The Divinity of Jesus — Part 1 of 3

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)?

Part Two is here.

*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.


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11 responses to “The Divinity of Jesus — Part 1 of 3

  1. Just trying to make sure I get the distinction better,

    emic — you let the religion define the terms, you look at things from within the frame set by the religion

    etic — you compare the language of the religion to the terms of a broader language, you look at the religion from outside what is set by the religion


  2. Ian

    Yes, that’s right. Thanks for the more succinct summaries! I need to fight my verbosity!

  3. i think this is helpful verbage and explains a lot for me. the emic people usually piss me off as they white-wash their faults and downplay their blindspots (if they recognize them at all!) the etic people can focus too much on some detail or another and lose sight of the forest from the tree, like Ehrman did. Spong, Borg, and Crossan resist this and try to reframe the emic through the use of etic. i think i’m more in the both camp which explains why i love atheists and their etic insights.

    i tend to have a metaphoric/confused theology which blends the two. take for example our discussion on the crows. i like what it points to, yet i see some problems with it as well and thus i like wrestling with the resulting tension. i know there will be suffering in my life and yet i have the hope that things will come out alright and i will have learned something in my suffering.

    clear as mud?

  4. Ian

    Yes, thank you. I don’t want to suggest that I think either is more or less valuable. I’ll go on in part three to say that I think confusing the two types of description, however, is at the root of the issue that Hurtado is addressing.

  5. Mellie

    Yes, I like these words; I can use them to give shape to my experience. I was once emically involved with religion, trying to make the doctrines of Christianity part of my life. Now that I am looking on from the outside, I fear that I am too objective and have gone to the other extreme. The extreme in which I am currently stuck is failing to understand either the internal logic or the aesthetic appeal of orthodox Christianity. I say that as one who was very drawn to religious teachings all my life.

    Examples of etically suspect teaching? Two stand out right off the bat.

    1) Apropos to the season, yesterday’s sermon was on the virgin birth. That was hard to hear and not because I discount the possibility of miracles. The culture then was such that God was royally &*#$&^% with Mary’s life by laying this virgin birth upon her. She made it out alive although she could have been stoned for being pregnant out of wedlock BUT the emotional and social ramifications for both her and Joseph were lifelong, although only a hint of that is mentioned in the text. Yesterday it was brought up that Mary was thought to be too young to marry yet and Joseph was probably waiting for her to come of age. So basically, she was still a child, 13 or maybe 14 years old, while she was dealing with this dangerous and bizarre circumstance.
    Even more outrageous than Mary’s life being ruined, is the message that the whole idea of a s*xle*s birth sends to the rest of humankind. The God who created male and female as the pinnacle of all creation and decreed that they reproduce through s*x*al means now deems that it would be demeaning for his son (or himself?) to be born through these means. Frankly, that is messing with people’s heads. I know that Mary is supposed to be the human DNA contributor to Jesus while God is the divine DNA donor. However, God , being omnipotent, could have done this in a number of far less harmful ways.

    2) The Trinity. I never did know why this was so important. Why three in one? Why not drop the Holy Ghost who doesn’t see much action any way? Why not four in one or a hundred in one? It certainly drags down the Monotheistic aspect of Christianity which is so highly valued. I imagine that you will address that in one of the following posts.

  6. Ian

    Mellie, thanks so much for the comment. I’d never thought about the psycho/sexual health angle before. It is a really powerful argument. Thanks. I’ll dwell on that some more. Hmm.

    Yes, I’m heading towards the trinity. Though I’ll stop short. Most scholars agree that there were at least a couple of hundred years of ‘binitarianism’ in Christianity before the Holy Spirit got a look-in. I want to ask how Jesus became God.

  7. Pingback: The Divinity of Jesus – Part 2 of 3 | Irreducible Complexity

  8. Pingback: The Divinity of Jesus — Part 3 of 3 | Irreducible Complexity

  9. Thanks Ian.
    Please don’t worry about or fight your verbosity. Your writing is great. The issue is my vocabulary and concentration.

  10. Ian,
    Where did you get “emically” and “etically”? (Greek?)
    I think that just trying to go from one meaning to two meanings is not far enough.
    (1) Each ‘religion’ has tons of sects with widely varying beliefs. Even within sect there is variety
    (2) Over time, even predominant view varied and conflicted so that a given meaning must be looked at in a certain time.

    I view words as very flimpsy. Defining them only work if people agree — then they are just temporary contracts to help dialogue. We are not trying to understand the true meaning of the word – that is a myth.

    So I will see where you are going with this, but offering only two other categories and giving them Greekish coats to make them seems smart puts me into cautious mode. Preachers do the same thing. So I will keep reading, but I wanted to register my complaint early.

  11. Ian

    Sabio – I think you misunderstand me then. I’m not trying to say that there are two views on this. I’m trying to say that there are two modes of using language: either you use the language as each sect, denomination or religion does (and therefore change meanings as you switch between them); or else you choose one set of meanings, and apply them to each language in turn. If you’re ambiguous about which approach you take it causes problems. If I discuss early Christianity I can either use ‘god’ to mean what they did, or I can explicitly define it in another way. What other choices are there?

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