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Polytheisms Hard and Soft – Part I

By Grey Glamer

Although much of the last three weeks has found me poring over the philosophical works which grace my syllabi for this, my first semester of grad school, I’ve made time to read certain more theologically oriented works, as well. In particular, I’ve almost finished Jonathan Kirsch’s God against the Gods, a historical treatment of the various conflicts between monotheism and polytheism across the ancient world, beginning with Akhenaton’s abortive attempt to impose monotheism upon the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. Kirsch follows up this account of ancient Egypt’s flirtation with monotheism by detailing King Josiah’s often vicious efforts to eradicate Pagan influences from ancient Israel, compared with the ultimately doomed efforts of the Maccabees to wrest an autonomous and (zealously) Jewish state from the vise-like grip of the Roman Empire during the Second Century BCE. The latter half of God against the Gods follows the ascendency of the often fractious Christian faith throughout the tumultuous decline of the Roman Empire –from its origins as an obscure, persecuted Jewish sect until its transition into the dominant religious expression of the Roman Empire. Kirsch places special emphasis upon the decisive turn of history occurring around the reign of Constantine.

For anyone who’s read The DaVinci Code, or who’s watched Ron Howard’s cinematic adaptation of the Dan Brown novel, Kirsch’s argument sounds very much like Leigh Teabing’s account of ancient history – Once upon a time, everyone was Pagan and peaceful and tolerant, and then monotheism, assuming the countenance of Christianity, came along and declared war upon the Pax Pagana, thereby ruining everyone’s fun. (In fairness, I’m oversimplifying Kirsch’s point; God against the Gods gives a somewhat more complete argument for the pragmatic merits of polytheism as practiced across the ancient world.) This account, however favorable its portrayal of Paganism, strikes me as somewhat too simplistic an accounting of the social and political dynamics witnessed across the ancient world. Human nature remains human nature, whatever the especial cultural trappings of the epoch in question, and I’m deeply, deeply skeptical about any narrative of paradise lost which insists upon its being factual, material history. With this important caveat upon the table, we might still render a more or less compelling argument to the effect a polytheism which neither rejects nor denigrates foreign deities and conceptions of deity, and whose theological horizon does not include the notion of heresy or apostasy, might naturally incline adherents towards greater religious tolerance than a rigorous and essentially exclusive monotheism would. (Whether pre-Christian Rome actually lived in accordance with this ideal, I would question, given the legally required participation in exercises of civic religion, but I digress.)

Read the original article at: Following the Willowisp

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