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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A discussion on Judeo-Christian monotheism - Steven's Response

Opening Essays: Nick : Steven ::: Concluding Essays: Nick : Steven
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I'd like to thank Nick for participating in this discussion, and hope it's allowed the reader to see classical polytheism in a more viable light.

Recall that the resolution was that Judeo-Christian monotheism (as opposed to classical polytheism) is true. In order for Nick to have established this, he must have done a couple of things. First, he'd have to show that a perfect god exists, because if no such god existed, Judeo-Christian monotheism would be false. However, the existence of such a god wouldn't be enough to defeat classical polytheism, since all it claims is that more than one god exists. So, it's entirely compatible with a perfect god existing, just so long as it isn't the only god that exists. Nick’s task was then two-fold: (i) show that a perfect god exists, and (ii) show that no other gods exist. Did he accomplish this?

Let’s give the careful thought to his Opening Essay that it deserves.

Nick begins his case with a citation of St. John of Damascus wherein the Doctor of the Church is attempting to show that “God” is "one and not many" to those that "do not believe the Holy Scriptures." St. John asserts—as if his opponent agrees—that the Deity is perfect. This is the common ground between him and his ‘non-believing’ interlocutor from which he proceeds to argue that there can't be more than one perfect god.

Of course, classical polytheism has no problems with this: it doesn't matter if no more than one perfect god can exist, just so long as more than one god does exist. As stated then, St. John’s argument doesn’t seem relevant to the resolution, because even if it succeeds in showing that only one perfect god can exist (i) it doesn’t show that a perfect god actually does exist, and (ii) it doesn’t show that other gods fail to exist.

Nick then proceeds to interpret St. John’s comments as a compilation of three arguments which converge together. My opponent has therefore conveniently divided his interpretation into the three, simple parts. Let’s review each in turn.

“First, he says that the difference among gods necessarily means they fall short of perfection, with each god being ‘different’ precisely because each god lacks (or falls short of) the quality that another god has. Thus, God must be perfect.”

Let’s suppose that Nick’s interpretation is accurate. Now, I must admit that the logic of this argument is rather elusive to me. However, I think the idea something like this: If more than one god exists, they’d be different and if they were different, they’d each be imperfect. But, a perfect god exists. Therefore, the only god that exists is a perfect one.

How viable is this argument? Well, I’m quite dubious of the claim that ‘difference implies imperfection’, and suspect Christians will be as well. Are there no differences between the persons of the Trinity? Even the modalists recognize differences between the modes. Yet, all three would be ‘perfect’. So, mere difference does not entail imperfection. Likewise, two deities can differ in trivial ways whilst possessing equal amounts of goodness, knowledge and power. You and I are imperfect, not because we’re different, but because neither of us possesses perfect properties!

What about the claim that a perfect god exists—a claim without which this argument wouldn’t be relevant to the resolution? Well, in my opening essay, I provided a sound argument against God’s existence: because God wouldn’t abuse children, the law of non-contradiction is true, and things like child prostitution are wrong, it follows by strict and necessary rules of logic that God does not exist.

“Second, he points out that if there are many gods, then this necessarily means they cannot all be in the same place at the same time, thus essentially limiting each god to a ‘location’. A god confined to a location is merely an extension of humans being confined to geographic locations on earth. Thus, God must be present everywhere (omnipresent).”

Here again, the logic evades me. Are angels, demons or disembodied souls—such as those in heaven/purgatory or hell—“merely an extension of humans being confined to geographic locations on earth” simply because they can’t be in the same place at the same time? Can the persons of the Trinity be in the same place at the same time?

Nick is either inferring that God would have to be omnipresent if he existed—lest he be imperfect—or that God is omnipresent because he is perfect. The former inference wouldn’t further Nick’s resolution, and the latter is at best unsubstantiated. However, my argument enervates God’s existence, thus defeating this latter inference.

“Third, he points out that a multitude of gods cannot govern or organize the world without ‘infighting’, which would necessarily lead to the world’s destruction. So a democracy of gods cannot explain any order or providence over the world and universe, meaning there must be a hierarchy of beings, with one being ‘at the top’. Thus, God must be Almighty.”

Unfortunately, I don’t really understand this argument either. Why think more than one god is governing the world in the first place? Why couldn’t they get along, and that their disagreements result in fighting? Why would this fighting result in cosmic destruction? And why, to avoid these, must the divine hierarchy be monarchical rather than, say, oligarchical? For all of these…I’m left scratching my head.

Interestingly, the OT preserves very old tradition reporting not only how the world was governed by gods alongside YHWH, but how their fight didn’t result in cosmic destruction. Let’s start with Deut. 32:8-9:

“This family of the divine arrangement of the world appears also in the versions of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 preserved in Greek (Septuagint) and the Dead Sea Scrolls:

When the Most High (Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up humanity,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the divine sons:
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.

The traditional Hebrew text (Masoretic text, or MT) perhaps reflects a discomfort with this polytheistic theology of Israel, for it shows not “divine sons” (bene elohim), as in the Greek and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but “sons of Israel” (bene yisrael). E. Tov labels the MT text here an “anti-polytheistic alteration.” The texts of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls shows Israelite polytheism which that focuses on the central importance of Yahweh for Israel within the larger scheme of the world; yet this larger scheme provides a place for other gods of the other nations of the world...This worldview was cast as the divine patrimonial household in Deuteronomy 32: each god held his own inheritance, and the whole was headed by the patriarchal god. Other gods in their nations represented no threat to Israel and its patron god as long as they were not imported into Israel. As long as other gods did not affect worship of Yahweh in Israel, they could be tolerated as the gods of other peoples and nations.” [1]

As the OT specialist and John O’ Brian Professor Emeritus of Biblical studies at Notre Dame, Joseph Blenkinsopp says: “The idea is that Elyon, high god of the Canaanite pantheon, assigned each of the 70 nations of the world (Gen 10) to one of the 70 deities of the pantheon and that Israel had the good fortune to be assigned Yahweh.” [2]

It’s well known among OT scholars that Judaism was polytheistic (all the way up to early Christianity, with the ‘2 Powers in Heaven’ theory), although they reserved worship to YHWH alone (a practice called monolatrism). Cf. Mike Heiser’s encyclopedic analysis of the text.

Cf. Psalm 82—among others—for the call upon YHWH to smite the other deities, and usurp their positions.

Finally, Nick concludes:

“The basic Christian reasoning is essentially that of recognizing and showing how anything other than Judeo-Christian monotheism ultimately collapses into absurdities and contradictions. Any ‘god’ that is not one, perfect, almighty, etc, is not a god one can believe in and trust, but is rather a finite and limited being, making ‘god’ nothing more than a ‘progressed man,’ like in Mormonism.”

As I hope to have shown, deities other than God are not absurd or contradictory. Are they imperfect? Sure, I suppose they are.

“[I]n traditional polytheism, gods are neither infinite, nor timeless, nor changeless. They are held to possess superhuman capacities of power and knowledge, but these powers aren’t unlimited, and the gods themselves are subject to change like any other being.” [3]

But, this in no way detracts from their utter magnificence and beauty. When I’m dwarfed in the shadow of a great pyramid, my awe doesn't distill because of the various imperfections of the pyramid. Just think of your most loved ones. Are they any less amazing simply because they’re imperfect? Of course not!

So, here's the deal. On the one hand, I don’t think we’ve been given good reasons to think either that a perfect god exists or that other gods don’t exist. On the other hand, I've given a validly deductive argument against God's existence. It only had three premises, and each is as true as premises can get! On account of God’s moral perfection, he wouldn’t abuse children by allowing them to suffer purely for someone else’s sake or for no one’s at all. In other words, he’d only allow a child to endure agony if it ultimately benefited from it. But, the duty to prevent children from suffering can’t exist in this environment: if children who suffer will ultimately benefit from it, then it’s impossible to prevent them from suffering, and no one has the duty to do what cannot be done. However, and unfortunately, we all know that someone does in fact have the duty to prevent children from suffering. It follows that not every child will ultimately benefit from its suffering and therefore that there’s no all-powerful, morally perfect being around to protect children.

I implore the reader to adjust her beliefs in light of this information, and to approach the old gods, ready to listen to their timeless wisdom.

Thanks again.

________________________________________


Notes

[1]: Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 48-49

[2]: The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. p. 108

The early polytheist critic of Christianity Celsus says something very similar to Deut. 32:8-9. In Origen's Contra Celsus book 5, chapter 25 Celsus says that "in all probability, the various quarters of the Earth were from the beginning allotted to different superintendending spirits, and were thus distributed among certain governing powers, and in this manner the administration of the world is carried on."

[3]: Greer, John M. A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism. Tuscon, Arizona: ADF, 2005. p. 55

4 comments:

Nick said...

The comments are open.

I'd like to thank Steven for this interesting exchange. I will definitely be thinking about this more. I will say that after reading his response, I could have done a better job in my opening essay since they weren't as well presented as they could have been. That said, I'll now comment on some things Steven said.

(1) The first thing I want to point out is that I took it as a given that some sort of god/deity existed. We weren't questioning whether a divine being existed, so given that there was a divine being, I took this to mean the only question then was to determine whether there were many divine beings or just one.

(2) The method used by St John Damascene was a reductio ad absurdum approach by proving God is One, Omniponent, Perfect Being by showing how it couldn't be any other way.

(3) St John of Damascus was only 'assuming' One Perfect Divine Being exists in so far as this was where the evidence pointed to. It didn't matter if there were lesser, imperfect divine beings out there, because from the Judeo-Christian view what matters is that there is ultimately one perfect divine being that supersedes all others. For example, these lesser beings could be envisioned as a sort of class of Angels. In polytheism, as I understand it, the notion of one supreme being that supersedes and transcends 'the gods' is not a valid option.

Nick said...

Now I'll comment on my specific arguments and how Steven dealt with them.

(1) In regards to the 'difference entails imperfection' argument, Steven said: "two deities can differ in trivial ways whilst possessing equal amounts of goodness, knowledge and power."

The Persons of the Trinity do not differ in their Nature, namely the Divine Nature which is perfect in every sense. But this debate wasn't about that. For Steven to say two deities can differ in "trivial ways" leaves me wondering what about god can be "trivial"?

Steven's 'solution' seems to be that the answer is that no perfect being exists, but if no perfect being exists, then where did the gods come from in the first place and how can a god not be a projection of human attributes?


(2) As regards to my second point about omnipresence, it seems as if Steven is fine with the gods not being omnipresent. From a Christian point of view, this make the gods quite weak and leaves us wondering how these gods can even justly govern their creation (if they indeed even created us) if they cannot 'see' everything that's going on.

Steven did bring up angels and the Trinity and such, but Christian would not say that angels, demons, or souls are omnipresent. They are 'confined' in virtue of being finite, except they are not confined to a 'geographic' location given that they are immaterial. The Persons of the Trinity can be and are in the same place at the same time in virtue of their Omnipresent Divinity.


(3) The third point was about about the benevolence of the gods.
Steven asked: "Why think more than one god is governing the world in the first place?" But this only leaves us wondering, who assigned this one god to this planet as opposed to another? Did the gods peacefully divvy up the universe so as each went their own way? And if only one god is governing the world, then how would we ever know there were many gods?

Steven also asked: "Why couldn’t they get along, and that their disagreements result in fighting?" I've always understood classical polytheism to be gods battling other gods, which is how the Romans and Greeks portrayed the situation.

Nick said...

On this third post, I'll look at Steven's claim that the Old Testament gives indications that polytheism is true.

Steven beings by saying: "the OT preserves very old tradition" about "how the world was governed by gods alongside YHWH"
Even if that were so, YHWH would still be supreme and omnipotent creator among them. So this isn't really polytheism in the classical sense, but rather a hierarchy of beings, with YHWH being their creator.

Steven then quotes Deut 32:8-9, which speaks of "He fixed the boundaries for peoples, According to the number of the divine sons"

He apparently takes reference to 'divine sons' as meaning little gods. This is a mistake, for when the OT speaks like this it is either referring to Angels or special peoples. For example, angels are called "sons of God," and so are Christians. The Jewish princes were even called 'gods' in Psalm 82, which is why Jesus quoted this in John's Gospel (10:33ff).

Steven then quoted an OT scholar:
"Joseph Blenkinsopp says: The idea is that Elyon, high god of the Canaanite pantheon, assigned each of the 70 nations of the world (Gen 10) to one of the 70 deities of the pantheon and that Israel had the good fortune to be assigned Yahweh."

I don't know where he's coming to this conclusion from just this one verse. Plus, philosophically and logically speaking, what is this 'good fortune to be assigned Yahweh' when YHWH claims to be above all other gods and nations and creator of the world? The idea that there is a God above YHWH and yet YHWH says he is the only god is absurd.

Steven concludes by saying: "In traditional polytheism, gods are neither infinite, nor timeless, nor changeless. They are held to possess superhuman capacities of power and knowledge, but these powers aren’t unlimited, and the gods themselves are subject to change like any other being."

This is precisely what doesn't sit well with Jews and Christians. The idea that 'god' can change, including for the worse, and that ultimately god is a man who has progressed.

In response to the gods being imperfect, Steven also said:
"But, this in no way detracts from their utter magnificence and beauty. When I’m dwarfed in the shadow of a great pyramid, my awe doesn't distill because of the various imperfections of the pyramid."

But from the Christian perspective, you know the pyramid is ultimately a human creation and is decaying away little by little each day. We would never worship the pyramid thinking it's greater than us, created us, looks out for us, or anything like that.

Nick said...

Steven concludes with:
"I implore the reader to adjust her beliefs in light of this information, and to approach the old gods, ready to listen to their timeless wisdom."

From a Christian perspective, this is absurd because these 'old gods' have basically been forgotten about for 2,000 years. Whenever Christianity comes to town, the old altars are abandoned. So the 'old gods' have been missing in action all this time, they haven't prevented their own demise. Does this really make sense? Do we turn to 'gods' that cannot even save themselves much less protect and save us from enemies?

And where are the scriptures or special revelation about these gods? If there is none, then these 'old gods' we're supposed to turn to and approach are really unknown. If special revelation or scriptures do exist, then haven't they been lost all this time?