Western Definition of Monotheism masks Imperialism
By Corey Gilkes
May 01, 2014 – trinicenter.com/Gilkes
So, following on from the last two articles, I want to look now at monotheism, the belief in a one and only god. To be more precise, the Eurocentric definition of it. What REALLY makes that concept so morally superior? What makes it more legitimate and righteous than the (so-called) polytheistic belief systems that came before? I’ll tell you, nothing.
And as if what I just said isn’t blasphemous enough, I’ll further argue that that specific definition of oneness – supreme singularity – filled a philosophical, not spiritual, need for a culture that came to understand relationships only in terms of absolute power. As such, the way that that culture misappropriated the spoken and written word made the “conventional” Christian ethic guilty of the same idolatry it accuses non-Christian faiths. They just repackaged it nicely and backed it up with weapons. Again, doh vex with me, go and check out de history.
Well for the four people who still reading, yuh know dais bacchanal dey. People will argue otherwise down to the wire because from the time we small we knew otherwise. We went to church and take chain up from dem priests, pastors and Sunday School teachers – many of whom really meant no harm or ill-will – who put ideas in we head about sin and eternal surveillance dressed up as the “Heavenly Father,” the Merciful One who sits in judgement of us all if we turn away from “His” Word and of “His” “Son” Jesus who is His “only” begotten son. All this pitted against non-Christian faiths; the other faiths in the Old Testament especially came in for some serious condemnation (Bal, Golden Calf, Asherah and so on). Everywhere you can turn you bound to hear (if it eh you self doin it) someone washing dey mouth on devotees of Hinduism, Orisa, Vodun (especially them), saying the ancient Egyptians was doing devil ting and so on. Most of them were demonised because among other things these faiths comprised of a “polytheistic” array of many “gods” which were of course “false gods.”
We “know” that Christianity signalled the bringing of light to this morally decrepit world because within it and its central figure resides everything needed for salvation. Interlaced with that is the idea of the superiority of Christianity’s (and Islam eh no different by the way, same cultural line) “one” book – as opposed to Orisa that is oral (no books) or faiths like Hinduism that apparently have too much ah books. Its book is the sum total of all knowledge and wisdom. All of that seeped deep down into our subconscious and even today many otherwise radical thinkers sometimes subscribe uncritically to this view.
Most of us were never taught and thought to ask specific questions about these “heathen” belief systems. We “know” these pre-Christian/Judaic belief systems were polytheistic, idol-worshipping cults because that’s what we were told. But ask the most vocal pontificators to write two paragraphs about Orisa, Santeria or the Nile Valley civilisations, how the belief systems influenced daily living and interaction or the status of their women in the society. How and why was art and sculpture used? Ask them to tell you about who or what is/was the supreme being of Sumer, they cyar do it. Ask them if they’re aware that in many parts of Africa, including Egypt, and Asia there were no words in their languages for “gods.” Ask about Pharaoh Akhenaten who simply refined what was already taught. And then ask about the origins of the one-god concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition and to compare/contrast that to what is really found in the scriptural writings and you may get a blank stare or wonders if yuh just trying to be funny (don’t believe me, explain that the word Amen is not Christian or Jewish, that’s a Nile Valley African title meaning “the Hidden Creator who is unknown,” check the responses).
So it’s no wonder that when that slick-talking, bible-waving conman Benny Hinn came to Trinidad and said he found a lot of voodoo here, I don’t know who was more pathetic, those who agreed with him or those who didn’t. The one thing most of them shared was an instinctive revulsion of non-Christian belief systems, specifically those identifiable with Africa.
Now for me, the near-atheist, it eh really important one way or the other. But is it not just possible that these heathen, polytheistic belief systems did speak about a singular, supreme, divine force and it’s just that the various attributes or qualities of that supreme being were individually expressed and venerated? Is it not just possible that that approach better expressed the totality of the divine creator force? Isn’t it possible that with such a worldview it is somewhat easier to recognise and accommodate diversity among peoples, ideologies and behaviours? Is it possible that with such a worldview it’s somewhat easier to recognise women and nature on their own terms?
Well, clearly I’m asking rhetorical questions because most who have studied these beliefs have already given us the answer. Information from archaeologists and social historians suggest that in matricentric societies there appeared to be tremendous and sincere tolerance for diverse forms of thought and expression; often different faiths worshipped in the same temples. From divine concepts to daily interactions the blood tie (family) was predominant and the most important relationship was that of mother to child, guided by honour and reciprocity. In economic activities the process was as important as the goal if not more so. The passage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was copied directly or indirectly from similar wisdom teachings in Egypt. It’s a matricentric admonition found in many pre-Christian belief systems that diffused to Christian thought but made subordinate to the dominant patriarchy. In patricentry real diversity is intolerable; the most important relationship is understood in terms of absolute deference to the authority figure who is the father – the blood sacrifice taking prominence over blood lineage.
So I have news for allyuh on that pious high ground: yuh religion is not nearly as monotheistic as you were led to think eh. And them “false” faiths are not as polytheistic as you were told. And the same way that traces of the “pagan” Sacred Feminine can still be found in what on the surface appears to be rigidly patriarchal “god” figures in the Old and New Testament, the same way that that monotheistic ethic has a hidden history. As a matter of fact, there is so much “paganism” in all three Abrahamic faiths that if you were to take out all those elements there’d be almost nothing left. The very word Christ is of “pagan” origin. Your refusal to examine the evidence does not make it any less so.
But I eh looking to go into that here; who want to delve further could check out the works of Charles S Finch MD, John G Jackson, Gerald Massey, Count Volney, the Rev CH Vail, Kersey Greaves, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Yosef ben-Jochannan, TW Douane. All I want to do is throw out some things you might want to ponder over.
Me eh necessarily faulting my Caribbean people. The fault lies in the way we and our forebears were deliberately “educated” in the schools and the churches from as far back as the colonial period. Now yuh know, if yuh want to warp somebody thinking, yuh have to get them when dey young. And boy did they get plenty ah we. From the colonialist perspective, of course, this was absolutely necessary. When your power is illegitimate you don’t educate the subjected; they’ll eventually challenge your position of power. Most of us would never question the narrow monotheist idea or even think you need to do so. Consider that even the very language and literature is composed so implicit and explicit messages reinforce the idea of divine exceptionalism. It is heavily dominated by that specific patriarchal cultural outlook that has coloured the interpretations of most things. Dr John Henrik Clarke used to say that the Europeans colonised not just the world but also world history and the dictionary: everything meant what HE says it meant.
Monotheism as defined in Western thought is little more than a male-centric hubristic idea of the Self. Like the de-feminising of the Divine I touched on in the last article, monotheism, defined as a singular, exclusive, exceptionalist entity is tied to issues that have very little to do with holiness, righteousness or salvation. Rather, it has a whole lot to do with an image the Europeans created of himself as the ultimate bringer of order, the saviour, rationalist, the real god, not the one “on high.” According to the Platonic reasoning that expanded on this, there could only be one system of logic and one leader, one correct way of doing anything. All this was conveyed using language meant to evoke ideas of binary opposites. This reasoning morphed into arrogant assumptions of authority to which you are still expected to defer.
The roots of “pure” monotheism can be traced back to aggressive, authoritarian myths that were developed to instil and maintain a similar ethic among roving hunter-warrior clans. Due to the hostile ecological conditions such myths were developed as coping mechanisms. It was crucial then to encourage and reinforce certain behaviours for survival. But the myth stayed in their collective consciousness long after the ice retreated. Rosemary Ruether argues in “Sexism and God Talk” that “nomadic religions were characterised by exclusivism and an aggressive, hostile relationship to the agricultural peoples of the land and their religion.” It formed the basis of their desire to exert total control over all facets of life and their surroundings and was firmly a part of their cultural worldview long before the first Hebrew was born.
Thus it fed into the emerging ideology of certain Hebrew sects from whom much of our understanding of “pure” monotheism came. However, their monotheistic worldview was developed in response to their encirclement by much more powerful territorial-states such as the Egyptians, Canaanites, Babylonians and Phoenicians. Wishing to develop a nationalistic identity, the priestly Levite sect moved to a position of prominence and imposed on the other sects the Marduk-inspired deity Yahweh/Jehovah, an intolerant, singular entity who was “a jealous god.” Caribbean people see this as piety, history sees this as a struggle to define a nationalist identity in the face of even other Hebrew tribes venerating Divine Goddess concepts and values.
History and linguistics also tell us that throughout Genesis, wherever “god” is written, the original word was “Elohim” which does NOT translate into “God” and was NOT even singular. The Elohim are said to be seven in number and Gerald Massey in “Gerald Massey’s Lectures,” “Natural Genesis” and “Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World” even gives us the names and trace them back to Egyptian concepts.
It is mainly these two streams that fed into early Christian theology. Augustine drew extensively from such Platonic writings as The Euthyphro, The Republic and The Apology. Here one begins to see the influence of linear progression and binary reasonings: a thing or idea either is or isn’t. This represents the opposite of what S. Korsi Dogbe called the law of contraries in Africanist and Asiatic cosmological thought. The ancient Greeks were not monotheists of course but their writings laid the foundations for what would be later taken up by thinkers like Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Aquinas.
Indeed, the very act of writing became a “God” in its own right. Writing may have been invented in Africa and Sumer – scholars like Evelyn Reed and Charles Finch believe by women – but in a Europe imbued with imperialist aspirations it was used in interesting ways. In Christianised Europe, the written word was used to marginalise women, femininity and indigenous nations in tropical regions, many of which had scripts but transmitted sacred knowledge orally to avoid abuse of the written word. To this day the use of the written word is used by Eurocentric religious thinkers to reinforce ideas of the superiority of the Abrahamic faiths (read European culture). Think about it, without the written media, how could the writing of “God” and all the pronouns referring to “Him” be done in capital letters? This is an expression of reverence craftily used to show that the “god’s” of indigenous peoples are inferior to the Christian religion and its “Word.”
As the Church became more formalised and accepted in Rome, it continued to streamline the idea of monotheism. It also served to justify military actions in other lands. For the Jews, those who didn’t worship “one” god were backward, primitive as well as hostile and violence was not only justified but morally compelling. But for them this was mostly just an idea, militarily they were a defeated force. In any event the religion was always tribal and had no real expansionist doctrine. Europe, with Christianity spread throughout the western part of the continent and backed up by military might, took what was for the Jews mostly an ideal to a different level. As they moved into other people’s lands, it did not matter that the cultures they encountered possessed philosophical/spiritual concepts that imply a singular creative force. It did not matter that order existed in these other cultures, what was important was that they did not idealise the divine – and therefore power – in a singular, absolutist way and so their “gods” were immoral, they were immoral, irreligious and as such could be attacked, enslaved and exterminated. The non-idealising of power is perhaps why even proto-Christian sects like the Gnostics were also exterminated. Elaine Pagels tells us that the Gnostics refused to rank themselves in a hierarchical structure, kept communities that were more egalitarian and had women in positions of leadership.
Marimba Ani shows us in her book “Yurugu” that the European elites never held for long any philosophy, belief system or political institution that didn’t facilitate the usurping or retaining absolute power. We in our innocent, often myopic way, guided by ancestral retentions long since manipulated, focus mainly on monotheism from a spiritual sense – thinking, I guess, that everyone else does. But I believe that we of the post-colonial Caribbean still possess some freeness of mind to pick apart these ideas imposed on us. We must have a clear understanding of the history behind these ideas lest the mistakes of the past continue to be repeated. We all know – or should know – that religion was used to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. The taking of other people’s lands, the suffering inflicted on them, the most blatant destruction to the environment, all stem from certain ideas advanced by a belief that someone was doing god’s work. With that in mind, we as post-colonials are supposed to be following through with probing questions like how exactly was religion mis-used? What exactly did they do? The answers to these questions must then be linked to our understanding of the powerful role myths play in creating and maintaining senses of identity and the “rightness” of what a people may be doing.
From a Caribbean perspective we need to look at the beliefs, concepts and institutions we’ve inherited in the context of the unequal parent-child, master-subordinate relationship with the Europeans as the master because that’s how they envisioned it. Many older belief systems tell us that there are many paths to the divine enlightenment, Eurocentric ideologies teach us there can only be one. That’s based on the culture they’ve known for hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean it must be like that. Consider the billions of lives destroyed throughout history because some people either didn’t ‘believe’ or believed…but differently. Having considered that, when someone like Pastor Cuffie could openly utter such verbal effluence stating that if you are a true Christian you cannot consider other faiths as divine, you have to ask yourself what kind of bigot “god” must be if this is how you must think and say if you want to get into heaven.