humanity. Christ's arrival and subsequent crucifixion at the hand of the Romans is said to symbolize god's unflinching love for all of humankind, along with his willingness to stand by them as they proceed through the trials of life. Another point in which Christianity came to diverge from its Jewish roots is in its conception of the Trinity, the doctrine that holds that the oneness of God is represented in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While the Father seems most congruent with the transcendent, monarchical aspects of god, and the Son represents Jesus as God in the earthly flesh, the Holy Spirit maintains the idea that there is a part of god which continues to interact within the world. The Holy Spirit is for Christians the energy through which god manifests Himself within people and events, compelling them to do his good works. Thus, the Trinity further develops the theist strain of Christianity, as God remains personal and transcendent while still being able to effect earthly events.

A number of Christian philosophers and theologians have further delineated arguments for theism which have had a significant impact on Christianity. St. Anselm (1034?-1109), archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109, provided an argument for the existence of god commonly known as the ontological argument. He contended that the human intellect can conceive of an entity that is the greatest power in the universe, and by simply holding this idea of God as the greatest power in the universe "proves" God's existence. From here, Anselm put forth the argument that his self-existent being is perfect: omnipotent, immutable and infinitely good; the mind's awareness of such perfection provides reasonable "proof" for God based on human experience.

St. Thomas Aquinas, famed Christian theologian of the thirteenth century, put forward five arguments in an attempt to prove the existence of God. One of the most important of these, known as the cosmological argument claimed that all movement must have an original impetus; hence, there must exist an "unmoved mover" who provided the initial grounds for all other motion. Everything must have a cause, and for Aquinas this first cause was God. While this explanation logically lead to the question of who created God, Aquinas held that the first cause is beyond the causal sequence, and as such does not belong to it. This spoke to the supposedly infinite nature of God. Aquinas also compiled arguments for God's existence such as the teleological argument or "argument from design." This argument claims that the intrinsic order and purpose that characterizes the world implies that there is some kind of cosmic Designer who has created the universe in such an orderly fashion. This idea was later extended by British philosophers Frederick R. Tennant and Richard Swinburne, who claimed that the existence of god is not only identifiable through the ordered nature of nature but also by way of the ability of human cognitive enterprise to understand the workings of the universe. As well, human aesthetic religious and moral endowments were taken by Tennant and Swineburne as further evidence of the existence of some higher being.

Some modern Christian theologians have attempted to reconcile the idea of evil with the inherent good typically attributed to God. This has lead to the development, in some circles, of the notion of a finite God. That is, God exists as the ruler of the universe, and is unlimited in goodness while limited in power. Evil, then, can exist as a power separate from god, and the claim can now be made that god does not intend for its existence, as well as the suffering and strife that it creates. These evil powers are yet to be subdued by god. While this cannot be described as traditional theism, the notion of a finite god still acknowledges the existence of a benevolent and unified creator. Such a perspective was first propounded by in the early twentieth century by psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) and his followers, before resurfacing in the writings of process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). As such, Whitehead's subsequent Process Theology has adopted the idea that God is within the process of coming to fully identify with His creation.


Islam followed in the footsteps of its Abrahamic predecessors by emphasizing a personalized God called Allah. This God is considered to be the same God talked about by Moses and Jesus. Despite a generally accepted sentiment in Islam that Allah transcends shape and form, several passages in the Qur'an describe Allah using anthropomorphic language, claiming that He can see and hear, among other abilities. furthermore, the so-called "99 Names of Allah" reflect decidedly anthropomorphic qualities. Intense debate in Islamic theological scholarship over such passages has arrived at the conclusion that if God does see and hear, however, he does so in a manner far superior to comparable human sensations. As in the other Abrahamic faiths, God is seen as One, indivisible, and is in all things, yet is also completely separate from humanity. Allah is typically described as incontrovertibly transcendent. His immanence is reflected through instances of revelation to humanity through prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and most importantly Mohammed, who recorded the Quran, Islam's sacred book. Unlike Christianity, Islam rejects the notion of incarnation and sees instead the Quran as the direct revelation of Allah's wisdom.


Sikhism emerged in the Punjab region of India during the 1500s and became a prominent theistic movement in India's religious landscape. Sikhs regard personal remembrance of God (Nam Japna) as a central factor in spiritual growth. God is described as One (Ek Onkar) whose essence is Truth (Sat Namm). God is seen as the creator of the universe, singular, supreme, perfectly moral and representative of the unchanging Truth. However, He is also described in personalistic terms. For example, the opening verse of the Guru Granth Sahib refers to him as "Creative Being Personified." The Sikh tradition also describes God as preserving the physical world from day to day without any expense of his transcendence character. Unlike some of the other theist traditions, Sikhs reject the notion that god can produce avatars or human incarnations, an idea most likely influenced by its close association with Islam.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í faith proclaims the existence of a single God who has created everything within the universe. This God is also described in personal terms, possessing a purposive will and a mind that are highly conscious of and involved with His creation. Despite these ideas, Baha'is claim that ultimately God is too great for humans to fully know or understand. Rather, knowledge of God is limited to those attributes and qualities which are perceptible to human sensation. While direct knowledge about the essence of God, however, is not attainable, Baha'i's believe that knowledge of the attributes of God is revealed to humanity through his messengers such as Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, Moses, Buddha and Zoroaster, among others, through a process of progressive revelation. Baha'is believe that through daily prayer, meditation and study upon the revealed teachings of these thinkers, as well as those of Bahá'í founder Bahá'u'lláh, they can grow closer to God.

Other Examples

Some traces of theism are present in other religions. Buddhism, although usually classified as non-theistic in its Theravada variety, has theist branches in later Mahayana schools such as Pure Land and Jodo Shinshu. The Mahayana Buddhist adoration of bodhisattvas and various Buddhas could be considered as a form of theistic veneration. This trend has been evident in popular forms of Buddhism that center upon the mythology of the bodhisattvas. Similarly, Jainism is nontheistic, yet great figures in its history such as Mahavira have come to function as gods in the popular tradition.

Variations of Theism

Theism includes a wide range of beliefs that assert the existence of one or more deities. Views about the existence of deities are commonly divided into these categories:

  • Polytheism: The belief that there is more than one deity. Several terms must be differentiated here: First, Polytheism proper is the belief there is a pantheon of distinct deities, all of which are to be worshipped. Within polytheism proper there are hard and soft varieties. Hard polytheism views the various gods as being distinct and separate beings, while soft polytheism views all gods as being subsumed into a greater whole.
  • Animism refers to the belief there are immense amount of deities and spirits within all things, which are to be placated and worshipped as need arises.
  • Henotheism: The belief that there may be more than one deity, but one is supreme. Closely related to this idea is Kathenotheism, the belief that there is more than one deity, but only one deity should be worshipped at any given time. Each god, then, is supreme in turn. Monolatry, in contrast, refers to the belief that there may be more than one deity, but only one should be worshipped.
  • Monotheism: The belief that there is only a single deity. Two types of monotheism can be further elucidated: 1) Inclusive monotheism, the belief that there is only one deity, and that all other claimed deities are just different names for this one, and 2) Exclusive monotheism, which refers to the belief that there is only one deity, and that all other claimed deities are false and distinct from it, either the product of invention, evil, or human error. The Hindu denomination of Smartism serves as an example of inclusive monotheism. Most Abrahamic religions serve as examples of exclusive monotheism.
  • Pantheism: The belief that the universe is entirely contained within an all-encompassing, immanent deity.
  • Panentheism: The belief that the universe is entirely contained within a deity that is greater than just the universe, both immanent and transcendent.

The concept of theism is also involved in a number of terms which refer to disbelief or doubt in the existence of God:

  • Nontheism: The absence of clearly identified belief in any deity. Nontheistic religions include Taoism and Zen Buddhism.
  • Antitheism: A direct opposition to theism, or else the view that theism is destructive.
  • Atheism refers to belief that there is no divinity. This includes both strong atheism, the belief that no deity exists, and weak atheism, an absence of belief in the existence of deities.
  • Agnosticism: The belief that the existence of God or gods is unknown and/or inherently unknowable. This includes strong agnosticism, the view that the question of the existence of deities is inherently unknowable or meaningless, and weak agnosticism, which states that the question of the existence of deities is currently unknown, but not inherently unknowable.

It should be noted that these labels for types of theistic belief systems are often not as rigid as this classification scheme may suggest. For instance, classical Christianity accepts the existence of "lesser" deities such as angels and demons, causing some to argue that the belief system is properly a form of henotheistic polytheism. Most Christians, however, would resist being labeled as polytheists. Finally, it should be noted that a distinction can be made between belief in the existence of deities, and beliefs about their characteristics, or the belief in a deity as the summum bonum: see eutheism and dystheism.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Owen, H.P. Concepts of Deity. Toronto: MacMillan. 1972.
  • Plato. The Laws. Trevor J. Saunders, trans. Toronto: Penguin Publishers, 1970. ISBN 0140442227
  • Plato. Timaeus. Donald J. Zeyl, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 0872204464
  • "Systems of Religious and Spiritual Belief." The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Volume 26 Macropaedia. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2002. 530-577.
  • "Theism." Encyclopedia of Religion, Mercia Eliade (ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987. 421-427.


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