When Gods Collide

December 9th, 2017

Our more adamant Christian friends defensively remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Then they load their kids up in the SUV and take them to the mall to see Santa. “It’s tradition,” they say. It certainly is.

In religious studies there’s a word for this. It’s called henotheism.

You’ve heard of polytheism. That’s the belief in many gods. And you’ve certainly heard of monotheism. That’s the belief in only one god.

So what’s henotheism?

Henotheism is a pretty subtle middle ground between polytheism and monotheism. In fact, some scholars argue that henotheism was an intermediate stage the ancient Hebrews moved through around the time of Abraham (c. 1,800 B.C.E.) as polytheism evolved into monotheism in western religion.

Henotheism is the claim that while there may be many gods, one god is the principal god who rules over all of them, and is in some way their source.

Hinduism is a classic example. While in devotional Hinduism there are literally thousands of gods, even the most illiterate villager knows that they are merely the many names and forms of the one, Brahmam, which isn’t even a god. It’s the sacred formless source from which all forms (including the gods) come and to which the return – the very ground of Being itself.

So too in the dominant Christianized west, while nominally monotheistic, henotheism holds sway. Santa Claus, an archetypal gift-giving god, is sidled up alongside the baby Jesus, and in images like this one, portrayed as bowing down in deference to the one, true God.

Henotheism strikes me as a very sensible compromise. It’s such a bore when zealots weigh in proclaiming their particular god to be the only god, and all other gods are false and must be destroyed. Yawn. Go away. Sell it somewhere else sister.

You could say that once Christians allowed the concept of the Trinity to stand, they opened the door to a pluralistic portrait of God. Judaism and Islam, their Abrahamic siblings, cleave close to a fierce and unambiguous monotheism. But the moment the one God refracted into three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – like white light through a prism, the road to henotheism was paved. If you can embrace, or even tolerate the idea that the One shows up as three, the cat’s out of the bag. And it’s not going back in.

So celebrate your family traditions and mythologies in full voice and without apology. You don’t have to defend or explain any of it to anyone. Just go ahead and enjoy yourself. But leave your neighbors alone to do the same.

Peter Bolland

Peter Bolland is the philosophy and humanities department chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California where he teaches world religions, Asian philosophy, world mythology, and ethics. Bolland is also a columnist for both Unity Magazine and the San Diego Troubadour. An award winning singer-songwriter and poet, Bolland draws on the world’s wisdom traditions as a frequent lecturer and performer throughout the San Diego region.
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