Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Polytheism, Monotheism, and Henotheism

What could be farther apart than monotheism and polytheism, right? Weeeellllll, not so fast.

After all the largest body of monotheists by far is Catholics and polytheism is "pagan" and after all the main line of the Church has always been happy to baptize the pagan. As C.S. Lewis points out in his great essay "Myth Become Fact" Catholicism is the completion of paganism, not its negation. It completes it in that the myths become incarnate if facts when The Word becomes incarnate if The Flesh.

Just as Jesus said of the Jewish Law: "I come not to abolish it, but to fulfill it" (Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 17) likewise he did not come to abolish paganism, but to fulfill it. Sure, there's "bad paganism" which involves human sacrifice and the like, but what I have in mind is good old fashioned nature-based paganism: the deep spiritual connection with the earth and her rhythms.

When the Apostle Paul went to Athens to talk to the philosophers he ended up at a temple of various gods. He didn't tell them they were completely mistaken and going to Hell. He just said he wanted to fill in their knowledge of what they were doing.


Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (Book of Acts, Chapter 17, verse 22)


So in the tradition of bridge building which Jesus imparted to the Apostle Paul and to the Catholic Church in general, I want to question the divide between monotheism and polytheism. The meditation could also demonstrate the power of words to shape our thoughts.

One of the words for "one" (as a prefix) in Greek is "mono" another is "heno". Both serve as prefixes for a kind of theism. Monotheism refers to the belief in one deity only. Henotheism refers to the belief in a heirarchical array of deities with one which is on top. Now lets think about what it was to be a deity according to the ancient Greeks. The two main properties of deity were A. immortality, B. supernatural power, i.e. power over the ordinary course of natural events.

Notice, though, that angels have both these properties. Angels never die and they have power over natural events, they can do things in nature which would not happen by themselves, they can perform little miracles which suspend the ordinary course of nature. The word "angelos" in Greek just means "messenger". The Greek prefex "eu-" means "good" like a "eulogy" or "good words" said about someone at the time of their death. 'u' and 'v' are interchangeable in classical languages most of the time so the word "evangelst" is just "eu" (good) + "evangelon" (news), a bearer of good news, a messenger with a happy message.

So angels have the functional properties the Greeks would have considered deity. If you described some of the things angels are described as doing in Sacred Scripture and are believed by the Catholic Church to be able to do to an ancient Greek, he'd clearly have thought of the angel as a god. So using pagan terminology angels are just lesser gods, and according to Saint Thomas Aquinas--the "Angelic Doctor"--angels are arranged hierarchically.

And of course there are also the Saints. The saints also qualify as deities according to ancient Greek standards. To become a Saint the Church has to decide that one has been responsible for three miracles. And consider C.S. Lewis's insightful comments from his essential essay "The Weight of Glory":


There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit...It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as your now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.



And this should come as no surprise, for great Catholic theologian Saint Maximos the Confessor taught the doctrine of deification or theosis:


"A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is Provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man." and "let us become the image of the one whole God,
bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods." (PHILOKALIA Volume II)


And there's lots more where this came from. No, to be sure, Catholics believe that the Divine Trinity is the Ground of Being in a way that no other being can be. God is the original, we are the copies. Still, we are copies of *God*.

Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'?" (Gospel of John, Chapter 10, verse 34; quoting Psalm 82:6, 6 "I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.')

4 Comments:

Blogger Christopher said...

Hi Trent,

Interesting question. I like the idea that Christianity fulfills polytheism, and your research is illuminating. However, the following complaint may be levelled. While the definition of "god" for the ancient Greeks (or modern pagans) might suit them, it is far too minimal for the Christian. The definition of "God" for the Christian should include aseity; but, other supernatural agents do not have such an attribute. After all, the angels might have supernatural powers, but it is only in virtue of The Father's creative activity and permission. Should God decide to disallow such activities, or decide to remove such powers, could He not? Moreover, isn't it the case that the miracles attributed to the saints are not in virtue of their natural powers, but to God's intervention? And, even if the miracle's are due to their own natural powers, the saints only offer petitions to God, and praise God, but they are not otherwise active. This is an ability shared by us all. So, according to your definition, the saints were gods on Earth, but now are not.

Now, if we insist that the definition of "God" includes aseity, I am sure that we are supplanting many polytheistic belief systems--not fulfilling them. For these belief systems usually include the belief that their gods are in harmony with nature, or are a part of nature--not nature's creator. That is, there is a difference between caretaker (which is usually the idea in mind with polytheistic beliefs) and creator (which is essential to Christianity). It is not the case that one is not a caretaker provided that one is a creator, but the polytheisic systems seem to--at least in some cases--preclude creator. For instance, Zeus is not the creator of the universe--the titans were, and they fell under his revolution. Odin might be the All Father, but even he is subject to the end of time. I am not sure about contemporary belief systems; I am not a modern Wiccan. But, I get the impression that they are more concerned with the harmony of their gods with nature, not the creation of nature.

Perhaps I have mistaken some points; I am sure you will disabuse me of my ignorance :)

Thursday, March 08, 2007 8:50:00 AM  
Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Right, only YHWH exists "a se".

That is one of the (the only, in a sense) attributes Saint Thomas calls incommunicable. It's what makes YHWH qualify for the title term "God" (like President, or Commander-in-Chief). That's all good.

Still, I think the main thing is subsumption, not replacement, because at the metaphysical and functional level angels and saints meet *their* (ancient Greeks) qualifications as gods and even the language of Scriptrue and Tradition use the "god" or its equivalent.

Capitalization adds semantic content. There's only one God, but there are many gods. You're becomming one right now.

Thursday, March 08, 2007 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Irenesson said...

Nothing is the "conclusion" or "fulfillment" of polytheism, the very idea is ludicrious. To even hatch such an idea, just shows the limitless arrogance of monotheism and its followers.

Monotheism is defined by the "mono" prefix ("only", not "one"), that declares all other Gods as false, and often as deities that needs to be actively opposed and destroyed. That's the inherent intolerance found in all monotheistic faiths, an intolerance not found in pluralistic polytheism.

Friday, March 09, 2007 2:02:00 AM  
Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

I'm pretty confident that readers can tell which of the participants here is being tolerant and which not...

Friday, March 09, 2007 9:08:00 AM  

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