I ask the henotheism question, guessing most Christians would reject polytheism without much thought. The Christian tradition has, in its development of the doctrine of the Trinity, sought to safeguard the monotheistic convictions so clearly proclaimed in the Old Testament. There is one God, and after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – we know that one God as Father, Son and Spirit. No polytheism for us.
But what of henotheism? Is the belief that there are many gods, but only one God – only one for us – good enough? In a recent New York Times column, Harvard philosopher Sean D. Kelly suggests polytheism as a model for our society, a way to avoid the “self-deception” and “dangerous religious fanaticism” that come from “the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity.” He has in view here the traditional Christian belief that Jesus is the way for all people anywhere, that our faith is not merely a tribal faith but a universal faith.
The background of his piece is Nietzsche’s obituary for god. While god was still going strong in Nietzsche’s day. “What do you mean, Fred? ‘God is dead?’ Surely not! I see churches on every street corner. Most of our leaders profess to be Christians. Most identify our country as a Christian country. How can you say ‘God is dead?'” For Kelly – and he is neither alone nor innovative in saying this – what may have been counter intuitive is now evident to all.
But which god is dead? Kelly explores the meaning of Nietzsche’s claim:
at least one of the things that Nietzsche could have meant is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West. For it used to be the case in the European Middle Ages for example ? that the mainstream of society was grounded so firmly in its Christian beliefs that someone who did not share those beliefs could therefore not be taken seriously as living an even potentially admirable life. Indeed, a life outside the Church was not only execrable but condemnable, and in certain periods of European history it invited a close encounter with a burning pyre.
Whatever role religion plays in our society today, it is not this one. For today’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration.
Though this god of social sanction and support has long been identified with the God of the Christian tradition (even by Christians), this is the god of Emile Durkheim, a god who is Society writ large. The Order of Society, the sanctioning force that gave meaning to life in that society, that was god. From a transcultural perspective this is a polytheistic point of view. Each society, each culture, projected its own ideals, its own myths, creating its own gods. As societies warred, their gods warred with each other for supremacy.
But a problem arose, and here is where I most appreciate Kelly’s essay. Even while Feuerbach and Durkheim were developing varieties of projectionist theories, others were finding no overarching meaning to life, no sanctioning force – i.e., no god. god was dead for them. It was this experience, this nihilism, that Nietzsche identified. It is not just that god is dead on the international level, but also on the intranational level, on the level of individual societies. A single society no longer has a god of shared norms and values presiding over it. We’re on our own.
The death of our local Durkheimian, projected god, will be good for true Christianity – though difficult for our churches, which for at least a few generations have depended on our culture and its god being the same as the true God. If society’s god was the real God, then we could trust – and expect – society to make people into Christians by pasting a veneer of moralism and vague spirituality on their personality. There was no practical need for personal commitment or discipleship (with discipleship seen as taking up particular disciplines) as long as everybody was doing it. The death of that local god will result in smaller churches, but hopefully those churches will be more Christian.
Kelly recognizes a difficulty with nihilism and counts it as worthy of serious attention. He observes:
But there is a downside to the freedom of nihilism as well, and the people living in the culture may experience this in a variety of ways. Without any clear and agreed upon sense for what to be aiming at in a life, people may experience the paralyzing type of indecision depicted by T.S. Eliot in his famously vacillating character Prufrock; or they may feel, like the characters in a Samuel Beckett play, as though they are continuously waiting for something to become clear in their lives before they can get on with living them; or they may feel the kind of “stomach level sadness” that David Foster Wallace described, a sadness that drives them to distract themselves by any number of entertainments, addictions, competitions, or arbitrary goals, each of which leaves them feeling emptier than the last. The threat of nihilism is the threat that freedom from the constraint of agreed upon norms opens up new possibilities in the culture only through its fundamentally destabilizing force.
Kelly’s solution? Smaller, more local gods. A god for me and my family, a god for my community or lifestyle enclave. And we’d have to recognize the smallness of these gods, refraining from the “self-deception and fanaticism” entailed by larger, more universal claims.
Thus my question about henotheism. Kelly, keeping a Durkheimian projectionist account of divinity, wants us to admit multiple deities, but allows that to avoid nihilism it would be useful for us to pretend (though not too loudly or energetically) that our personal god is the “real” god for us.
While I recognize the power of projectionist accounts of god – they identify a reality that has clearly played a role in our world – I also recognize these gods as idols, false gods, competitors of the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m happy then, with Nietzsche and his pals to say that god is dead – assuming that the dead god is the societally projected god of uniform norms, national identity (and superiority) and moral sanction. But the God who called Abraham and his descendants, the God who sent his only Son, the God who gifts us with the Spirit, that God, is alive and well. That God doesn’t depend on social recognition or unanimity. That God can call his own people – and all nations – to account.
Can Christians then be henotheists? Can we recognize the reality of the small gods out there – Mammon, Mars, Aphrodite and Nike (though perhaps in different uniforms) are particularly popular in our current culture) – and just say, “I have my personal relationship with Jesus, you have your personal relationship with Nike?” Not if we take the Bible as our guide. The God of the Bible – the God of Israel, the God of Jesus and the apostles – is a jealous God. This God made all people and calls for their allegiance to his kingdom. But since this God is not a projected societal god, our commitment to this kind of universalism need not entail that we murderously enforce faith in our God. In fact, since we gain our clearest view of what this God is like through Jesus, we that that approach is explicitly ruled out. Rather than forcing God on people, our calling as Jesus people is to the role of suffering witness (I’m thinking of the context surrounding 1 Peter 3:15).
Polytheism? No. Henotheism? No. Violent monotheism? No. Complete allegiance to Jesus? Absolutely.