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Aug 03 2013

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.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    True. One of the reasons “God”‘s attributes are so contradictory and nonsensical is because the biblical writings and subsequent Christian theology contain many different gods. Hardly anyone, sceptic or believer, keep this in mind. They just conflate them all under one banner: the god that walks around Eden in the evenings and has to figure out what’s going on by conducting an interrogation, the god that commands genocide of little neighbouring tribes, the god that Jesus is said to have prayed to, the god that comes from neo-Platonic philosophy with all of its transcendent perfect nature, the vague modern liberal genderless deity who doesn’t care what religion you follow because they’re all roads leading to the same destination and the whole crucifixion and resurrection thing is just a metaphor….and on and on.

  2. 2
    Len

    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.

    So DC Comics becomes BC Comics.

  3. 3
    grumpyoldfart

    I’ve always assumed that the Catholic Saints were regarded by the faithful as minor gods in charge of specific phenomena.

  4. 4
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    grumpyoldfart
    They insist doggedly that this is not the case, but for practical purposes this is exactly correct. Vodun and Santeria, which are heavily syncretized with Catholicism, do make it explicit, though. As I understand it, their ceremonies start by paying respects to the main god (El Shaddai in Duncan’s article, I don’t know the correct term in those religions), but it’s understood that that entity is quite busy with big important things, and doesn’t really give half a shit about your individual life or problems, so the rest of the ceremony involves the Loa (which have a heavy overlap with Catholic Saints), who are smaller, less powerful gods, whose concerns and understanding are are at a closer level to ours, so they understand our problems and there’s things that they might want from us in exchange for fixing them.

    1. 4.1
      jackdabastard

      Bondye. Which is just French for “good god,” really.

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    Cthulhu will not care whether you were gullible or not, only whether you believed enough to be eaten first.

  6. 6
    thebookofdave

    That’s just spiteful. Your accusations of polytheism makes Baby Jesus cry.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    Actually, the problem with El Shaddai is that we have no idea what שדי‎ actually means. Strong arguments have been made that the root means “to destroy”, “mountain” or “breast,” and Hebrew Scriptures support the epithet as meaning “God who conquers”, “God who dwells on high” and “God who nurtures.” If ALL of these interpretations are accurate, then we have the Hindu Trimurti wrapped up in a single being: creator, sustainer and destroyer.

    The theology that sin was the invention of a lesser god was a central one to Gnosticism. Gnostics held that the original universe was pure light, and that a Demiurge (identified with the god of the Old Testament by Gnostic Christians) created the material world as an act of hubris or rebellion. Sin, they said, is the inevitable result of material existence, which is why the True God sent Jesus to show humanity the way out.

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