Perhaps the most basic piece of information about the Christian faith — so basic that in the West it is more assumed than taught, even to the unchurched — is that there is one God. We don’t have to think much about this. When somebody says they are religious, we assume that they believe in one God and not many. People might ask, “Do you believe in God?” or say, “I don’t believe in God,” but the question, “Which of the gods do you believe in?” would take most of us by surprise.
It isn’t only Christians who speak of one God, of course. Jews and Muslims make a core assertion of God’s unity, but not only they. Plato could both speak of God in the singular or plural as he found it necessary. We encounter “God” or “the god” or “gods” in the writing of pagans ancient and modern, and it isn’t always clear what the difference is between these expressions.
The Bible, if we read carefully, mainly complicates. The ancient Hebrew word for God (elohim) is the grammatical plural of the singular noun for a god (el), and though it often means one God, the God of Israel, sometimes the same word indicates “gods” instead. So Psalm 86:8 — “There is none like you among the gods (elohim)…” Or even more confusing, Psalm 82: “God (elohim) has taken his place in the divine (el) council; he judges in the midst of the gods (elohim).”
We aren’t left in the middle of such confusion, of course. The Bible does teach (in both Old and New Testaments) that there is only one God. But if the Israelites of old struggled to maintain adherence to their singular deity, one wonders why or whether the matter has become so much simpler for us. Are we so faithful, or are we fooling ourselves?
Contrary to descriptions of the modern world as having undergone “disenchantment,” of the loss of God or the gods from the public sphere, we might instead observe that the gods are as numerous as ever, though hidden under other names. Officially an atheist, Nikita Khrushchev could say, “History is on our side. We will bury you.” What sort of being is history, do you suppose, that it could have sides and determine our fate? To this we could compare Darwin’s invocation of “Selection” or modern references to “the economy” or “the market,” all-powerful forces to which we owe our lives, our intellectual homage and our labor.
From this angle, our cultural assumption that there is one God (and here we might summarize the narrow vision of contemporary Western atheism as, “There is no God but God, and I don’t believe in Him”) looks like little more than a cover story, a distraction from the truth that we have multiplied gods beyond measure. It should be clear that saying there is one God, and having but one God, are not the same thing at all. This is not a question of counting — if we find ourselves more polytheistic than feels right for scrupulous Christians, it isn’t because our arithmetic went bad and we forgot to stop at one (or is it three? Three and one? Three in one? God-math is hard).
In this breakout we’ll try to get our hands dirty with the question of how to have just one God in a world that has gone “very religious in every way.” To do this we’ll enlist help from as many of the gods as we can manage, learning what they have to teach, and finally observing how they appear in the light of the One preached to us as the Crucified.