Violence in the name of a monotheistic religion once again has captured the world’s attention. This time it was committed by killers acting in Islam’s name. Columnists and politicians who should know better claim something supposedly unique to Islam is responsible. This malign misdiagnosis gets two central points utterly wrong.
First, there are over one billion Muslims in the world, and the great majority are not violent. Second, while there has been considerable violence by some Muslims in the name of their religion, the majority of their victims have been other Muslims. In this respect Islam is not unusual. Historically a great many victims of monotheistic violence have been those most other people would regard as practicing the same religion.
For mostly historical reasons, most religious violence today is by those claiming to be Muslims. But Islam has no monopoly here. Christianity has spilled plenty of blood in its past. The end of its worst violence did not come as a result of any advances in Christian morality or spiritual understanding. Relative peace arose from mutual exhaustion, when the various factions realized they could never kill all the other side.
True religious tolerance considered as a matter of principle had to wait the coming of the Enlightenment, the rise of deism, and the triumph of the American Revolution. Deism is not monotheism, which is why so many Christian leaders of that time called them atheists.
And yet there is a puzzle here. Many of humankind’s finest moments arose within a monotheistic cultural context and in its name. I think the greatest ethical step forward ever made by human beings was the abolition of slavery. Ultimately successful opposition to a practice many thousands of years old was often led by Quakers. Northern clergymen demonstrating against segregation were among those Southern racists murdered. And of course Martin Luther King was the Reverend Martin Luther King.
Nor are such noble acts a Christian monopoly. Profoundly beautiful and loving teachings are at the core of many teachers in all these traditions, as those who have read Rūmī or Martin Buber can attest. Nor were they alone.
Monotheism seems to have an innate proclivity to violence and it has inspired some of the most noble people in human history.
What is monotheism?
We cannot answer this question without making a critical distinction between monotheism and monism.
Monism is the belief that ultimately everything has one source, a source prior to individuality, and from which all personality emerges. Indeed the standard criticism many Western Christians have of monism and its near cousins deism, pantheism and panentheism, is that this ‘deity’ is not “personal.” It is everything and so some monotheists even call it atheistic. We Gardnerians call it the Dryghtyn.
The monotheistic God is supposedly an individual personality. He is characterized by gender when He could be another gender. He has some desires when He could have other desires. He makes plans when He could have made other plans. This claim of an ultimate divine personality is incoherent, and its incoherence has led to the deaths of millions even while inspiring some of the best of us.
In some way every personality is limited. If a personality has one characteristic, at that time it cannot have its opposite. If I am jealous I am not simultaneously tolerant and secure. If I seek vengeance on the children of those who displeased me, I am not simultaneously just. When I demand obedience I do not value others’ freedom.
I think it is impossible to imagine the content of a ‘perfect personality’. One could say “it is a being who always reacts perfectly.” But that is like saying opium puts you to sleep because of its soporific qualities. How do we recognize perfection from imperfection?
At its root the idea of monotheism combines universal insights from monism with the limiting qualities of personality, and claims them to be inextricably and perfectly combined. Monotheism’s theological history demonstrates endless attempts to combine what is truly universal with what is unavoidably partial. Because there is no rational, objective or agreed upon faith based way to determine which combination of personality traits among others is most compatible with universality, they never agree.
And yet, from a monopolistic monotheistic point of view, and all the great monotheistic religions make monopolistic claims, nothing is more important than solving this task. For in its solution we understand what God expects of us.
A weak monotheist response
Some Christians have told me their God is too complex for a single human description. For example, they claim their God is a God of justice as well as a God of love. I would agree there is no necessary contradiction between justice and love and that our capacity to describe the super-human is limited by our humanness. But this insight does not solve their problem.
In fact this Christian “explanation” about a “complex personality” is no explanation at all. What constitutes justice and what is its relation to love? There is no agreement, and yet without agreement we simply shift the conflicting terms from different conceptions of God to different conceptions of love and justice which are supposedly God’s basic traits. This question is not solved by such verbal sleights of hand.
The many religious wars and killings among monotheists are evidence this argument is not really believed by many who make it. I would guess that all sides would say it is their God who perfectly balances justice and love.
These disputes are often sincere, but sincerity fortified by prayer has not led seekers to a common understanding nor have they led to tolerance for significantly different interpretations of how love and justice manifest. Despite their reply to me, advocates of traditional monotheistic doctrines continue to say there is ONE way that is most right. Theirs.
In places where religious freedom exists this conceptual chaos has led many monotheists to shift from one perspective to another, but often only after great personal introspection and prayer. Particularly among Christians, where the price of getting it wrong is believed to be so high, they have shifted back and forth in a kind of “serial monotheism.” There is no common direction. If religious freedom ever comes to the Islamic world the same pattern will happen there. What unity it has is enforced by the sword.
Serial monotheism is no more monotheism than serial monogamy is monogamy. In both cases a partner makes a vow for life, and then changes it to make a similar vow to another partner for life. Was their first vow to a nonexistent deity? Or was it to another deity? Secular atheists claim the first. I suggest the second.
Taken as a whole monotheism is a polytheistic practice where each deity’s devotees claim theirs is the supreme one to which everyone should give worship. But in fact they worship different Gods. Underneath common labels we find markedly different deities, all claiming the same name, as if everyone named” John Smith” were the same. Were we to find such divergent conceptions of deities within a polytheistic context, we would simply say these are different deities.
I will focus on Christianity for three reasons. First, I know more about it. Second, religious liberty has lasted long enough in many Christian societies for monotheism’s internal incoherence to become especially clear. Third, all of us need to be reminded the root of the violence we are experiencing today is monopolistic monotheism, not Islam.
Beyond a claim to universal dominion, the Catholic God shares little in common with the Southern Baptist God. More then one Baptist has argued the Catholics are serving the Devil and the Church is the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelations. More than one Catholic has replied the Baptists are going to Hell because they have rejected God’s true church.
Many Pentecostals agree with Baptists that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon.” Sometimes they are more inclusive. Pentecostal Pat Robertson said “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.” In return, many non-Pentecostals say Pentecostals channel demons from Hell when speaking in tongues.
Bill Keller leads perhaps the largest interactive Christian website, with over 2.4 million subscribers. Keller has a dim view of Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith.
“Beck likes to call out people for their lies and deceptions, yet he portrays himself daily as a Christian. The fact is, the beliefs of the satanic Mormon cult are totally inconsistent with Biblical Christianity. He uses the words “god” and “jesus,” yet the god and jesus of the Mormon cult are NOT the God and Jesus of the Bible . . .”
Robertson and Keller apply to other self-described Christian monotheists the same judgment many Christians often apply to Muslims. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, argued “The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”
All these people believe these varied Christian denominations and sects do not worship the same God, even as they use the same name.
The God worshiped by some Missouri Synod Lutherans does not want His devotees praying with non-Christians, not even in Jesus’ name. Many such Lutherans filed charges against Dr. David Benke, a Lutheran pastor who prayed at an interfaith event held in Yankee Stadium following 9-11. They objected that his act could be interpreted as granting legitimacy to other beliefs. Wallace Schulz, the national second vice president of the Missouri Synod argued “to participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one god, is an extremely serious offense against the God of the Bible.”
More recently another Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, Rob Morris, apologized to his denomination for participating in an interfaith prayer service for people killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. One of his parishioners had been a victim.
The Gods of other Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, were not so bothered. In important respects the Lutheran God is different from the Gods these other denominations acknowledge. What constitutes a serious offense for one is not at all objectionable to the others.
Quakers believe God dwells in every soul. Quakers do not depend on specific beliefs from outside authorities but rather upon each person’s direct experience of God. and Quaker meetings give people time to slow down and listen. He even speaks through them occasionally. For Quakers the Holy Spirit speaking today trumps a literal interpretation of Scripture written long ago.
Orthodox Christians also believe that God is everywhere, and have developed meditative and contemplative practices by which they might come into greater harmony with Him. But they also say that scripture is not to be set aside in favor of community illumination, as the Quakers sometimes do. The Quaker’s God speaks primarily to people in the context of their present lives whereas, for the Orthodox, God requires us to believe what He supposedly told other people thousands of years ago. The Orthodox God no longer speaks to people in the way He did back then. The Quakers’ deity has no such difficulties with communication.
Whereas Quakers and the Orthodox believe God is in the world as well as transcendent to it, other monotheists disagree. Many Western Christians consider the world as fallen and all of us so tainted by original sin that we cannot find God except through His grace. He reaches out to us, but he is not in us. These Christians’ deities find the world alien to Their nature, and so are fundamentally different Gods from the God of the Quakers and the God of the Orthodox, who are in the world as well as transcendent to it.For some Christians, nothing we choose to do can win us salvation. We are predestined for heaven or hell because their God chose who makes it to heaven, and who goes to hell. This belief is called ‘double predestination’ because God chooses both whom to save and whom to damn. We all deserve damnation, and there is no injustice in His choosing a few for salvation just because He can.
It is difficult to apply the term “loving” or “just” in any human sense to such a being, because in human terms it appears demonic. This is just the point say some Calvinists. They argue we cannot grasp God’s goodness because we are so fallen. For them what seems good to us is really bad, and perhaps vice versa.
Other Christians claim there is no predestination, either double or single. God has given us the freedom to choose. Our choices matter. This is not only a radically different conception of our relationship to God, it is also a radically different understanding of what kind of being God is. Think of a human being with the character of the first and another like the second. We would describe them as different people. The same holds for these deities no matter what their adherents claim.
But the divisions among Christians who emphasize our freedom are also very deep. Catholic Christians hold good works and sincere repentance will ultimately win salvation, through the Holy Mother Church. But many Protestants argue we are saved through acquiring a personal relationship with Jesus, unmediated by the Holy Mother Church. Other Christians proclaim that faith alone is all that is necessary. Others argue good works are expected.
Many early Christians, including a majority in the East and many important church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, were “universalists” who believed ultimately everyone would be saved. So also did Nestorian Christians. Other early Church fathers, such as Augustine and Iranaeus, argued some would be damned forever. This view ultimately prevailed as official doctrine, enforced by the swords of the Christianized Roman Empire.
Today, with the swords sheathed, a great many Christian laity believe in the ultimate salvation of all. In 2007 a Christian Universalist Association was founded drawing members from many denominations. Surely a God who saves everyone is different in kind from a God who sends many, perhaps most, to Hell for eternity. Some Christians believe this being sends aborted babies to Hell which is probably as far from a universalist position as it is possible to get.
Original sin is a key element in most Western Christianity, accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike. We are radically separated from God because of sins committed by somebody else long ago in Eden. However, the Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe in original sin. They argue it is a fabrication of the Western Church. We are not so radically separate from God. In one case we are guilty of sin at birth, if not before, in the other we are born innocent. Our sins are our own. One God regards us as flawed before birth, the other does not.
For some Christians, their God is
“the God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Such were the theological views of Jonathan Edwards, America’s most famous Calvinist theologian.
On the other hand, a Episcopal Hymn also endorsed by Unitarians, tells us
God is Love; and love enfolds us,
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us,
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.
The United Churches of Christ make a point of welcoming practicing gays and lesbians, people whom some other denominations declare are abominations in the eyes of their God. Miss Beverly Hills argues her God commands that practicing gays and lesbians be put to death. One group of Christians welcomes gays and lesbians, another wants them killed. Both groups claim they are acting in accord with the wishes of their deity.
It is difficult to see how Jonathan Edwards and Calvinists like him can be said to worship the same deity as is described in this Episcopal hymn. Nor does it make sense to say the United Church of Christ worships the thing Ms. Beverly Hills and those like her worship. Unless this God is the God of Multiple Personality Disorders, which is a strange definition of a perfect personality.
This variety of deities exists in one monotheistic religion, and there are three. What unity exists in Sunni and Shiite Islam is not in its theology. It is because dominant factions use the power of government to suppress people who read the Koran differently from they. Like so many Christians before the Enlightenment, they have no compunctions about killing other Muslims with ‘incorrect’ views. When Israel was a theocracy the Bible recounts similar destruction of Jews who got on the wrong side of the spiritual authorities.
Monotheism and violence
Sadly, the spirit of violence in intrinsic to monopolistic monotheistic religions. Even now it is not just a Muslim failing.
“The Family” is a powerful Christian organization active in the highest halls of American political power. It originated Washington’s annual “Prayer Breakfast,” and among its public members are a sizable minority of current and former Republican Senators. The best known currently in office is Lindsey Graham. It also includes Democrats. Until his defeat in 2014 Mark Pryor was both a member and a Senator. Through its public and secret members the Family extends throughout the government.
In Salon Jeff Sharlet, who has done more to expose the Family than anyone else, wrote that the group’s “spiritual” leader, Doug Coe
offered Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden as men whose commitment to their causes is to be emulated. Building on the meaning of Christ’s words, he says, ‘You know Jesus said You got to put Him before father-mother-brother-sister? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father. But it wasn’t murder. It was building the new nation. The new kingdom.’
The Family is not alone. The Christian New Apostolic Reformation is influential in Texas politics. One of those involved, Rick Joyner, explained how once they have power, Godly rule will provide
freedom even greater than anyone on earth knows at this time. At first it may seem like totalitarianism, as the Lord will destroy the antichrist spirit now dominating the world with “the sword of His mouth” and will shatter many nations like pottery… the kingdom will move from a point of necessary control while people are learning truth, integrity, honor, and how to make decisions, to increasing liberty so that they can.
“The Family” and the New Apostolic Reformation are in harmony with a major current in monotheism’s history. The Biblical God, accepted by Judaism, Christianity, and Muslims, was a God of slaughter and destruction. A complete list of this God’s killings is an awesome record of brutality, cruelty, dishonesty, injustice, and blood lust, numbering over 1000 separate incidents. Excepting only Noah and his family, once He killed “every living substance” on earth. This means many millions of men, women, and children, plus the unborn. Plus plants and animals entirely innocent of whatever it was humans were doing that displeased Him. Those who have been patient enough to do the counting report Satan killed 10 people in the entire Bible. They were Job’s sons and daughters, and at the very least God was a co-conspirator.
But the Bible is not just descriptions of a deity who delights in slaughter. It also described a deity who is loving, caring, and forgiving. Some passages sing in their beauty. Some teachings are unsurpassed as messages of love and forgiving kindness. Like the Koran, there is room for people to worship many different deities all claiming to be the monotheistic one.
Power and Domination vs. Love And Beauty
From a monist perspective such as my own, people will always potentially have access to genuine spiritual experience of love, beauty, compassion, and ecstasy. Some will be more successful at accessing it than others, and those that do will rely on their insights as a means for understanding their religions. They will perceive the sacred in themselves and in all things, and their interpretations will reflect these insights.
But there is a darker side. Because monotheism is an incoherent concept, for those ignoring or unacquainted with the experiences I just described, there is only one ultimate explanation to balance love and justice: God is God because God is omnipotent. God is power and power is the ability to do anything you want. There is no conflict between a God of perfect love and a God of omnipotence because whatever that deity says is love is love because it has the power to enforce its will. The same reasoning assures us that whatever God does is just, because justice is by definition whatever God does. Power ultimately determines what love and justice mean. Omnipotence is ultimately total domination. As those in the New Apostolic Reformation tell us, under Godly rule “freedom even greater than anyone on earth knows … may seem like totalitarianism…” George Orwell described this same outlook in secular form: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
From a human point of view this deity is a demon, but to the degree they are logical, its servants reject these human points of view. Without the guidance of heart logic alone leads to this view once monopolistic monotheism is accepted as true. Worshiping Power is the result.
Few are willing to take it that far, but all are committed to the monotheist’s claim to monopoly. And so the interpretations are legion and mutually exclusive.
Christians worship a God who loathes us, and a God who loves us; a God who wants all to be saved and a God who sends aborted babies to Hell; a God who surrounds us with intricate rules that we violate at the cost of our souls and a God who only requires us to take Jesus as savior; a God who holds us guilty of Original Sin, and a God who holds us guilty only of sins we personally commit; God who predestined us to salvation or damnation long before we existed and a God who gives us freedom; a God who will save us all because He loves us, a God who will save most and also a God who will save very few because his anger towards those who reject Him is eternal. The variety of sincere interpretations arising from a single text is remarkable, and to the degree unity in understanding has ever existed, it has always come from political force.
It is no different with Islam, where Allah is merciful and loving, and where jihad against unbelievers is taken as a command. Muslims disagree with what this means in practice. Israel was no better when it was a theocracy. Monotheistic unity has always proceeded from the edge of a sword and the barrel of a gun, not from the persuasive power of argument and faith. When freedom of belief is established, the swords sheathed, the guns stilled, diversity always emerges.
Monism is not Monotheism
Mystical reports across centuries and from every culture, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Pagan, (if they are not NonDual) say there is an ultimate Source. (Dealing with NonDual mysticism requires another essay though my final chapter in Faultlines discusses it.) This Source is consistently described as loving, good, or by some other compatible term. It is in some sense connected to everything, yet not itself a thing, it knows everyone personally, yet it itself is not a person.
In cultural terms, this widely reported spiritual insight provides a standard by which we can evaluate monotheistic pantheons. How loving and good is the particular entity we are encountering?
Significantly, the more a monotheistic God is characterized by love, the more easily monotheists are able to see the value of other traditions. Powers manifesting perfect love are closer to the Source that unites them all than are those where love is weaker, or as in Jonathan Edwards’ demonic deity, is not present at all.
Perhaps this is why Quakers have had such enormous influence for good in the world. They are about as far from Jonathan Edwards’ demonic God as one can get.
Most practitioners of monotheistic religions do not study their texts. They accept the religion into which they were born, interpret it at the margins based on the openness of their own hearts, and rely on it to give them a sense of larger and more meaningful contexts than the crises that arise in our daily lives. They are neither saints nor demon worshipers. But in times of crisis they can be manipulated by the latter through selective uses of their texts combined with claims to ultimate religious monopoly.
And this is our danger today.
In the face of the anger ignorant people are presently directing against Muslims, we should remember by far the most victims of Muslim extremists have been other Muslims, and that some Muslims acted heroically responding to the attacks in France. Left to themselves nearly all Muslims, like nearly all people of any religion, seek to live their lives in peace and let others alone. But when attacked from the outside, like all of us, they will seek to bury their differences and stand together. Achieving this is the strategy of the demon worshipers among Muslims seeking to provoke non-Muslim anger and hatred, just as it is the strategy among demon worshipers within Christianity.
Today the best of monotheists seek friendly relations with other faith traditions. They are in touch with spiritual reality as interpreted within their traditions, as we are within our own. They sincerely seek to reach out to people across the world. These monotheists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, have come to terms with the ambiguities in their scriptures in a good way, for the same scripture that teaches some to kill teaches others to care and forgive.
I believe having friendly relations with other religious traditions adds weight to interpretations that emphasize the loving over the violent and coercive. How might monotheists who think deeply about their tradition come to both celebrate the truths in their traditions and truly respect other traditions as well? By moving in the direction of more mystical and less literal understandings of their practice.
What can we do to assist, and to promote religious peace? Not a great deal at one level, for their traditions are not ours. But at another level we can help. Let us forcefully reject those within any tradition that denounce other paths in inclusive terms. As I believe I have shown in this essay, these monotheistic paths are as varied as Pagan ones, but face a harder time accepting this truth because of the incoherence in their conception of God. Kindness on our part and defending the innocent is what we can do to help them heal this incoherence in a way that is good for all.