Radical Henotheism

My reading project this past Lent was Radical Monotheism in Western Culture (H. Richard Niebuhr). Early on in the book, I was re-introduced to the term “henotheism,” a term I first encountered in studying the Hebrew scriptures, especially the psalms. It is a term used to define a people who adhere to belief in [a] god[s] while living in the midst of other peoples who believe [an]other god[s]. The psalter, of course, is filled with references to other gods whose existence is not denied, but whose supremacy always is.

Since I’d been a fan for quite some time of Niebuhr’s critique of late twentieth-century U.S. Christianity as a religion in which a wrathless God redeems sinless people through a Christ who never suffers, I figured this Lent was as good a time as any to read Radical Monotheism.

My re-encounter with henotheism diverted me a bit, as I began to ponder the differences between it and religious pluralism, or religious/non-religious pluralism as we’re increasingly experiencing it (with the continued growth of the “nones”). I also couldn’t help but wonder what role liturgy/ritual plays in this context.

Niebuhr, of course, posits that everyone has [a] god[s] whether or not it/they is/are named or understood as such; we all have sources of meaning in our lives and things that we believe in—whether or not we would identify that belief systemically as faith (something of a cousin to Jung’s “invited or not”). Some have identified money, possessions, celebrity, social status, self, various “tribes” (or teams)—and so on—as the many “theisms” of our day, perhaps even for those of us who claim a particular religious faith.

The “Unknown God” altar Paul encountered in Acts reminded me yet again of all this, and as we stand poised to crown the Easter season with Pentecost, it occurred to me that the Spirit really did birth what would eventually become yet another new religion, with its own theos, into an already-henotheistic time and place.

In what ways, then, can we—living in a time and place not much different in many substantive ways—continue that Pneuma event? How to draw on the presence and power of the Spirit to lead us back to a faith that truly has one God at its heart, at the heart of our lives? How do we, day by day in life and Sunday by Sunday in prayer as the Spirit-born Body of Christ, truly live and move and have our being (fiercely and radically so) in one God? In short, how are we to be a radically henotheistic church in an increasingly and radically polytheistic world?

A substantial part of the answer may be to allow the Spirit to live and move and have Her being through the liturgy, and to trust in the source and summit (though not the sum) of the Church’s prayer to ground us. Not, to give a couple examples, through mere surface implementation of greater rigidity or increased expansiveness, but through a more rigorous and deeper praying and living into its wondrous mysteries.





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