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Quote for the Week

When you come down to it, has there ever been a genuine polytheism? Even Homer supposes a sort of fundamental unity of the divine that permits the gods to identify themselves as gods, even when they dwell far from one another (Odyssey 5.79ff). What the [monotheistic] revelations bring is, rather, the end of a “cosmotheism” that makes no radical distinction between the divine and the physical.

–Rémi Brague, interviewed by Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego, from Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1–22; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week

The Vedic approach, is perhaps the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity. In fact, it gives a deeper unity and a deeper diversity beyond the power of ordinary monotheism and polytheism. It is one with the yogic and the mystic approach… In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and false Many Gods; it is between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth and self-giving in worship, that worship goes to the true altar by whatever name we may designate it and in whatever way we may conceive it. But if it is not desireless, if it has ego, falsehood, conceit and deceit in it, then it is unavailing though it may be offered to the most true God, theologically speaking.

–Ram Swarup, The World As Revelation: Names of Gods; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Theism Revisited: God, Gods, and Íñigo Montoya

Eight years ago, I looked at the various forms of theism and considered what they meant for us moderns, particularly my fellow Catholics.  For various reasons, I want to return to that topic and look at it from a different perspective.

I’ll start with a common atheist slogan often used in discussion with monotheists (usually Christians).  I should make clear upfront that I am not deriding or criticizing atheists as such.  I put in that disclaimer because a commenter on one of my posts a year or so ago took considerable umbrage at my noting that he was, in fact, an atheist in linking to his blog.  I thought that by doing so I was indicating that people who disagree on substantial matters can actually agree on other things.  He seemed to think I was somehow calling him a horrible, awful, evil person because he was an atheist.  That was a complete and total mischaracterization of what I said, and bore no resemblance to it, in fact, and we ended up having a fairly long (and, alas, pointless) argument in the comments.

Thus, I want to note here that while I’m going to discuss a view that many atheists hold that I think is mistaken, this is in no way meant to disparage atheists as such, or paint them as evil people.  In fact, plenty of theists consistently make the very same mistake.  It is a somewhat subtle mistake that is very widely held; and thus I think it to be worth discussing, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective.  Onward, then!

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 3: The One God Triumphs

In Hoc Signo

We’ve looked at ancient pagan religion and the changes brought about by ethical monotheism, as manifested by Judaism.  It is still necessary to determine how the change from the former to the latter (at least in the form of Christianity) occurred.  Ancient pagan society was in many ways extremely tolerant and pluralistic, things we tend to value.  If these were its features, what were its bugs, that it was replaced?

It is important, first of all, to acknowledge that much of the process of conversion was accomplished not because of any inherent attractiveness of the new faith or real or perceived problems with the old, but for baser reasons.  As Christians increased in numbers, and especially after Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalized it, many converted for reasons of social advancement.  In short, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.  Later, Theodosius I, with the Edict of Thessalonica, made Christianity (specifically its Nicene form) not only legal but official, the motivation for conversion became even greater.  In the latter days of the Roman Empire, the pressures to convert increased as pagan temples and schools were closed.  After this, in the Middle Ages, conversions were often proclaimed by fiat when the local tribal chieftain or king converted (e.g. Vladimir of Russia).

Despite all this, it is true that even before all of these other factors came into play, Christianity was spreading like wildfire in the early days of the Roman Empire, and doing so despite persecution and intolerance.  By the time of Constantine, the population was about ten per cent Christian–still a minority, but a relatively sizable one.  This indicates some appeal of Christianity, and some weakness in the old ways.  What were they?

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 2: The Rise of Monotheism

number-1

Last time we looked at ancient religion and noted that the so-called “Three C’s” of religion–that is, Cult (worship), Creed (belief), and Conduct (behavior)–were generally separate.  The great exception to this was Judaism.  To lay the background, it’s important to note what Judaism is not.  Judaism is typically contrasted with the other religions of antiquity in that it is said to be the first monotheistic religion.  In fact, the evidence is that Judaism in its inception was henotheistic, not monotheistic.  That is to say, while only one god, YHWH, was worshiped, the existence of other gods was not denied.  Traces of this can be found in places in the Bible such as Genesis 1:26, Exodus 15:11, and Psalm 95:3, among others.  Full monotheism–the belief that only one god exists–developed gradually, becoming more or less set by the prophetic era (7th to 6th Centuries BC).

Judaism was also not the first monotheistic religion.  Atenism, the religion of the so-called “heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten, as well as Zoroastrianism, were both arguably monotheistic (although there is debate on this; but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open now) before Judaism.  The uniqueness of Judaism lay not in its monotheism or in its being the first religion to be monotheistic.  Rather, it was the first religion that could be characterized as “ethical monotheism“.

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I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

In this essay, the word in question is not “inconceivable”, but “God”.

My jumping-off point here is part of the interview with philosopher John Gray, excerpted back here (emphasis is in the original):

(Interviewer) You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

(Gray) [Fritz Mauthner] was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

The “idea of God” is what I want to talk about here.

In the broadest sense, “theism” is the belief in one or more gods.  In this context, Gray is obviously speaking of monotheism.  One of the most persistent problems with theism, in my view,  is the problem of anthropomorphizing God, that is, conceptualizing Him as if He were human.  In a polytheistic religion, giving the various gods and goddesses human traits is more or less a feature, not a bug.  Even in a monotheistic religion, some degree of anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, since we have to use some categories in which to speak of God, and the categories of “human” and the various human attributes are the most accessible to us.  However, the danger of making God into a big man with a long white beard sitting in the sky is that it tends to end in attributing petty and nasty human characteristics (vengefulness, spite, hatred, favoritism, and so on) to Him, with bad results for believers.  After all, if God is OK with smiting the infidels, the believer might end up thinking it’s a good idea for him–and his armies–to do so, too.  Gray, however, seems to be taking it beyond mere anthropomorphism and locating the problem in language itself.

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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.   Read the rest of this entry