Friday, July 24, 2009

Just Say No to Polytheism: Why it is Important to Believe in a Singular Non-Physical Deity (Part I)

A recent post of mine made passing mention of my concerns regarding Chabad, whether or not they were monotheists or if their brand of theism crossed a line into Trinitarian territory. I would like to elaborate on this issue. I do not view myself as being anti-Chabad per se. Most of my objections to Chabad apply in one form or another to Haredim in general. Monotheism, the belief in one God, is at the center of Jewish belief. We need to consider what that means and why it is important. I would argue that the belief in the oneness of God is intimately connected to what type of relationship one has to God; does one relate to God in the hope of gaining some sort of benefit, earthly riches, and eternal life, or does one seek to form a relationship with God because they believe in God’s goodness and wish to further his project in this world? The one person is interested in God for his own self-interest, the other because he believes in the cause.

To describe a model of paganism, traditional pagan religion worshiped its gods as a means to an end. One does the necessary rituals and receives the necessary rain and fertility from your particular version of Father Sky and Mother Earth. If one desires victory over the enemy, there is a god of war to turn to. There is nothing ethical or particularly spiritual about such actions. They are means to ends, no different from the day to day human interactions that are necessary to gain the essentials of life. There is nothing ethical or spiritual about talking to my boss in the hope of a raise or to lobby a politician. The fact that polytheism recognized many gods furthers this mercenary relationship with the divine. If there are many gods then these gods can be played against each other. Children learn very quickly that their parents have different opinions and that they can be played against each other. If the gods are like human beings then they can equally be played. They can be flattered by one who knows their temperament. If the gods are in some sense physical than they must, after some fashion, have physical needs even if those physical needs are nothing more than to be praised and flattered. This is the essence of magic, that one can extend the amoral relations that define day to day human interactions to the divine and the supernatural. (Admittedly, this model fails to completely account for paganism in practice. There can be monotheists in pagan guise, such as Socrates, and pagans in the guise of monotheists.)

The Abrahamic Revolution is not just that God is one but that he is a righteous God. This one God has no rivals to play against him. As a non-physical being, he has no need for anything and nothing that anyone does can benefit or harm him. This is one of the hardest concepts in theology to come to terms with; there is no way to bargain with God, there is nothing to bargain with. This vision of God is most clearly articulated in the Prophets where God is the righteous protector of widows and orphans, who cannot be appeased with the mere burnt flesh of bulls and goats. (See the Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel.) This is a God who is willing to strike down his own temple and let his name be a mockery among the nations of the world because Israel failed to live up to the calling of being his nation.

As Maimonides argues in the Guide to the Perplexed, the Bible serves as a way to transition people from a pagan mode of thinking toward the ethical rationalism necessary in comprehending the will of the monotheistic deity. As such, one is going to find in the Bible things that on the surface seem to be part of the pagan model. For example, the Bible commands the use of animal sacrifice, part of the pagan model. A pagan god would have physical needs that could be satisfied through a sacrifice. At the very least the god could be honored by sacrifice. The monotheistic God has no need for sacrifice but allows them as a concession to human weakness. While the Bible makes the pretense of allowing and even mandating animal sacrifice, it robs animal sacrifice of its theological value and justification, leaving animal sacrifice as a hollow edifice to be undermined by the prophets.

If one looks at the concept of reward and punishment in the Bible one sees a similar pattern. The concept of reward and punishment is there, even physical non-gnosis reward. The monotheistic God is capable of bringing miracles about and affecting the world to the benefit or detriment of individuals. That being said, this is an incidental belief for the monotheistic religion. The rewards and punishments in the Bible are overwhelmingly about one’s descendants or about the people as a whole, not about personal gain. As Maimonides explains, the rewards and punishments in the Bible are consequential. If the Israelites pursue an understanding of God they will pursue rational solutions to their problems and be successful as a state. Alternatively, if the Israelites pursue the magical solutions offered by paganism, the state will fall.

(To be continued …)


cory said...

Fantastic! i appreciate the treatment of animal sacrifice here. it is always good for me to go back to Heschel.

about there not being any way to bargain with God: what of Moses asking God not to destroy the Israelites or Abraham bargaining for the number of righteous folks to save the cities of the plain? Is it because God desires to be swayed in the first place? what do you think? i do not know.

Izgad said...

In the case of Abraham it is clearly a matter of God defending his actions. Abraham wins points for being willing to debate God, an important lesson for anyone who thinks that religion is just about meekly submitting to God or someone claiming to act in his place.

In the case of Moses we have God giving him the option to have the Israelite people destroyed and have everything restarted with him. Moses chooses the Israelite people. I see this as one of the major themes underlying Moses’ relationship to God. When God first recruits Moses, he has nothing to do with the Israelites and seems to want nothing to do with them. God has to get Moses to place his lot with the Israelites. It is interesting that in the end Moses is punished for yelling at the Jewish people and hitting the rock. It is almost as if God says to Moses: you are not willing to place yourself as part of the Israelites because you think they are hopeless sinners. Fine you stay here on the other side and the Israelites will go to the Promised Land under someone else’s leadership.

cory said...

So... about the bargaining?

I really like your reading of the reason for Moses' inadmission to the Promised Land - that he refuses to place himself as part of the People.

P.S. i get to be one of the monotheist Christians, right?