A Kinder, Gentler, More Radical Monotheism?

By Jesse James DeConto 11-30-2012
Cross image, © Carsten Medom Madsen  / Shutterstock.com
Cross image, © Carsten Medom Madsen / Shutterstock.com

Radical monotheism. It sounds like a frightening term, when there are fundamentalist Christians and Muslims around the world and here inside our own borders, religious folk who want to turn our nation-states into theocracies under gods crafted according to their own images. When we think of radical monotheism, we hear, “My god is bigger than your god. No, wait: Your god’s a fake!”

But theologian H. Richard Niebuhr proposed a kinder, gentler, more generous idea of radical monotheism. He was writing between the Korean and Vietnam wars, as the clash between two “social gods” — capitalism and Marxism — bloodied the globe:

“(Radical monotheism) is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved, and because whatever is has being, therefore it is worthy of love,” he wrote in his book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. “It is the confidence that whatever is, is good, because it exists as one thing among the many which all have their origin and their being, in the One. … Monotheism is less than radical if it makes the distinction between the principle of being and the principle of value; so that while all being is acknowledged as absolutely dependent for existence on the One, only some beings are valued as having worth for it; or if, speaking in religious language, the Creator and the God of Grace are not identified.”

What Niebuhr seems to be saying is that the God who creates is also the God who saves. (By “creation” I don’t mean versus evolution; I just mean God as the First Cause for the natural processes we discover). Much of the time, religious people seem to say the opposite: “God may have made you, but God doesn’t accept you unless you do like us.”

What would our pluralist culture make of this sort of radical monotheism? It doesn’t say, “Do x, y, and z, and you will be saved.” It says, “God made you, God loves you, and God will not let you go.” Niebuhr paraphrased St. Paul preaching to the Greek philosophers in the Areopagus in Athens: “In Him we live and move and have our being not only as existent but as worthy of existence and worthy in existence.”

The implication is that you don’t really have a choice in the matter. This radical monotheism is a radically inclusive exclusivity. The One God named Jesus Christ creates and embraces His creatures, like it or not. Can we say that out loud, in a culture that wants to ground “I’m OK, you’re OK” on nothing at all? It seems like good news, unless the idea of One God really pisses you off. Does every being have value because we don’t really know what has value so just let me have my own value? Or does each have value given by its Creator, Sustainer and Savior? Is Niebuhr’s radical monotheism any less offensive than the fundamentalists’?

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, thePortsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.

Cross image, © Carsten Medom Madsen | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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