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Christianity and polytheism

I’ve been thinking about Christianity and polytheism. Not the more obvious polytheism you find in the Trinity, but rather the many different and incompatible beings that believers worship under the polymorphic title of “God.”

For example, one of the gods that believers worship is El Shaddai, the Almighty God. He’s a Biblical character, and he’s characterized by his omnipotent power. This sets him apart from, say, the lesser Jehovah, who gave Judah the land of Canaan but was unable to give him the plains “because they had chariots fitted with iron” (Judges 1). El Shaddai stands apart because he is truly almighty and his will is irresistible. Whatever he says, that’s what happens, just because he said so.

The problem with El Shaddai is that he’s too powerful. It’s the same problem Superman has: when a character can never lose, they quickly become unrealistic and uninteresting. To be compelling, a character needs to live in the same world as the audience, wrestling with the same trials as they do. Believers, like the rest of us, live in a world where God’s side often does lose. That means God has to be the kind of god who can be defeated, or at least forced into choices that are contrary to his best will, by circumstances beyond his control.

Such a god is clearly not El Shaddai, however, since there’s no such thing as circumstances beyond the Almighty’s control. For a realistic deity, believers are forced to turn to one of the other, weaker gods they worship, like Jehovah, a god whose earthly blessings can be thwarted by Iron Age technology. To paraphrase William Lane Craig’s apologetic, the problem of evil requires a god who can be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, so that the world can be full of sin and suffering even though it was created ex nihilo by a kind and loving god. In other words, a weaker god, not El Shaddai.

El Shaddai is fine for menacing the unbeliever and pumping up the credulous, but by himself he can’t shoulder the whole burden of providing a meaningful and relevant faith in the midst of a godless reality. Christians need, and use, a variety of different and mutually distinct gods, despite their official façade of monotheism.