God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism

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9780142196335: God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism

"Lively... points out that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared." —Publishers Weekly

"Jonathan Kirsch has written another blockbuster about the Bible and its world." —David Noel Freedman, Editor-in-Chief of the Anchor Bible Project

"Kirsch tackles the central issue bedeviling the world today - religious intolerance... A timely book, well-written and researched." —Leonard Shlain, author of The Alphabet and the Goddess and Sex, Time and Power

"An intriguing read." —The Jerusalem Report

"A timely tale about the importance of religious tolerance in today’s world." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Kirsch is a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing." —The Washington Post

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About the Author:

Jonathan Kirsch is a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed King David, Moses, The Harlot by the Side of the Road, and The Woman Who Laughed at God. He lectures and consults widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics and is a past president of PEN Center USA West.

From The Washington Post:

Jonathan Kirsch is a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences. God Against the Gods finds him in good form, retelling lively stories about the struggle of monotheists against polytheists (and vice versa) from biblical times until the fourth century A.D. when Theodosius the Great outlawed pagan worship and made the Catholic version of monotheism the Roman Empire's state religion. Admirers of the author's earlier books, including Moses: A Life, King David and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, will find much to admire here. They may also be somewhat disconcerted by the theory that these stories are intended to exemplify.

In brief, Kirsch argues that monotheism -- the belief "that only a single deity is worthy of worship for the simple reason that only a single deity exists" -- is responsible for three millennia of religious intolerance and persecution, up to and including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Those events he terms "only the most recent example of the violence that men and women are inspired to commit against their fellow human beings by their true belief in the Only True God." By comparison with exclusivist monotheism, Kirsch thinks that tolerant polytheism gets a bad rap. "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice," he asserts, the opposite of monotheism's dangerous "tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god."

The argument is problematic, but not entirely specious. There is a connection between the fourth-century Christian extremists who destroyed the Serapeum, the most beautiful pagan temple in Alexandria, and the 20th-century Muslim extremists who blew up irreplaceable Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. But what connects these events is a certain kind of violent rigorism, not monotheism itself. The author seems to think that one thing leads naturally to another (thus, the alleged "tendency" of monotheists to become brutally intolerant) -- but this begs a vital question. Some monotheists brand people who do not share their particular beliefs evil and seek to destroy them. Others are inspired by the idea of one God to conceive of one human family, related by ties of love and responsibility. The unasked question is this: Under what circumstances do we get one form of monotheism rather than the other? What makes Torquemada Torquemada, and Pope John XXIII John XXIII?

The question is difficult, but it requires an answer. Avoiding it makes it seem that beliefs alone cause violence, when it seems pretty clear that they do not -- that the behavior of a figure like Theodosius the Great or Osama bin Laden cannot be explained on the basis of Roman Catholicism or Islamic Wahhabism alone. One needs to account not only for religious beliefs but for their context: the multiple social, political, and psychological factors that, linked with theological doctrines, incline a person to act either like a seeker of peace or a violent avenger. Kirsch's tales -- especially the late-Roman stories of Constantine the Great and Julian, called "the Apostate" -- are well researched and well told, but one searches in vain for the contextual analysis that might explain Constantine's attempt to impose an orthodox Trinitarian doctrine on the Church or Julian's quixotic effort to revivify the fading Olympian deities.

Choosing not to focus on such questions produces another problem, as well: It weakens the historical argument in the same way that not looking at "uncomfortable" cases can weaken a legal brief. God Against the Gods offers very little information about tolerant or universalist monotheists; and when it comes to the polytheists, the author tends to explain any intolerance away. (For example: "Whether the gruesome accounts of Christian martyrdom are works of history or works of propaganda . . . is still an open question.") Kirsch is no doubt right to condemn the smear tactics that early Christian apologists used against the "pagans," which involved accusing them unjustly of engaging in ritual orgies, child sacrifice and the stupidest sort of idolatry (i.e., confusing the representation of a god with the god himself). Even so, he tends to identify polytheism with the most civilized traditions of the ancient world while focusing on monotheism at its most uncivilized.

All this being said, Kirsch has written a highly readable book about a topic well worth pondering. My advice to the reader is to put his theory aside in order to concentrate on the stories themselves, which point to a richer, more complex reality. For example, Kirsch notes that by the third and fourth centuries A.D. many nominal polytheists in Rome and Greece were proclaiming their belief in a single, omnipotent Supreme Being. Constantine himself went from the worship of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, to Christian worship of the One God, which was ritually solemnized on Sun-day. Similarly, as the great historian of late antiquity Peter Brown has observed, late Roman attitudes toward sex and the family were changing in what might seem a "Christian" direction even before Christianity had become a major force for change in the Empire.

And what of the Arian/Trinitarian controversies of the same period, which involved attempts by Christian leaders to account for the multiple nature of their unitary God? Despite the differences between monotheists and polytheists, it appears that there were social forces impelling both sets of believers to move in similar directions. It is a pity that Kirsch fails to shed more light on the relationship between religious beliefs and their social context. Doing so might help us identify the forces that continue to drive some people to kill in the name of God.

Reviewed by Richard E. Rubenstein


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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