Monotheistic Moments November 28, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback
There seems to be no question that early human societies were polytheistic. Might it even be said that polytheism is the natural human condition? Perhaps monotheism is the equivalent of Big Macs and fried mars bars, whereas we should all really be eating freshly killed gazelle and the fruits of the forest? There is, in any case, the question of why monotheism develops and when. Beach, a visceral monotheist, married to a medieval Catholic has not the slightest idea. But he is fascinated by what might be called ‘monotheistic moments’ that crop up from time to time in history.
The most famous of all ‘the monotheistic moments’ is the blend of history and legend or better legend and history in the Old Testament. Somewhere in a period of great antiquity the Children of Israel decided that there was but one God. Was it, as many have suspected over the years, Moses who worked this magic? (Freud had some really interesting theories here about Moses being murdered by the Israelites, this cementing the monotheistic bond. As so often with Freud the idea is ‘cool’ but there is no proof).
There are though other moments. We have the heretic Pharoah Akhenaten who after centuries of recorded polytheism turned his back on the traditional gods and announced one universal being, Aten. Freud, in fact, even suggested that Moses was a priest of Aten! Some of the mutterings from Greece in the fourth and fifth century B.C. show a quickly maturing belief in the One, beyond the gods, who are reduced to national fairies by the likes of Socrates (?) and Plato.
Moving to South America in pre-Columbian times Nezahualcoyotl in Texoco had a vision of ‘unknown, unknowable Lord of Everywhere’, though this may be a gloss from post Columbian writers trying to find Christianity in the morass of pre-Columbian beliefs. Then, of course, in Hinduism, in the fifteenth-century, we see the birth of monotheistic Sikhism: only the latest monotheistic flower in a long line from that religion, which always had certain one-godly tendencies.
Other monotheistic moments and why do they come? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Perhaps revelation in influential individuals who want to project an intense personal relationship with a diety over others? Perhaps a more centralised monolithic society? Though if the answer is sociological then there are many striking exceptions. Maybe a way in to the problem is to look at the polytheistic moment, when polytheism breaks out in monotheistic systems: Beach lives in an Italian village where the virgin and the saints are far more important than ‘God’.
29/Nov/2013: KMH is in fine feckle: You are now walking in a very swampy area. The supposed monotheism of the Jews was technically only henotheism, the belief in and worship of a single God while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped. The other deities were those of the other religions the Jews encountered, none of which were criticized or refuted in the bible. Religion is considered to have begun with the clan or tribe issuing from the original founder. So, progress has seen the amalgamation of these tribal beliefs into larger and larger wholes until we arrive at the ‘universal religions’ beginning about 2500 years ago with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism on through to Islam. Along the way, one man’s god became another man’s angel or archangel (or even demon). Now we have within the so-called monotheistic religions extensive systems of angels in addition to the supreme and only deity. So, when it takes an angel to get things done, the monotheistic element can and will be secondary. Also, in the very first verse of the bible (Gen.1:1) the word for God is the plural Elohim. In defense of monotheism, it can be said that all religions may have initially recognized the unknowable, often nameless, single god of everything, but as time passed this revelation was forgotten and only the practical intercourse with the lower, namable gods was understood. We often encounter gods, demigods, the god of gods, etc, to express this notion. So you have a basic choice – one god and many angels, or plural gods of various ranks and functions. *** Next up is Nathaniel: For the Hebrew transition to monotheism, see Psalm 82: Psalm 82 New International Version (NIV) A psalm of Asaph. God presides in the great assembly;/ he renders judgment among the “gods”:/ “How long will you defend the unjust / and show partiality to the wicked? / Defend the weak and the fatherless; / uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. / Rescue the weak and the needy; / deliver them from the hand of the wicked. / “The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing. / They walk about in darkness;/ all the foundations of the earth are shaken./ “I said, ‘You are “gods”; / you are all sons of the Most High.’ / But you will die like mere mortals;/ you will fall like every other ruler.” / Rise up, O God, judge the earth, / for all the nations are your inheritance.’ While in the past “gods” was often translated as “judges”, recent scholarship suggests that “gods” is the correct translation. It’s argued that this psalm describes “God” demoting (i.e. making mortal) the other “gods” for failing to do their job of maintaining justice on Earth. From there (for better or worse) “God” basically takes all the “god” jobs for Himself.*** Michel writes ‘It is not obvious to everyone that monotheism came after polytheism. The Austrian linguist Wilhelm Schmidt proposed a theory of primordial monotheism, arguing that polytheism was a corruption of an earlier, more pristine stage of monotheistic belief. Also, how could you leave out good old Zoroaster? The Jews didn’t exactly pick up monotheism from the Zoroastrians during the Babylonian captivity, but a whole lot of the trappings, like a fully developed eschatology, suspiciously show up only after their return.’ Thanks KMH, Michel and Nathaniel!