A BRIEF HISTORICAL SURVEY OF THE MONOTHEISTIC CONCEPT IN RELIGIOUS BELIEF AND PRACTICE: DEFINITION OF MONOTHEISM(2)

DEFINITION OF MONOTHEISM(2)

Monothism in Historical Survey of Religions

1. Origin and historical beckground of Monotheism:

The concept of monotheism emerged through a gradual development out of notions of henotheism and monolatrism. In the ancient Near East, each city had a local patron deity, such as Shamash at Larsa or Sin at Ur. The first claims of global supremacy of a specific god date to the Late Branze Age, with Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to Aten and subject to dating issues, Zoraster’s Gathas to Ahura Mazda. Currents of monism or monotheism emerged in Vedic India in the same period, the Nasadiya Sukta. Philosophical monotheism and the associated concept of absolute God in Classical Antiquity, notably with Plato, elaborated into the idea of the One in Neo-Platonism. Monotheistic ideas of Judaism and Platonic Idealism came into contact in the Hellenistic period and during Late Antiquity gave rise to Christian theology.

A monotheistic outlook thus has long been present in human religious history. Monotheism is like a river with many springs and many tributaries. Springs of monotheism can easily be discerned at the very earliest levels of known human cultural life, in the primordial high god of the archaic hunters. According to the theory of original monotheism developed by Wilhelm Schmidt and others, a primordial monotheism was the earliest form of human perception of deity, whereas the plurality of gods and spirits found in most primal religions were degeneration from this original perception. This theory, however, is in opposition to many historians, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists and others. According to a contemporary historian, J.E. Swan, monotheism came from polytheism. He clearly states : “the transition from polytheism to monotheism took place when God was accepted as more powerful than the others and was made supreme over them”.

Many research works in recent years have indicated that many primal or archaic peoples had conceptions of a high god who is creator of the world and has supreme authority over other gods and spirits and presides over human morality. Some of the most Archaic peoples, for instance, certain groups in Africa, Australian Aborigines, and the nomadic hunters of Tierra del fuego, have definite conceptions of a supreme god associated with the sky who is changeless, invisible and all powerful and who determines morality.

However, the archaic supreme high god characteristically is a remote god, too distant, all powerful, good and just to need worship or to be intimately involved in ordinary existence. There are lesser gods and spirits who play a much more active role in the lives of the people.

The streams of the monotheistic vision run dimly through the fertile valleys of archaic agricultural religions with their pluralistic experience of the forces of nature centered on Mother Earth. Here the high god tends to become head of the divine pantheon but as he is pushed into the background by earth gods of fecundity, the high god could rarely be the focus of a unifying perception of deity. Only a few high gods developed with supreme sovereignty and autonomy, as to be sources of fecundating power and guarantors of the order and norms of the world and of human society.

We can mention, for instance, Zeus and Jupiter who were ruling high gods fashioned in accordance with Greek and Roman notions of norms and laws. In India we see Varuna as sovereign guardian of cosmic order whose role was taken over later by the great gods-Visnu and Siva. In the ancient Hebrews, Yahveh, their high God, showed himself as all powerful creator, absolute sovereign, and author of all norms and laws. Belief in these high gods, of course, provided the opportunity for reflections on the unity of divine reality as we can easily see in the following examples from ancient Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Indian as well as Chinese religious traditions.

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