Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Promise of Monotheism

Everything, good morning. Your wonder knows no bounds. Thank you for your earth and sky, for the life you have cultivated and for our mindful existence. Thank you that we are able to see and to love you and one another. It is a great privilege. Amen.


Monotheism has developed a terrible reputation, and for good reasons. The 'one god' whose narrative begins with Moses has become three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and between them they have contributed to some of the most horrible oppressions and wars that the world has known. Let's make no mistake about that.

At the same time, 'all people are equal in the sight of God' has been a liberating, empowering phrase for justice and peace throughout history and, in a way, forms the basis of a liberal legal system. Is there hope for this idea, and if so, where did it go wrong?

Let's go back to that Moses story. In the story Moses had led not one but twelve separate peoples out of Egypt. We can see the 'one god' that Moses insisted upon as a political device to unite these twelve tribes, for as long as they had their different gods and beliefs and narratives they would remain divided. This new god, named 'being' (Yaweh) in the language of the Bible, was to replace all of the gods and their names and images, and the story itself, of being led out of Egypt, was to become the single story of all these twelve tribes. As the story itself continues we can be very clear that Yaweh did not bring peace, but it did bring peace between the twelve tribes.

It's not our only example of this device being used to unite disparate peoples. Under Constantine the Roman Empire attempted to institute the Christian god as the single god of the Empire to replace the thousands of cults that previously existed. It appears very unlikely that Constantine himself even cared, but he did care about the unity of the Empire, and that was the point.

When the United States was formed 'under God', the founders had a very similar intent again. To be sure they did not have the Islamic and Buddhist gods in mind but they did have in mind all the many factions of Christianity as well as Judaism. The 'one god' of the early U.S.A. was intentionally not defined any more than that, for if they had defined, say, the Plymouth Brethren god as the god of the new nation, they would never have had the desired unity.

Similarly the Indonesian Constitution laid down in 1945 stipulates that "The state shall be based on the belief in the one and only God." The writers of this constitution were very aware that the Indonesian state was made up of many religions, and once again the stipulation was a deliberate attempt to find a unity of belief as a basis for political unity. Explicitly the 'one god' was not Islamic, Christian or Hindu. The sectarian term 'Allah' (meaning 'the god' in Arabic) which the majority Muslim population wanted in the Constitution was rejected for this reason.

None of these attempts were really successful of course, but in each case (especially the two modern examples) they were far more successful than would have been without them. In each case they left an 'other' outside the new political unit which of course left plenty of room for ongoing strife. In the latter case in particular they also left out the traditional folk religions for whom monotheism was foreign.

The history of expanding monotheism has a parallel history and faces parallel problems as the history of sectionalised humanity. So long as there is an 'us' and a 'them', war and strife exists implicitly even when it is not in open manifestation. We have the irony of pax romana where although Rome is never actually at peace, all the peoples within the Roman Empire are at peace with each other. The hope of many political theorists today is that if the World can finally be politically one, then there is no 'other' left to fight.

It is with this understanding of the political purpose of monotheism that we should approach the original idea of the 'sin of idolatry'. Remember that the Mosaic conception of God was pantheist (Yaweh=being), and hot on the heals of 'there is only one god' are the edicts to never form an image of god and never to name god. We can see why. If God looks like something or has a certain name then every other image or name is implicitly antagonistic to God.

But if God has a 'chosen people' then, whilst those people may find some harmony, they are by definition in antagonism to all others. The origin (by no means an excuse) of anti-semitism, which predates Christianity by centuries and has had repeated, independent emergences throughout Jewish history, is right here, in the Semites' own apparently arrogant claim that they are special in the eyes of the one God. Some may find this controversial but in my mind it's pretty obvious. If God speaks a certain language, or has a special book or a specific cultural narrative, these too are ways to define and limit God. The Bible and the Koran are graven images of God as certainly as any statue, as are holy cities or holy places. The error each time is to limit God by defining what God is, and hence by implication what God is not.

To define God with our puny minds is to insult God, to make a mockery of God, to bring God down to our finite, ever flawed viewpoint.

There is a conception of one God which is equally so for all people, even people we've never met from other planets if they happen to exist, and that is the pantheist conception of God. If God is equivalent to the universe itself, to the totality of all being, then we are all, by definition, under the same god, God's people. This is very important. This is the promise of world peace.

Now, to be sure, even the 10 Commandments do not insist that there are no other gods, but merely that there are no other gods before the One God which is being itself. To be sure, even the most monotheistic religions have had all sorts of superstitions about transcendent beings beneath God, whether they are called 'gods' or not (in the case of Judeo-Christianity: demons, angels, archangels, the Devil, saints etcetera). I want to be very clear that the point is not to denounce every belief as idolatrous (even when we may think they're ridiculous). But all of us, whatever our stories, beliefs and superstitions, are implicitly one under a single totality of being, and this is the only being that I will capitalise, 'God'.

The question remains, why not just abolish all gods? Surely we can be a united humanity if we are all atheists. Yes, possibly, and this is the point where we might agree with the mystic's equation, 1=0, as the actual belief is virtually identical. Indeed there are no 'atheists' when it comes to the pantheist god, but only quibbles about nomenclature, because even atheists believe in our wonderful universe and are obliged to have a relationship with It, and everyone has a relationship with the same, single universe. We may even hear atheists praising the wonder of the cosmos, and how can they not? Meanwhile, as I have spoken of elsewhere, there are real psychological and community needs fulfilled by worship.

We are slowly becoming one people, us humans, and the House of Every seeks to celebrate and promote this unity in a fulsome, sacerdotal way. There is one Everything, with one people, one word and one story. Praise God, for we are one.

Everything, I offer my sermon humbly in your service. Fervently I pray that you not allow my words to deceive any that read here, but that you grant readers critical discernment, that they may in their respective journeys discover only truth and not be misled by my flawed, finite understanding. So be it.

Have a wonderful and wondrous week everyone.

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