The Encyclopedia of Religion
EDITOR IN CHIEF
MACMILLAN PUBLISHING COMPANY
Collier Macmillan Publishers
SUPREME BEINGS are divinities whose nature reveals a unique quality of being—generally, a transcendent spiritual power—in a culture's religious system. Such divine beings figure in many different religious systems, yet they manifest values and symbolic associations that display remarkable similarities. The first section of this article presents, in a general way, the power, attributes, and values common to a large number of supreme beings. The second section illustrates these features by referring to specific historical forms of supreme beings. The final section summarizes the history of scholarly interpretations of the origin, nature, and meaning of these singularly important and complex supernatural beings.
A supreme being is generally described in symbolic terms that reflect the values most highly appraised in a specific historical situation. Considering the complexities of any culture's history, it is extraordinary that a comparative discussion of the nature of supreme beings constantly returns to the same cluster of religious ideas. Without prejudice to one or another aspect of supreme being highlighted in one historical moment or another, I present here a general view of the kinds of power and value revealed in supreme beings. It should be noted that the intricacies of history make general statements a source of great controversy. The supremacy of these divine figures marks with an appropriate intensity the heat of debate over their origin, nature, and form. Since each supreme being is a creative and unique composition of elements, the attributes described herein best serve to define the general category of supreme being, and, as we shall see, apply to specific beings only in one degree or another.
The power of supreme beings is inherently ambivalent, because they manifest their potent omnipresence in a passive mode. Unlike the activities of culture heroes, which are abundantly described in epic cycles of myth, the presence of supreme beings is generally acknowledged in mythology only in brief accounts. In contradistinction to the dramatic activities of vegetation deities, totems, ancestors, and solar and lunar divinities, supreme beings occupy almost no place in scheduled public cults. It has long been acknowledged that sky divinities, or "high gods," admirably reveal many of the central attributes and powers of supreme beings.
Not limited to any single sphere of concern or influence (e.g., fertility of plants or of animals), supreme beings are omnipresent and omnipotent, but, by that very fact, they remain uninvolved with particular activities. Their power—unreckoned by time, unbounded by space—applies to all spheres of life and not to any one alone. Great power and presence reside in a supreme being's inactive transcendence of historical particularities. This remoteness relates to the power of permanence that often reveals itself in symbolisms of the sky and heavenly heights. Standing immutable since before time began, supreme beings remain uninvolved with change. Their steadfastness and eternity go hand in hand with their relative withdrawal from the detailed alterations of historical circumstances. The uniqueness of their infinite character is often portrayed in myth as a kind of loneliness. By their very nature, they stand apart from creation. Nevertheless, they seldom withdraw altogether from the world; they withdraw only to that level that suits their infinite, omnipotent, omniscient character.
Transcendence enables supreme beings to see and to know everything. This strongly colors the nature of their spiritual force: by seeing and understanding all, they can do everything. In keeping with their passive nature, it is the omniscient thought of supreme beings that "actively" expresses their infinite knowledge. As creators, supreme beings create preeminently, but by no means exclusively, by the power of thought or word alone—creatio ex nihilo. Their word is creatively powerful.
If supreme beings know all things in the world and even think them into existence, such knowledge is not reciprocal. Knowing everything, they often pass beyond the comprehension of lesser beings. Once again, paradox pervades the nature of supreme beings. Present everywhere, they remain inaccessible. Seeing all, they may remain invisible. In relation to knowledge, supreme beings are the clearest revelation of mystery—a sacred meaning that can never be exhaustively known, despite its uninterrupted presence. Full knowledge of a supreme being always remains hidden. In this connection, supreme beings are often associated with religious specialists and esoteric societies, whose knowledge of special mysteries is made known in elaborate and secret initiations.
The majestic omnipresence of supreme beings involves them in all that is. Their involvement with being as such takes several particular expressions. They may create the universe directly, or they may create it indirectly through supernatural agents over whom they exercise control. In religious systems in which supreme beings have not bequeathed creation to the guardianship of other supernatural beings, they may be viewed as sustaining all life, assuring the fruitfulness of creation, or owning ail that exists. As the foundation of all that is real, they may be the sovereign upholders of the world order, rulers of all beings, and even providers of moral commandments and socioethical mores. As guarantors of good order, supreme beings punish transgressions in passive ways, by withholding fertility (famine), health (epidemic), or the process of the seasons (drought). As creators and maintainers of life, they fertilize the vital forms of the universe. Although a supreme being may be prayed to spontaneously by individuals at any time and in any place, public invocation is often limited to times of calamity when life itself seems threatened.
One response consonant with the enigmatic, transcendent, and passive power of supreme beings is the human tendency to replace them with other religious conceptions. In fact, supreme beings per se do not usually dominate the religious imagination. When myths recount the withdrawal to the transcendent heights appropriate to their nature, they are replaced in importance by more active religious forms: gods who specialize in fertilizing activity, vegetation deities, storm gods, culture heroes, divine twins, ancestors, the dead, world rulers, theological abstractions of virtues, or metaphysical principles of cosmic law. The passive is overtaken by the active. Transcendent station yields to the processes of the concrete world. Infinity gives way to the here and now. Yet, supreme beings reveal the very meaning of transcendence and infinity in all its forms: omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence.