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La ilaha illa Allah

IsraelInterreligious DialogueChristianityAthens (Greece)IslamJudaism

In her Op-Ed, "Bring Back the Greek Gods" (Oct. 23, 2007), Mary Lefkowitz sounds a call to abandon monotheism in favor of ancient polytheism. In this summons she is not original, but she represents an increasing trend among some theologians and scholars of religion who are concerned with religious pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism. The argument of these thinkers is that monotheism is inherently intolerant and leads of necessity to violence, whereas polytheism is tolerant and thus provides a much-needed antidote to the rise of militant fundamentalisms, whether in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

While we fully affirm the value of tolerance, urge respect for other religions and deplore violence in the name of religion, we nonetheless believe that Lefkovitz has painted a completely distorted picture of genuine monotheism and its religious and moral implications. For that reason, we protest this argument against monotheism, which fails to understand its inherently self-critical dynamic.

The historical-critical reconstruction of Israel's religious history that has proceeded apace for the last two centuries allows us to glimpse how monotheism (one God of all) first emerged in relation to both polytheism (the worship of many deities) and what scholars call "henotheism" (the worship of one deity whose reign is not universal but partial). This crucial distinction between henotheism and monotheism is what Lefkovitz has left out of her portrayal, with the misleading result that she fails to grasp that her polemic is directed toward henotheism, not authentic biblical monotheism.

The nascent monotheizing process during the Iron Age brought the prophets of Israel to instruct the people that they actually believed in a national deity, which they expected to save them. But the prophets showed that God was both the God of judgment and of redemption, creation and salvation. And being creator of the entire universe, God should be understood as directing the epic traditions of not merely Israel but of the other nations as well, such as the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Syrians (Amos 9:7). The prophets were able to base their arguments for a wider view of God on Israel's own epic traditions by applying a hermeneutic (a principle of interpretation) that views God as creator (Amos 3:2). In their declamations of judgment, the prophets appealed to God as creator of all the nations, including Israel, and as the ultimate source of the well-being of all peoples, not just the Israelites. This led Isaiah to describe Assyria as God's mode of judgment on Israel, Jeremiah to call Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia God's servant, and another Isaiah to call Cyrus, king of Persia, God's messiah. These may have been foreigners to Israel, but they were not to God. Jeremiah advised Israel in destitution to pray for their enemies (Jeremiah 29:7).

This monotheizing process arose out of Israel's need to survive, out of its desire for life, so that the prophets could sometimes speak of defeat as an occasion for blessing and blessing as an occasion for sin. The sages introduced global thinking based on people's experiences that had nothing to do with national epics but with the common humanity of all people. As this monotheizing process continued, it broadened under Greek, then Roman, hegemony to the point that Jesus admonished his followers to love their enemies ( Matthew 5:44). This can only be seen as the (theo)logical conclusion of the monotheizing process, but rather than pursuing this process, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have actually abandoned it in favor of their own particular versions of henotheism.

And now a few theologians apparently have forgotten all the struggles of the prophets, the sages and Jesus. They cast wistful eyes at what seems like a paradise lost of religious tolerance and inclusiveness that is supposed to have characterized Greco-Roman polytheism but, in truth, never did. In 5th century Athens, Socrates, the fountainhead of Western philosophy, was executed by his fellow Athenians for "atheism," as Lefkowitz notes in her article. Obviously, ancient Athens was not such a bastion of religious tolerance that it could allow a self-critical examination into the truth of the foundations of Greek religion. Similarly, the Romans persecuted the early Christians as atheists, only this time for refusing to worship the Roman emperor, who was believed to be a god. The Romans didn't care how many or which gods you worshiped, provided you submitted to the imperial cult. If this isn't a form of absolutism and intolerance, what is?

St. Augustine correctly understood the implications of genuine monotheism when he articulated the principle "being qua being is good," in other words, whatever exists is good because it is created by God, who is the source of everything. Therefore, whatever has being has value and should be respected as such. Accordingly, we are not permitted to disdain or hate any creature because it is loved by God. In the 20th century, Helmut Richard Niebuhr gave new words to the same insight when he said that "radical" (thoroughgoing) monotheism is the belief that "the principle of being is the principle of value."

Lefkovitz is properly opposed to henotheism, which claims for our nation, our race, our church and our sacred scriptures an absoluteness that fails to incorporate the self-critical understanding of monotheism that all our religions, cultures and nations are relative and finite and thus not worthy of the absolute devotion that belongs to the one strictly universal creator and sustainer of all.

We too oppose henotheism and believe that most of what passes for Christianity in our current American culture is sub-monotheistic. But we are also convinced that polytheism is not the best alternative to henotheism. Polytheism leaves us with a fragmented world of chaos and a failure to see things as a whole. For that reason, we are convinced that only a genuine monotheism can serve as the basis for a truly inclusive mode of thinking and acting in our time.

Paul E. Capetz is a professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. James A. Sanders is a professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology.

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