Polytheistic Christianity?

November 11th, 2015

Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the three great monotheistic faiths, right?

Not so fast.

Lots could be said about this, and a few points will have to suffice. Here I restrict my comments to the case of Christianity.

1. Christianity doesn't require belief that there is only one divine being. The view that Christianity is ‘strictly’ monotheistic, and so to be contrasted on this score with Hinduism, say, is of mostly modern provenance. What Christianity is and requires is belief that there is only one Creator, and that this God is also the Redeemer.

Take a listen to Psalm 95:3: “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”

What's this about “all gods”?

2. Christianity requires worship of only one god, the God who is Creator and Redeemer. Ancient Roman Neoplatonists (like those St. Augustine argued with) were like the peoples of many lands in their philosophical and religious views: They held to the existence of one God (“the One”) and also thought worship of and sacrifice to many lesser gods was perfectly consistent and acceptable.

Christian thought begged to differ. And we should pay attention to how it differed. It did not (mainly, at any rate) ridicule those who worshipped and sacrificed to many gods as stupid for thinking there were various divine beings running around. Rather, Christians told pagans that they were worshipping demons, and needed to turn to Jesus Christ, join the Church, and worship only the Creator.

And notice how St. Paul engages the Athenians in the Areopagus in Acts 17. He sees all their “idols” and “objects of worship.” He doesn't then ridicule them as stupid for affirming multiple gods. Paul is not a prelude to the modern atheist scoffer who says “You and I both disbelieve in all the ancient gods, and I just disbelieve in one more.” Rather, St. Paul points out how “very religious” the Athenians are, and uses the altar with an inscription to the Unknown God as an opportunity to proclaim — who? — the Creator: “The God who made the world and everything in it…”

3. Here's the thing. There are, perhaps, many gods. The Bible often speaks this way. Or maybe not. But in any case, there is only one Creator. And so, as Herbert McCabe OP was wont to point out, “God is not one of the gods.” The transcendent Creator is not a being among beings, not a part of creation or the universe. But “the gods” are. The gods, if they exist, are creatures like us, angels and fallen angels. Any god who would bind humans to its worship is a fallen angel, and, in any case, a creature — not to be worshipped.

4. Still, someone might ask: Why not worship one of the gods, if they're real and powerful? Or, heck, why not worship any other creature, like another human? Here's a short, perhaps enigmatic answer: Our hearts long for the infinite. Our hearts long for infinity, and all creatures are finite. To worship something finite is to enter a relationship with something that, because it is finite just like you, cannot fulfill your longing. This is self-frustrating, and plays out destructively. Worshipping a finite being makes you a slave to it. Only God the Creator, who is infinite and absolutely transcendent, can receive worship in a way that makes for our fulfillment and flourishing.

Only because God is not finite, and not one of the gods, and totally transcendent, can God be genuinely immanent, available in omnipresence to all, the giver of limitless mercy in and through finite things.

“The LORD is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
- Psalm 145:9

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