Tens of thousands of years ago, as our hominid ancestors slowly evolved into people, their even-then ancient sense of awe at aspects of the natural world evolved into the idea that their world was animated not only by themselves and the living things they saw around them, but also by powers they could not see; once they began to think causally, it was natural for them to explain the wind, or floods, or thunder or the movements of heavenly bodies in this way. It was also natural that these unseen powers should come to be thought of as resembling visible creatures: they had human, or sometimes animal, characteristics, and could be male or female. Like people, these powers were considered to have consciousness, desires, intentions, personality. And because they could powerfully affect human lives, they needed to be placated. People who lived in chaotic circumstances thought the unseen powers might quarrel and fight as they did themselves, and often thought of their own wars as contests between their competing patron-gods. People who had experienced the benefits of strong albeit despotic kings governing an ordered society across a wide area might begin to think of the unseen powers as working together under the leadership of a top god, who perhaps had a consort goddess, and finally come to think of all power as emanating solely from a single all-powerful unseen God. This is monotheism, as expressed in our text, the Sh’ma Yisrael: The Lord our God is one.
It’s a powerful idea: it suggests that our world is orderly and therefore, within limits set by God, understandable and controllable by us. It leads us to adopt a scientific approach to the world, and to understand science as as much the study of the controlling mind of God as merely the utilitarian systematising of the patterns we observe in nature. It also suggests that instead of just placating the one God when he is angry with us we can learn what he wants us to do and by obedience to his laws avoid his wrath in the first place. But powerful and helpful as it has been, monotheism has three big problems. First, by continuing polytheism’s attribution of consciousness and personality to the powers that govern natural phenomena, monotheism encourages us to believe that the ruling God-King out there can be persuaded to do us special favours in the form of miracles, occasions when he suspends the ordinary workings of nature. Second, whereas polytheism has little difficulty in explaining human suffering in terms of quarrelling, malicious or despotic gods, monotheism raises the question of why its all-powerful sole God-King who cares for people who have placated or obeyed him should nevertheless allow them to suffer. And finally, monotheism seems to leave some important bits of human experience out of account. Importantly, it seems to overlook human individuality and the love that appreciating it makes possible between people who respond to each other’s uniqueness; in particular, it flattens out the crucial differences between male and female that make them each other’s complement. It also seems to have limited ability to take account of the dynamic nature of life, whether evolution over aeons, or human development through history, or the way individual people change and grow.
Some of these difficulties were tackled by Jesus of Nazareth. In saying that people could die in tragic events that really were accidents, he suggested how the problem of pain might be better understood; no God-out-there is selectively suspending or implementing the laws of nature, to punish or reward people. By asking us to think of the one God as more like a father with a loving personality than a remotely impersonal king, Jesus was suggesting that divinity is inside us, like our father’s genes, not somewhere out there, outside of ourselves, like a king’s power; if such an internal ‘God’ is going to impact upon the world, it will be through us and with us, though possibly in ways of which we are not conscious. Whether or not he fully realised it, Jesus was in effect changing the location and role of God from somewhere out there, micro-managing the universe, to somewhere in us, giving us the ability to live blessed, makarios, lives in the world as it happens to be.
In tackling the problems of monotheism, Christians later re-imagined the one God in a rather different way, bringing the very human Jesus into the Godhead as God’s son, by hailing his mother Mary as Queen of Heaven, and by accounting for change by positing a Holy Spirit within the Godhead. But this important development raised some further awkward questions that became the stuff of Christian theology. Was Christianity monotheistic or not? If it was, exactly how were the various elements of the Godhead related to each other? Was the old God of Jewish monotheism the equivalent only of Christianity’s God the Father, or of its augmented God with its three (sometimes, with Mary, practically four) elements? Had the ancient consort-goddess reappeared in the shape of Mary? Was it necessary to abandon the power of the monotheistic world-view in order to account for human experience?
Fascinating as they may be, these questions are no longer crucial to us. What matters to us is that we see how important it has been to have a ‘theology’ that has helped us think constructively and inspiringly about the reality of our lives through science, law, love, individuality and change. Remember, it didn’t have to be like this: other cultures did not develop monotheism and with it science and law; other cultures did not find ways of divinising human love and individuality, or of affirming the centrality and validity of change. But it also matters that we see how important it is that we allow our ‘theology’, our world-view, to keep up with our experience; we cannot afford to let it become fossilised – it’s too important to be allowed to congeal into dead traditional quasi-tribal religious teaching. Followers of Jesus of Nazareth should be particularly aware of this because modernising his community’s world-view was very much what he was about. Like him, we have to ask what it is about our ‘theology’ that needs to change and develop. Like him, we may have to wonder whether the new wine can be successfully put in to the brittle old wineskins of traditional religious formulations.