Tuesday, 27 March 2012

on monotheism

I have been reading James Alison’s book Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in. Alison has been a favourite theologian of mine for several years and while his work requires concentration it is seldom unrewarding.

In the opening chapter he discusses monotheism, a “terrible idea but a wonderful discovery.” The heart of this subject for Alison is what we define the idea of one God against. God is God - as opposed to… what? Other gods? Or as against nothing?

Citing the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Amos and Isaiah, Alison shows how the notion of God in the Hebrew scriptures evolved, and moved from a my-God-over-your-god paradigm to one of God as against nothing.

Why does this matter? It affects how religious people behave. Too often people of faith, not least Christian denominations and schisms, gain their sense of cohesion and unity from a conviction of their rightness about God in comparison to the heresies or wickedness of others. It is in this sense that monotheism is a terrible idea. As Alison puts it, such people believe not so much in God as in conflict - and it can lead to a victim mentality that religious leaders exploit to build a following.

When we notice, however, that God does not play to the language of us-and-them but rather me-and-you it casts monotheism in a different light. The message of the prophets is not about Yahweh as against other gods, but his steadfastness and love against our idolatry and faithlessness. There is God and there is us, whom he loves into being. This is the wonderful discovery of monotheism:
“It is only if our love of Christ and our following of him is part of our discovery of not being ‘right’, or being successful, or being relevant, or able to attract funds, or votes, or bring about democracy, or liberal values, but of being loved into being with all the others whom we might be tempted to think of as our inferiors, being assured that we are liked as we let go of the things we think make us likeable, being assured of a peace which enables us to let go of our addiction to the power of this world and the relevance to which we must cling, it is only these which will enable us, over time, to bear witness to Christ as God. Not the token messenger of a ‘he’ which shores us up, but the quiet depth of the ‘I Am’ who shakes us into life.”