Yitz Greenberg on Polytheism

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about super-atheist Richard Dawkins’ assertion that the move from polytheism to monotheism shouldn’t necessarily be considered progress. I agreed that there’s nothing fundamentally more rational about monotheism, but shared Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s thoughts about how (despite what you might think) pluralism is a natural outgrowth of monotheism.

Well, Rabbi Greenberg just emailed me some additions to his thoughts on the primacy of monotheism, and I’m posting them here for your reading pleasure:

I want to add one more comment about polytheism. The problem is not just the idea of multiple Gods but the implications drawn from their existence. The universe is perceived as a realm with independent and conflicting forces ruling different parts of it. In the clash of these forces with each other humans are frequently trampled or used and abused. Nor is there any dependable natural order, but rather there is the arbitrary and unpredictable outcome of conflicting forces, which are indifferent if not hostile to humans. The moral economy that flows from this is that humans cannot look to nature as dependable or as a place of order or as a place of moral order. Rather, they must scramble to find a safe place. Typically the way to do this is to get behind one God or another and bribe or pay their costs and their demands so that you will at least get the protection of one or another or of some collection of Gods. This evokes such things as child sacrifice and other forms of resorting to magic or formulas that can control the Gods and manipulate them so as to escape the unrelenting pressure, hostility or crushing power.

By contrast, the monotheistic vision of an orderly nature also suggests that there is a dependable natural order. This provides space for human dignity and humans to know that if they operate reasonably the universe will respect them. This also implies the ability to study, use and reshape nature, which paves the way for scientific attitudes and practices. This also (particularly as Torah understands the aftermath of the flood) says that humans can depend upon nature and that this gives them the margins of security to live a good life out of choice/love rather than fear. This includes the right to disobey God without risking catastrophic punishment. The Noahide covenant says that God pledges to honor and respect the natural order. Humans are summoned to join the covenant but they will never again be coercively punished, i.e., forced into obedience.

Posted on November 30, 2006

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