The Dangerous Arrogance Of Monotheism

Had God really created humans – and not the other way around – he surely would have done a better job.  It takes a human being to invent a creator so neurotic he can’t content himself with HAVING created everything, he needs one of his creations – us – to praise him relentlessly for having done it – and then for  every other little thing he does – like a three year old who needs the endless stroking just to master toilet training.  To be fair then, it’s not God’s fault he is the way he is – petulant, jealous, irrational, inconsistent and homicidal.   It’s ours since we’re the ones who invented Yahweh.

That’s the Biblical “God’s” name: “Yahweh.  It’s not “God” – god is Yahweh’s job description as in, “Say, what does that Yahweh guy do for a living anyway?  Surely he doesn’t really think he’s a god!”   Ah, but Yahweh does think he’s a god – and we’re the ones who put that notion into his head. 

The writer Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun before leaving her order and becoming one of the foremost writers on religion in the world.  She now teaches at the Leo Baeck College For The Study of Judaism and The Training Of Rabbis and is an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences.  Her religion bona fides are rock solid.  In A History Of God, Armstrong writes about her experience as an eight year old trying to wrap her mind around the whole idea of “God”. 

“Hell,” she writes, was something she “could grasp imaginatively.”  God, on the other hand, was “a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions.”  At eight, she had to memorize the catechism question “What is God?” with the answer first drawn up in the Nicene Creed in 345 AD: “God is the Supreme Spirit, who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.”  As the adult Armstrong puts it, that definition left her cold then and leaves her even colder now: “It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition.”

Arrogance and monotheism.  They go hand in hand like Adam and Eve. 

Human beings have probably been creating gods as long as they’ve been aware enough to think; the gods filled in the gaps in their limited knowledge base.  The gods’ existence explained why the world “was” to begin with and why it worked the way it did.  Armstrong points out that when “people began to devise their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena.  The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives…”.

The polytheistic pantheon didn’t present a gulf between human beings and the gods.  In fact, in most polytheistic visions of the world, “…men, women and the gods themselves all shared the same nature and derived from the same divine substance.  The pagan vision was holistic. The gods were not shut off from the human race… divinity was not essentially different from humanity.  There was thus no need for a special revelation of the gods or for a divine law to descend to earth from on high.”

We like to think of monotheism as an evolutionary improvement upon polytheism – as if, by finally boiling the divine pantheon down to just one god, humans made some great intellectual leap forward.  That’s such a monotheistic way to think.

My Hebrew School teacher Henry Hyman taught us that the Biblical texts are works of culture and religion; they are in no way historical texts though they do reflect history.  A lot of Jews – if you ask them “who wrote the Pentateuch?” will answer “Why, Moses did!”  No, Moses did not write the Old Testament.  He didn’t write anything as far as we know because, as far as we know, he never wrote anything down.  If you don’t write things down, it’s hard to make a case for you being a writer.

Here’s a rough timeline for how we got from polytheism to monotheism and then formal, written-down monotheism:

1850 BCE: a person we now refer to as “Abraham” leaves Ur (in what is now Iraq) and settles to the west in Canaan.  The story passed down that he did it because Yahweh told him to. Per Armstrong: “We have no contemporary record of Abraham, but scholars think that he may have been one of the wandering chieftains who had led their people from Mesopotamia toward the Mediterranean.” 

1200 BCE: the wave of Hebrews who’d emigrated to Egypt during a severe famine in Canaan return from Egypt contending they’d been enslaved while there.  They claim to have been liberated by a deity called Yahweh, the god of their leader Moses. Note: By now, these stories have existed in oral form only (as far as we know) for hundreds of years with zero reliable continuity from teller to teller (never mind generation to generation, decade to decade or century to century).

700 BCE: Over a thousand years of history FINALLY gets written down.  Contemporary thinking remains in general agreement about WHO finally committed a millennium of folk traditions to scroll and ink: Biblical author “J” gets down to work in the southern Kingdom of Judah) while “E” starts writing in the northern Kingdom of Israel.  Right off the bat, there are significant differences in how each writer conceived of and wrote about Yahweh. “J” referred to the character as “Yahweh” while “E” used the title ‘Elohim’ as the deity’s name.  One stays “familiar”, polytheist style, while the other uses not Yahweh’s name but a high honorific. Two different people give us two different Yahwehs — right in the cult of Yahweh’s founding documents. Oy.

400 BCE: The accumulated religious texts, collected over the course of three hundred years, are collated into the final text of what we now call “The Pentateuch” — The Five Books Of Moses. The Old Testament.

When “P”, the next recognized authorial voice arrives at about this time, he makes some important distinctions and “clarifications”.  P is likely responsible for “In the beginning” as we now know it.  This version of Yahweh has big plans for human beings – and for Abraham in particular.  P is busily shaping the narrative to suit an evolving concept.

Armstrong asks: “Did Abraham worship the same God as Moses or did he know him by a different name?”  Hell – was Abraham even really a monotheist never mind the first monotheist? “Israelite religion was pragmatic and les concerned with the kind of speculative detail that would worry us” says Armstrong, “Yet we should not assume that either Abraham or Moses believed in their God as we do today.”  It’s probably more likely that the early Jewish patriarchs were pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan.  Armstrong points to the strong likelihood that Abraham’s Yahweh was El, the High God of Canaan, dressed up a little and repurposed.  Among the clues: Yahweh introduces himself to Abraham as “El Shaddai” – El of the Mountain – and his name is preserved in such Hebrew names as “Isra-EL” and “Ishma-EL”. 

But, even the way the characters relate to Yahweh is telling.  “Abraham and Jacob both put their faith in El because he worked for them: they did not sit down and prove that he existed; El was not a philosophical abstraction… pragmatism would always be a factor in the history of God.  People would continue to adopt a particular conception of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound.”

Armstrong nails it right there – people accept the divine because “it works for them” and not because it actually “works” as an explanation.

Ask any two theists (for example, Biblical authors “J” and “E”) to describe their vision of Yahweh and the odds are pretty much certain you’ll get two different visions.  Theists will quickly point out either that no one can really “know” God or that God appears in very individual ways to individual people.  It must be good to have one’s cake and get to eat it too.  That “having it both ways” is easy when you never have to show your work. Or actually pin down your “God” character to consistent specifics. 

But, having it both ways is how theists roll.  They can and do revise Yahweh on the fly.  They can hang any attribute they want on Yahweh without fear of contradiction.  Yahweh is whatever his individual believers believe he is. Who are we to contradict them?

And, if Yahweh chooses to speak through them (and not, say, YOU), that’s simply because Yahweh works in mysterious ways. 

Ironically, the first Christians were thought of as atheists by the Romans because they were so vocal in their rejection of the Romans’ pantheon of gods in favor of Yahweh, a god the Romans didn’t believe in.  The Romans put up with the Jews – who more passively believed in their monotheistic deity.  Paul’s mission to spread the religion he was inventing with each Epistle – sharing the good news that Jesus rose from the dead – was harder for the Romans to ignore. 

Paul’s genius was to supercharge Jewish monotheism.  Not only did this deity personally make human beings from a mix of the divine & actual dirt – using himself as the design prototype – this deity was involved in his human creations on a quotidian basis.  In fact, Paul’s version of Yahweh was so involved, he was offering up a way for every human being to beat the thing that scared them most of all: dying.  How’s that for a deity!  And all anyone had to do was believe in the version of Jesus that he, Paul, was creating for the Gentiles (the Jews in Palestine, including Jesus’ family, having rejected it as nonsense). 

That is why Paul went to the Gentiles to invent Christianity – his tweaked version of Jewish mythology (tweaked so that Jesus would fit right into the mythology) didn’t conform to the Jews’ version — which they told him, pointedly.  So, off Paul went to make up his own. Out in the Gentile world, Paul’s inventions played far, far better. There was no one to say “Hey, wait a minute! Jesus never said that!

Now, let’s track monotheism’s progress from this point forward.  The Jews – their temple now destroyed for good – pretty much do nothing with Yahweh other than pray to him as his official “chosen people”.  A lot of good that does the Jews.  Mighty as Yahweh is — parting oceans is no small feat — he can’t seem to get a simple temple to himself rebuilt. And being Yahweh’s “Chosen People” turns out to be not just a headache but a full bore migraine. Though they “invented” the idea of monotheism, all the other monotheists declare open war on the Jews.  Go figure.

By the time Paul and the early church fathers get done with Yahweh, he’s a different deity altogether.  He’s become completely bi-polar.  One moment, he’s the angry, Canaanite El of old, the next he’s knocking up a virgin (like a horny Greek Satyr) so that his sprog can die for humanity’s sins.  Jesus – the guy preaching “Do unto others” and “Suffer the little children” and “The meek shall inherit the earth” – has zero place in Paul’s creation aside from being a kind of Jesus McChristian mascot.  Come for the “Do Unto Others” but stay for the “Beat Death”.   

The Lord Our God, father of Jesus has plans but people will have to believe if those plans are ever going to get realized.  Though Jesus specifically advocated against his followers joining a religious institution (he taught “speak directly to God”), Paul had no such compunction about churches because his success depended on having them, Jesus be damned! 

There’s that monotheistic arrogance for you! 

Already, “Do unto others” has become “Do what Paul says” and once Paul’s ideas become the church’s, it’s full on “Do what we say”.   Paul never, EVER speaks for Jesus.  The Yahweh he’s speaking for is entirely of his own making, too.  That — Paul’s vision — is the church that arises from this construction. Soon enough, a formalized, “catholic” church emerges. The Catholic Church early on put its stamp on “what God is” when they collectively created The Mycene Creed in 325. When Catholics recite their catechism, they’re uttering some version of this creed.  The church is telling each and every believer what ITS version of God is, never mind their “personal perceptions”.

Though Jesus would have you speak to God directly, “his church” says, “no, ask us first”.  But then, Jesus didn’t seem to suffer from the arrogance of monotheism.  He may be the one “Christian” ever who didn’t.