Kevin was in good spirits over his Sunday school class's response to his lesson. But by the end of the morning service, he was in a foul mood.
Rather than greeting the minister, he ducked out the side door, rushed his family into the car, and roared home. The service lasted "too long" and caused Kevin to miss the kick-off of the Melbourne Victory football (soccer) game. He often told anyone who would listen that he "just about worshiped the Big V." Kevin's 'religious' attitude toward the "Big V" probably takes a back seat to that of Mr. and Mrs. Reece.
Reporter Warren St. John interviewed them prior to a University of Alabama football game. They were resting in the $300,000 (USD) motor home they purchased for traveling to Crimson Tide games. St. John learned the couple had skipped their daughter's wedding, scheduled for that day, because it conflicted with the big game. When St. John asked Mr. Reece why he had abandoned his daughter on her wedding day he responded, "I just love Alabama football, it is all I can think of" (Shirl James Hoffman "Sports Fanatics," Christianity Today, March 3, 2010).
Maybe the Reeces are atheists and don't care about God. But if they do, they and Kevin would qualify as "poster children" for arguably the most persistent problem in human history: polytheism. All eras and cultures, regardless of technological sophistication, testify to the attraction of polytheism. The Old Testament bears tragic witness to the tenacious lure it had for ancient Israel. Even persons who pride themselves on being atheists often attach god-like qualities to secularity and science-agents that are supposed to elevate persons above "religious ignorance."
Polytheism means the worship of more than one "god." Syncretism means mixing elements of various religions, no matter how sophisticated or poorly defined. Selected elements are often stitched together to form a religious story.
The history of religions shows it is almost impossible to maintain sharp distinctions between multiple gods. They inevitably share some characteristics.
That is no problem for polytheism. None of the gods claim to be absolute and exclusive. By definition, all are finite. No matter how great, they are still part of the finite world (or underworld). They express its characteristics in highly inflated forms. Rigid distinctions don't need to be defined and protected. For example, a surface introduction to the Hindu gods will show that divine characteristics overlap.
Polytheism is fertile ground for syncretism. Since the gods are finite, worshippers may combine desired features according to interests. Many second and third century Gnostics tried to latch on to Jesus as a savior (soter) who came from God to free the souls of Gnostics from their imprisonment in evil matter. Some Christians try to mix reincarnation with Christian faith, astrology with divine providence, and treat the Buddha and Jesus as equally adequate and complimentary paths to God.
Gods of polytheism spring from the soil of cultures. Through myths, cultures transform limited human qualities into the exalted, and often conflictive, features of the gods. They deify the beneficial and harmful forces of nature. For example, Baal (the Canaanite storm god) supposedly brought rain. Shiva, the complex Hindu god, brings disease and death (Shiva's presence is felt in the "fall of a leaf"). Worshipers develop ways to appease, manipulate, and benefit from their deities.
More fundamentally, polytheism springs from fallen human nature. Our first parents placed their trust in the creation rather than in the Creator, and tried to extract ultimate meaning from it.
Polytheism is finally an expansion of this original sin. Created things, even when treated as gods, cannot provide the meaning and wholeness for which the human spirit longs. We were created in God's image, not in the image of finite things.
A characteristic of the modern era was the assurance that secularity, science, and technology would free people from the polytheism that characterized many unenlightened pre-moderns. Reason and the sciences would release humans from all enslaving superstitions. Some postmodern thinkers are showing how, in important ways, the promise failed.
This is one of the most pervasive and beguiling myths of our time. Being enlightened, we could not possibly succumb to polytheism!
In fact what has happened is that often the very agents of our "enlightenment," the instruments of our "emancipation," have become new deities. Their representatives are our new priests and priestesses.
Today's gods are as multiple as any the ancient Canaanites, Assyrians, or Hindus could count. Moderns are less aware of their gods than ancients were of theirs. This shows that polytheism is never as tenacious as when it travels incognito.
Can we identify our "gods?"
- "Sexual liberation" has resulted in human sexuality becoming as deified as it was for the ancient Canaanites.
- What about the "god-like" importance we assign to all things progressive and new? Its "temple" is supplied with priests and priestesses who keep us up-to-date and in style. Do we worship "quantity," blind to how modern this deity is?
- What about our Botox-crazed worship of "youth?"
- Is not one of our new "saviors" technology which, we are confident, offers boundless life and happiness?
The historical record shows polytheism breeds human decline. The result is inevitable.
By its nature, polytheism fragments the human spirit and community.
It assigns importance and power to finite entities who can't successfully shoulder the load. Should this surprise us? The world was never intended to bear its own weight. It was never meant to be the source of its own meaning, or to be its own "redeemer."
German theologian Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1968) watched as 20th century Europe celebrated its "emancipation" from religion. He warned that when God is pushed out, gods return. He was prophetic. "Emancipated" Europeans bowed before the new deities of race, state, technology and military might, and then plunged the world into devastating wars, descending into unprecedented horror.
New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson says many first century polytheists were coming to see its failure. They longed for a unity their chaotic world could not provide. "The religious spirit of Hellenism in the early Roman Empire was one hungry for revelation, for transformation, and for a personal allegiance that would give a sense of identity in an alienating world."
Johnson adds that a major appeal of the Christian gospel for first century persons was that it "led to a fundamental release from the cosmic forces that, in the perception of the age, dominated human existence. Christians were no longer subject to those 'powers and principalities." (1 Corinthians 2:6-10) (Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986], pp. 29, 93).
As misdirected as polytheism and syncretism are, they reveal a religious hunger only the living God can satisfy. Needed today are bold witnesses who through "resurrection faith" have been set free from the "powers and principalities."
The Apostle Peter's words are for us: "You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do" (1 Peter 4:3). Now, in all things, with the strength God provides, praise and glorify God alone through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11-12).
The Apostle Paul confronted the temptation to polytheism when writing to the Christians in Colosse. False teachers were enticing them to return to polytheism from which they had recently emerged. To them, and to us, Paul said: "All things were created by [Christ] and for him. . .God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things to himself." Then Paul added, "and you have come to fullness in him" (Colossians 1:15-20; 2:10).
Now, as in the first century, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, reigning in believers through the Holy Spirit, can liberate all of us, including Kevin, from polytheism and the compulsion, fragmentation, and decline it brings.
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Keep In Mind:
- Polytheism means the worship of more than one "god."
- Syncretism means mixing elements of various religions.
- No matter how great, the gods are still part of the finite world.
- Praise and glorify God alone through Jesus Christ.
- Many Christians try to mix reincarnation with Christianity, astrology with divine providence.
- Polytheism and syncretism reveal a religious hunger only the living God can satisfy.
- Can we identify our modern gods?
Holiness Today, July/August 2010
Please note: This article was originally published in 2010. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.