Idol Tales

“Now it was Mary Magdalen and Jo-anna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering what had happened.” – Luke 24:10-12

While moving from our assessment of the theism/atheism divide in itself is signal enough for having decided for theism, we quickly realize the journey is just beginning in many ways. While a major chasm has been crossed, we see an apparent “list of applicants” when it comes to the relation that obtains (or should obtain) with regard to the divine. If the skeptic cannot see God because of a kind of metaphysical blindness, the sincere person of faith may risk not seeing for the proliferation of “applicants”… a kind of “hiding” in plain sight. In fact one of the risks is taking the proliferation as is and thinking that it is foundational. This brings us to the focus of this post: the divide between monotheism and polytheism. To treat this, a few areas will need to be covered. We’ll first survey the narratives associated with many polytheistic worldviews, and see what kind of insights there might be from comparing them to the monotheistic accounts. Next, we will revisit the philosophical argument from our last post to see if there is anything about this question that can be deduced from it… and finish with an examination of specific consequences that flow from these admittedly still broad classifications of “monotheism” and “polytheism.”

“Fides quaerens intellectum (Faith seeking understanding.)” – Saint Anselm of Canterbury

In surveying what can be discovered historically, it may appear as an arbitrary agglomeration of anecdotes, claims and stories that took root in different cultures over time. In any study one should acknowledge the differences and the similarities of the relevant objects before concluding anything about them. One of the difficulties of such a study of supernatural world-views is the admission of the existence of claims that in principle we may not necessarily observe via sense experience. As a result we can fall into the trap of thinking we cannot parse truth from fiction, authentic account from fable. But since we have many skeptics trying to pour over the record looking for “gotcha’s,” maybe we ought to perform this same scrutiny, albeit with a very different aim: that of possibly discovering internal consistency and demonstrating how the similarities and differences could actually make the case, instead of upend it. From the objections that are usually tossed off, it seems that both differences and similarities are useful to the skeptic when attempting to convince others of the validity of their position. We often hear that the variations among claims/stories are somehow evidence of incoherence in religious claims. This seems a convenient excuse to avoid investigation altogether. Certainly a proliferation of discordant opinions on any topic or issue does not discredit the coherence of any topic in itself.

“A false ghost disproves the reality of ghosts exactly as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence of the Bank of England — if anything, it proves its existence.” – GK Chesterton: Orthodoxy

On the other hand, if we start examining some of the similarities, they can be quite striking. For example, virtually all ancient cultures took care to bury the dead. Also a majority of traditions in antiquity included an account of a worldwide flood with salvation through an ark / boat (e.g. the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”) There are also strong parallels in various accounts of humanity’s origins, with some event (e.g. “Pandora’s box”) that caused the unraveling of an original order and closeness with the divine. In light of these substantive and detailed parallels, it’s hard to argue that the mythological traditions did not point to some objective underlying truth, just as pieces of shattered glass with the same color, thickness and chemical composition clearly indicate an original unity… even (and especially) if they aren’t individually the same shape. To be clear, I don’t mean here that to come to the “True Religion” it would be necessary to “put the pieces back together.” The latter would be futile for man’s own limited capacities and would require divine intervention to set things right. With many skeptics bothered as much by these similarities as by the differences, it seems as if we have the classic “heads I win, tails you lose” swindle being perpetrated.

“There is no tradition of progress, but the whole human race has a tradition of the Fall. Amusingly enough, indeed, the very dissemination of this idea is used against its authenticity. Learned men literally say that this pre-historic calamity cannot be true because every race of mankind remembers it. I cannot keep pace with these paradoxes.” – GK Chesterton: Orthodoxy

So far the survey has been focused on the reaction of religious sceptics, and not necessarily polytheists. But it sets us up to pivot towards a point that both may militate against… the consistency among the accounts that points to monotheism. An objection to the latter may surface to the effect that the similarities suggest monotheistic traditions copying from polytheistic ones, and thus invert the conclusion about these similarities. Aside from such similarities suggesting one original source, and not multiple, we can say a couple of things about this theory. One is derived from consulting the historical record. In this we observe many of the Greco-Roman “mystery cults” copying from early Christianity (as the former began flourishing from the 3rd century AD.) In fact many of the similarities between the account of the life of Christ and those of other supposed deities, when examined, often show one of three things: an attempt to shoe-horn the narrative to fit, an actual inversion of the known chronological sequence of which individual record came first (as we see in 19th century concoction of “Anup the baptizer,” purported to be part of Egyptian mythology,) and some accounts that (in a subtle way) precede / parallel those of some monotheistic ones (as the story of “Achilles’ heel” parallels in some way the serpent in Genesis striking at the heel of the Woman’s Seed.) In this latter case, it would stand to reason that having a common source, many parallels in human traditions that “anticipate” or “reflect” the true account should be expected. In other words, before lightning strikes, we shouldn’t be surprised that charge builds up in the target area. Actually if we are looking for the “authentic account,” one of the criteria we could consider is whether or not any candidate sufficiently addresses the legitimate desires of mankind as projected through various traditions across the ages.

Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth.” – Giambattista Vico

Ultimately, if one backs up far enough, an overarching trend emerges that monotheism actually preceded polytheism across ancient cultures, and instead of a “combination” of sorts into monotheism from polytheism, what we really see most often is a “fracturing” from monotheism to polytheism…

“Comparing the primitive cultures with the later ones, we may lay down the general principle that in none of the latter is the Supreme Being to be found in so clear, so definite, vivid, and direct a form as among peoples belonging to the former. We may now proceed to supplement this by another of no less importance. This Supreme Being is to be found among all the peoples of the primitive culture, not indeed everywhere in the same form… but still everywhere prominent enough to make his dominant position indubitable.” – Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt: Der Ursprung der Gottesidee

At this point we could take a short cut and re-examine the argument from contingency from the last post to see if it can shed any light on this question. While we reasoned from the presence of contingent realities to a Necessary Being (a somewhat technical philosophical term for God,) what we didn’t fully explore was how we conclude whether or not we have one or multiple. Here it might be enough to say that the definition precludes the multiple hypothesis as “Necessary Being” entails a “oneness.” To say that there may be more than one Necessary Being is tantamount to speaking gibberish, since such entities would require dissimilarity in some respect… otherwise if we would be speaking of one reality. If this were so, such entities would be mutually competitive in terms of the ontological space they occupy, and thus cannot be “necessary” per se, but contingent or limited. This is ultimately why polytheism (or pantheism for that matter) is not compatible with ex-nihilo creation of the universe; a “mark” peculiar to monotheism. It always tends to propose cosmologies where contingent realities are shaping “stuff” that is present into the universe we see. Pantheism entails the belief that the universe itself is divine. This seems to be a special case of polytheism with some attempt at synthesis. In the end we arrive at the same conclusion: since the universe is composite and changing, we must admit preceding elements and that there are attributes emerging in it and evanescing from it. It can’t therefore be the ground of all existence.

But God, who is the beginning of all things, is not to be regarded as a composite being, lest perchance there should be found to exist elements prior to the beginning itself, out of which everything is composed, whatever that be which is called composite. – Origen of Alexandria

It may be posited that we are invoking a definition to suit a preferred conclusion, since it may be argued, as polytheism does, that there are multiple deities on the same “metaphysical plane” with no ordering involved. What evidence is there however, that this state of affairs subsists? How would we weigh it against the alternate hypothesis of a single overarching God? On one hand, we do see that there is order and interoperability in the world, suggesting a unified purpose and thus one Source behind it. However, there is very much dysfunction as well… no wonder ancient mythology features multiple “deities” competing on the same plane in a contentious manner, with man often ending up a victim of these proposed celestial brawls. We may really be putting our finger on the kernel here… Monotheism, unity, order on one side, and Polytheism, contraposition and disorder on the other. If we acknowledge both function and dysfunction, it seems that we’ve hit upon an impasse, but there is one way that the obstacle dissolves. That way is to recognize that even in the acknowledgement of the dysfunction, something is conceded. In order to recognize dysfunction, we admit inchoately what proper functioning is… as dysfunction can only be known in a derivative way from what proper functioning is. The next corollary that emerges is that, given function must be prior to any possible dysfunction, it is eminently reasonable to conclude that some “event” had been allowed to put things out of order, giving rise to the contentiousness and cacophony of voices. So while mythological figures might be imagined as being set side by side with the One True God, there is no coherence in it at all.

“When we see . . . the excellent orderliness of the world, then we worship its Maker as the one Author of one effect, which, since it is entirely in harmony with itself, cannot therefore have been the work of many makers” – Origen of Alexandria  

This lack of coherence is why idolatry and polytheism are inextricably intertwined. Not that it isn’t possible for monotheistic beliefs to potentially be idolatrous, but polytheistic beliefs are intrinsically so. In splitting up that which by definition is one (the Divine Nature,) the floodgates open to the concept of creating idols, since reason must be jettisoned to “square the circle”.

“Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” Psalm 115: 3-8

Corrupt authority tends to promote idolatry as it actually divides and weakens people and ultimately makes them more “governable.” Perhaps this also explains why monotheism is inherently more strident (as it puts forth a claim that makes sense of reality,) than polytheism, the latter seeming to take a back seat to whatever temporal power is established. It devalues the divine by a kind of “inflation”… contriving multiple false objects of worship. Taken to its limit case, idolatry is exhibited not in creating something that is not you into and idol, but imbibing (or should I say biting into) the fruit of so called “self-creation.” At least in extrinsic idol creation there was some kind of imagined deflection of self worship going on… but with self invention the mask is off and there is no pretense.

“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”” Genesis 3:5-6

As we consider all this, the picture seems to be emerging that monotheism is in fact our next destination. It would be understandable to jump right into the three major monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism… however we shouldn’t forget Deism or other “God of the philosophers” genres. They are monotheistic and would presumably satisfy the requirements of the contingency arguments examined, but they differ from the three major monotheistic traditions in a very specific way; namely on the question of “revelation.” These more rationalistic approaches affirm everything mentioned thus far based on human reason, but stop there. They express, at a minimum, a doubt that revelation is granted. This underlying tenet is why Deism proposes a mere “watch maker” that sets up the universe and then lets it run without intervening. It seems we will have to take a detour then to explore this particular dilemma of “The Necessity of Revelation.” Unlike mythmaking, which past civilizations held as a poetic expression of an ache for the transcendent, “revelation” is at once more concrete and more startling. Instead of stories, it’s news. Instead of authors, we have witnesses. Instead of juggling abstractions and archetypes, we are encountering a Person.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

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