What is the Paleochristian view on monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and atheism?
The only being who could fully comprehend the Divine would be the Divine Cosmic Mind itself. However, that doesn’t mean that we must remain completely ignorant of it. While our perspective will always remain limited and incomplete, we learn more about the nature of the Divine with every new thing we learn through reason or revelation. When it comes to the different systems of theology developed by humanity in order to comprehend the Divine, the question isn’t as simple as which is true and which false. Each is true in certain ways and false in others.
Let’s start with atheism. In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Jews and Christians were often labeled as atheists because they rejected the contemporary Greek or Egyptian gods — even though they had their own conception of divinity. Whether modern atheists are aware of it or not, many of them actually reject a particular view of God. If they were presented with a more rational and realistic theology as an alternative, they might actually come to consider themselves theists.
For example, many atheists reject the “Old Man in the Sky” idea of God: an all-powerful supernatural being who created the entire universe out of nothing several thousand years go, who is jealous and vengeful, and who passively allows all the evils in the world to occur, or even causes evil himself, even though he could stop it if he wanted. Or, atheists might reject a God who “chooses” one group of people over another, blessing them with future rewards and damning all others to eternal punishment even if they are decent people. In these cases, atheism is justifiable, because such views of God are wrong on nearly all points.
Atheism goes wrong, however, when — in addition to rejecting irrational views of the Divine — it then goes on to assert that nature is strictly material in nature and to reject a Divine reality altogether. Such a worldview is not only anti-Divine, it is anti-human, because it can’t account for the existence of consciousness, meaning and value, not to mention things like mathematics, logic and reason itself — which atheists of this sort rely upon in order to come up with their reasons for rejecting the reality of the Divine in the first place.
As for the question of whether there is one god or many, the monotheistic religions were, and still are, polytheistic in a certain sense. From the beginning, early Christians accepted the reality of numerous divine beings (e.g., Paul’s “principalities and powers”, “god of this world,” angels, and demons), as did other Jews and Greeks. Monotheistic faiths have tended to follow the same overall trend:
- many competing gods
- one supreme god ruling over the others
- ‘pure’ monotheism, rejecting the existence of all other divine beings
Whether these beings were actually called “gods” or not is just semantics, because they all shared similar characteristics and roles. Paleochristianity accepts the existence of beings on a higher level than humans, which have traditionally been called “gods,” “angels,” “demons,” etc. So in this sense, polytheism is true and “pure” monotheism false when it asserts that there are no beings “between” the levels of humanity and the one God. The “distance” between the Divine and humanity is much greater than the distance between a human and a chimpanzee. Humanity probably isn’t the pinnacle of creation. Otherwise, we would have nothing to strive for.
Polytheism goes wrong, however, when it simply asserts that one god among many is supreme. For example, in the Greek pantheon of gods, Zeus was the top god, but he was essentially of the same nature as all the other gods — like the CEO of a corporation or the king of a nation. But the very existence of competing gods implies that they are all a part of some greater reality. So even polytheism of this sort implies an even higher, ultimate level of reality in which all those gods exist, and which sustains their being.
The “philosophical monotheism” of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman philosophers caught a glimpse of this reality. The One God was not merely one among many, but an all-encompassing reality, principle, and being — on a whole other level. This is the sense in which monotheism is true: all beings and worlds exist within, and are nurtured, informed, and unified by an ultimate, divine reality. It’s by virtue of this grand, unifying reality that we all inhabit the same universe, and why what’s true in one part of it is true in all other parts of it. And even if the idea of a multiverse were shown to be true, all those universes would have to relate to each other in some way (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to speak or reason about them). In other words, they too would be part of a wider, all-encompassing reality.
Pantheists believe the cosmos is simply equivalent to God. This is partially true, in that all creation is Divine in nature. However, it goes off track when it denies a unified, higher reality that transcends the visible world and sees the whole as equal to the sum of its parts. The Divine is not simply the cosmos; the cosmos is a part of the Divine. The Divine Cosmic Mind exists over and above the cosmos, in relationship to it, as the mind exists in relation to the body, informing it and guiding it.
Summing up, Paleochristian theology rejects certain conceptions of God, but accepts the reality of higher beings and an ultimate Divine reality. Paleochristians see the Divine as the mind of the cosmos, One in nature, and encompassing all that exists, in whom “we live, and move and have our being,” as the author of the Acts of the Apostles has Paul say in his speech to the Athenians.
There is an ultimate, unified, holy reality: Divine Cosmic Mind. Just as there are beings ‘below’ humans (plants, animals), there are beings ‘above’ humans (higher powers, spirits, ‘angels’, ‘demons’, ‘gods’). All beings exist within and are a part of the divine reality. And just as the cosmos is the body of the Divine, the church is the body of Christ.