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Monotheism: not as simple as you think

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 14 September 2009

One of my pet hates is the way the world religions are referred to in the media. That is, in a way that simplifies and smooths over the gaping differences between them. For example Christianity, Islam and Judaism are described as “the great monotheistic faiths”. Monotheism is taken here as the one thing they have in common that allows us to sweep them up together as though they were slightly different versions of the same thing.

The agenda behind this emphasis on commonality is that of the peacemaker. It is to make us believe that there is really no difference between these three traditions, that they all spring from the same source (we are told that they are all Abrahamic) and consequently should be at peace with each other. That this idea has currency today is born out by Christians, who, no doubt in the peacemaking mode, declare that we all believe in the one God. This assumption also allows the persecutors of “religion” to drop them all in the same rubbish bin.

I would argue that to describe these traditions as monotheistic trivialises their differences, in fact it says little that is important about them. I can appreciate the peacemaking intention in the context of violence perpetrated in the name of these traditions but such an attempt does not get to the heart of the problem. When differences are minimised, even eliminated, the question arises as to why protagonists are at each other’s throats. Have they missed the point that they all believe in the one God? The only conclusion must be that religion in general is a bad thing and only leads to violence.


This crying of peace where there is no peace can come only from an attitude to these traditions that treat them as objects under observation. That is, from the point of view of comparative religions. This is the anthropological view of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Religious traditions are studied as objects of interest, from a distance, from some neutral standpoint. Being thus “under glass” they are robbed of the essence by which they determine the lives of believers.

The declaration that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are monotheistic blurs a crucial distinction between them. While Christianity and Judaism share central tenants about God, Islam is quite different. At the risk of misrepresenting Islam, I think it is right to say that while Judaism and Christianity emphasise God as Presence, the God of Islam is more a distant lawmaker. While the law is certainly present in Judaism what frames this tradition is the proclamation that God has chosen Israel as a covenant partner. He proclaims that “I will be your God and you will be my people”. God accompanies Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night in the exodus from Egypt. God is present in the tent of meeting, he weeps over Israel. Christian theology, following that of Judaism, is essentially a theology of the presence of God in the Eucharist and in the preached Word. God is both transcendent in that He cannot be part of the world but also immanent in that he exists in relation to it.

In true monotheism, such as I think Islam is, a transcendent God gives his law and the response of the people is simply to obey that law. God does not take the side of humanity, he does not accompany them. The relationship between God and humanity is top down. By contrast, in the Old Testament we find Abraham and Moses arguing with God whereupon God changes his mind. When Israel turns away from God, God is pained. This tradition ultimately proclaims that God has become flesh and has dwelt among us, lived our life and died our death. Particularly in the gospel of John we are told that God will make his home with his people. Thus if Judaism and Christianity are to be called monotheistic it is a very much altered concept from that of the prime mover in Aristotle or the One in Plato or the God of Islam.

The other claim that tends to blur the distinctions is that the three traditions are religions of the book. While Christian fundamentalists may differ, the mainline churches regard the Bible as a witness to something outside of itself, to a history of the presence of God. As I understand it Islam’s regard for the Koran is quite different in that the book itself is holy. While we may throw unwanted Bibles in the rubbish this is unthinkable for the Koran.

When we look at the history of Christian heresy we realise how shallow is the description of monotheism because most heresies have monotheism at their centre. Some obvious examples are Arianism, Socinianism, Unitarianism and Deism. In other words monotheism has been more of a problem for Christianity than anything else. There are no serious heresies that are based on polytheism. Each of the heresies mentioned above have Aristotle’s God hovering in the background. This God is eternal in that he exists outside of time, omniscient in that he sees all points in time, omnipotent simply because it seems that such a God must be so.

When this is our starting point, as it was for a large part of Christian history in the West, then it is easy to define the transcendence of God but much more difficult to describe how he is immanent. Classical theism threatens the presence of God in time and makes him a dictator over humanity.


One reason this state of affairs came about was that theologians used the analogy of being to describe God. Taking as a starting point the observation in Genesis 1:26 that God made man in his image it was thought possible to argue from the being of man to that of God. Since man was a thinking being so too was God. The problem was that, as Feuerbach pointed out, God became a projection of humanity and thus had no existence in himself. It also meant that God was a being who was either out of this world, or defused throughout the world. Theological argument could then be centred upon whether God exists as an object in the world or indeed an object not of this world. Modern atheism has come to the right conclusion, this God does not exist. There is no one “out there”. We are alone in a cold and uncaring universe.

It would seem from this that the jig was up for religion in general. However, a closer inspection of the God of the Bible reveals something much deeper and more interesting than a human projection. The God described in terms of the analogy of being does not in fact describe the Holy one of Israel. He is more accurately described with the use of an analogy of relationship, of presence. Whereas classical theism relies on an ontology of substance, Christian theology relies on an ontology of relation. God is as he is in relation.

This means that he does not exist as other beings exist, but he is defined by his being in relation. This is why the writer of the first Epistle of John can say: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1John (RSV) 4.) And why Paul can use the blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2Corinthians (RSV) 13.)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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