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Patrick Henry Reardon on the Problem with Popular Monotheism
At the risk, I suppose, of being taken for a polytheist, I confess to a strong personal misgiving about contemporary popular monotheism. Let me describe what I mean. Modern popular monotheism is usually expressed along the following lines: “Since there is only one God, those who worship only one God must all be worshiping the same God.” Those who think this way go on to urge us, often enough, to find our common moral roots in this supposedly shared monotheism.
This effort, they assure us, will lessen international tensions and prepare the way for world peace. They have even been known to get together in large congresses to pray for world peace, as though they were all seeking this blessing from the same divinity.
There are two things wrong with this kind of monotheism. The first is logical, and the second biblical.
First, as a simple a priori, why should we suppose that an agreement about “one” divinity implies an agreement about who that divinity is? Let me take what I think is a workable analogy. Let us say that two American prisoners during World War II were discussing who won the most recent World Series, about which their captors had kept them in ignorance.
They would agree, of course, that there was only one winner, for the simple reason that there could only be one winner. The “oneness” of the winner, which was a logical necessity, could tell them nothing about the identity of the winner.
Second, this modern popular monotheism is unbiblical. Biblical monotheism is not simply an agreement about a quantitative proposition with respect to the divinity. It is not just a matter of confessing one god, as distinct from two or more. I suggest four considerations here by way of explanation.
History, Not Mathematics
First, those who confess only a Superior Being (a being who happens to be superior to other beings, that is to say) are not really monotheists, even if they deny the existence of all other gods. It is not the shortage of extra gods that renders a man a monotheist.
Second, the difference between polytheism and biblical monotheism is not merely quantitative. Monotheism is not a mathematical truth, nor is polytheism a mathematical problem. The thing is not quantitative. You can’t get “close” to biblical monotheism. The confession of two gods comes no nearer to monotheism than the confession of a hundred. Biblical monotheism has nothing to do with the number of gods but with the nature of God.
Nor does man arrive at monotheism by a process of reduction, as it were, eliminating all other gods until only one is left. (Indeed, if a man goes at monotheism in this way, he may as well keep going to atheism, freeing himself at last from the final burden of the process.) Biblical monotheism is not the logical inference drawn from a set of verifiable premises.
Third, no matter how cogent the monotheistic thesis appears to the metaphysician, it is a historical fact that monotheism did not make its first appearance in this world as a metaphysical proposition. It was an auto-identification announced, rather, by a personal voice on Mount Sinai.
That is to say, monotheism first appeared as an intrusion into man’s thought, not as a product of man’s thinking. Although it is a perfectly rational thesis—indeed, far more rational than its alternatives—this monotheism was not attained by a rational process. It was declared by the voice from a burning bush. The other gods were rejected, not because man’s mind no longer needed or wanted them, but because the One God would not tolerate them.
Since monotheism, as a metaphysical principle, makes perfect rational sense, how strange it is that man’s mind had to be slapped and jarred into clear thinking on the subject by an insistent voice booming on a desert mountain.
Fourth, God did not tell us that he is one except by telling us who he is. “Who he is” is what requires monotheism, not simply the inconvenience of rival gods. God’s being is such that there can be no other. This is the metaphysics of Sinai.
In the metaphysics of Sinai, the fact that “God is” is identical with “who God is.” God is Who Is, Ho On. The Quis is the same as the Qualis. The fact of God is inseparable from the “Who” of God. His being is identical with his existence. This is not some “superior being” speaking to lesser beings. This is Someone who is Being.
It is not human thought, then, that discovers this identification between God’s being and his existence, but the pronouncement of the One who responded to Moses’ request, “ Who shall I say sent me?”
It is not as though the mind of man already knew there was a single God and Moses was simply trying to clarify a point or two on the question. On the contrary, monotheism itself came forth from the self-identifying “I” who, by intruding himself into man’s history, forced himself upon man’s reflection. Authentic metaphysics was born of that intrusion.
The Modern Problem
It seems to me that this is not what we have today, when monotheism, separated from the historical revelation of Exodus, is pretty often just another form of idolatry—the confession of a god who just happens to be one rather than several. Indeed, such a god may as well be several, because there is nothing about him that requires him to be just one. He is no improvement over the gods of Egypt.
In some cases, in fact, he appears to be a good deal worse. I fear that this alleged divinity, this “shared god” of the so-called monotheistic religions may not be nearly so bland, so benign, so harmless as his more wishful-thinking devotees take him to be. Look around. Some folks in this world who confess but one god are manifestly evil, men whose deeds are violent and their feet swift to shed blood. Surely a sane person would prefer some kindly form of polytheism.
Anyway, the oneness of the true God is specific to the true God. Other folks may worship a single god, but he is not the Existing One. Lacking the Ho of Ho On, he is not, so to speak, the genuine article.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.