Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord… Deuteronomy 6:4 (KJV).
…for there is one God; and there is none other but he… Mark 12:32 (KJV).
Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about
you… Deuteronomy 6:14 (KJV).
…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit… Words of art contained in miscellaneous Christian blessings, baptisms, benedictions, etc.
Unitarians, it is said, believe that at most there is one god. Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian. He wrote our Declaration of Independence. Various Unitarian churches are named after him, e.g., “Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church.” “Unitarianism” is considered a heresy by other Christians who view themselves as “Trinitarians.” In that this difference of supernatural opinion has proved at least as important to human progress as the much warred over issue of whether soul-saving baptism is best accomplished by dunking or by sprinkling, and in that this controversy over the nature of the godhead has led to much bloodletting, has caused much human misery, and could well prove useful for secular humanists in surviving the ARCW, the dispute merits some consideration.
Popular mass religious culture holds that monotheism– the belief that there is only one god– was introduced into human thought by the Jews of the Old Testament, and was rarified and glorified in the New Testament by Jesus, the Christ. It is widely, and uncritically, believed that the idea of there being only one god was original to the Judeo-Christian tradition (whatever that is) and that this “monotheism” clearly demarcates Jews and Christians from lesser breeds who hold to the more primitive eschatological (maybe “ontological,” but certainly metaphysical–it’s hard to keep this nonsense straight) view that there are many gods. As with much religious belief, it just ain’t so. And kindly refrain from yelling that one who points these things out is engaging in “religion bashing.” Your author didn’t make the facts. If he had, they would be quite different from what they are.
The sad truth is that the Jews of the Torah, like most people of the time, clearly believed there were many gods. A notable historic exception was the Egyptian heretic pharaoh Ikhnaton (or Akhenaton). His belief in one god got him murdered by priests who made their money from the old time religion–it is comforting to know there are some absolutes. The point of the “covenant” with Abraham, Moses, et al, was that Yahweh (Jehovah, God, I Am That I Am, or whatever) agreed to be the god of the Hebrew people, and they agreed that he was to be their god. Sort of a contract–one that might read, “Out of the many gods, other people can have their god or gods, but you will be our god, and we will be your people.” Thus, in the Ten Commandments (second edition, of course), it is decreed, in the very first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Similarly, the second commandment (the one about not making graven images), states, in pertinent part, “…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous god…”
There is nothing here about this god being the only god. The other gods could stand side by side with him, but should not be before him. Further, he is a “jealous” god. Jealous of what? Of the other gods, of course. And he has reason. Much of the Old Testament involves the children of the covenant worshiping other gods. They were doing it even as Moses was getting the ten commandments. If they believed there was only one god, why were they worshiping a golden calf? Because they knew there were lots of gods, that’s why, and they were trolling for a better god than the god of their covenant. A great deal of holy ink is spent on god asserting himself as the god of Israel. He has contests with other gods. He is as paranoid about protecting his position as Superman is about protecting his secret identity. None of this competitive zeal would have been necessary if the Hebrews truly believed there was only one god, i.e., him. By the time the stories of the bible made the bible, the Jews had no doubt convinced themselves that there is in fact only one god. The Christians were not so sure.
Jews, in general, follow the teachings of the bible better than Christians. They celebrate the Sabbath on the Sabbath, as god ordered; Christians do not–they celebrate it on Sunday, without a whit of biblical justification for ignoring god’s orders. Jews also rather carefully follow the proscription against making or worshiping graven images. Christians apparently don’t think this commandment is very important, as they peddle religious statutes of every possible variety (the more offensive ones can be found at any decent redneck truck stop). Roman Catholics deal with the problem by leaving the commandment out of their bible. Getting one god out of many took greater creativity.
If there is ever a contest to choose history’s worst villain, the award might well go to the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 325 C.E., he convened a council at the city of Nicaea to stop Christian squabbling over the nature of god and to establish once and for all, by majority vote, what Christians must believe to be saved. Seems there was much argument over whether god was one person or three.
The council produced a remarkable document known as “The Nicene Creed.” It remains the official statement of Christian faith recited every Sunday in many Christian churches. Some Protestant churches use a simplified version known as the “Apostles’ Creed.” Both versions reject the idea of one god while claiming to embrace it. Simply put, the doctrine, and “mystery,” of the “holy trinity” holds that while there is in fact only one god, he consists of three distinct, yet indivisible parts: “God the Father,” God the Son,” and “God the Holy Spirit.” Or, in choir boy humor, “Daddy-O, J.C., and Spook.” If it made sense, there would be no need for faith to believe it. This is true of many religious doctrines. After Nicaea, the belief in only one unitary god, instead of the triune god, became a heresy that could get you killed. And we dare call the priests who wasted Ikhnaton heathens. See now why Thomas Jefferson, the Unitarian, didn’t want an official religion?
The logical gymnastics of the trinity is but one example of the discomfort Christians experience in trying to believe in one god. They also believe in angels, the Devil (Satan, etc.), demons, and all manner of disembodied occupants of the spirit world. There are “legions” of them. Many are prayed to as “saints” and are asked to intercede with god on behalf of the believer, e.g., “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners…”
Now just what is a “god?” A god is any supernatural personage that isn’t a living human being. In other words, one is, if not an animal, either a human or a god. Clever attempts at creating subdivisions among immortals, while maintaining there is only one god, simply don’t work. While believers want to believe in one god, they really can’t. A single god would have to embody contradictory attributes, like good and evil, male and female (does god the father have both male and female DNA?). In that this is impossible, at least in Western thought, believers invent good gods and bad gods, just like the heathen do. If attempts to argue this is in fact monotheism prove unbelievably absurd, the problem can be easily corrected by calling any contradiction a “mystery.”
The only real mystery is why adults give this matter any serious attention at all.
Edwin F. Kagin