The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers. Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.
Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.” Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives. Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”
So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.” “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality. “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality. And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”
According to Niebuhr, monotheism, polytheism, and henotheism are three different devotional attitudes toward the whole of life. I will describe these devotional attitudes beginning with poly-devotionality.
Both Augustine and Mohammed conducted a severe critique of the poly-devotionality that dominated their surrounding cultures. Gods like Venus and Mars are about devotions to real realms of life—in this case love and war. It is understandable that both of these devotions can exist in a single life, along with many other devotions: family, work, nation, race, sex, gender, virtue, personality, etc. Niebuhr points out that each of these many temporal devotions can make an ultimate claim upon our lives. And when they do, we experience our lives being torn apart among these many claims. Perhaps we have experience this tension between our family and our work, or between other meaning-givers of our lives. Niebuhr calls this “the war of the gods.”
Niebuhr also points out that each temporal god-devotion is doomed to disappoint us. Each of these temporal “gods” (devotions) will disappoint us because each is temporal. None of these “gods” can endure as an ultimate devotion. Our family can die or abandon us. Our work can end or bore us. Our nation can embarrass us. Our strong body can become old and fragile. Any one of these god-devotions can cease to be a devotion that renders our life meaningful to us. Niebuhr calls this “the twilight of the gods.”
Niebuhr’s radical mono-devotionality resolves these poly-devotionality short-comings. A fully radical devotion to the ONE INCLUSIVE REALITY relativizes all the many devotions. It provides a context of devotion within which these sub-level devotions can have a place, a place that is not ultimate, but a relative place rendered so by that ONE devotion to the Final Source and Final Terminator of all the temporal gods and god-devotions.
Heno-devotionality is an attempt to resolve the poly-devotionality short-comings, but it does so in an incomplete manner. The “heno” idea points to a cultural pantheon like a nation or peoplehood that holds the many devotions in some socially prescribed order. Nativism or nationalism is a form of heno-devotionality, rather than a mono-devotionality, for it does not include a devotion to every other nation, as well as to our own nation. Similarly, a devotion to life, the life of all animate beings, is a heno-devotionality rather than the mono-devotionality, for it does not include a devotion to the inanimate as well as to the animate, to the processes of dying as well to the processes of living. As the Sufi poet Rumi said, “ Life and death are two wings on the same bird.”
These reflections allow us to see the fully radical nature of mono-devotionality. Mono-devotionality turns out to be a complete form of realistic living. To quote a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this faith means a lived life in which “the good and the real come together.” If something is real, it is good. If something is going to be viewed as good, then it must be real. “Evil” from this perspective becomes all those humanly invented value-universes of delusion, escape, and substitution for what is real. Radical monotheism (mono-devotionality) is a radical realism of the most thoroughgoing sort.
This means that the findings of the scientific approach to truth are good to whatever extent they are real. For example, if the evolution of life on Earth is real, it is good. If the climate crisis is real, it is good—facing this crisis demands our full attention and our full responsibility toward ending our dependence upon greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources. We can have vigorous debates about our various interpretations of the facts and their meaning, but making up our own facts to support our greed-based biases is selling ourselves to the dark-side.
Similarly, the findings of our contemplative inquiries into the essence of our own human consciousness is a valid approach to truth, and if such findings are true, they are good, requiring our ethical obedience and loyalty. For example, if we find that bigotry, racism, nationalism, sexism, and other oppressive views are not in accord with our reality-based humanity, then those attitudes are a “fall” from a true mono-devotionality. This fall does not change the essence of our true humanity, but it sets up a split in the self that we can call “despair.” This fall is a fall into abject hopelessness, because in the final outcome, the real always wins over the fabricated. If our devotionality is attached to the fabricated, then we are trapped in the losing side of the real drama of life.
It is not an accident that the mono-devotionality religions, at their best, have espoused and lived a thoroughgoing devotion to the Real, as well as to an unconditional love for our real selves and our real neighbors.
For more on this topic check out this longer essay: