I am freshly returned from the Eastern Region Theology Conference on “Evangelicals in a Pluralist Society: Evangelical Engagement, Interfaith and Ecumenical” at which I gave one of the parallel papers. Here is a portion of the thoughts I shared there.
We are aware of the dizzying pluralism that characterizes our own 21st century world. In some ways, this is actually not so new. The polytheistic religious nature of the ancient world provided a no less “differentiated” quality of perspective(s) than the culture(s) to which we have grown accustomed in our day. Perhaps the fact that North America is self-consciously a “melting pot” (or “tossed salad” or “mural” or “cacophony” — pick your imagery of choice) may represent a more recent, post-Peace-of-Westphalia-sort of phenomenon.
Nevertheless, the fact remains: the default mindset of ancient cultures was religious and multi-variegated in core conception. The ancient world also may have been superstitious, but people normally in that culture definitely believed in the existence of personal, supernatural beings in the spiritual world; and the polytheistic conception of this religious framework provided a mindset far more inclined to polymorphic imagination than they are commonly given credit for in our day. The “primitive” mindset of the ancient world was not monolithic. (See John Walton’s recent book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2006); chapter 4, “The gods,” pp. 87-112, especially, provides a brief, but clear and solidly researched, summary. See also Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Pluralism Throughout History
The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were considered part of a pantheon, with competition between them sometimes growing to violent proportions, yes; but various city-states nonetheless were permitted if not encouraged to recognize, represent, and give due homage to the various deities diversely. E.g., Ephesus may have revered the goddess Diana preeminently and Athens Dyonisus, while Ancyra meanwhile revered Midas with most prominence, and Graeco-Roman citizens may have each individually kept and worshipped their own favorite house gods, but they were unified in recognizing the legitimacy of others’ gods (and others’ preferences of gods), so long, of course, as they all could recognize the unity-amidst-diversity of the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods all together.
There may have been less diversity mutually tolerated in the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament, but this was not for lack of conceptualizing a host of supernatural entities in the invisible world in similar fashion. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, the religious competition and mutual attempts at vanquishing opposing religions was not rooted in denial of the existence of god — they affirmed the existence of various gods, but in competing claims of whose god was strongest, and most capable and thus most worthy of highest or singular devotion, homage, and worship.
What About Christianity?
With this conceptual framework as backdrop, Judeo-Christian religion stands in marked contrast, frankly. (See John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). There are henotheistic-sounding phrases occasionally used in the Hebrew Scriptures that are sometimes observed by Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern scholars. The strongest and most common (and perhaps also more clear?) statements of Old and New Testament, though, state emphatically that Yahweh-God is the only (true) God that exists at all.
Psalm 115 points out the folly and futility of man-made idols in no uncertain terms — “They have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, noses but cannot smell” and so forth; “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Then Solomon prays at the dedication of the temple, “Let all the peoples of the earth know that Yahweh is God, there is no one else” (1 Kings 8:60), which is when the point of Yahweh being, not just the greatest of gods, but the only God, is really brought into focus. Throughout his prophecies, Isaiah brings this word from the mouth of Yahweh, “I am the only God; there is no God besides Me; besides Me, there is no God; there is no other” (Isaiah 44:6; 45:5, 22).
Particularly once Israel begins to flirt with syncretism, “hedging their bets” on which G/god might be most dangerous to displease, or in some cases abandoning Yahweh altogether to try another divine suitor, the prophetic corpus moves into tones that are downright derisive toward “other faiths.” Isaiah and Jeremiah both remark that it takes a skilled craftsman to fashion the “god” worshiped by idolaters in such a way that it will not totter, potentially falling over onto the people bowing in worship to it! (Isaiah 41:7; Jer. 10:4) Isaiah 44 devotes a whole prophetic segment to describing, and ridiculing, the entire process of idol making and idol worship.
Here are my thoughts:
First of all, recognize, Yahweh notes, that the whole idol-making process is a thoroughly human enterprise — carried out by “mere men,” who sweat over the cutting down of trees, the hammering of metal, the planning of boards, pausing to catch their breath and take a drink while they make — catch that? they make! — these “mighty gods.” They need a compass and chalk to make sure the face of their “god” looks right. The true God meanwhile looks down from heaven at the whole process from start to finish — how interesting: here’s a man who strolls out into the forest and decides, “Shall I make my god today out of cedar wood, or oak? Hmmm. Maybe this cypress tree.” It needs to be strong enough wood so that the “god” won’t collapse once he’s set it up to worship it — gotta be careful with the choice then.
So, the idol-maker cuts down the tree, and makes a fire in his fireplace with some of the sticks, where he warms himself; he then takes a few of the branches and puts them in the bake oven, over which he makes his bread, or cooks some meat. But, fortunately, there is enough wood left that, with some work, he can craft it into a handsome “god,” which he then falls down before and worships and prays, “Deliver me, for you are my god” (Isaiah 44:17).
It is not hard to discern in this ironic (sarcastic?) description just how utterly contemptuous is Yahweh’s attitude towards other so-called gods. Not forgetting the socio-political and religious context of Isaiah 44, and maybe even observing that Paul’s attitude towards the Graeco-Roman pagan religiosity of his day in Acts 17 seems different, we nevertheless should not miss the clear point of these Old Testament passages and prophecies. Because one thing is for sure: not all “plurality” is good; and polyphonic understanding of theological or religious principles is certainly not inherently good; there is some question as to whether such is or could be affirmed biblically at all. Put another way (and recognizing we have not yet taken up the question of how “polyphonic” truth may be), we might say it this way: Is truth plural?
Maybe; hard to say. But falsehood DEFINITELY is!
So emphatically is this point made by Scripture, that the Bible-believing Christian — no matter how magnanimous, understanding, dialogically fair to people of other faiths he or she desires to be — is obliged to understand this point: there is no God but Yahweh; and to worship any other god that would rival Him is folly and is to be regarded as not just well-meaning error, but as abhorrently displeasing to Him (i.e., sinful).