I was recently pointed to a just-published piece at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review that reviews the 2010 edited volume “One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire.” That book grew out of a 2006 conference at the University of Exeter, and once you scratch the surface, points to a far larger conversation within academic circles over monotheism, polytheism, and how the shift from many gods to one God changed the world. In the introduction to “One God” editors Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen note how the “prevalance of monotheism” has colored all inquiry into pre-Christian polytheistic religion.
“…for this reason the differences between Graeco-Roman polytheism and the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic monotheisms, which have dominated our own religious and cultural experiences since the end of antiquity, pose a serious challenge to our understanding of the past. We view ancient religion through a filter of assumptions, experiences and prejudice. Monotheism contains its own internalized value judgments about polytheistic paganism, and these have always influence, and sometimes distorted, the academic study of ancient religion.”
When the scholars in this book, and in other books like 1999’s “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity,” talk about “Pagan monotheism” they are often describing what we would call henotheism, that is, the worship of one god (or goddess) to the exception of others, while still acknowledging and accepting the existence of other deities.
“[Stephen] Mitchell’s essay ends with a statement worthy of concluding the volume: “We cannot call the cult [of Theos Hypsistos] monotheistic in the strictly exclusive sense that is applied to ancient Judaism and Christianity, but it involved a series of coherent and explicit rituals and practices which were based on belief in a unique, transcendent god, who could not be represented in human form” (p. 197). The acknowledgment that Theos Hypsistos is not exactly like other monotheistic religions does not mean, as Mitchell rightly argues, that elements of monotheism cannot be found in it and in other pagan cults. But this lack of exclusivity does open up the possibility of claiming that pagan monotheism also has elements of polytheism. The fluidity in defining pagan monotheism reflects the fluidity of the religious realities in which these cults were worshipped.”
Books like “One God” seem to be asking whether monotheism as a system of religion must be inherently intolerant, or if it was merely “concomitant aspects of religious change which are subsumed within monotheism” that caused such a shift towards religious intolerance. To German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who released “The Price of Monotheism” in 2009, it comes down to what he calls the “Mosaic Distinction,” which created a distinction between “true” religions and “false” religions.
“This shift does not just have theological repercussions, in the sense that it transforms the way people think about the divine; it also has a properly political dimension, in the sense that it transforms culturally specific religions into world religions. […] What seems crucial to me is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief and unbelief.”
To Assmann history is full of “monotheistic moments” where this distinction between true and false religion rises up to cause mayhem and destruction.
The back-and-forth of scholarship may seem a bit too “inside baseball” to matter, but the debate over the nature of religion in antiquity and late antiquity casts a shadow on more popular works today, including in journalism, and helps shape the way we think about a topic. Whether acknowledged or not, there are competing narratives in works like Alan Cameron’s “The Last Pagans of Rome”, which argues that paganism was a spent force that went out with a whimper, or the work of Owen Davies in books like “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction” or “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books” that looks at how pagan ideas and beliefs managed to persevere, adapt, and survive. That “in contemporary society, Paganism can be a liberating spiritual and social force […] it is no less relevant than it was when it was redefined by Christians nearly two millennia ago. It has retained its ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity and spiritual exploration.”
The shift to reevaluate polytheism has almost certainly influenced figures like religion professor Stephen Prothero, whose 2010 book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World-and Why Their Differences Matter”, while no love letter to polytheism, did insert Yoruba into the pantheon of religions that “run the world”. Prothero is the go-to guy for religion at CNN’s Belief Blog, and was a main source for the PBS series “God in America,” how he thinks about polytheism today has far-reaching effects. It is also why the field of Pagan Studies is so important. Pundits, bloggers, and journalists regularly turn to “experts” for new information and confirmation of their ideas and theories, the more good information there is about the validity of polytheism and of contemporary Pagan religions, the more people like me have to reference when we make our own arguments in the public sphere. That there is a wide-ranging discussion about polytheism and monotheism within academia should excite modern Pagans, as it means there could be a seismic shift in how our culture approaches these topics as well.