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.
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.
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“.
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