The Divinity of Jesus — Part 2 of 3

This is part two in a three part series, part one is here. Please read that post, otherwise my jargon may be confusing!

Following on from the last post, I’m still thinking about monotheism and polytheism, but the distinction I want to make today is between theology and cultus.

The last post dealt with theology: the doctrines or mythology of a religion. The ontology of its world-view or its cosmology. I said that, theologically, Christianity calls itself a monotheism, but could be seen (if looked at objectively, or etically) as polytheistic. Theology is the dimension that we’re most used to when we discuss religion. We talk about what different religions believe. Partly this is because we’re children of the western Christian tradition, where theology has been a central pillar of our culture since Augustine. We look at Christianity through the lens of theology, and so we bring the same lens to the study of other faiths.

In contrast we can think in terms of the cultus: the religious practice of a faith. In the mono/polytheism question we can distinguish between religious practice that is monolatrous, and (stretching the pattern somewhat) ‘polylatrous’. That is, religions that worship one god or more than one gods. Again remembering the emic/etic division from last time, we can see that Christianity, from the earliest records we have, is polylatrous. From the start it worshipped two gods (in our etic sense, of two supernatural agents): the capital-G god of the Jews, and Jesus. Later one could suggest it added the Holy Spirit, but in my experience worship of the Holy Spirit is highly limited.

I need to be a bit clearer, I think, with what I mean by worship. In the book that sparked these posts off (which I’ll talk about next time), Hurtado gives a list of things that constitute worship. Things such as addressing hymns to a being, praying to that being, giving sacrifice to it, and so on. But also the quality of rhetoric about and to that being (confessing the being’s greatness, for example); where cultus makes its closest approach to theology.

Using these criteria, we can say that (most) Christians don’t worship angels, but they do worship Jesus, and have from the earliest indications we have*.

A grid showing different religions and their position on the scale of mono/polytheism and mono/polylatry.

So here is the promised connection from last time. Jews are monolatrous, but we can (etically) say they are polytheistic. Whereas Hindus are (both etically and emically) polytheistic and are ‘polylatrous’.

Christianity is the interesting one: it is polytheistic (etically) and ‘polylatrous’ (giving worship to both Jesus and God the Father), while emically insisting on being monotheistic. It is that tension that is at the heart of the question of Jesus’s divinity. And that, is part three.

Can you place any other religions on this grid? What aspects am I missing here? I realise that no model is complete, and there will be some faiths (some forms of Buddhism, I guess) that just don’t fit. That’s fine. It should capture something of what it is meant to capture, that’s all. But, ultimately, is this switching between cultus and theology and between emic and etic models of theology just too confusing?

Part three is here.

*Catholic Christianity does allow devotion and prayers to saints, however, believing them to be agents that can act on the propitiant’s behalf. I don’t want to tip my hand on the next part, but this produces a similar tension to the question of Jesus’s ontological status (a tension that is not lost on Protestant opponents of Rome). The resolution of that tension in catholic doctrine is quite different from the resolution of the Jesus question, however, as we’ll see.


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10 responses to “The Divinity of Jesus — Part 2 of 3

  1. Don’t forget the Catholics. They’re even more polylatrous, what with the saints and all.

  2. Ian

    Petteri. Yes. See the footnote in smaller text. The theological approach to saint veneration is an interesting counterpoint to what I want to say about Jesus next time.

  3. Mellie

    I think it is very helpful and not confusing at all after a careful reading. My perspective is not as useful as an opinion from an orthodox practitioner of one of the Abrahamic faiths; it would be interesting to know if they would agree with these divisions.

    I just read a novel set in Japan so I have Shinto on my mind. I don’t know much about it but I am pretty certain it would go in the box with Hinduism.

    Also, I am interested in the ancient Judaism which was possibly polytheistic. I recently read about the plural form being used for the creator god(s) in Genesis but I am wondering what other info is floating around concerning the ancient Jews.

  4. Pingback: The Divinity of Jesus – Part 1 of 3 | Irreducible Complexity

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

  6. just posted about Catholicism, saints, and how early Christians used pagan god symbols on their saints so they can subvert the propaganda, and now that Christianity is the establishment, we’re talking about how the saints have pagan symbols and look like pagan gods. everything is a cycle, i guess.

    i do agree with this post. however, i would like to add the nuance that some of the Bible is monolatrous while other parts are monotheistic. it’s not clear, nor is it clear when the switch happened, if ever, in theology and cultic practice. that’s the nutty thing about human behavior and such is it’s so darn hard to pin point when these things took place and how wide-spread it is.

    i would argue that many liberal Christians are monotheistic.. unitarians specifically as they believe EVERYTHING comes from one God, and it’s all one God, but every religion describes God in a different way. i take a more Paul Tillich view, which is a Trinitarian view with a Unitarian outcome. more conservative Christians have a polythestic view as there is only JESUS and the rest are false gods, idols, or even rivals of God.. now this sounds monolotrous, but they also have satan, so their Trinity is actually a four-some. confused yet? yeah… religion is weird.

  7. Ian

    01 – This is why I think it is terribly important to try to divide the way we talk about stuff into etic and emic categories. I wasn’t clear in your comment which type of approach you meant. Particularly the last bit about satan and the trinity – emically Satan isn’t god, but etically, why just satan, why not include angels, archangels, demons, and so on?

    Tillich – yup. I have a lot of sympathy for that, and for the approach you want to take there. Ultimately my frustration with it again it comes down to a question of why. It seems like the only purpose of the ‘trinity’ at that point is to have linguistic connections with pre-modern theology. You start from ‘God is trinity’ and then try to work out what that means, given modern sensibilities and metaphysics. And that seems to be deliberately jumping into bed with folks you don’t agree with. If your understanding of the world is as you describe it, why voluntarily choose a mythology that you show a measure of contempt for?

    I suspect the answer is about community – other people share that mythology, so you have a ready access to them. Particularly as a minister – the groundwork of indoctrination (meant non-pejoratively) into that mythology provides you the ability to minister to people who wouldn’t even consider listening to you if you expressed your ontological beliefs in another way. Still, something just feels a little bit exploitative about that… Maybe I’m off target.

  8. Ah, here we go:
    etically = objective
    emically = subjective

    “We look at Christianity through the lens of theology”

    I don’t think that is true in the least for the common person in the congregation — the average tither. Therein lies one of the big problem making progress understanding “religion” when the big boys do their theology.

    Sure, you division kind of works, I guess. I will have to wait to see the point in part 3. I know people fight over one god or many and so this is a conversation about that fight — but I don’t have a dog in that race.

    Is part of your point that Jews of old believed in many gods but worshiped one?

  9. Ian

    etically = objective
    emically = subjective

    To a first approximation. Though the preferred terms are also a way of saying that etic descriptions are not objective, they are just consistent, whereas emic descriptions change depending on the thing being described.

  10. ” You start from ‘God is trinity’ and then try to work out what that means, given modern sensibilities and metaphysics. ”

    fair enough. yet i think it’s important for every believer, regardless of what they believe, to work out what things mean for them given modern sensibilities and metaphysics. which reminds me i need to post on sexual ethics as that would be where it’s most visible for me and i spoke to you about this a year ago and then chickened out on the post… maybe 2011?

    “I suspect the answer is about community – other people share that mythology, so you have a ready access to them”

    yeah, that seems to work. life-orienting myths that connect to something deeper and beyond just us. provides life with meaning and purpose, things to struggle for. indoctrination is a strong word and i cringe at it. i hope to provide a pattern for finding truth and purpose and if people don’t jive with it, they don’t jive with it. yet for some, this stuff works and it provides a way of being in the world that goes beyond our stories and tradition into something else that i don’t think i have a word for. you may call it loony, or jedi-mind-tricking oneself and you might be right. for me, i just don’t know what to call it.

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