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“Ask a Priest: Didn’t Monotheism Come Out of Polytheism?”
Q: I’ve been away from the faith but want to engage again with Christianity. However, every time I try to make that connection my rational mind reminds me of why I lapsed and continue to lapse. Having some answer to these issues would really help: 1) I studied ancient history at university and had a keen interest in Bronze Age societies. I learned about how Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion with a range of deities, and that monotheism was a result of political/social changes in response to the Babylonian captivity and with interaction with Persian Zoroastrianism. Knowing this history, and how it contradicts the idea of Judaism holding a universal truth in God which was then passed to us, makes it difficult to truly believe that within the Judeo-Christian tradition is a universalist message of a single God. Is God just merely a member of a Jewish pantheon who was “lucky” to be selected as the single god of post-Babylonian Jews? 2) On to this issue is the question of Jewish sects in the first century. Both Roman and Jewish sources note the prevalence of many messianic claimants in that era. Again, every time that I wish to fully believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, my mind tells me that — again, apologies — that he was just one of many claimants, and that the reason I see him as the Messiah is only because of a quirk of fate, specifically, Constantine choosing Christianity over other competing religions. Anthropology and history are the reasons I can’t believe. I want to, but without a rational answer to these problems, my mind hits a roadblock. More intelligent people than I have overcome this clearly, how do I? – R.R.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It’s good that you want to re-engage with Christianity, notwithstanding your hesitancy. Perhaps your overly rational way of approaching religion has left you unsatisfied, which is why you are trying to take a fresh look at your faith.
That is no surprise, for we benefit from both faith and reason. In the opening line of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II said that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
One or another “wing” might not even get us off the ground, and if we did, we would just be flapping around in a circle with no way to move forward.
The First Vatican Council acknowledged (in Dei Filius) that God can be known in the light of natural reason through the things he has created, but that does not go much beyond knowing that the Almighty exists. That is the focus of natural theology, the philosophy of God (see Catechism Nos. 36-38).
What God has revealed about himself is another matter. He helps us with the supernatural aid we call grace to believe in what he has revealed to us, even when we do not understand or understand completely. As opposed to natural theology in the light of reason, supernatural theology tries to understand what has been revealed by God in the light of faith.
To return to the wings analogy: It is important to understand that faith and reason are compatible. God gave us an intellect, after all, and he wants us to use it. The Catholic faith, properly understood, is rational, even if at times it transcends what we can grasp through mere reason.
A clarification might be helpful: It’s not accurate to say that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion.
Rather, a number of ancient Israelites, like other peoples, believed in various gods. God himself started to reveal himself to the Israelites and to wean them off their paganism. This didn’t happen through arguments but through God’s revelation, which the Israelites strove to believe.
And this didn’t happen overnight. The Israelites were a work in progress and the progress was sometimes slow (witness the golden calf incident at Sinai).
That’s one reason the prophets were kept busy. “Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.’ But the people did not answer him” (1 King 18:21). The point of this particular story is that the true God won out; the pagans were calling on a deity (Baal) who simply didn’t exist.
The theory that monotheism evolved out of polytheism has been refuted by scholars, notably Yehezkel Kaufmann. It’s a complex issue, but suffice it to say the metaphysical differences between monotheism and polytheism are worlds apart.
The gap between a pantheon of squabbling and capricious gods, on the one hand, and one, totally transcendent God, on the other, is simply too wide to bridge. Monotheism wasn’t an evolution in the ancient world but a revolution, something entirely new.
In other words, polytheism wouldn’t have naturally or logically led to monotheism. There was no celestial version of the NCAA finals, whereby a number of gods battled it out until there was only one left standing.
Besides, many of the texts in the Old Testament came out of a tradition that predates the Babylonian exile. In fact, it was belief in a single God that helped to sustain the Israelites in exile and kept many of them from being absorbed into the paganism of Babylon.
If not for this belief, there would have been little motivation for the people to return to Jerusalem; the place was in ruins, after all. Babylon was the more prestigious place to be.
If Yahweh were just one more deity, the Israelites probably could have easily fit him into the matrix of other Babylonian gods. But they didn’t. They knew they had the one true God, and they were determined to go back to Jerusalem, to live their faith more vibrantly.
As for your second question: The resurrection proves that Jesus was who he said he was.
Belief in the resurrection is reasonable: There is the witness of the early community; the fact that no corpse was ever found (it’s not easy to hide a body, much less steal one from a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers); the willingness of many Christians to go to martyrdom for their belief; and the resilience of the Church after 2,000 years.
That last point is no small thing. Christ founded the Church, named a pope, established sacraments, and promised to remain with the Church “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). So far, so good.
A last suggestion: At the heart of the Catholic faith is our relationship with Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father. Relationships don’t fit well under a microscope. It might help to pray for the grace of faith.
Count on my prayers.
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