Polytheism

NorthernPines

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Iconodule said:
If Hinduism isn't polytheistic, then there is no such thing as polytheism.
That's just so overly simplistic. One could argue the opposite about us; if Trinitarianism is "monotheistic" then they just aren't real monotheists. Sure you and I would argue in response, "it is monotheistic if you understand it correctly!" BINGO! That's exactly what a Hindu theologian would say as well.

Yes, most Hindu theologies treat the deities as different manifestations of a single Godhead.
Then how is that polytheism? One god, just many incarnations = polytheism?  That's not true polytheism. Poly-incarnational perhaps, but not polytheism. I'm sure there is some scholarly word to describe it, but it's not polytheism in the classical sense of the word. (a belief in many gods, separate and distinct "beings"/minds from one another etc.)  Just think about it. Classical polytheism, like the gods of Olympus were NOT seen as emanations of one all powerful source. They were seen as beings in their own right, who may have come into being from the Titans, but where none the less distinct and were in no sense "revealing" a piece of a whole truth to anyone or anything. Zeus didn't come to reveal the truth of the Brahman, he came to, well, do Zeus like things and be worshiped and feared. (of course there is no Zeus, but you see what I mean) That's what I call raw polytheism, or classical polytheism. Almost no one in modern Hinduism understands Hinduism in that respect. Practically speaking they might be called, "polytheistic" in a sense, but not in the sense most everyone means by that word.

I believe it is of the utmost importance to get facts, details, ideas and theologies as clear as we possibly can then judge them based on their own merits. As a priest once told me (while I was still a Protestant) if you want to know what Judaism teaches, go ask a Jew, don't ask Pat Robertson. :D That statement forever changed the way I gathered information about other religions. It's very easy to look at Hinduism and "see" polytheism, but then as I said, the same can and does happen with us, just ask John Hagee what we believe, he'll tell you! :D

I just do not believe the majority of Hinduism can be classified, well into any single framework really, but not polytheism either. That doesn't make me a Hindu though. I find much in the religion that is interesting, and in fact true, that still doesn't make me a Hindu anymore than seeing truth in the ancient Pagan religions made Justin martyr a worshiper of Isis or Mithras.

From a scholarly perspective titling all of Hinduism as polytheistic is useless. In a Christian missionary sense it would be useless too because a Hindu who has knowledge of his/her religion would either say, "So what?" or they'd respond, "uh no we're not. if you can't get even that detail right, why should I bother listening to anything else you say?" It's the same reaction most of us have when we're told we "worship icons/idols" we either brush them off as crack pots, or we think they just haven't the slightest clue about our religion. (see the massive thread with dattaswami to recall just how silly we see people who do not take the time to get our theologies straight)

Appearances can be deceiving, especially when viewing them from the outside. If any sort of Christian should understand this it should be Catholics and Orthodox.

Even putting aside Hinduism though, polytheism does still exist in some parts of the world. As does Animism and all sorts of religious and spiritual views. However much of the world is monotheistic, and I think this is a testament to the Church's ability to spread it throughout the world, even among those who are no Christians. Medieval Arabia got the idea of monotheism from the Church (and resident Judaism) and I suppose an argument could be made that even Hinduism, being influenced by monotheism began to adopt a more monotheistic approach. (though I think there is evidence there has always been a monotheistic strain within Hinduism dating back thousands of years) I guess that's all an exercise in futility because we'll never know. It is an interesting option though.



 

Jetavan

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NorthernPines said:
Iconodule said:
If Hinduism isn't polytheistic, then there is no such thing as polytheism.
That's just so overly simplistic. One could argue the opposite about us; if Trinitarianism is "monotheistic" then they just aren't real monotheists. Sure you and I would argue in response, "it is monotheistic if you understand it correctly!" BINGO! That's exactly what a Hindu theologian would say as well.

Yes, most Hindu theologies treat the deities as different manifestations of a single Godhead.
Then how is that polytheism? One god, just many incarnations = polytheism?  That's not true polytheism. Poly-incarnational perhaps, but not polytheism. I'm sure there is some scholarly word to describe it, but it's not polytheism in the classical sense of the word. (a belief in many gods, separate and distinct "beings"/minds from one another etc.)  Just think about it. Classical polytheism, like the gods of Olympus were NOT seen as emanations of one all powerful source.
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
 

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NorthernPines said:
Then how is that polytheism?
Is it valid to say that Hinduism more resembles pantheism than polytheism?  That is, does Hinduism somewhat embrace the notion that everything is God, or could become God, or is becoming God?
 

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chrevbel said:
NorthernPines said:
Then how is that polytheism?
Is it valid to say that Hinduism more resembles pantheism than polytheism?  That is, does Hinduism somewhat embrace the notion that everything is God, or could become God, or is becoming God?
Nope. Hinduism, in general, is PanEntheistic: God permeates all things, but God also transcends all things.
 

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Jetavan said:
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
That's a common existing element of polytheistic traditions.  Many gods came from other gods or some type of "Metadivine Realm," e.g. Gaia. Most polytheistic traditions don't have the gods as being the creators and independently powerful.  

I also tend to think that the idea of "Hinduism" being monotheistic is somewhat exaggerated, and the idea that it is a uniform and coherent tradition certainly is.  Some 19th century Orientalists even went so far as arguing that Hindu worship was actually Trinitarian in nature, with Brahma being the creator and Vishnu and Shiva being other incarnations of this Godhead.  Fascinating, but not particularly accurate.  
Hinduism varies greatly and the religion you get depends on the region, city, or village you are in.  Again, some have this concept of incarnations of a Godhead, while others do not.

It seems that while pronouncing Hinduism as polytheistic may be oversimplified, so is saying that it's monotheistic or not "true polytheism."

chrevbel said:
Is it valid to say that Hinduism more resembles pantheism than polytheism?  That is, does Hinduism somewhat embrace the notion that everything is God, or could become God, or is becoming God?
I would say no.  Most believe in actual deities.  In other words, the sky, water, or trees aren't really gods, and the gods will actually enter the temple and idols.

 

Jetavan

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Cognomen said:
Jetavan said:
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
That's a common existing element of polytheistic traditions.  Many gods came from other gods or some type of "Metadivine Realm," e.g. Gaia. Most polytheistic traditions don't have the gods as being the creators and independently powerful.  
So how are polytheistic origin narratives and monotheistic origin narratives different, if both posit that spiritual beings (gods, angels, jinns) come from a Supreme Source (God, Chaos, etc.)?
 

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Jetavan said:
So how are polytheistic origin narratives and monotheistic origin narratives different, if both posit that spiritual beings (gods, angels, jinns) come from a Supreme Source (God, Chaos, etc.)?
There are various teachings on this, but the one I'm most familiar with states that Monotheistic traditions, specifically Abrahamic, place God as the sole creator, and subsequently God is not limited by any other force.  In contrast, gods did not create, but were typically created by either other gods or some sort of overarching "metadivine realm," i.e. Supreme Source.

Gods can thwart each others' wills and be limited by the overarching realm, whether that is chaos, gaia, the cosmos, samsara, or what not.  While angels, jinn, etc come from God, God does not come from anything.  Gods, on the other hand, do come from an external Supreme Source.

Of course these are just Religious Studies theories and understandings, I'm not claiming that they are true.
 

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Cognomen said:
Jetavan said:
So how are polytheistic origin narratives and monotheistic origin narratives different, if both posit that spiritual beings (gods, angels, jinns) come from a Supreme Source (God, Chaos, etc.)?
There are various teachings on this, but the one I'm most familiar with states that Monotheistic traditions, specifically Abrahamic, place God as the sole creator, and subsequently God is not limited by any other force.

Considering so much of the Torah is full of polytheistic tendencies I wouldn't be quite so quick to jump on that as totally accurate. Genesis itself says "let us make man in our image". I know that the Christian/Jewish interpretation is either the "us" are angels or a reference to the Trinity, but that seems to be a bit of apologetics to me. Of course it all depends if one believes Genesis and the Torah has one sole author; that assumption will color one's opinions. I side with modern scholarship, as well as a few Church fathers and even ancient Rabbis who noticed some pretty weird things in the Old Testament that are better explained by understanding the Torah was written by many different people and not by Moses and only Moses. Anyways I think we're getting a bit side tracked, or at least I am...LOL!


Gods can thwart each others' wills and be limited by the overarching realm, whether that is chaos, gaia, the cosmos, samsara, or what not. 
That's true, however even in ancient near eastern polytheism, the chaos gods, which as you said, were more powerful and actually existed first WERE overthrown by one "super god" who rescued the other members of a pantheon from the grasp of the chaos deity, and in return this super god was made the new king of the gods. Marduk overthrew Tiamat for example. In some of the Psalms we read about YHWH overthrowing Leviathan which was likely just a Hebrew name/version for the chaos dragon seen in other ancient near eastern religions. In the book of Job, when God is asking Job "who can tame Leviathan, who can subdue him" etc, this is what is being referred to...who else but YHWH can do these things?! Now I see this as all symbolism for a spiritual reality, and accept later Christian interpretation of it, but did the writers, even though he was inspired really have "death/sin" in mind, or did the author really think within the time frame he lived? I guess it doesn't matter, but I perceive the author really thought Leviathan was a chaos dragon that YHWH slew or would slay. I don't think the author thought it was all metaphor, and so this would have made him a polytheist. We kind of talked about this in another thread and I and a number of others just don't see a problem with thinking the Israelites slowly came to the realization that there was only one God, and not many. God after all meets us where we are, then draws us out of the darkness. I think that's what happened with the Israelites and the Patriarchs of old. I mean half the Old Testament essentially states that the other gods DO exist, but that they aren't as powerful as YHWH is.

While angels, jinn, etc come from God, God does not come from anything.  Gods, on the other hand, do come from an external Supreme Source.
But that external supreme force would be analogous to God, wouldn't it? That's how I see it anyways.

As we've said, Hinduism is down right impossible to label, it's a mixture of everything. I just tend to agree with those who are in fact Hindu (and thus would know what they believe) that they are generally not polytheistic today.

Of course these are just Religious Studies theories and understandings, I'm not claiming that they are true.
That's all I'm saying too. Nothing I've said a "truth" judgment just a Religious Topics/Studies introspection and dialogue.


 

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Jetavan said:
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
Hmmm...I'm sorry to say I need to go brush up on my Greek mythology because I don't remember...lol!

I think for them it was essentially an infinite regress though, I think Chaos came from somewhere and on back, which is why some of the Greek philosophers rejected the Greek religion outright and actually became monotheistic. I just don't recall though, I'm embarrassed to say. I say embarrassed because I used to know the Greek myths inside and out, but have long sense forgotten, if I ever knew this in the first place.

However, even if this is so, it kind of says something about monotheism does it not? That in some sense people deep down understand monotheism to be true? Just a thought anyways.


 

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NorthernPines said:
Considering so much of the Torah is full of polytheistic tendencies I wouldn't be quite so quick to jump on that as totally accurate. Genesis itself says "let us make man in our image". I know that the Christian/Jewish interpretation is either the "us" are angels or a reference to the Trinity, but that seems to be a bit of apologetics to me. Of course it all depends if one believes Genesis and the Torah has one sole author; that assumption will color one's opinions. I side with modern scholarship, as well as a few Church fathers and even ancient Rabbis who noticed some pretty weird things in the Old Testament that are better explained by understanding the Torah was written by many different people and not by Moses and only Moses. Anyways I think we're getting a bit side tracked, or at least I am...LOL!
Whether or not the OT contains polytheistic tendencies, they must be analyzed in the light of Christ. I would even argue that the older books in the OT were man's attempt to try to reconcile who/what God is.


That's true, however even in ancient near eastern polytheism, the chaos gods, which as you said, were more powerful and actually existed first WERE overthrown by one "super god" who rescued the other members of a pantheon from the grasp of the chaos deity, and in return this super god was made the new king of the gods. Marduk overthrew Tiamat for example. In some of the Psalms we read about YHWH overthrowing Leviathan which was likely just a Hebrew name/version for the chaos dragon seen in other ancient near eastern religions. In the book of Job, when God is asking Job "who can tame Leviathan, who can subdue him" etc, this is what is being referred to...who else but YHWH can do these things?! Now I see this as all symbolism for a spiritual reality, and accept later Christian interpretation of it, but did the writers, even though he was inspired really have "death/sin" in mind, or did the author really think within the time frame he lived? I guess it doesn't matter, but I perceive the author really thought Leviathan was a chaos dragon that YHWH slew or would slay. I don't think the author thought it was all metaphor, and so this would have made him a polytheist. We kind of talked about this in another thread and I and a number of others just don't see a problem with thinking the Israelites slowly came to the realization that there was only one God, and not many. God after all meets us where we are, then draws us out of the darkness. I think that's what happened with the Israelites and the Patriarchs of old. I mean half the Old Testament essentially states that the other gods DO exist, but that they aren't as powerful as YHWH is.
Regarding the Leviathian, I believe there were oral traditions circulating at the time which suggested great monsters in the seas who were "gods" and why it was used in the Book of Job was saying "Even if there was this "god" the real, true God is in control".

Half of the OT? What parts? But doesn't this all conflict somehow with the "I Am that I Am" revelation received by Moses at the burning bush? Why the need for other gods? Wouldn't that anger God Himself?
 

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NorthernPines said:
Anyways I think we're getting a bit side tracked, or at least I am...LOL!
Guilty as charged here.  That's my understanding of Religious Studies positions on the OT as well, but also that the religious tradition ultimately developed into a monotheistic interpretation. 

Gods can thwart each others' wills and be limited by the overarching realm, whether that is chaos, gaia, the cosmos, samsara, or what not. 
That's true, however even in ancient near eastern polytheism, the chaos gods, which as you said, were more powerful and actually existed first WERE overthrown by one "super god" who rescued the other members of a pantheon from the grasp of the chaos deity, and in return this super god was made the new king of the gods. Marduk overthrew Tiamat for example. In some of the Psalms we read about YHWH overthrowing Leviathan which was likely just a Hebrew name/version for the chaos dragon seen in other ancient near eastern religions. In the book of Job, when God is asking Job "who can tame Leviathan, who can subdue him" etc, this is what is being referred to...who else but YHWH can do these things?! Now I see this as all symbolism for a spiritual reality, and accept later Christian interpretation of it, but did the writers, even though he was inspired really have "death/sin" in mind, or did the author really think within the time frame he lived? I guess it doesn't matter, but I perceive the author really thought Leviathan was a chaos dragon that YHWH slew or would slay. I don't think the author thought it was all metaphor, and so this would have made him a polytheist. We kind of talked about this in another thread and I and a number of others just don't see a problem with thinking the Israelites slowly came to the realization that there was only one God, and not many. God after all meets us where we are, then draws us out of the darkness. I think that's what happened with the Israelites and the Patriarchs of old. I mean half the Old Testament essentially states that the other gods DO exist, but that they aren't as powerful as YHWH is.
Again, I agree, but I think this just indicates the polytheistic roots of the OT, not the later monotheistic understanding.

While angels, jinn, etc come from God, God does not come from anything.  Gods, on the other hand, do come from an external Supreme Source.
But that external supreme force would be analogous to God, wouldn't it? That's how I see it anyways.
Analogous maybe, but perhaps not the same.  The external supreme force is not always identified as a god or worshiped as one; it can  just be a system or impersonal entity. 

As we've said, Hinduism is down right impossible to label, it's a mixture of everything. I just tend to agree with those who are in fact Hindu (and thus would know what they believe) that they are generally not polytheistic today.
Right, although "generally not polytheistic today" would be somewhat dependent on region, village, and the actual tradition.

Overall, far too many agreements and far too minuscule points of contention for us to spend this much time arranging these quotes (especially for someone of my technological limitations).  :)

 

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Jetavan said:
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
You are right, but I'm not sure how this would change or remove the label of the Ancient Greek religion as polytheistic.  Whether the gods emanated from one source or not, they had independent wills from that source.  

Please correct me if I'm mistaken, but you seem to be arguing that ultimately, nothing is actually polytheistic. 
 

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Cognomen said:
Jetavan said:
Didn't Zeus have a father and mother, Cronus and Rhea, who could trace their ancestry back to Gaia, who arose from Chaos, the primordial formlessness? So, in some sense, Zeus was an emanation of Chaos.
You are right, but I'm not sure how this would change or remove the label of the Ancient Greek religion as polytheistic.  Whether the gods emanated from one source or not, they had independent wills from that source.
Certain biblical angels also had independent wills, thus rebelling against God. But we don't associate them with the term 'polytheism'. Humans also have independent wills, though they were created by God -- and yet we don't call Genesis 'polytheistic' just because God created humans who possess independent wills.

Please correct me if I'm mistaken, but you seem to be arguing that ultimately, nothing is actually polytheistic. 
I'm suggesting that "polytheism" only makes sense once one has defined what a "theos" is. Is a theos a being who has an independent will? Does it possess eternal existence? Is it all-powerful? Is it a spiritual being living in a spiritual realm? Does it ever take birth in a physical form? Is a theos a creator ex nihilo? Or simply a very powerful spirit?

If one defines a theos as a spiritual being living in a spiritual realm, then religions that teach about angels, ghosts, spirits, etc., are polytheistic.

If one defines a theos as a creator ex nihilo, then only the Abrahamic religions are theistic (specifically, monotheistic), and no major polytheistic tradition exists or has ever existed.

 

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Jetavan said:
Certain biblical angels also had independent wills, thus rebelling against God. But we don't associate them with the term 'polytheism'. Humans also have independent wills, though they were created by God -- and yet we don't call Genesis 'polytheistic' just because God created humans who possess independent wills.
Correct, but that is because people within these religious traditions don't view these entities as gods.

Please correct me if I'm mistaken, but you seem to be arguing that ultimately, nothing is actually polytheistic.
 
I'm suggesting that "polytheism" only makes sense once one has defined what a "theos" is. Is a theos a being who has an independent will? Does it possess eternal existence? Is it all-powerful? Is it a spiritual being living in a spiritual realm? Does it ever take birth in a physical form? Is a theos a creator ex nihilo? Or simply a very powerful spirit?
I don't mean to oversimplify the issue, but I don't think an exhaustive definition of "theos" is necessary.  Whether religions believe in and worship multiple gods, according to their understanding, should suffice.  Admittedly, this is sometimes difficult to accurately ascertain, e.g. different traditions within Hinduism, forms of Shamanism, etc., but sometimes it is not, e.g. the traditional understanding of Ancient Greek or Norse worship. 

If one defines a theos as a spiritual being living in a spiritual realm, then religions that teach about angels, ghosts, spirits, etc., are polytheistic.
Again, you seem to be following definitional relativism to the extreme. I agree that if you define theos that way, then religions with angels, ghosts, spirits, etc. would be considered polytheistic.  Simultaneously, if your construct understands various gods to be part of one major god, then they are monotheistic.  Monotheistic religions themselves tend to define these spiritual beings specifically as not being gods, whereas some polytheistic religions do the opposite. It's clear, within the context of the respective tradition, that a jinn is not considered a theos, but that Poseidon is. 

According to somewhat standard understandings of polytheism, a tradition with multiple gods, even if they have come from (although independent from) one god/external realm/force, qualifies them as such. 

If one defines a theos as a creator ex nihilo, then only the Abrahamic religions are theistic (specifically, monotheistic), and no major polytheistic tradition exists or has ever existed.
I've never seen that definition though, nor was I was implying it.  It does, however, tend to be a distinguishing factor between monotheistic and polytheistic traditions.  monotheistic traditions usually have a theos who is a creator ex nihilo, whereas polytheistic traditions do not. 

 

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A Rabbi who believes in Zeus:

Second, I do believe in Zeus.

No, I don't think that there is a huge bearded guy dressed in a toga sitting in a palace on a mountain in the sky, looking to hurl his thunderbolt or abduct a beautiful human woman. Such a literal view may have been taken by some ancient Greeks, just as some today read their religion's stories literally, but this was not how the great philosophers and educated people of that time saw Zeus, and it is not the intent behind those who first described the many Greek deities. I believe in Zeus in the same way that Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plato, Heraclitus, and later, Plotinus, did -- as a poetic vision of a true aspect of the Divine. Plato makes this clear in Phaedrus, his mind-boggling treatise on the nature of the soul, where he wrote, "But of the heaven which is above the heavens what earthly poet ever did or ever will be worthily? There abides the very essence with which true knowledge is concerned; the colorless, formless, intangible spirit, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul."
 

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If one defines a theos as a spiritual being living in a spiritual realm, then religions that teach about angels, ghosts, spirits, etc., are polytheistic.
I agree that if you define theos that way, then religions with angels, ghosts, spirits, etc. would be considered polytheistic.
I would also suggest that "polytheistic" is not inherently a 'bad' word. Unfortunately, given the history of Christianity, the label "polytheism" has achieved very negative connotations (and denotations). I'm trying to show that, properly understood, free of ulterior motives, "polytheism" can be descriptive of the "monotheistic" faiths as well.

If one wants to claim that all the theoi (in, say, a particular Hindu tradition) all received their existence due to one ultimate source (say, Brahman), then that would not negate the polytheism of that tradition. Neither would it negate the polytheism of any Christian, Jewish, or Islamic tradition that traces its angels, jinn, or other spirits to one ultimate source.

The problem arises due to the particular definition of "God" that is found in the Abrahamic traditions when they (1) claim that only the Abrahamic traditions are monotheist (because the Abrahamic traditions define their theos as the "one source, one creator-of-all-things", which, by definition, can only exist as "one"); and then they (2) negate their previous definition of theos when looking at other traditions (Greek, Hindu, e.g.), claiming that they are polytheist (because these traditions believe in the existence of "many spiritual entities that exist as distinct persons in the spiritual worlds"), whereas in fact these traditions posit "one source, one creator-of-all-things" who has created/manifested-as those "many spiritual entities".

Monotheistic religions themselves tend to define these spiritual beings specifically as not being gods...
And why don't they do so? What definition of "theos" are the monotheistic religions using?


I've never seen that definition though, nor was I was implying it.  It does, however, tend to be a distinguishing factor between monotheistic and polytheistic traditions.  monotheistic traditions usually have a theos who is a creator ex nihilo, whereas polytheistic traditions do not.  
Well, that raises another issue. We would have to get into what the "nihil" in "ex nihilo" actually refers to, and whether any particular religion would consider a true "nothingness" to be even possible. In the case of Hinduism, e.g., a true nothingness is not possible, because (at the very least) Brahman is the foundation of all, both somethingness and nothingness.
 
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