Divinity and divine (sometimes 'the Divinity' or 'the Divine') are broadly applied but loosely defined terms, used variously within different faiths and belief systems — and even by different individuals within a given faith — to refer to some transcendent or transcendental power, or its attributes or manifestations in the world. The root of the words is literally 'Godlike' (from the Latin 'Deus', cf. Dyaus, closely related to Greek 'Zeus' and Deva in Sanskrit), but the use varies significantly depending on which god is being discussed. This article outlines the major distinctions in the conventional use of the terms.
Overlap occurs between these usages because deities or godlike entities are often identical with and/or identified by the powers and forces that are credited to them — in many cases a deity is merely a power or force personified — and these powers and forces may then be extended or granted to mortal individuals. For instance, throughout much of the Old Testament Yahweh is closely associated with storms and thunder: He is said to speak in thunder, and thunder is seen as a token of His anger. This power was then extended to prophets like Moses and Samuel, who caused thunderous storms to rain down on their enemies.
Divinity in monotheistic faiths always carries connotations of goodness, beauty, beneficence, justice, and other positive, pro-social attributes. In these faiths there is an equivalent cohort of malefic supranormal beings and powers, such as demons, devils, afreet, etc., which are not conventionally referred to as divine; demonic is often used instead. Pantheistic and polytheistic faiths make no such distinction; gods and other beings of transcendent power often have complex, ignoble, or even irrational motivations for their acts. Note that while the terms demon and demonic are used in monotheistic faiths as antonyms to divine, they are in fact derived from the Greek word daimón (δαίμων), which itself translates as divinity.
In monotheistic faiths, the word divinity is often used to refer to the single, supreme being central to that faith. Often the word takes the definite article and is capitalized — "the Divinity" — as though it were a proper name or definitive honorific. Thus Yahweh, Allah, and Jehovah are sometimes referred to as 'the Divinities' of their particular faiths. Divine — capitalized — may be used as an adjective to refer to the manifestations of such a Divinity or its powers: e.g. "basking in the Divine presence..."
The terms divinity and divine — uncapitalized, and lacking the definite article — are sometimes used as to denote 'god(s) or certain other beings and entities which fall short of godhood but lie outside the human realm. These include (by no means an exhaustive list):
In certain instances, individual humans are elevated to divine status without becoming actual gods: the eight immortals of taoism, for instance, or the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. Compare with the section on divinity and mortals given below.
See god for further information about deities and divine entities.
As previously noted, divinities are closely related to the transcendent force(s) or power(s) credited to them, so much so that in some cases the powers or forces may themselves be invoked independently. This leads to the second usage of the word divine (and a less common usage of divinity): to refer to the operation of transcendent power in the world.
In its most direct form, the operation of transcendent power implies some form of divine intervention. For pan- and polytheistic faiths this usually implies the direct action of one god or another on the course of human events. In Greek legend, for instance, it was Poseidon (god of the sea) who raised the storms which blew Odysseus' craft off course on his return journey, and Japanese tradition holds that a god-sent wind saved them from Mongol invasion. Prayers or propitiations are often offered to specific gods of pantheisms to garner favorable interventions in particular enterprises: e.g. safe journeys, success in war, or a season of bountiful crops. Many faiths around the world — from Japanese Shinto and Chinese traditional religion, to certain African practices and the faiths derived from those in the Caribbean, to Native American beliefs — hold that ancestral or household spirits offer daily protection and blessings. In monotheistic religions, divine intervention may take very direct forms: miracles, visions, or intercessions by blessed figures.
Transcendent force or power may also operate through more subtle and indirect paths. Monotheistic faiths generally support some version of divine providence, which acknowledges that the divinity of the faith has a profound but unknowable plan always unfolding in the world. Unforeseeable, overwhelming, or seemingly unjust events are often thrown on 'the will of the Divine', in deferences like the Muslim inshallah ('as God wills it') and Christian 'God works in mysterious ways'. Often such faiths hold out the possibility of divine retribution as well, where the divinity will unexpectedly bring evil-doers to justice through the conventional workings of the world; from the subtle redressing of minor personal wrongs, to such large-scale havoc as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the biblical Great Flood. Other faiths are even more subtle: the doctrine of karma shared by Buddhism and Hinduism is a divine law similar to divine retribution but without the connotation of punishment: our acts, good or bad, intentional or unintentional, reflect back on us as part of the natural working of the universe. Philosophical Taoism also proposes a transcendent operant principle — transliterated in English as tao or dao, meaning 'the way' — which is neither an entity or a being per se, but reflects the natural ongoing process of the world. Modern western mysticism and new age philosophy often use the term 'the Divine' as a noun in this latter sense: a non-specific principle and/or being that gives rise to the world, and acts as the source or wellspring of life. In these latter cases the faiths do not promote deference, as happens in monotheisms; rather each suggests a path of action that will bring the practitioner into conformance with the divine law: ahimsa — 'no harm' — for Buddhist and Hindu faiths; de or te — 'virtuous action' — in daoism; and any of numerous practices of peace and love in new age thinking.
Less politically, most faiths have any number of people that are believed to have been touched by divine forces: saints, prophets, heroes, oracles, martyrs, and enlightened beings, among others. Saint Francis of Assisi, in Catholicism, is said to have received instruction directly from God and it is believed that he grants plenary indulgence to all who confess their sins and visit its chapel on the appropriate day. In Greek mythology, Achilles' mother bathed him in the river Styx to give him immortality, and Hercules — as the son of Zeus — inherited near-godlike powers. In religious Taoism, Lao Tsu is venerated as a saint with his own powers. Various individuals in the Buddhist faith, beginning with Siddhartha, are considered to be enlightened, and in religious forms of Buddhism they are credited with divine powers. Mohamed and Christ, in their respective traditions, are each said to have performed divine miracles.
In general, mortals with divine qualities are carefully distinguished from the deity or deities in their religion's main pantheon. Even the Christian faith, which holds Christ to be identical to God, distinguishes between God the father and Christ the begotten son. There are, however, certain esoteric and mystical schools of thought, present in many faiths — Sufis in Islam, Gnostics in Christianity, Advaitan Hindus, Zen Buddhists, as well as several non-specific perspectives developed in new age philosophy — which hold that all humans are in essence divine, or unified with the Divine in a non-trivial way. Such divinity, in these faiths, would express itself naturally if it were not obscured by the social and physical worlds we live in; it needs to be brought to the fore through appropriate spiritual practices. According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such spiritual practices are, in and of themselves, inspired by promptings from the light of Christ or the Holy Spirit that are communications with an individual's divine essence or spirit that is linked directly to God through pre-existence as his offspring.
Belief in a divine potential of humankind is taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During a period known as pre-existence, pre-mortal human spirits called spirit children are able to make choices that influence their mortal existence contingent upon the individual spirit's inclination toward truth, love and faith. Spirit children arise from "intelligences" which are eternal forms of energy or matter existing in a less progressed form than God. (See Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse.)
According to the LDS church, Christ's unwavering ability to obey truth, perceive light, and act in perfect love and faith, distinguishes his pre-mortal existence from the pre-mortal existence of the other spirit beings who were in the presence of the Eternal Father. Christ's behaviour during his "spirit child" phase serves to explain why he is considered to be God-like. The God-like quality ascribed to Jesus explains why he had a greater capacity to suffer more than mortal man could suffer; thus He could endure the anguish and incomprehensible pain of the atonement.
- The LDS belief is that Christ's divinity qualified Him to return to the presence of God after His death and resurrection. By means of the atonement and His offering of divine grace to humankind, Christ provided access to divinity for humankind. A divine being is filled with perfect love, and desires to share these qualities because of the joy they bring to each individual soul.
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