Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Why polytheism = pantheism = monism

Pagan religions seem crazy until you understand what motivates them.

I’ve talked recently about how biblical religion doesn’t fit neatly into Enlightenment categories of religious “evolution”—namely, the categories of monotheism and henotheism.

I’ll now extend my comments to ancient Near Eastern religions in general—and to pretty much all pagan religions. You’ll quickly see how simplistic the term “polytheism” is.

Now, caveat lector —I am not a scholar of comparative religion. Most of my reading has been at a popular level so far. That said, while I’m no expert, neither am I aware of any polytheistic religions, ANE or otherwise, that are not also pantheistic or monistic in some sense. That is, all the polytheistic religions I’m aware of have an underlying theology that the creation itself is in some way divine; and because the creation is divine, people and nature are divine, and so all things are ultimately united in that divinity. Or, they have an underlying theology that “everything is connected”, and since everything is connected, the distinction between divine and non-divine collapses. Same idea, just feeding the other way.

A very broad, bare-bones explanation for this theology is as follows:

Firstly, there are two very powerful, related, yet competing needs that fallen man has:

  1. He needs to suppress the knowledge of God. The very essence of his fallen state is in rejecting God’s authority and judgment—which in turn entails rejecting transcendent standards of every kind: the ultimate source of value and beauty, moral laws, natural laws, providence, etc.
  2. He needs to replace what he has suppressed. Because he is made with built-in intuitions about all these transcendentally-derived categories, he must find a way to explain them, or explain them away, without appeal to the transcendent which he has rejected.

Secondly, this results in inferences as per Romans 1 where the created world has to do the work of the transcendent creator. These inferences cash out in different ways for different religions, but the very broad stokes are fundamentally similar:

Obviously this is a highly simplistic summary, and I’m not really qualified to add much extra nuance for any given religious tradition. But it does lay out the general ideas inherent in religions which replace the worship of the creator for the worship of creation. It also brings to the surface why religious pluralism and seemingly contradictory truth-claims aren’t considered problematic for “spiritual” people, and why the only religion that really can’t be tolerated is Christianity.

4 comments

  1. Kirk Skeptic

    Christianity is not unique in this regard, as the Jews suffered the slings and arrows of heathendom prior to the NT era; indeed, one hears less of such today because the hotspots of MENA etc are practically judenrein. In the West, this has been manifest not only in the resurgence of “fashionable” antisemitism, but the attempt to ban circumcision in Germany and kosher slaughter in Switzerland. Liberal Jews would be relatively unaffected by the bans, but the obserbant communities surely would be.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the papish cult of Mary and the saints as sympathetic magic or similarity to the ANE pantheon; your thoughts?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I did open by talking about “biblical religion” rather than Christianity, precisely because obviously any theology proper that is derived from the Bible without too much modification will end up repudiating monism. The same can be said of Islam.

    The cult of Mary definitely bears many similarities to pagan religion, and you see all kinds of magical practices there, especially in heavily syncretized cultures like those of South America. But I was really aiming to give an overview of the thought process of pagan religion generally, with a view to ANE religion because that’s the biblical context.

  3. Dave

    I think it helps to recognize that “polytheism” is not really a comprehensive worldview in the same way that classical/biblical theism is, in the sense that the latter provides an exhaustive account of existence by positing a transcendent God as the absolute reality and the source of everything else. The gods of the polytheists cannot furnish that sort of explanation, as they are finite, contingent, and contained within the natural order.

    Since the polytheists do not see their gods as the ultimate reality, something else must occupy that role in their thinking. That might be a transcendent Creator of the biblical variety, in which case the “gods” are merely exalted creatures.

    The other alternative is to see the universe itself (or the primordial stuff of which it is made) as the ultimate reality. And of course this tends toward pantheism or monism.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Well said.

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