Theism: Poly, Mono, Heno, and Other Options

This is about some issues I’ve thought about for some time, but have never written up, for whatever reason.  The thing that inspired me to write now was a comment on a recent thread over at the Ocholophobist’s current blog [no longer available in this iteration as of April 2016, alas] (my emphasis):

There’s certainly a Protestantized/pop Catholicism for converts which seems to “stick” and yet only does so by watering down and trivializing what I would consider to be central elements of the Catholic faith. Granted, certain segments of American Orthodoxy do this as well (“We don’t pray to Saints; we just ask them to pray for us, like friends!”), but I’m not sure they pull it off as easily.

Well said, I thought upon reading it; and after mulling it over for a few days, have decided to write this post.

Simplistically, people typically take “polytheism” to mean “worshiping many gods” and “monotheism” to mean “worshiping but one god”.  Even atheists and agnostics tend to accept these definitions.  Such definitions aren’t exactly wrong; but they do little justice to the complex reality of religious belief.  Furthermore, they do not exhaust all the options.  

First, there is an intermediate position known as “henotheism”.  The prefix “heno-“, like “mono-“, means “one” in Greek.  There is this difference between monotheism and henotheism, though:  monotheism means not just the worship of one god, but belief that only one god exists; whereas henotheism means worship of one god without denying the existence of others.  A monotheist–a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, etc.–believes that any so-called “gods” besides his own do not exist.  He worships only his god in the belief that there is no other to be worshiped.

A henotheist, however, while reserving his devotion for one god, does not deny others.  He may, for example, worship the deity of his city or locality, while assuming that other regions have their own gods–in my city we may worship An, in yours they may worship Inanna, in his they may serve Nammu, and so on.  Alternately, a person living in a culture may choose one particular deity as the focus of his devotion.  He may not deny the existence of Zeus, Apollo, Hera, Aphrodite, and so on, but may choose to worship Hermes.  This is the concept referred to in Hinduism as iṣṭa-devatā (“beloved deity”).

Most scholars believe that the early Hebrews were in fact henotheists–their god, YHWH (the Divine name sometimes rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”), being seen as the one god of the Israelites, while other deities, such as Marduk, Ba’al, Molech, etc., were to be avoided as the gods of other peoples, but were no less real for all that.  True monotheism developed gradually, probably becoming prevalent by the last days of the Judean kingdom, especially in the teachings of the prophets.  We can see, therefore, that “monotheism” and “polytheism” do not exhaust the possibilities.

There are still other possibilities, connected with what, exactly, one means by “god”.  When we use the term in lower case, we tend to think of something like the Greco-Roman, Norse, Egyptian, or Hindu gods–an anthropomorphic or semi-anthropomorphic being of great power, not subject to the ordinary laws of the cosmos, very long-lived (or immortal), inhabiting some  realm “above” ours, and capable of interacting with humans through prayer, supplication, etc.  As far as it goes, this is good enough.  It gets complicated fast, though–is there a rain god or love goddess for every single culture, for example?

The interpretatio Graeca of Classical antiquity assumed that there was a limited number of deities and that the names of each merely differed from culture to culture.  Thus, Greeks and Romans would equate foreign gods with ones they knew–Zeus was equal to Jupiter was equal to Thor (because they were all thunder gods) and so on.  Many ancient peoples tended to do this–they syncretically assumed that the gods were all more or less the same, with different stories told about them in different locales.  Thus there was a relatively high level of comfort with a wild diversity of stories, often contradictory, about the gods and goddesses.  Egyptian and Hindu mythology are especially noteworthy in this regard.

The later Hindu philosophers took this a step forward.  Not only were various gods of different cultures the same–all gods and goddesses were, in fact, ultimately the same.  That is, the Ultimate Reality infinitely far above us, can never be perceived as It really is.  Instead, we each grasp tiny portions of the Truth, perceiving what seem to be separate deities, but which are actually what Joseph Campbell called “masks of God”.  Thus, the gods are all aspects or facets of a single transcendent reality.  Western philosophers as far back as Xenophanes, as well as later Neoplatonists, Stoics, and others, reached similar conclusions, considering the Olympian gods to be either ways of perceiving the One, or lesser beings emanated from the One, higher than us but not different in kind.

This last notion brings up an interesting point.  We use the term “god” ambiguously.  Sometimes (usually when we capitalize it) we use it to mean “the ultimate meaning and source of all being”–that is, what Hindus  call “Brahman“. Brahman is beyond all characteristics, all gender, all polarities, all comprehension.  It is perfect, infinite, unbounded, eternal, and totally beyond comprehension by any thought, mind, or concepts.  “God” in this sense is very much like the Kabbalistic concept of the Ein Soph, the Neoplatonic Hen (“One”), the Eastern Orthodox concept of the Essence of God, Meister Eckhart’s concept of the Godhead (as opposed to “God”), and in some respects (and more loosely) the Buddhist concepts of Dharmakaya or Adi Buddha, and the Daoist concept of the Dao.

On the other hand, if we define “god” as I did above–“an anthropomorphic or semi-anthropomorphic being of great power, not subject to the ordinary laws of the cosmos, very long-lived (or immortal), inhabiting some  realm ‘above’ ours, and capable of interacting with humans through prayer, supplication, etc.”–then not only have we described Greco-Roman, Norse, and other pagan gods; but we’ve also got a good working description of angels, related beings such as ahuras, devas, orishas, lwa, and so on, and also Orthodox and Catholic saints!

Of course Protestants have long accused Catholics of being polytheists, just as Jews and Muslims have done regarding Christians in general (although in the later cases it is because of the doctrine of the Trinity).  This brings us back to the quote from the blog post above–contemporary Catholic apologists want to downplay the role of the saints and devotion to them in Catholicism.  They tend to want to de-emphasize the saints’ historic role, and want to recast it in terms of “asking them to pray for us”, etc.  Not that that’s untrue; but the Greek δουλεια (“douleia” or “dulia”) and the Latin veneratio (“veneration”)–the technical words used in theology to describe the honor we owe the saints–are much stronger words in the original than “veneration” or “honor” is in English.  Douleia, for example, comes from the same root word as doulos, “slave”; a bit stronger than “service”!  Moreover, if one reads the Marian writings of St. Louis de Montfort, one comes away with a sense of something way beyond just “asking Mary to pray for us”!

So, you may ask, do I think Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) to be monotheistic or polytheistic?  My response:  Yes!  Let me unpack that.

I think there are two contrary tendencies in the human psyche.  On the one hand, we tend to want to personalize everything.  This is not surprising; as intelligent beings ourselves, we tend to project intelligence into animals, plants, and inanimate objects, as well.  This is the source of the belief in spirits of objects, genii loci, kami, nature spirits, and similar such beings.  We  think in terms of intermediaries between ourselves and the Divine, which we perceive as too remote, too awe-inspiring, too dangerous.  We prefer to deal with beings closer to ourselves, be they elves or angels, ahuras or demigods, orishas or, yes, saints.  To that extent, there is a tendency in our minds and souls that could be termed polytheistic.

On the other hand, another part of our mind seeks for the underlying unity.  What is the underlying basis of all the variegated, manifold, and confusing phenomena we observe in the world?  In short, is there a One behind the Many; and if so, what is it and how should we relate to it?  This impulse is the monotheistic impulse.  One good treatment of the historical tension between the polytheistic and monotheistic impulses in religious history is In the Wake of the Goddesses, which I’d recommend to all.

On the one hand, the polytheistic impulse, in its crudest forms, is obviously inadequate and at its worst, stupid and immoral.  The idea that every single object in nature has a spirit whom you might offend (even unknowingly) is an OCD nightmare.  To assume multiple deities with no overarching unity is philosophically simplistic and naive.  An excessive devotion to shrines, statues, and popular piety is problematic and often an abdication of responsibility.  As I pointed out, the great thinkers in pagan cultures–the Greek philosophers, the Daoist sages, and the compilers of the Upanishads, to name a few–realized all this long ago.  Socrates famously pointed out the absurdity of the naive polytheistic assumption of various gods ordering various conflicting moralities in Plato’s Euthyphro.  Xenophanes I’ve already mentioned.

On the other hand, strict, uncompromising monotheism–no angels, no intermediaries, nothing between you and God–can be quite terrifying.  On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about intercessors–you go straight to the top.  On the other hand, that means the responsibility is completely on your shoulders–there’s no one to put in a word with you, no one to act as a buffer, no one but yourself to blame (or praise) for the results.  It would be as if every time you had an issue at your workplace, you had to go straight to the CEO!  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in the above referenced book, discusses this at length.

My perspective is that the best and most humane religions make due allowances for both the polytheistic and monotheistic tendencies in the human soul, regardless of whether the religions in question are “monotheistic” or “polytheistic”.  Hinduism, for example, is in practice vastly polytheistic, with a bewildering array of gods, goddesses, demigods, and other such beings.  On the philosophical level, however, Hindu teachers are always very clear that all these deities are manifestations of an underlying unity, Brahman.  Even at the popular level, Hindus quite frequently refer to “God”, with no qualification.  God the One and Unique, and His many manifestations (the point of the famous “Blind Men and the Elephant“) exist comfortably side by side.

I tend to view Catholicism and Eastern/Oriental Orthodoxy the same way.  In principle, they are monotheistic–just as, metaphysically and philosophically, Hinduism and Daoism are, and various Classical schools of thought such as Neoplatonism and Stoicism were.  God, properly understood as the Supreme Being, Ground of Being, and Ultimate Reality, is One.  On the other hand, they consider that God has created lesser–but still mighty–beings, that is, the angels.  He has also raised some of us–the saints–to celestial status (the Orthodox refer to this as theosis) after death.  Mindful of our finitude and our needs, He encourages us to seek the intercession and aid of these beings, our elder and much bigger big brothers of the cosmos.

Thus, one might say that Catholicism (and Eastern Christianity) is monotheistic in principle but polytheistic in practice (since, after all, the “cult of the saints” differs from Classical polytheism more in degree than in kind).  The difference between it and Hinduism is more a matter of emphasis than anything else.  Catholicism emphasizes the monotheism, while Hinduism emphasizes the polytheism.  Both agree that ultimately God is one, and that there are many intermediaries and lower beings that help orient us towards Him.

In my view, the Catholic/Orthodox impulse is a humane balancing of the polytheistic and monotheistic tendencies in humanity, giving each its due place and speaking to each need of the human psyche.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after a few centuries of momentum left over from its Catholic roots, Protestantism has largely run out of steam and is not only dying off in its traditional European homeland, but dropping in membership in North America and not growing as fast in the Third World as Catholicism and Islam (Pentecostalism is an exception; but one might argue, that in its emphasis on personal experience, exorcisms, angels, prophecies, and its absorption of folk beliefs, that it is de facto as polytheistic as Catholicism).  Nor do I think it coincidence that the Abrahamic religion most associated with turbulence and violence, Islam, is the least amenable to the polytheistic impulse.  It is especially worth noting that the most tolerant version of Islam, Sufism, is that which is most open to intermediaries (though not all Sufis have always been as tolerant as Western apologists have painted them), and that the most fanatically violent strain has been the Wahhabis, also the most uncompromisingly monotheistic.

Now I’m sure that some on various sides–Catholic, Protestant, Pagan–will perceive me as treading on toes here.  “He’s saying them Catholics worship Mary!  See, I told ya!”  “He’s blaspheming and playing into the hands of our anti-Catholic enemies!”  “He’s trying to co-opt our religion into Christianity!”  And so on.  I’m not saying any of this. I’m not advocating “hard” polytheism–I think that’s philosophically stupid and naive, not to put too fine a point on it.  On the other hand, I don’t feel the need to “make nice” for non-Catholics by minimizing the cult of the saints, or pretending that it’s just some kind of  metaphysical prayer dinner, either. It’s not so much either-or as both-and.  Yes, we’re monotheistic and we’re polytheistic.  In the deepest sense of the word, we insist on one and only one God; and yet the angels and saints are certainly “gods” by any reasonable definition of the work (see the Orthodox doctrine of theosis).  It really is the best of both worlds.

Therefore, when anti-Catholics accuse Catholics of worshiping the Mother Goddess when we venerate Mary, I think, “Hell, yeah!  Too bad you guys don’t have one–how boring!”

Posted on 06/10/2012, in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, paganism, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Yes. This concords neatly with what I’ve been researching. Actually, the “Abrahamic” religions really cannot be classified as monotheistic at all if the definition of “god” is taken as above. There’s a professor of Semitic languages named Dr. Michael Heiser who has an excellent web page/blog devoted to the robust Jewish “divine council” theology (“”). The “gods” or “sons of God” (bene elohim) actually never are expugned and still appear late routinely into the Second Temple period and beyond before they simply fade into the angelic hierarchy still as “elohim.” The early Christians kept them, too, as St. Paul’s “dominions and powers” reference demonstrates. I’m also thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr.

    It does make me wonder whether “hard polytheism” has any real staying power. It seems that most ancient religions will naturally tend towards “soft” polytheism given the opportunity (Hinduism, ancient Egyptian religion around Atum/Ra/Amun at various points in its history, the Abrahamic religions, Taoism, Greek and Roman religion among the philosophical classes).

  2. MH - Secular Misanthropist

    I’m sort of in the nothing between me and nothing camp. However, I once tried to explain to my Jewish in laws why Christians consider themselves monotheistic in spite of the doctrine of the Trinity. They clearly couldn’t get the concept, and I’m probably the worst person in the world to explain it. In the end I said that Christians define themselves as monotheistic, and God hasn’t issued a public statement contradicting them, so I guess we’ll have to accept that for now.

    • The best explanation of the Trinity is in Marvel Comics (seriously). If you ever read Secret Wars in the 80’s, you’ll remember the premise: There is an alternate universe inhabited by a single God-like being called the Beyonder. Since he is the only thing in his cosmos, and since he is more or less infinite and omnipotent, he’s not aware of anything else, and not even self aware. After all, to know oneself, one has to have some frame of reference which is other than oneself. Anyway, somebody accidentally breaks into the Beyonder’s dimension, and for the first time he becomes aware of beings that are not him, he becomes self-aware, and when he comes into the mainstream Marvel universe, his curiosity sets the plot in action.

      If God were strictly one, in the Wahhabite sense, He couldn’t logically be aware even of Himself (just like the Beyonder); and since He’d have no sense of “otherness”, He couldn’t create, since that implies making something other than Himself–and He’d have no concept thereof. Thus, if one believes in God, the fact that He created the world, and that He is said to be absolute love (love implies having someone to love, as Queen might have sung) indicates an awareness of otherness and self-awareness; which necessarily implies multiplicity. Hence an implication, at least, of the Trinity.

      Even in a Jewish context, actually (though most modern Jews are unaware of this), there was a vague, often suppressed idea of multiplicity in God. There was the idea of Metatron, supposedly an angel, but also the manifestation of God’s presence who was sometimes called the “lesser YHWH”–that is, the “lesser Yahweh”–which seems not very monotheistic. Also, the Shekhinah, God’s “presence”, was, in Jewish mysticism, often treated almost like a separate entity, sometimes almost like God’s “wife”. God’s Wisdom–ḥokhmāh, or Sophia in Greek–was also personified almost to the point of being a goddess (read the extended encomium to her in the book of Proverbs). In the wake of Christianity, much of this quasi-polytheism was later suppressed.

      • MH - Secular Misanthropist

        I’m old enough and in the right demographic to have read “Secret Wars”. The one thing about that sort of unitary God is that eventually it might flex its omnipotence in the right manner to accidentally create the other.

  3. Great blog!
    Have you looked at Kanenotheism? A term coined to describe Hindu Ishtar deva and the idea of darshan.

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