5. If you are convinced theism is true, what specifically compels you to believe in monotheism, and specifically that Yahweh is the true God ? Is there anything outside the Bible that proves or tends to prove: 1) monotheism vs. polytheism; and 2) Yahweh vs. any other monotheistic god?
But wait, it is worth asking why so many of us think these questions matter at all. After all, if our religious beliefs are working, can’t we just relax? Generally, this is true. Never cultivate intellectual worries just to have them, that is the way of madness or at least becoming an intellectual poseur. We should have the questions we have, assuming we are living a generally examined life, not dash about trying to have problems.
If you grew up a Christian, as I did, and you were raised to think about your beliefs, as I was, then staying Christian is not somehow suspect. However, for most of us, the knowledge that geography influenced the big ideas to which we were exposed probably should occur to us. As we are exposed to strange or “foreign” ideas, we must consider them, even if we disagree with them. For example, my Mom shared with me as a child how a Catholic friend caused her to carefully consider the claims of that Christian group. She ended up not becoming a Catholic, but the process of thinking, considering arguments, was good and appropriate.
Some Christian friends might worry: if we consider paganism, are we not guilty of idolatry? No. To consider an idea, whether it has merit, is not to worship. I can ask about an idol, consider the claims of the idol worshiper, without sin. In fact, as the prophets argue against the pagan religions around them, they invite the question: “Is this man really a prophet? Is he right?”
If we have the question, we should answer it. Truth has nothing to fear.
Eliminating Most Candidates, Sort Of: Monotheism
Zeus cannot be God, at least the Zeus of some stories.
If one asserts there is a super being on top of Mount Olympus, one can climb Mount Olympus and look: Zeus is not there. In fact, ancient people knew this was true and there is a real question if the stories they told were meant to be taken literally or if they were literary!
The gods of polytheism are not all powerful, they cannot be. There can only be one all powerful being. The gods cannot be all knowing, because there is more than one of them! If a god is all powerful and all knowing, then that being is not a god, but God. The confusion comes from our English language where we use the same word (god) for personal agents that are super-human (angels, devils, Zeus-types) and the omnipotent (God).
I have no reason to think polytheism is false, but then I am not interested in local gods when I go to worship. If a devil exists, then I would prefer, on the whole to leave him alone. As a Christian, I would honor his place in creation, but why worship him? Religiously, I am indifferent to his existence. The same is true of any other deities of polytheism. If they are there, then that is intellectually interesting, but first I want to know if there is an all powerful, all knowing Person.
I want to know the ground of Being, the source of love, not just a superman. After all, technology and political power can give persons great power, godlike power, but they cannot give anyone Godlike power! I don’t worship the superman and so I will not worship the polytheistic gods.
The Greeks understood this so the name “Zeus” came to be attached to this God idea in some of the lovers of wisdom. They wanted to know the Zeus that sustains the cosmos, the Logos (Logic-Word), or the Mind. Maybe there are gods, maybe not, but if God existed that made all the difference.
I do not think we must spend any time on most religions, even some forms of Christianity. Their gods are too small.
The God of the Bible: This God
Obviously, the Jewish people did not understand the God revealed to them in totality. They were looking for a god that could be their own, who could live in a Temple they made. The God who revealed Himself to them kept stretching their categories. He kept showing He was more than their parochial, small, polytheist understanding.
God was one. God was for everyone. God did not mind “losing,” if it helped from the eternal point of view.
In this sense, any of the great monotheistic faiths, but particularly Judaism point to the true God. If you assert that you worship the all-powerful, then you might make serious mistakes, even fatal mistakes, about the nature of the all-powerful, but you have said enough to pick that God from any other candidate!
We must then ask: did the Jewish people who wrote the Hebrew Bible and told the story of their salvation history get God right. I think they did and the sheer survival of the Jewish perspective compared to other points of view says something.
God Outside the Bible
Suppose, however, that we did not have the Bible.
Could we find God? We could (using reason) find the all powerful God. We could honor and worship Him. We could even note that if He is good, then we should honor Him and do what He says. However, if God were silent, then it would (obviously!) be much harder to know Him.
Yet, the only way we know God is not through the Bible. We know God in the community of God’s people. We know God in a relationship we can establish with Him. The salvation history of the Jewish people (as known from history external to the Bible!) and the life of the Church are real. These histories point to our blunders, our foolishness, but also something more. I can see God in the worship of God in the life of the church.
I take both Judaism and Islam (and monotheistic versions of other faiths) seriously. Why then am I Christian? Of course, we have the Bible and there is that great, good, and interesting set of books, but beyond that, the community of faith is glorious. Christendom can support great science, art, music, and philosophy. No candidate, no form of Christianity or any monotheism, smaller than creation is true! No religion that cannot inspire a Bach or a Michelangelo can be true. Christianity is not only compatible with science, but Christian cultures (with help from others) produced the scientific revolution.
If you cannot allow a Newton to flourish, then you are not finding the true God. That does not eliminate all faiths, but it cuts the field down considerably!
Of course, there is always a problem in knowing God. God is a person, but so great and distinct from us that knowing Him intimately would be impossible in ourselves. You can point at God, that being, but you cannot know Him. He is that great by definition. However, consider this possibility: suppose God, all powerful being that He is, decided to reveal Himself to humankind. We must often would get it wrong, even the holy texts God inspired. He would choose to limit Himself to reveal Himself to us: all the glory and truth we can stand.
If I can believe Jesus is God, then the advantages to our knowledge of God are so great, that I must see if that intellectual idea is sustainable What about Jesus?
I am a theist, because I am reasonable. I am a monotheist from the implications of theism. I am a Christian, because of Jesus, not just in the Bible, but in my own experience and in the life of the community of those who love Jesus.
That is where I am at today. Could I be wrong? Of course, I could be wrong, but this is the best I can do with the mind, knowledge, and abilities God has given me. God have mercy!
Do I have to check out every other major religion?
The short answer is “yes.”
Better: “We get to check out the other major religions.”**
The chance to read and think from other points of view almost certainly will do no harm and almost certainly will do great good! After all, if a world religion has been around for a very long time (like forms of Hinduism), then it must have something good, true, and beautiful to say to humankind.
A good time to do this is in college. Take a good religion course that reads the source documents of other religions. When you make a friend of another faith or no faith, ask what they would have you read. As you leave school and go on with living, you make friends with many different points of view (even inside Christianity). Ask what these friends believe. Share your beliefs. Trade books.
Appreciate the good, find the bad. That happens for me as often as not in some misunderstanding I have of my own religious system!
Meanwhile, Christians can carry on loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. We can read Scripture, pray, hear God’s voice and keep thinking about other ideas. Intellectual inquiry is never a problem, dishonesty is. When we have doubts, we should talk about them. When we see merit in opposing points of view or theology, then we should engage in open and honest dialog.
If God is there, and God is not silent, God will take care of His own.
“What,” I am asked, “of all the few who have thought, studied, and left the faith?” We should relax, first of all. It is God’s fundamental business, not ours, to make sure people “get” Him. We have no idea what happens to any individual at the moment of death, what is learned, the choices that are made. We can share our point of view, argue for it (even hard!), but God is more than able to take care of Himself. Christianity lasted almost two thousand years without me and it will last as long as time when I am gone!
What of those who died and due to geography never knew the truth? We can leave this safely in the hands of a loving God. God is just. After all, we do not know anyone has ever died without hearing the truth! God does not tell us what He says in the inner heart of every person during life or at the moment of death. God cannot tell our secrets without betraying the relationship He has chosen to create! Guessing what we cannot know is foolish and so we look at the character of God and trust.
That is a rational choice. This side of death we keep calm and carry on!
*M is a non-Christian that sent me 55 questions earlier this year. He has asked that I not reveal his or her name. I will write as if “he” is a male, but this is for convenience. I do not know if I will get to all his questions. I try to limit my answers to hundreds and not thousands of words. Here are questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 44, 46, 47, 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, and 55.
**I am, of course, assuming that if you have read this far that you are the sort of person who can ask and answer these questions. There is mercy for those who cannot! Such blessed souls follow the simple path to God.