Whether it’s on the interwebs, over the phone or in person, chances are that at some point you’ll come across the opportunity to discuss religion with a monotheist. It could be with family, friends, co-workers or even complete strangers: monotheism tends toward proselytism as it is, and is so taken for granted that it can be brought up in just about any situation without fear of awkwardness – at least less so than admitting that you’re not a monotheist.
I work in the medical field, and there it is particularly commonplace to be drawn into conversations about “God” or heaven, as well as to be asked to pray for someone and so forth. My co-workers know that I’m a Pagan and, I suspect, know that my prayers for the ill or dying are Pagan in nature. For the most part, these conversations have been good and some of them have even been rather light-hearted. But, I’ve certainly had my share of getting “the” talk from those who just can’t believe anyone would seriously worship deities like Zeus or Odin anymore. Things have been even less optimistic with my family, with whom I’ve essentially come to avoid the topic at all costs.
It can be helpful to have some tips handy beforehand, to avoid unnecessary rifts (especially with friends or family), and to do right by the Gods when your commitment to them calls for it.
One tip I’ve seen given before is to affirm and validate other’s experiences to the extent that one can without doing herself a disservice. This can be a helpful strategy to incorporate, especially as it neutralizes those defense mechanisms that make discussions hostile or counter-productive. However, all by itself, this is not a good tip: it in no way explains how one is to share her perspective, the doing of which is an essential ingredient to an exchange, nor how to respond to another’s point of view. We aren’t looking for tips on how to avoid disagreement with those with whom we disagree. And doing nothing else but affirming such a person will not, in any case, help one to avoid disagreement, as it will at the very least give the impression that you’re particularly ‘evangelizable’.
Ideally, we want a tip for how to disagree with a monotheist without stoking any unnecessary fires.
So, here is one way to do just this. Start by pointing out the obvious: there is a difference between theory and experience. Say that what you disagree with is not the monotheist’s experiences, but her theory. To be particularly effective, point out that one of the problems with the monotheist theory is that it does not do justice to the deity it is held on behalf of. This last point can be made in a number of ways (such as by showing that religious experiences are inherently polytheistic), but we’ll focus only on one in particular here.
Oftentimes, disagreeing with monotheism is taken as a rejection of monotheist religious experiences, and that makes things personal. But, from the perspective being outlined here, it is you and the monotheist working together to exult her deity. By treating monotheism as just a theory (which is important when a theory becomes taken for granted, or treated like a fact), it becomes clear that what really matters are the Gods and one’s relationship with them, such that monotheism should only be held if it does justice to one’s God. Since it will not at all be likely that the monotheist is accustomed to looking at things in this way, bringing it up has the advantage of making people think for themselves rather than sticking to uncritical patterns of thought.
Now, the monotheist might respond that monotheism is held on the basis of divine revelation, and so that disagreeing with the theory makes a liar of their God. But, this is to put the cart before the horse because whether or not monotheism is part of divine revelation depends on whether or not monotheism fairly represents one’s God. If it doesn’t, then there are a number of reasons why the authors of a divine revelation may have made monotheistic statements.
Perhaps they were expressing their own theories, especially if they were only saying what seemed true to them given the exaltedness of their God. In this case, although their statements are to be found among what is divinely revealed, they are not themselves divinely revealed, and should be accepted only to the degree that there are good reasons for independently agreeing. On the other hand, perhaps such statements were divinely revealed, but their meaning has been misunderstood. This scenario asks no more of the monotheist than what she likely already allows: the revelation itself is what is infallible, inerrant and inspired, not the interpretations of that revelation (no matter how old or widespread those interpretations may be). In this vein, one can look to the Platonists for guidance, who developed hermeneutics for inspired myths that could be useful here. For example, a statement that contradicts the nature of a God may nevertheless be issued, not so as to deceive people, but in order to draw them to resolve the difficulty through deeper reflection and devotion. (Cf. Edward Butler’s indispensable “The Theological Interpretation of Myth” in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (May 2005), vol. 7, no. 1. pp. 27-41. It’s included his Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion as well, which should be required reading in my opinion.)
So, why doesn’t monotheism do justice to whichever God it is held on behalf of?
Monotheism maintains that there is only one God. In so doing, it treats “God” as something of which there is only one, and so as a kind of thing. But, that requires that the monotheist’s God is only an instance of a more general form of being: he or she is not the fountain from which all of reality flows, but merely another part of reality, just like the rest of us. He or she is not ultimate, but dependent upon whatever it is he or she is said to instantiate (a divine “nature”, say). This theory belittles the monotheist’s deity – who has historically been exulted beyond everything else – making of him or her little more than a creature who depends for his or her existence upon whatever it is that he or she instantiates.
It is precisely for this reason that monotheism actually runs counter to key methods and ideas in monotheist thinking! Take Perfect Being Theology for example. Surely the greatest (conceivable) being would at least exceed the greatness of creatures (i.e. things that depend on anything in order to exist)! Monotheism undoes ‘aseity’, and that is a non-negotiable attribute of God by almost all monotheist standards.
As such, it is because of her God’s greatness, incommensurability, sovereignty and so forth that the monotheist should not buy into monotheism. The last thing they want to do is belittle the One they love, and helping them to understand what monotheism really amounts to is an honor, not only to them, but to their God.
Now, one can expect a monotheist to at least ask how polytheism doesn’t fail for the same reason monotheism does. But, explaining the fundamental difference between “what” each position quantifies will have to wait until next time, at which point we’ll address several objections to polytheism. Stay tuned!