Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Are Christians (at times) henotheists not monotheists?

Miroslav Volf made a comment today, while participating in a panel discussion concerning his new book Allah: A Christian Response, which I've just started reading.  [Note, Dr. Volf was a presenter at the Rochester College sponsored missional conference called Streaming:  Biblical Conversations for the Missional Frontier.]   The question raised in the presentation as well as the book, concerns whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  

When Miroslav made his comment about Christians sometimes being more henotheists than monotheists, he was responding to comments made by the Muslim panelist, Dr. Saaed Khan of Wayne State University, who suggested that we get in trouble because we have tribalistic views of God and talk as if on a playground, declaring that "my god is bigger than your god."  Or, "my god can beat up your god."  

Miroslav, who is a Croatian by birth and now a naturalized citizen of the United States, affirmed this statement, and made one of his own, which I earlier tweeted, wherein he stated that many Christians have a tendency of being henotheists rather than monotheists. 

Monotheism, of course, affirms the belief in one God, with no other rivals, associates, etc.  There is simply one God, with no other claimants.  Trinitarianism can devolve into tri-theism, wherein there is more than one God present, but that view has never been accepted as normative.  Henotheism, on the other hand, limits God to a particular nation/location.  There is evidence that early Jewish theology was henotheistic.  They worshiped Yahweh, but that didn't mean that Yahweh was the only god, just the one God they worshiped. 

So, how might Christians be henotheists? 

Let me offer an example to get the conversation started.    We are practicing henothism when we try to claim God for a particular nation.  Thus, Miroslav noted that in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, Serb and Croat -- both Christian nations -- claimed God was either Serb or Croat, as if God couldn't be the God of the other. 

Therefore, are we practing henotheism when/if we try to claim that God has special relationship with America.  That is, we try to wrap God up in the flag and claim that God has specially favored the United States above all other nations.  Is this not henotheism?  And if so, does this not diminish God?   

3 comments:

danielomcclellan said...

I think this is an interesting discussion, but what if we consider the fact that the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism (and even Rabbinic Judaism) considered angels and demons to be gods? Does monotheism mean one "God" with a big "G," or just one "God" with a big or little "G"? If the former, isn't that a brand of henotheism? If the latter, what is done with the "lesser gods"?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Daniel,

This is a good question, for which I'm probably not equipped to answer. I think that Ancient Judaism moved from henotheism to monotheism gradually over time -- and what once were gods become other sorts of beings -- having some sort of divinity/immortality.

My point here, of course, has to do with the way we nationalize God. Thus, God becomes an American God, who chooses, blesses, protects (and judges) America. Thus, other countries must have other deities (lesser ones of course), since the big God chose us!

Kent Groff said...

Seems to be a good point, Bob. Co-opting God for America is more of a conservative fundamentalist thing to do. But is there a liberal version of henotheism, one that maybe is functional in multi-cultural contexts? Example: People say, "God revealed in Jesus Christ is the only way for me. But for others the way is Allah, or Krishna, etc." Just some food for thought.