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III: Polytheism and Monotheism

A full and philosophic consideration of the attributes of God as presented in the various world-religions cannot avoid the question at issue between polytheism and monotheism. For though it may be logically questionable whether we ought to include unity and plurality among the attributes which we attach to the concept of divinity, yet a careful study of the two systems in the world's religious history reveals that the polytheistic and monotheistic trend of thought may seriously affect the view taken concerning the essential qualities of the deity; not only may we find that some are lacking under the one system which are prominent under the other, but also that some, though common to both, are more naturally emphasized and developed under the one than under the other. Therefore the subject is as relevant here as it is certainly interesting in itself.

Comparative religion and anthropology are sometimes called upon to answer the question whether polytheism or monotheism was the prior fact in the early evolution of religion. Leaving aside the present-day statistics of the civilized communities, for these are of doubtful interpretation, we have some trustworthy record of the higher races back to the fifth or sixth millennium B.C.; we have also the valuable data collected by the modern science of anthropology concerning the primitive communities of the past and present. Some slight evidence from this latter source has induced some students in this field, such as Andrew Lang and one or two others, to believe that some kind of primitive monotheism, merely in the sense of the worship of one god only, was found in man's earliest theistic consciousness; a phenomenon which might be explained as a revelation of divine truth vouchsafed to the earliest races or as due to some social condition of their life. Such a social condition was thought to be totemism, the theory being that, as each clan only had one totem and the totem was worshipped, each clan could only worship one totem-god, which is a crude monotheism. But more recent anthropology has destroyed all value in this reasoning at least: it has been shown that totemistic tribes do not normally worship their totem at all, and that totemistic tribes may have many gods or godlings or none. The theory of Andrew Lang, however, was unaffected by this fallacy, and based on testimony of the recognition by some aboriginal tribes in Australia and elsewhere of a supreme and kindly spirit. But the evidence concerning this, such as it was, in no way came near to supporting any such dogma as that monotheism was a primeval tradition of our race. We can hardly credit the mind of primitive man with a faculty for grasping the idea of one deity of the world. Much that we perceive as one the savage mind tends to pluralize; the savage pluralizes his inner self or soul into many souls, the sun in heaven into many suns. When he reached the theistic stage, so many strands had gone to the making of a god that it is unlikely that his imagination would project and maintain a solitary divine power.

In fact, the sources that gave life to polytheism were manifold and are still active. Animism and fetichism would evolve an indefinite plurality of spirit-powers vaguely conceived as personal; and certain groups might crystallize into one definite deity, but there were many groups and it was therefore natural that many deities should emerge. Again, nature-worship has prevailed at certain times in every community of man; and the imagination of the ages has peopled the visible world with deities of air, earth, fire, and sea. The feeling that much in nature was weird, awful, and powerful—the feeling that is one of the elemental sources of religion—was more likely to be associated with the perception of its infinite manifoldness than of any underlying unity in it. Even when the primitive mind by a singular achievement can reach to the latter idea, as the Algonquins of North America have achieved the idea of ‘Wakondah’, this does not necessarily or immediately make for monotheism; ‘Wakondah’, for instance, could be conceived as the permeating vital force that sustains the life of gods, men, and natural objects.

Although we have been rescued from the fallacy that ensnared Herbert Spencer and others that ancestor-worship and hero-worship was the foundation of all religion, there is no doubt that it has been an independent and prolific source of polytheism; for the heroized ancestor under favourable conditions could rise to the status of a high god, as a court-physician rose in Egypt, and as we may believe was the career of the Hellenic Asklepios: and in parts of Christendom the local saint might count so much for the village-community as to entitle him to the status and designation of a local god. The tendency to heroize or deify the illustrious dead was very rife in many areas of ancient culture; and though it might be reconciled with monotheism, its natural trend was polytheistic.

Again, when two or more tribes or races coalesced they would bring their tribal or local divinities into the new community, and polytheism would be increased.

We understand, then, the world-wide diffusion of the phenomenon, which is attested by the ancient records of most of the ‘Aryan’ and Semitic and other Anatolian societies and of Egypt. And we are inclined without any minute examination of these religions to believe that men's views about God and his attributes are likely to be different under a polytheistic system from those prevalent under monotheism. On the whole, this is true. For polytheism is not so likely to engender the atmosphere in which the highest religious emotions, such as awe and reverence, and the highest conceptions of the majesty and omnipotence of the deity will spontaneously develop. It is certainly not true to say that ‘a definite moral system is irreconcilable with a multiplicity of gods’;1 for the polytheism may be well organized under a supreme god and on an advanced moral basis; nor is there any lack of high moral ideas in the polytheistic cults of Greece and Babylon. But as any particular polytheism always contains in it the deposits of many different periods, scarcely any is moralized all through, especially as many nature-deities are hard to moralize and discipline. Therefore backward or even degraded ideas will still attach to certain of the personalities, while others have been refined and idealized according to the demands of high religion. Side by side with a High God of Justice, Mercy and Truth, the cults of a goddess of sensual love, a God of intoxicating drink, or of thieves and liars, might be maintained. Also, in any large pantheon of gods and goddesses, the sex-motive is likely to be prominent and to taint the mythology and at times the cults. In respect of the mythology, though on the whole not of the cults, this was true in Hellenism, and true in respect of both in India.

Again, it is difficult under polytheism even for the higher minds and practically impossible for the lower to arrive at the conception of a single Providence ruling the world by fixed laws: the multitude of divinities suggests the possibility of discord in the divine cosmos; and instils a sense of the capricious and incalculable in the unseen world, a hankering after gross miracles and partisan-favours. As compared with the Indian, the Babylonian, and the Egyptian, the Greek polytheism is far more carefully organized and the dogma of the supremacy of Zeus and the subordination of the other deities to his will is proclaimed from Homer downwards throughout the higher literature. Even Apollo at Delphi only speaks as his mouthpiece; even the mighty Athena in behalf of her beloved Athens can only try to mediate, but cannot wholly avert, the destruction of the city by the Persians, which was the will of Zeus. But the popular mind could not live up to the height of such a dogma. In many a legend the caprice, the love or hatred, of a minor divinity is allowed to work irresponsibly. In Euripides' Hippolytus2 the pure and austere Artemis explains why she did not save her favourite hunter and votary from the cruel guile of Aphrodite by the naïve assertion: ‘it is a custom for us Gods that no one should thwart the will of another but should stand aside.’ Euripides knew that this was not true, according to the best religious belief in Greece; but he chooses to emphasize a weak spot in polytheism, which was undoubtedly there. In the Babylonian version of the Flood, after that destructive catastrophe the Babylonian deities rebuke the cruelty and injustice of Bel who caused it; but they had never thought of hindering his purpose.

Finally, we must reckon among the drawbacks of polytheism the demonology that has tainted most of the historical religions of this type. Some of the imagined personalities that peopled the wild places of the earth in the animistic period of thought were dangerous, vindictive, and terrifying; they might come to take definite shape as goblins or as gods; but the god with such ancestry would be likely to retain much of the goblin, a dangerous and cruel character associated perhaps with a cruel ritual, making it the more difficult for the worshipper to arrive at the high plane of religious thought where divinity at once implies love. The deities of destruction loom large in Indian and are manifest in Egyptian polytheism, while it is only in the Greek that they are scarcely discernible. Belief in goblins may survive under monotheism; but it is only polytheism that could admit the goblin as a god.

These are serious drawbacks; and yet we cannot deny after sympathetic comparative study that these creeds have contributed much not only to civilization but to advanced religion. In the first place, it might be easier under polytheistic than under monotheistic thought to interfuse the whole of human life and the whole of the outside world with the presence of divinity. At least, under such a polytheism as the Greek, the power of pluralized divinity was more penetrative throughout the whole range of social and private life and the elements of nature, each sphere and each department having its special deity active and efficient there, than has hitherto been the case under our higher and austerer creed: hence, while our politics, law-courts, art, and science are mainly secular, in Hellenic communities they were ostensibly religious or tinged with religion; and whether or not this was a real and helpful inspiration, it built up a concept of the divine nature, which while falling far short of ours in majesty and love, surpassed it in richness and fullness of function.

It may well be also that polytheism goes more naturally than the monotheism of which we have as yet had experience, with that emotional mood, to us inevitably seeming a fact of ultimate value, which we may call joie de vivre. We have been made familiar in our generation, especially by the writings of Mannhardt and Sir James Frazer, with a widespread vegetation-ritual that goes back to the beginnings of the culture of the tilth and the woodland. It arose in polydaimonism, was developed and sometimes refined by polytheism, but is frowned upon or barely tolerated under a severe monotheism. Much of it was uncouth and repulsive; but that which was associated with the home-bringing of the corn or the vintage was capable of forms of worship not without grace and beauty; in the Bacchic service it evoked moods of ecstatic self-abandonment which in the poetry of Euripides seem to be tingling with the joy of living and with the intoxicating sense of the bursting life of the wild earth. We know what the Bacchic orgy was in its aboriginal home of Thrace, cruel and dangerous, and certainly not to be regarded as a religious asset; but we know that in Greece by some miraculous transformation it blossomed into Attic tragedy and inspired such a drama as the ‘Bacchai’.

It would be rash and unscientific to maintain that the different output achieved on the one hand by the Judaic and Islamic genius in the sphere of nature-poetry and on the other hand by the Greek and later Europe inheriting from the Greek, is due to the difference between the monotheistic and polytheistic point of view. We must reckon much with the temperamental differences of the races. It happened that in Greece polytheism was the religion of a people dowered with singular poetic creativeness. If the medley of nature-powers are regarded as daimonic, their terror and their savagery may check the rise of a poetic nature-sense: the wood-goblin may engender, not poetry, but very bad wood-magic. But, happily, by the refining force of the old Greek popular imagination, the divine beings that haunted the meadow, the grove, the water, and the mountain, had been idealized, humanized, and made beautiful after the type of such forms as Linos, Hyakinthos, Kore, and the ‘Nymphs’ or ‘Brides’. The belief then in the presence of such beings within or behind the material object or element would impart a certain thrilling force to that object, as if something beyond this world, beyond our common and earthly experience, were there; and this transcendant feeling could still cleave strongly to certain phenomena and aspects of nature long after the polytheistic belief had passed away; a deposit from an older creed in the poet's brain, shaping and inspiring his interpretation of nature, so that a primrose must always remain more than a yellow primrose, and the rainbow, where once Iris walked, can never be reckoned ‘in the catalogue of common things’.

On this view, our poetic intuition of nature, one of the most delightful inheritances of our spirit, owes a deep debt to a primitive animism, purified and transformed by Greek polytheism. Therefore, when our medieval and modern poets, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats are found continually drawing on this Pagan religion as they give voice to the beauty and charm of the world of nature, this is no literary convention but a half-conscious yearning back to the ancestral source of their inspiration. There is earnestness in the strange admission of the high-minded pantheistic Wordsworth that he would rather have been a Pagan ‘suckled in some creed outworn’ if only he might have ‘glimpses that might leave him less forlorn’. And when Milton as the austere and monotheistic Puritan bans the creations of Greek polytheism in his Ode to the Nativity and informs us that

The lonely mountains o'er,

And the resounding shore,

A voice of weeping heard and loud lament:

From haunted spring and dale

Edged with poplar pale

The parting Genius is with sighing sent.

With flower-inwoven tresses torn

The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn—

we feel that this is matter for profound regret for the other Milton, the Milton of Shakespeare's England, and of the Pagan Renaissance, the author of Lycidas, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso.

We can indeed theoretically and without difficulty reconcile this poetic mood and interpretation of Nature with an ethical monotheism such as the Judaic. We can recall many great passages in our Psalms and the Book of Job that interfuse the sublimer phenomena of nature with the might and the majesty of the One God. We shall find in the monotheistic hymn of Ikhnaton a deep sense of the beauty of nature. But as a matter of history the foster-mother of this mood in us is to be sought elsewhere, namely in Greek polytheism.

As it is part of our subject to consider the influence upon our own history of any particular aspect or imputed attribute of God, it is relevant to enregister the contribution of a polytheistic creed to our poetic endowment. We have considered already the momentous part that Greek idolatry has played in the history of our art.

Moreover, it can be historically maintained that among the advantages that may attach to the belief in the plurality of divine beings we must reckon its greater compatibility with the spirit of tolerance. The religious history of intolerance and its causes has still to be written. We can imagine, though history does not show us, a most elevated monotheism that enjoined upon its adherents the most complete tolerance for those who held a different view about the divine nature. Or again, if the separate groups of the faithful in Judaea, Islam, or Christendom had been capable of rising to the height of Varro's thought,3 namely, that the name whereby the High God was called was a matter of entire indifference, and that the different nations could be regarded as worshipping the same High God under different names, we might have received the tradition of a tolerant monotheism. As it is, the monotheism that we know has written its intolerance in letters of blood across our history, from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land of Canaan. We find the evil spirit again in Islam; and if we impute the phenomenon to the natural ferocity of the Semitic temper, then when we find it darkening the history of Christendom we may discern here the influence of the Judaic tradition. We may touch on this question again. For the present, it concerns us to consider whether the grace of tolerance inheres naturally in polytheism as a system or only happens to be found in certain polytheisms because of the geniality and moderation of the worshippers. We all agree that intolerance is a vice; whether tolerance is a virtue or not may depend on the principle that animates it; but it is in any case a fosterer of peace and an inestimable social gain. And the history of the Greek communities proves that they had it in fuller measure than any other civilized society. We regret the misunderstood execution of Socrates, the expulsion from Athens of Anaxagoras for imputed atheistic doctrines, and we mark the outburst of wild rage in the Athenian people on the occasion of the mutilation of the Hermai. Hut these are only faint ripples in the placid surface. The spirit of fanaticism becomes dangerous and homicidal when it eggs on the worshippers to aggressive wars against peoples of alien cults and when it justifies as pleasing to its god the cruelties inflicted on the conquered. This is the spirit of old Israel and of Islam. No Hellenic deity enjoined a religious war or justified cruelty to the conquered. Therefore the history of Greece, in spite of so many stains, makes much brighter reading than our own; and the tolerant genius of Greek and Graeco-Roman civilization might adopt as its device the pregnant words of Tiberius, ‘Deorum injuriae Dis curae.’ This advantage must to some extent be imputed to the cooler and more evenly balanced temper of the Greek who made religion his servant rather than his master, and also to the religious thought that was congenial to the higher spirits of his race. The High God of Greece was never a jealous god, and generally more merciful and pitiful than the early Jahwé. Also the pre-Christian Hellene was wholly free from that strange obsession which fell upon early Christendom and has not yet passed away; the belief, namely, that the acceptance of a certain religious metaphysic was necessary to salvation and that disbelief was a heinous sin to be punished cruelly in this world and the next. The Greek had no religious books and no metaphysical religious creed. Therefore he could be tolerant without even knowing that he was.

We can see too in tribal polytheism that there is a certain logic making for tolerance. The tribal deities could not feel insulted because other tribes worshipped others; and if two tribes were fused their deities could easily be fused into a fellowship. A plurality of deities, in fact, has always room for more; and under the Hellenistic monarchs the Greeks were willing to adopt Iao, the Jewish God, into their pantheon; and in the Roman Imperial period a semi-Pagan emperor was willing to admit Christ into his galaxy of gods and heroes.

To some extent we may pass the same judgement on Indian polytheism. On the whole Brahmanism has been tolerant of new cults. The long history of Indian religion is much taken up with the story of the diffusion of countless sects, each proclaiming its own special deity as worthy of prime devotion. Yet we scarcely hear of religious wars in India until the arrival of Moslemism; and we cannot take any modern fanatical temper that may be noted there as characteristic of ancient India. The earlier religious struggle which ended in the triumph of Brahmanism over Buddhism does not seem to have been marked by such sanguinary ferocity as characterized the religious wars of Christendom.

As regards Mesopotamia many of the records of its polytheism and the royal chronicles reveal the same religious justification of cruelty that disfigure the Jewish annals; and this may be a race-mark of the Semites. On the Moabite stone King Mesha speaks just as Samuel or Joshua might have spoken; having taken the city of Nebo and slaughtered all within its walls, women and children with the men, he feels he has done his religious duty, ‘for I had devoted it all to Chemosh’, his tribal god. This is fanaticism pure and simple. The Athenians murdered the men of Melos, but they were not proud of it, and they did not dedicate their victims' lives as an acceptable sacrifice to their goddess. The difference goes deep. But it is doubtful if we may call the Moabites more polytheistic than pre-exilic Israel; they may have been as devoted to a sole tribal god, Chemosh, as the Israelites were to Jahwé. Certainly their temper seems the same. And we note a certain ferocity of temper combined with religious fervour in some of the inscriptions of Assurbanipal; we may call this fanaticism, yet in the old history of polytheistic Mesopotamia we do not find, in the strict sense, wars of religion, or the idea of a ‘jealous’ god that gives its most deadly cue to fanaticism.4

A survey of the facts of the Egyptian religion may yield the same induction. Apart from the temper of the people, its polytheism contained within it no principle of intolerance: only a village or community that was fervently devoted to a special animal-god might be infuriated against another village that treated that animal with disrespect. It is only when Amenhotep IV established a pure monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of the sun-god, Aton, that now the idea emerges of a jealous god that endeavours to extirpate all religion save his own. But the priesthood and the people could not live up to the height of this monotheistic creed, and the exclusive cult with the dynasty that favoured it was soon overthrown.

It would not be relevant to consider here the philosophic trend of polytheism, and the question which of the two views of the divine world is most in harmony with the highest philosophic interpretation of the cosmos. This is a difficult problem for metaphysics and science. But to complete and further enlighten our present inquiry it is necessary to consider the facts of monotheism.

When we speak of monotheism, we think immediately and primarily of the Hebrew religion. But the question at once arises whether in the world's civilization this is proved to be the earliest and purest type. We must also be exact in our definition of monotheism; and must mark its gradations from a lower to a higher, from a narrower to a universal sense. Monotheism is obviously the worship of one God and one alone; but he may be worshipped as one, only in the sense that the tribe or the community recognize him alone and admit no other deity into their society. At the same time they may believe that other tribes have other deities and that these are real, but hostile or at least of no concern to themselves. This is the narrowest form of monotheism, which we may call tribal. The religion that expresses this idea may be of high ethical value, but is sure to contain crudities and to lack philosophic significance; for it need not be linked with any idea of the unity of the divine world or of the whole cosmos. It is not enough to say: ‘I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other Gods but me.’ Had the words run, ‘There are no other gods but me’, they would have been the final utterance of universal monotheism, the assertion of the great dogma that in the whole cosmos there is but one God, one personal divine power.

Now it has been shown clearly and conclusively by recent theological scholars5 that, while some of the people of Israel were always polytheists even after the Exile, the higher religion at its best was in its earlier stages only ‘monolatric’, merely the exclusive service of one god, in the spirit of tribal monotheism, and of a god specially afflicted with the lower human passion of jealousy, recognizing and at the same time hating the gods of other nations; and still every Sunday such crude and obsolete phrases are repeated in our churches, as: ‘For the Lord thy God is a jealous God and visits the sins of the fathers upon the children.’

Expansion and development came at length from the inspiration of the Hebrew prophets, in whom at last the idea emerges and gathers strength of a universal god, the sole moral ruler of the nations. No doubt the rise of this momentous concept was helped by the belief that Israel was God's peculiar people and that their tribal deity was bound to justify them as against other peoples. Therefore as Israel inevitably came into contact and conflict with mighty empires, it was inevitable that Jahwé should come to be regarded as directing the destiny of those empires. And here we have the foundations of the first philosophy of history and of a higher moral monotheism, which reaches its fullest expression in Deutero-Isaiah.

It is much that Jahwé should have shed his tribal exclusiveness; it was momentous for future Messianic hopes that Malachi and others should confidently predict the time when all mankind would worship Jahwé: ‘from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles: and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name.’6 But it has been observed that the monotheistic idea even in the prophetic books is implicit rather than explicit; nor is it developed up to the height of its possibilities.

The question what was the exact attitude of the orthodox Jewish monotheist, who in the post-exilic period had imbibed the advanced prophetic teaching, towards the gods of other nations is not easy to answer. It was much to be able to say ‘as for the images of the heathen, they are but silver and gold, but it is the Lord that made the heavens’; ‘their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands; they have mouths but they speak not,’7 &c.: and ‘all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens’;8 ‘be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.’9 To be delivered from the spell of idolatry was a great deliverance; but to deny the value of idols is not the same as to deny the reality of the deities that they represent.10 The advanced monotheist may pass three different judgements on the personalities of an alien polytheism: he may tolerantly explain them merely as different manifestations, forms, and names of the sole true God: he may deny their reality altogether: he may admit their reality and damn them as evil spirits, unworthy of any worship. The first was only possible for the more tolerant and philosophic spirit of the Greek and the Roman nursed on Greek culture. Could it have been accepted by the masses and by the races of the stronger religious consciousness, it would have been better for the harmony of the world. The popular religion of the Mediterranean world only shows an inkling of it, when in the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman period the deities of the Oriental peoples are easily fused and identified to some extent with each other or with the old Hellenic or Roman; but such fusion was never enough to obliterate the many personalities or to establish a real monotheism. And this tolerant judgement was almost impossible for the Jew11 and the Judaic Christian, as it was later impossible for Islam. Perhaps the chief obstacle was the extraordinary superstition of the old world in respect of names, stronger in Egypt and Israel than it was in Greece, but traceable in all the old communities, unintelligible to us and yet surviving in our liturgies. The theme has been sufficiently handled in many writings, and I need not enlarge on it here. The sting of the superstition lies in the deception nomen numen habet; in the belief that the divine name was an essential, even an esoteric, part of the divine personality, and that therefore a divinity with a different name must be a different and might be a hostile Being. Therefore the overpowering influence of the name of Jahwé would prevent the Jewish thinker, whose religious interest was mainly ethical rather than speculative, from interpreting Baal as merely another local manifestation of his own tribal god; for him as for others the name trailed with it a thousand differing associations. The judgement of early Christianity on the deities of polytheism is well known; it transformed them into evil spirits or devils, thereby preserving the consistency of monotheism at the expense of human charity and fair judgement.

But we cannot limit our study of monotheism to the Judaic sphere or to those later world-religions that were partly inspired by Judaism. We can by no means say that Jewish monotheism was the earliest in our religious history. Renan, to whom we owe the dictum ‘on n'invente pas le monothéisme’ regards it as the product of an imperious instinct of the Semitic race. But no clear evidence has been adduced to prove that in pre-Islamic days any Semitic race save Israel had attained to the idea of the unity of God:12 except that the Book of Job enshrines a noble monotheism and is not recognizably Judaic or Jahwistic. Some Assyriologists have tried to discover the monotheistic concept struggling to emerge from the tangle of Mesopotamian cults; pointing to such texts as the tablet whereon various deities appear to be identified with Marduk, Nergal being called ‘the Marduk of War’, Nebo the ‘Marduk of Property’, Enlil the ‘Marduk of Sovereignty’, Ninib the ‘Marduk of Strength’,13 or to the inscription on a statue in the British Museum—‘O man yet to be born, believe in Nebo and trust in no other Gods but him’. It is easy to be deceived by such texts as these, wherein for political reasons the deity of a particular state or temple may be so exalted that all others appear as nothing before him; and it may have been characteristic of the ecstatic temperament of the Babylonian to be so preoccupied with the imagination of the deity to whom he was praying that for a time that one appears the sole personality of his divine world: this emotional attitude has been called by the unhappy name of ‘henotheism’, which only means ‘one god at a time’; and the Babylonian who composed the text on Nebo just mentioned could revert to polytheism almost in the same breath, calling Nebo ‘the sole God, the beloved of Bel, the Lord of Lords’.14 Also, the powerful personality of Ishtar would alone have made monotheism impossible in this part of the world. For a god may reign alone, but a goddess never.

The most impressive monotheism in ancient times outside Israel and previous to Israel, was that which Amenhotep IV or Ikhnaton—as he piously renamed himself—established at Tel-el-Amarna near Thebes. This may be regarded as the most remarkable achievement in the history of religion, due to the will-power of a single man acting in direct opposition to the wishes and emotions of his people and to the influence of a powerful priesthood. Professor Breasted15 and others have revealed to us the full history of this great event. About 1375 B.C. the young King Amenhotep came forward as the champion of a solar monotheism to which the new name of the sun-god ‘Aton’ was attached. And in the hymns Aton is proclaimed as the sole god ‘beside whom there is no other’, as the creator of all lands, of all mankind, and solely beneficent. The language of the hymns in respect of their fervour, the height of their religious thought and of their sense of the divine life in the world, is on the level of the loftiest monotheistic inspiration in the Hebrew books. And Ikhnaton, like Elijah, is very jealous for his Lord, abolishing the cults and erasing even the names of all other deities, but, unlike Elijah, shedding no blood. In view of his success in carrying through a stupendous religious reform, he towers above all kings in recorded history, even Asoka; and for his own lifetime he appears to have relieved his people from the dark tangle of magic that choked their religion, a people that desired no such relief. A similar attempt made by one of the Peruvian Incas not long before the Spanish Conquest to establish a monotheistic cult of the creator of all things failed from the outset.16 It was only a royal Pharaoh of profound vision that could carry through so audacious a revolution; and Professor Breasted rightly regards him as the first recorded idealist in history, but an idealist born ‘out of due time’ and out of all sympathy with the religious bias of his people. Therefore his work throve only in his lifetime; his monotheism was obliterated immediately after his death; and in his memory he may be said to have suffered a posthumous martyrdom, being only remembered as ‘the criminal of Akhctaton’, his name for the modern Tel-el-Amarna.17

Apart from the fierce opposition of the priesthood and the polytheistic passion of the Egyptians, another drawback in the creed of Ikhnaton which would have probably imperilled its hold on the popular mind was the identification of the sole god of the universe with the visible sun. A solar monotheism would not have been able to withstand the pressure of the simplest philosophy; it was tried again in the later Roman Empire by Aurelian (circa A.D. 270), but without the inspiration of genius and without popular effect. When we compare the records of this temporary monotheism of Egypt with the earliest presentation that can be revealed to us of Hebrew monotheism, we are struck with differences too great to admit of any theory that Jahwé—cult owed something to Ikhnaton. The god Aton was an omnipresent universal god, a warm and genial nature-power, the creator of all life and beauty; Jahwé is at the outset the jealous tribal god of a small Semitic stock, reflecting the grim hardness of their temperament, caring not so much like Aton for the flower and the chick in the egg, as for the maintenance of righteousness and judgement. And herein has lain the strength of his appeal to the later ages, that he has no discoverable nature-origin and none of the weaknesses of a nature-god, but is an ethical personality to the core and from the beginning. Nor is there any proof that Israel in Egypt ever came within reach of the gleam of monotheism that shone from Ikhnaton.

Another centre in which we have strong reason for believing that a true monotheism arose was Iran, in the days of Zarathustra, a prophet whose authenticity has been proved beyond doubt, and whose date modern scholars are inclined to place at least as far back as the ninth century. We in England owe much to the recent work of the late Professor Moulton on ‘Early Zoroastrianism’, who in a series of Hibbert Lectures has traced the development whereby Ahura Mazdāh, originally the special god of an Aryan-Iranian tribe, became exalted into sole world-deity by the genius of the prophet. The causes that lay behind this development may never be revealed with certainty; we may pay some regard to the writer's suggestion that Zarathustra's inspiration was derived from a devotion to truth, a great tradition of his race, and from his own brooding conviction that all truth was a unity. He has also succeeded in commending the view that Ahura Mazdāh, ‘the Wise Lord’, emerged as a spiritual and ethical god, in the thought of Zarathustra, not as a nature-deity attached to any element, and not yet entangled in the dualism to which he was bound over by the later Magian speculation. >From this point of view, therefore, this early Iranian monotheism has more affinity with the Hebrew, to which it is in all probability prior, than with the still earlier Egyptian.

There is yet another ancient religion, the earliest discoverable faith of China, in which traces of monotheism have been discerned by modern scholars.18 There appear to have been two terms in the ancient literature whereby the deity was designated, Tien and Shang-Ti; and of these the first, which is the earlier, though it is subsequently used to express the material sky, originally denoted ‘the Supreme Ruler’, ‘One and Great’, and regarded as an anthropomorphic personality, if we may trust the evidence of the pictograms. The personality does not appear to have grown out of any nature-cult, and Dr. Söderblöm would explain it as a development of the primitive concept of the Father or the Fathers who created everything.19 Assuming that this may have been his origin we are still in doubt whether this is true monotheism, whether at any period Ti or Tien dominated the religious world of China as the sole god; for we have early evidence there of nature-worship and ancestor-cult.

These are all the examples of monotheism that history presents to us, even in glimpses, in the pre-Christian era. Occasionally a Greek thinker or a writer of the Graeco-Roman period may give utterance to the idea of the unity of God; but usually without any polemic against polytheism and never with any controlling or restraining influence on the popular polytheistic belief. The unity of the Roman Empire suggested and assisted a certain trend towards unification in religion, attempted by emperors such as Hadrian and Aurelian. These attempts were little more than a mere blending of various divinities. And when Christianity became dominant, its High God is no blend but the eternal sole God of Jewish monotheism. And this must be regarded also as the source of Islamism. Finally we may observe certain reforms that tended to monotheism in later Hinduism, such as the Sikh religion of which the founder was Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century.

This sketch of the facts bearing on the great religious phenomenon that is occupying us, brief as it is, does not—I venture to think—omit any that is of value or significance. They may seem to afford us too slight a foundation for strong and valuable inductions. Yet some tentative conclusions may be drawn from them. The triumph of the monotheistic idea is less probable when the High God is a nature-god—such as was Aton of Ikhnaton—than when he was presented from the outset as an ethical and spiritual Person, as were:—so far as we can discern—Jahwé, Ahura Mazdāh, and later Allah. Again, the triumph of monotheism demands the exercise of a strong restraint upon the anthropomorphic fancy: hence the sole High Power is always presented as a male, never a female, personality, and the further he is removed from human conditions, the greater the degree of awfulness, majesty, and might that invest him.

Lastly, as no people have been recorded or discovered with an inborn craving or race-bias making for monotheism, but on the contrary the lower and prevalent popular instinct is always polytheistic, we must attribute a profound influence to the inspiration of prophets and great thinkers to account for the victory, or even for the emergence, of monotheism at certain times among certain peoples. We cannot indeed discern a prophet of monotheism in prehistoric China. But when we think of Ikhnaton, Zarathustra, the Jewish prophets, Mahomet, we must distrust the aphorism of Renan quoted above. And at this day the only monotheisms, pure, unmixed, and alive, are Judaism and Islamism; as regards India, a recent writer on Indian theism, while doing justice to the various monotheistic movements set on foot by gifted reformers, admits that they have not succeeded in purging the temple-courts of polytheism and idolatry.20

It is interesting to consider the difficulties against which monotheism has to contend and which often have proved fatal to it. The supreme and sole God may be so exalted by the prophet and the inspired propagandist that he becomes too remote from the popular imagination. Or the philosopher, to whom the idea of unity specially appeals, may translate the concept of God so thoroughly into the terms of the Absolute that he presents him at last as Ineffable and Unknowable. And this is to deal the death-blow to practical monotheism, for the absolutely unknowable can be of no human service. Philosophy may rarely have been able to chill a strongly settled monotheistic faith in the minds of the people; nevertheless the feeling of the remoteness of the High God has generally engendered a craving for a mediator to serve as a link between the worshipper and the supreme. Such a mediator was the Guru in the religion of the Sikhs, for only through the Guru could the worshipper know and approach his god. Such a mediator did Mithras become in what was left of the old Zarathustrian monotheism: and the idea of the mediator has become the central feature of our religion. The tendency is then to exalt the mediator into the status of divinity, and the problem at once arises how this may be reconciled with the dogma of monotheism. This has been the main preoccupation of our Christology. The minds and consciences of the earliest Christians seem to have been but little troubled at first: they did not feel that their adoration of Christ as the Son of God, the Redeemer and the coming Judge of the world, in any way infringed their loyalty to their traditional Judaic faith in monotheism; for the older Judaic Messianic teaching could conceive of the Messiah as the Son of God in a spiritual sense. When we read St. Paul's chapter in the epistle to the Corinthians (1. 15), we realize how simple, unmetaphysical, and how far from Catholic orthodoxy is the theology there expressed: Christ is the Redeemer, the Vice-Gerent, the Son of God, but for St. Paul the High God of his fathers remains supreme and sole in the end. We know, then, how in the succeeding centuries the problem of reconciling the real humanity of Christ, essential to the satisfaction of the popular craving, with his divinity, and again with his equality or identity with God, essential to the maintenance of monotheism, convulsed and agonized the world of Arians, Doketists, and Catholics, until the theologic metaphysic of our Catholic creeds was formulated to settle the conflicting claims of heart and thought. Whether the philosophy and logic involved and expressed in them is coherent and effective for the clear and profound thinker is not our question at this point.

But the student of the history of monotheism must raise and answer the question whether the popular religion of Christendom either in the earlier or later ages can be properly so described, and he will not be assisted or overmuch influenced by orthodox treatises and orthodox confessions, but by his knowledge of the popular psychology and his power of imagining the inward working of the popular religious mind. He may there discover two distinct religious perceptions or forms: the form of the divine man, near and most dear, attractive and appealing; and the form of the supreme God, remote and terrifying such as He appears in the drama Everyman, invested with the tradition and characteristics of the Hebrew Jahwé; and the Athanasian formulae have been of no avail to fuse these two distinct forms into one.21

In fact the idea of the Son of God was dear and appealing to the Greek converts because it was so natural to polytheism. And it was a true appreciation of its possible danger to monotheism, gathered from his observation of the Christianity of his period, that moved Mahomet to protest violently against it in many a passage of the Qu'ran; as he protests with equal vehemence against the belief that any patron or mediator could aid man in his relations with the Most High. ‘The soul besides God has no patron or intercessor.’22 Thus he built the impregnable fabric of the most rigid monotheism that has ever prevailed.

Another influence, less observed and more subtle, that tends to impair the purity of the monotheistic idea is due to a certain weakness in the popular mentality, of which the effect is found in more than one high religion. It appears difficult for the popular religious mind at the average level of development to keep its sense of the ‘strong identity’ of the self of God. The various manifestations of God, his acts, his qualities, his power, his providence, his spirit, even his name, tend to become personified; and, as personality implies individuality and distinctness, tend to become detached or half-detached as separate individuals. These personifications most easily emerge and are most easily admitted in polytheisms: in the Hellenic we note Pro,noia, the Providence of God, ‘Dike’ and ‘Aidos’, Justice and Pity, and many other such abstractions gaining a certain recognition either in poetry or in real cult as divinities, though normally regarded as activities or qualities of the High God; as in Egypt we hear of Truth the daughter of Thoth. We find them also with more disturbing effect in monotheisms. Thus, the Amesha Spentas,23 ‘the Immortal Holy Ones’, ‘Good Thought, Right, Piety, Dominion, Salvation, Immortality’, are in the earlier Gathas imagined as attributes, functions, or powers of Ahura Mazdāh, but they become invoked and worshipped as gods or goddesses in the later Avesta and suggest to Plutarch the ‘Six Gods’ created by Oromazdes.24
The same tendency has had momentous effect on Christian theology. The Logos, or Word of God, having acquired a degree of personality in Philo, becomes a substantive deity in Gnosticism, and helped by Johannine influence becomes at last one with Christ in Catholic creed. But the personification of such an abstract idea as the Logos need in itself have caused no further perplexity for monotheistic faith; for as the Logos could be identified with Christ, and as Christology inevitably came to insist on his divine personality, the problem of plurality within the unity of Godhead was already pressing. The problem might have been solved and the dogma of monotheism satisfied by the concept of a dual divinity forming a complex whole divine self; for a dualistic unity is at least as convincing as a Trinitarian, and examples of both in other religions are not wanting. But the Jewish conception of the Holy Spirit, in our archaic language the Holy Ghost—originally the Breath of God, whereby as by a divine emanation He could work at a distance from Sinai and especially upon the spirit of man—had already become semi-personal before our era; and we may say that certain passages of our gospels and a few in the apostolic writings reveal the embryology of the third Person of our Trinity. Notably in the 8th chapter of Romans (v. 26), the spirit is at least semi-personal and to that extent a semi-distinct agent, and as it plays the part of an intercessor pleading with God on our behalf it is implicitly regarded as of inferior or subordinate status, though the writer may not have realized the full significance of his words; but his thought or half-thought that the spirit has a personality distinct from God is revealed by the strange words that follow in v. 27: ‘He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the spirit.’ We may also believe that the emergence of the spirit as a distinct personality was quickened by the diffusion and acceptance of the story of the divine birth; for the imagination of the Jewish, if not of the Gentile, convert would shrink from imputing even a mystical act of begetting to the Highest God. But neither St. Paul nor the Evangelists ever show themselves aware of the difficulties that might arise for monotheism from such personifications. Even the doubtful words imputed to Christ at the close of the first gospel do not clearly reveal the fully formed Trinitarian formula of Catholicism. For some reasons that cannot here be considered the mind of developing Christianity, brooding on the birth-narrative and such passages as those referred to above, came to insist more sharply on the separate personality of the Holy Spirit than St. Paul or the earliest Christians had done; until at last the Trinitarian concept is crystallized as in the Athanasian Creed. It is difficult to regard this crystallization as inevitable, or the Trinitarian solution as the only resource whereby the divinity of a human Christ could be reconciled with monotheism. At least we cannot say that the idea of a triune God was for this reason inevitable, namely, that through the traditions of their adjacent religions it was naturally congenial to the Semitic or Anatolian or Hellenic converts; for those who have found the idea conspicuous and powerful in the pre-Christian religions of these contiguous areas have misinterpreted the evidence.25

To understand and appreciate the development of early Catholicism it is of some importance to observe the various so-called heresies, especially the Gnostic, with which the early Church had to contend. The mental process which we have been considering, which has given us our own creed, the process whereby the acts or functions or emanations of the sole God become personified as potentially separate entities, is found exuberant, uncontrolled, and even riotous in the Gnostic writings. We have such personifications as E:nnoia, the Thought of God, incarnate in Helena the female companion of Simon Magus; Xofi,a or Wisdom in the Ophite system, born of the excess of light that leaked over when Christ was begotten by the Highest God on the Holy Ghost, here imagined as feminine; and Sophia plays a creative part in the Valentinian cosmogony, for the lower worlds arose from her wilful ambition to produce life by herself, just as the High God unaided had brought her forth. We are reminded at once of a similar myth of Zeus and Hera. In much reading of the Gnostics we weary of the facile multiplication of abstractions personified as divine agents, and we dislike the sexual licence of imagination that explains their births and combinations. Greek polytheism was wholesome and sober compared to much of this. It has been rightly said that ‘the daring speculation of the Gnostics as to the nature of the Godhead and the origin of the world forced upon the Catholic Church the necessity of formulating her views’.26 And those who are familiar with the Gnostic and Hermetic literatures will appreciate the comparative intelligibility, coherence, and restraint in the religious metaphysic of the Athanasian Creed.

But religious metaphysic scarcely penetrates and never controls the popular religious mind. In spite of our hymnology and some beautiful poetry that exalt the third Person of our Trinity, there is little proof that his personality is a living power for the mass of believers. He appeared occasionally as a person in the medieval miracle-play, and a few churches in Christendom might be named after him. But there is strong reason for believing that the majority of earnest Christians have always addressed their prayers primarily to God and to Christ, as two distinct personages without any thought of the triune dogma, and that the Holy Spirit is too shadowy an entity for the popular mind to grasp.

Still more marked inroads upon the monotheism from which Christianity arose have been made by the diffusion of the cults of the Virgin and the saints. The Holy Mother of God, when she first reached this lofty grade of h` qeoto,koj, was ecstatically acclaimed by the people of Ephesos; and these are the same people who some six centuries before ‘all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians’. And their mood on the two occasions was the same, the mood of passionate devotion to a Virgin Mother-Goddess. For though orthodox Catholicism, as expressed in its creeds, does not award her the status of high divinity, it would be impossible to deny, unless we strip the name ‘goddess’ of all meaning, that in a large area of Christendom she has the full status and character of a goddess. She is not admitted to be omnipotent, but neither was Ishtar omnipotent and yet undoubtedly a great goddess.

As for the widespread cult of saints, it is reconcilable with monotheism perhaps, if the consciousness of the worshipper is vividly aware of the subordinate rank of the saint. It is a matter for local experience to decide whether in some backward villages of Christendom the local saint does not occupy the position of a god, so far as the average needs of the peasant and his feeling of dependence on the unseen world are concerned. In any case there is much in Moulton's contention that ‘when prayer is made to any being but God, he is ipso facto thrust out of the sphere which he claims as his own.… Prayer is the final test of any real monotheism, and the name is really misleading as soon as prayer is offered to any spirit less than God himself.’27

We discern now that Mediterranean polytheism was never permanently overthrown and that many of its fibres survive in the soil of our orthodox Christianity. The fervent votary of the Virgin is touched unconsciously—it maybe—by race-memories of Isis, Artemis, Cybele, or the Cretan goddess. We may applaud and approve this. We may exult in our humanitarian religion which has appropriated all that was best from monotheism and polytheism, from Palestine, Greece, Phrygia, and Egypt. But in this attitude we must part company with the Old Testament and abandon any claim to call our religion a pure monotheism, a term which strictly applies only to Unitarian Christianity. The current popular religion of Europe should be rather described as a high spiritual polytheism tempered and restrained by the Athanasian Creed. The idea of Godhead must become more and more pluralized if the worship of the goddess and the adoration of saints and images gain ground more and more. But, for our conjectures as to the future of religion, it is well to bear in mind that while Catholic Christianity may be more appealing and appear to ordinary humanity more gracious than any severe monotheism, the idea of the High God, one and sole, works strongly upon the philosopher and the lonely thinker and upon certain of the more exalted religious temperaments. And the traditional power of the Old Testament is still alive.

  • 1.

    MacNicol, Indian Theism, p. 18.

  • 2.

    11. 1329–30.

  • 3.

    Aug. De Cons. Ev. 1. 22. 30: ‘Varro Deum Judaeorum Jovem putavit, nihil interesse censens quo nomine nuncuparetur, dum eadem res intelligatur.’

  • 4.

    I have discussed the question slightly more at length in Greece and Babylon, pp. 199–200.

  • 5.

    Vide Buchanan Gray, ‘Hebrew Monotheism’, in Proceedings of Oxford Society of Historic Theology, 1922–3.

  • 6.

    Malachi, 1. 11. Vide infra, p. 83, n. 1, for the question whether this refers to the present or the future.

  • 7.

    Psalm 115. 4–6.

  • 8.
    Ib. 96. 5.
  • 9.

    Jer. 10. 5.

  • 10.

    Jeremiah seems not far from this in the verse ‘the gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens’ (10. 11): compare in Deutero-Isaiah 41. 24, the challenge of Jahwé to the heathen gods: ‘Behold, ye are of nothing and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you.’

  • 11.

    The only text that I am aware of that may be quoted against this is in Aristaeae Epistula, 16, to.n pa,btwn evpo,pthn kai. kti,sthn qeo.n ou-toi se,bontai (oi` IVoudai/oi), o]n kai. pa,ntej, h`mei/j de., batileu/, prosonoma,zontej e`te,rwj Zh/na kai. Di,a: Aristeas pretends to be a Greek writing to a Greek in the time of the second Ptolemy: he is probably a Jew of a later period but Hellenized and writing dramatically as a Greek: the text is then not an utterance of true Judaic thought. But Dr. Sanday in his last published lectures, discussing the text of Malachi quoted above, has shown that the verb probably is to be interpreted as in the present tense, so that the prophet declares that as a matter of fact all the nations of the world are actually worshipping Jahwé, in so far as they worship a High God. If this is his meaning, the prophet was in advance of his age.

  • 12.

    The evidence has been well considered by Buchanan Gray in his paper cited above (p. 80).

  • 13.

    Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, vol. 1, p. 203, n. 1.

  • 14.

    Vide Greece and Babylon, p. 188.

  • 15.
    Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, Lecture IX.
  • 16.

    Payne, History of the New World, vol. 1, p. 454.

  • 17.

    Breasted, op. cit., p. 345.

  • 18.

    Giles, Religion of Ancient China, pp. 14–16; Hastings, E. R. E. vol. 3, p. 550. De Groot in Chantepie de la Saussaye, Lehrbuch5, 1, p. 61.

  • 19.
    Arch. Relig. Wiss. 1914, pp. 9–10.
  • 20.

    MacNicol, Indian Theism, p. 263.

  • 21.

    As Professor Moulton observes (Treasure of the Magi, p. 100), ‘Monotheistic theology is preserved, but it can hardly be said that monotheistic religion remains’.

  • 22.

    Palmer, Qu'ran, 2. 69, p. 123.

  • 23.

    Moulton, Treasure of the Magi, pp. 21–4, 58.

  • 24.
    De Isid. et Osir. 47.
  • 25.

    Vide Greece and Babylon, pp. 185–7. In Carthaginian and Hellenic cults it is not hard to find complexes of three divinities; such groups may represent the minimum human family, father, mother, and son, and belong naturally to polytheism.

  • 26.

    Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, vol. 2, p. 22.

  • 27.
    Treasure of the Magi, pp. 100–1.
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