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*.
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?
*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.