My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

05 December 2006


Been a while. My regrets that your internet life has been slightly less shiny.


A word for the day: Henotheism. Several weeks ago, our mid-week study on the Nicene Creed was considering the idea of "one God." In that study, we tossed around nice big words like polytheism, pantheism and atheism. But one word came up that seemed to capture so clearly why monotheism (one God-ness) is a vital piece of the Christian religion.

Henotheism means, according to (sorry, Elizabeth, I can't afford the OED): the worship of a particular god, as by a family or tribe, without disbelieving in the existence of others. When I came across this while studying, it struck me as the perfect word for the state of the church in relationship to other religions. We love to be nice, naturally, and so we more and more like to allow people to remain subjected to their own god or gods. Mind you, we don't deny Jesus as Lord or anything like that, but we don't really mind all that much when others do it.

Believing there is only one God for me is henotheistic. Believing there is only one God for everyone is monotheism. We ought to stand squarely in the latter but so often find ourselves waddling in the former. If we are going to be true believers, we must also be true disbelievers. If we are going to claim that Jesus is Lord, we must also claim that Allah, Buddha, et al, aren't. And this makes a huge difference in our evangelism: we don't do evangelism just to make people's lives better, to bring them from a nice, quaint religion to a really, really good one. We do evangelism because they owe to the Living God their allegiance and we are not satisfied with anything less.


Alicia said...

Fascinating word and very enlightening explanation...and I thought this summed it up well: "Believing there is only one God for me is henotheistic. Believing there is only one God for everyone is monotheism."

One often has to brace himself if he speaks that truth to someone else, even to someone who "believes" in God. There can be any number of reactions (indifference, curiosity, hostility) as people who hold to this truth are typically grouped into the "intolerant" and "judgmental" category and blasted. The truth hurts, doesn't it.

Jon said...

Welcome back:)

I'm concerned by your appropriating the term "monothesism" to describe Christianity. Even in the Old Testament, we see passages like Numbers 25 and Psalm 95:3, where the God of Israel is partially defined in relation to the gods of other people. In the New Testament, this gets translated into "principalities and powers" with whom we are called to do battle.

I'm not suggesting that these passages indicate some kind of "gods and monsters" universe, where equal deities battle it out for survival. However, they do indicate that there is something missing in the term "monotheism."

In the first place, monotheism smacks a bit too heavily of the Enlightenment. Rather than being rooted in the authority of Scripture, it finds its grounding in something like rational antithesis or the law of non-contradiction. It reduces God to an element in logical sequence. It therefore allows you to posit the possibility of "no god"--at which point you've effectively tossed the ballgame.

Secondly, the term monotheism under-emphasizes the tri-unity of God. As James points out, it gets you nowhere merely to acknowledge that there is one God. Without the incarnation as the ultimate revelation, and the Spirit as the agent of communication/transformation, any discussion of God as singularity is purely abstract.

Finally, and this gets back to the point I was trying to make at the beginning, Christianity must have a henotheistic element. Pure monotheism can only be resolved with physical violence, because it must actively suppress the gods it's not allowed acknowledge (and we can all think of examples). On the other hand, Christianity acknowledges that we surround ourselves with gods. We are, as Calvin says, "idol factories," and it is only in this environment that the Christian (as in Acts 17) can speak.

Christian henotheism should not equalize the gods and then make arguments about why our god is better. But neither should it seek to suppress the gods that surround us. Saying I "don't believe" in Allah is like saying I "don't believe" in television. Where does it get me? In one sense, neither exist in that they have no eternal value. In another sense, of course, they both exist in that people use them to orient their lives and create meaning. In this latter sense, we Christians are often guilty of making the triune God into a "god" (like the Bronze Serpeant in Hezekiah's time) by using God as a product to make our lives happier or more meaningful without submitting to God's authority.

I agree with your last paragraph insofar as the goal is not therapeutic. But it's only by acknowledging that the gods are "gods" in the sense that the Bible describes them that we can evangelize at all. It's also only from a henotheistic perspective that we can acknowledge (without reducing to "waffling") our own, daily, tendency to construct what C.S. Lewis calls a Jesus in the corner--a Christianized "god" who follows our every whim.

Anway, always good for a morning ramble:) Thoughts?

Jared said...

Hi Jon,

Your comment kind of caught me off guard - I've never heard of anyone being concerned with the term monotheism before. Rather, this is often recognized as a key piece of what it means to be Christian. I cannot speak to how the Enlightenment might bear on it, but...

Although Scripture definitely acknowledges the existence of other gods, it's also clear that those gods are real only insofar as they exist in the minds and hearts of people who made them up. See Psalm 115 as an example of this. And while Scriptures also speak of very real "principalities and powers", we are not to consider these gods, but spirits.

I disagree that "monotheism" does any harm to our being Trinitarian. There is no disagreement between monotheism and Trinitarianism - rather, your hesitancy is the sort of thing that leads other religions to consider us tritheistic instead of trinitarian. In another manner of speaking, monotheism is a key piece of trinitarianism.

Re: Christian henotheism. Again, I have recently come to see this as one of the greatest heresies of the modern church: that we follow this God but allow others to remain under their own gods. This is not to say that we don't believe Allah exists (he exists as a creation of men's wicked hearts), but that we refuse to recognize his eternal reality and viability as a/the god. Allah is a false god and therefore we are not henotheistic. Similarly, though we recognize the reality of idols in our own heart, we do not consider them to be god in the same way that Yahweh is God. They are idols, false gods. And though we sometimes give them the name "god" or "gods" we are not recognizing their eternal existence, their sovereignty, or their right to be worshipped. In this way we remain (and must remain, I believe) monotheistic.

I would agree that pure monotheism (after which we must strive - Dt. 6:4,5) must be resolved by violence, but not physical violence. What is going on in the world is nothing less than a spiritual and cosmic war. The only difference is that our weapons are not of this world (2 Cor. 10:4); we are not given any wiggle room by God in this - time and again we are instructed to call all the nations to forsake their dead gods and worship the Living God. This God-centered evangelism is certainly violent, but only (hopefully) in a spiritual sense.

Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify my thinking!

Nate said...

Thanks for that thought. There is a lot to consider here- do we deny the True and Living God as a way to be nice to others? Culturally sensitive?

As for the OED- get one on ebay. As a Presbyterian pastor once told me as advice for future ministry-

words are our buisness!

multisubj yb said...

Nobody saw God(s). We can have three scenarios.
1. No God at all.
2. Several Gods, with different names. Eg. Water in different rivers. Different names for rivers.
3. One God with several names. Same water, Same river, but called with different names in different countries.
For the sake of coexistence polytheism can be tolerated. Facets of Polytheism

Jon said...

Jared --

Thank you. I really appreciate your insights, even when they come in response to my own--perhaps overly simplistic--questions. Part of what I will occasionally try to do is push on language itself to see what can productively be gleaned from it. In this case, your original post established a binary between henotheism and monotheism, and it's the binary that I wanted to question.

This is where my critique of monothesism as overly Enlightenment-laden comes into play. From the early modern thinkers up through the leaders of American nationalism, there has been a generally happy acceptance of the idea of one god, who smiles upon our undertakings. Hobbes is, perhaps, most explicit in Leviathan, where he very carefully constructs a "mono-theistic" god by redefining Calvin's reading of the trinity is secular terms, in order to refashion the state as "God's" only legitimate interpreter.

My (rambling) critique is rooted not in some misguided desire for peace and unity between religions. It's rooted in a desire to not use our human, sinful language to box God into something less than what he says he is. Although I haven't thought about this nearly enough to speak definitively, my sense is that saying "the Lord our God, the Lord is One" is pretty substantially different from saying "we're monotheistic". The latter term is incorporated within a set of human norms that has ultimately led to the national, statist religion within which everyone may believe differently but all of us (including "God") believe in the State.

Having just written this last part, I'm starting to see how you and I are really talking about a different set of problems. You're thinking (correct me if I'm wrong) about monotheism and henotheism as ontological categories. On this level, I think we completely (or at least essentially) agree. On the other hand, I'm not thinking about these terms from an ontological perspective. I'm thinking about them from the perspective of language and representation. We must always be careful how we use words, because language is, like everything else, corrupted by sin. In this case, I would argue (without going into all the details here) that a corrupted sense of monotheism--not polytheism or henotheism--is responsible for the current state of American pluralism, where everyone is free to worship whatever god they choose, as long as "God" worships America. Again, I'm not talking about ontology, but about the way language gets appropriated and corrupted over time.

I hope this is useful. Conversations like this really help me, and I hope that it's helpful for your own thought and ministry.

In Christ,