In an attempt to split my tendency for overly long posts, I want to develop a thought in three parts. In the third part I’ll fully credit and migrate into a review of Larry Hurtado’s books, which sparked this train of thought.
Is Christianity a polytheistic or monotheistic faith? How about Judaism or Islam? Or Hinduism?
That depends on what you mean by God. Here’s a way of thinking about it.
You can think emically. An emic description is one that lies within the meanings of the world it is describing. It is the way we normally describe religions. In this mode, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all monotheistic – they assert that there is only one god (even giving ‘him’ a proper noun form, God). Hinduism is happy to claim there are many gods. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have orthodox conceptions of a whole bunch of supernatural agents that are not God, however: angels, demons, saints, jinn, and so on.
Or you can think etically. An etic description is one that seeks to make objective judgements, that are not dependent on the self-understanding of the people we’re describing. In this mode we have to say what we will describe as a god. Perhaps god is an unhelpful term, because it is so strongly associated with its emic use in the Christianity that pervades our culture. But still, it is the term we have. If I define a god as a supernatural agent, then, it is clear that Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all polytheistic: their doctrine teaches a whole set of supernatural agents. They may emically only choose to give the label ‘god’ to one of them, but it is surely incontrovertible that they all have pantheons of spiritual beings*.
This is the first distinction I want to make. It is important to what I want to say next. The obvious objection, of course, is that Judaism (say) is very different to Hinduism, because in Judaism only one supernatural agent (the one named God) can be worshipped, whereas in Hinduism even lesser gods may receive devotion. Yes, absolutely. And that is the next distinction I want to make.
For now though, what do you think? Is it useful to think of religion in these two terms? Are you used to thinking etically about religion, or do you find yourself drawn into each religion’s emic world? Are there any other emic claims that religions make that are etically suspect (independent of whether those claims are true)?
*It may additionally be objected that certain forms of Christianity (certain liberal Christianities, for example) and possibly other ‘monotheisms’ (though I’m not familiar enough with them) do reject any other supernatural agent other than God. They don’t believe in angels or demons, for example. That’s fine, they are not polytheistic in either sense then. I’ll come back to that later in the series too.