The world is full of isms; sometimes political, sometimes philosophical, often religious and always pompous. These ideological frameworks are so much a part of our vernacular that we blur past much of their meaning. The result of this is that most people don’t even know what an ism is or to which one a person may be referring.
The word ism has its Greek origin in ismos. Ismos was a word that helped to form finished doctrines or ideas out of abstract nouns. Simply put ismos, like its linguistic child ism, means a finished and holistic system of ideas.
Arguably the most famous of the religious isms is monotheism, a system of ideas in which one accepts the existence of only one god to the exclusion of all others. Modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the world’s three biggest religions, fall within this system. As such, the adherents of these three religions are instructed from a young age to never even contemplate any other religious framework from which to examine the universe. When confronted with any sort of Paganism, they are taught that this ism’s ideas are evil and to be resisted.
A deeper look into the past and origins of these three great world religions will see that there is a different ism at work. One which helped to define and codify not only the sacred texts of these great faiths but the very idea of a sovereign God-head; without which these religions would not exist. This ism is not only crucial to the origins of these great faiths, but it is also remembered by the great masters of antiquity. This religious framework has been passed down from teacher to student throughout the generations of the Order of the White Road. Without it, the Order could not explain the plethora of religiously valid experiences of many of its members. Armed with it, the Order has managed to avoid the unhealthy dogmatism of the world’s other great faiths. Faiths that shut the minds of their respective faithful and force them, before they are old enough to think for themselves, to form opinions about truth which they are seldom able to liberate themselves from.
Seen in this light, this ism could be the key to the first gate of the path of the White Road. Mere acceptance of this ideological framework will help to broaden the mind of the thinker and reconcile the great observations of the ancient philosophers and holy men with all the knowledge gained by modern science. This ism has become one of the founding principles of the Order of the White Road and yet is often unknown or misunderstood by many of the Order’s neophytes.
This ism is henotheism and it is the fount of all the Order’s spiritual principles. This blog is an important one then, for understanding this one idea is the very beginning of the Road. Henotheism is “the worship of a single god without denying the existence of others.”
When the Order’s teachers first expose their students to this idea, they often mistakenly associate it with one of the myriad of religious compromises coming out of the New Age movement. They do not understand that henotheism is not a compromise between paganism and monotheism, born of the modern world. It is an accepted religious reality of the deeply arcane.
To make this point, we return to the modern world’s three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Taken together, these faiths are known as Abrahamic religions since they take their origins from the great father Abram or Abraham, first mentioned in the Hebrew tradition in the Torah. The Torah clearly states that Abram was born of a man named Terah, whose family originally lived in the region around the city of Ur (Gen 11:27-28). Ur has been identified by archeologists to be situated along the Euphrates River and was once part of the Akkadian and Babylonian empires respectively. While not in the bible directly, the Rabbah (an extra-biblical, rabbinical text meant for instruction) denotes in Chapter 38 that Terah was, in the tradition of his Babylonian homeland, a pagan and an idol worshipper. This is backed up by the text itself, when in Genesis 11:31 it states:
“Now Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and led them out of Ur of the Chaldees, to go to the land of Canaan…”
The land of Canaan was the region which is known now as modern-day Israel/Palestine. It was home to a series of Canaanite kingdoms who believed in and followed a form of paganism that worshipped the greater Canaanite pantheon. Chief among these gods was the god El. In Abrahamic circles, after the covenant of God with Abraham (Gen 15), Abraham’s tribe and the Hebrews after him began to worship the supreme God that they called “El Shaddai.” More interesting than this, while Abraham was in great contact with this God of Creation throughout his narrative in Genesis, his covenant with God to serve only Him took place immediately after the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek. In Gen. 14:18-20, we find the following:
“Now Melchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hands.’ Then Abram gave him a tithe of all.”
The repeated use of “God Most High” from a king of a Canaanite city and admitted priest of God indicates that there are other gods which are not as high as He. It was after this famous and mystical encounter with the priest of God before the establishment of the Jewish priesthood that Abraham found his relationship with this same Most High God solidified. With the words:
“’I am the God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.’ And he [Abram] said, ‘Master and Lord…’”
To strike a covenant in ancient Middle Eastern tradition means the same thing as it would if we were to sign a contract today. The covenant between Abraham and God was simple: God commanded that Abraham serve only Him and no other god as a kind of chief priest; in exchange, God would offer all the land of Canaan to his descendants. This promise would be brought about through a miracle of children born to his elderly, barren wife. In the above passage, Abraham’s agreement to this new henotheistic form of spirituality is signified by the terms “Master” and “Lord.”
The story of Abraham and the cultural context which surround him is not even the Bible’s most direct example of henotheism. Consider Exodus 12:12 where God brings judgment upon the gods of Egypt; 1 Samuel 4, where the Philistines fear the Israelites because they are bearing the Ark of the Covenant (why would you fear a divine item if you didn’t believe in the divinity fueling it); and Exodus 3:13, where Moses, an Egyptian pagan nearly from birth, asks God to identify himself, presumably to differentiate the God that sends him from any other gods which may have existed in the Hebrew pantheon.
All of these examples do not even begin to scratch the surface of the extra-biblical, qur’anic, cultural, and archeological evidence of the practice of henotheism among much of the Middle Eastern world. It also helps to explain the second of the ten commandments.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
The use of the term “before” is consistent with the henotheistic ideal. Some scholars would rather translate before as beside, but the argument from henotheistic scholars is that this small deviation in translation makes little difference. The point was that Moses and the Hebrew people should not equate the God which now addressed them with either the gods of the land from which they came (Egypt) or the land to which God would send them (Canaan). That He differed in degree or nature from these other gods and was superior to them.
The second commandment, taken not as the above excerpt but as its entire text (Exodus 20:3-6), further indicates that God demanded no sacrifice or service be made to other gods. What remains to be understood is why. Why would El, a supreme creator god, create an entire pantheon of lesser gods and deities only to demand that they not be worshipped by mankind?
The answer to this question may surprise you, as it has generations of Neophytes before you. The topic of worship separated from the topic of dialogue is indeed one of the more interesting nuances of the Order’s theosophic approach. Unfortunately, this topic itself is so broad that it will require a second part of this article to explore. In that spirit, I hope that you will check back for the second half of this exploration of henotheism. In the meantime, I wish you blessings upon the path.