This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Monotheism and polytheism as two doctrinal languages

In light of everything that has been said so far concerning the person of Mary, we must insist that these titles, which are so many symbols and assimilations, are not mere empty analogies but in fact state a true identity of the symbol with sacred the reality symbolized. In other words, it should be abundantly clear that Mary is not Theotokos because she was just an average woman who happened to be chosen as the surrogate for the birth of Jesus, but that she is much more than that. These symbols must be seen as indicating something in her nature.

This brings us back to the difficulty mentioned earlier, which is that monotheistic religion necessarily struggles, due to the constraints of its vocabulary, to enunciate certain sacred realities that do not easily fit to one side or the other of the God-man dualism. This is clear enough in the many heresies that have appeared regarding the nature(s) of Christ Himself. That is to say, the man-God distinction will suffice up to a certain point, but it is ultimately insufficient: Mariology, much like Christology, is precisely one such point at which a strictly binary view breaks down.

With that said, perhaps it will not appear too unjustified if we make an unusual suggestion: that without abandoning monotheism as a legitimate religious perspective, we pause to ask ourselves how Mary would be understood in the context of polytheism. For example, we could ask how she would be (and in fact is) understood within the context of Hinduism.

We suggest this because polytheism properly understood is not the same thing as paganism, as condemned in the Bible, and rightly so. The paganism practiced by the Greeks was a kind of decadent polytheism that had succumbed in many cases to naturalism and in others to idolatry plain and simple, lacking the one thing that could have redeemed it and probably did sustain it at one time: a doctrine. Lacking a coherent doctrine to give meaning to the pantheon, it became nothing more than its images. With this sort of ‘polytheism’ we cannot, of course, have anything to do.

In Hinduism, on the other hand, we come to a polytheism that is something drastically different. Here there are not multiple absolutes, multiple Gods (all with a capital ‘G’), but what we find is in fact one God and many gods, each of whom is admitted to be but an aspect or an attribute of the one Absolute. This explanation, overly simplistic to be sure, is the explanation for the entire Hindu pantheon, which is really but a symbolic tapestry indicating so many precise components of a comprehensive doctrine, all revolving around a single Absolute Reality to which all else is subordinate.

Here we can also point out that a multiplicity of “gods” is not in itself foreign to Christianity, and St. Paul himself, who said that there are “many gods,” (1 Cor. 8:5) should be assumed to have meant what he said, even if in the end these gods are called by various names, whether angels of one or another hierarchy, or demons, as the case may be.

Thus, we suggest that polytheism and monotheism are two languages used in the traditional world to describe the sacred, and that both are valid insofar as they describe it accurately, for there is nothing inaccurate about describing and angel as an angel but using the term ‘god’ in place of the former term, provided the sacred reality in question is understood exactly as it should be and kept in its proper place in the hierarchy.

Now, if we consider these two languages, admitting the validity of both, we can also say that we should be able to “translate” any legitimate concept from one to the other. This is not always necessary or even recommended, since each revelation is self-sufficient, but at the same time we can admit that just as with our human languages, some excel in expressing certain truths, and are distinguished thereby. In these cases, translation and the adoption of terms can be mutually enriching, provided we are not talking about mere ‘syncretism’ which amounts to an agglomeration of more or less incoherent and even contradictory ideas.

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