Audience of clergy in the Mar Thoma church, a reformed eastern church.
What makes something special? Often, I think of something’s worth as related to its rarity, its uniqueness. A precious stone might be considered special if it is in short supply. But what if the stone isn’t all that rare. Would a diamond be of any worth if it were as common (and available) as sand? Maybe what makes something special is the criteria of beauty. My youngest kid sees a curiously shaped pebble in a parking lot and treats it like it was a broken off park himself that he recovered. It looks like gravel to me, but I’m no geologist. Sometimes special isn’t about numbers or aesthetics but concerns a more personal nature. A gift handed down by a deceased grandparent carries the weight of precious memories. It will always remain close to the heart of the recipient.
I wonder what makes our faith special. Leaving aside the presumptuous assumption that our faith ought to be special in order to be held, it’s worth thinking about how we ascribe worth to our beliefs. I think at a younger age, before the complexities of life and the value of its diverse experiences give us the shades we need to paint our worldview, we often are taught in oversimplified ways that our faith is special because it is unique. Our beliefs are not like theirs. Ours are different, better perhaps. The pagan world was filled with a pantheon of gods, but we belong to a monotheistic faith.
Historically, it is true that monotheism does seem odd in a world where every force of nature can be deified, but was devotion to one god itself all that much of a rarity? A focus on a particular deity above any other was more common than we might think. In ancient Egypt, in the time prior to when most think the Exodus may be dated to, Pharaoh Akhenaten took bold steps to bring the land under one god – Aten, the sun god – thereby shifting the theological landscape towards monotheism. Sure, the other gods of the pantheon were not completely erased, but devotion was directed to one above the others. In a way Israel did the same. In the pantheon of gods, they were devoted to one, at least on paper. The other gods still existed, and their existence was never questioned until much later in Israel’s history. Chemosh of the Moabites, Molech of the Ammonites, Qos of the Edomites, not to mention the others of the shared Canaanite and neighboring pantheon. Gods of the nations and even of the cities: Dagan of the Philistines, Baal-zebub of Ekron, Babylon’s Succoth-benoth, Cuth’s Negral, Ashima of Hamath. The list goes on (2 Kings 17:29-34). But some scholars have pointed out that devotion to one god in particular was not at all unique to Israel. The neighboring nations with their patron deity were just as singly devoted to their one god as Israel. Henotheism is the word that best describes this religious environment – devotion to one god above many viable gods. Henotheism is not all that rare. In the days of ancient Israel, some might argue it was a natural progression in the shaping of regional religion; and with political boundaries comes favored, localized gods.
Even though this was the environment in which Israel grew, and even though it is abundantly clear that the ancient Israelites fit right into this world, another kind of shift occurs in the faith surrounding YHWH. We can see that in some of the later writings of the prophets, and reflected back into the national narratives, a push for a kind of monotheism that meant the other gods were not “gods” at all. They were not on the same level and were not suitable alternatives to YHWH. They still were not removed completely but demoted to the level of created divine beings with limited control and ultimately under the rule of YHWH. We were likely taught that the other gods were proved to be nothing more than just figures made of hands. But even later writers of the New Testament could not empty the heavenly realms of these other divine beings. We do not have space to consider that for now, however.
I wonder how the “specialness” of YHWH factors into the interpretation of his revelation. Was the supremacy of YHWH known to the patriarchs as they worshiped him under the name ‘El? Was the uniquely mighty hand of YHWH through the exodus not enough to convince the kings that “YHWH is our God, YHWH is one”? I think that there is some connection to the notion of the particularity of a people that calls for the particularity of a god. The distinction and elevation of one people group over another might compel them to similarly separate and exalt their god above others. Which came first: the God of Genesis 1 who is exalted beyond visibility and is engaged in the theological act of separating or the set apart people of God in a multicultural land? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then wouldn’t it be that what makes God special is rooted in our own perceived specialness as a people? It seems in fact that this was the case.
1 Samuel 7:23 Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods?
The ease of this worldview is too powerful to ignore. One scholar starts his book on knowing God with the affirmation that we were first known by God. Without careful qualification, this can sound a lot like King David above. And certainly, the Bible does not ignore this slippery slope. Jonah and Amos both address the problems that arise from this self-declared particularity. It is one thing to be monotheistic but another to ground that monotheism in a “mono-ethnism” – or “mono-people” if we consider the multiethnic church. Jonah’s God reigns supreme over all because he cares for all. Amos’ God cares for the Ethiopians (the brother of Canaan) and moonlights as the rescuer of the reviled Philistines and the Arameans, the ancestors of the patriarchs (Amos 9:7).
To stop there would be edifying, but if we dig further, we cannot escape the countless instances where God is for some while against others. Should those groups find another god who is for them? A god who they consider to be special, or rather a god who sees them as special? To put it another way: to be known by a god. Pursuing this line of leads back to the openness of some religious views. Would polytheism be so open armed as to have the advantage of least one god who is on our side? Perhaps this was the rationale we find scattered in the narratives of the Bible.
Rather than the singular existence of one heavenly power, and beyond the particularity of a community, maybe a case can be made for specialness of YHWH which derives from the way he relates to creation. He takes dirt and breathes into it. Humans are infused with the very image of God. He communes, confronts, chastises, and reconciles. Like an ideal parent, YHWH, is concerned with the character of his children. He teaches them, forgives them, and commends them. Even more he suffers for them, sacrifices for them, and atones for them. Of all of God’s relational attributes and actions, he is above all Love. Perhaps this is what makes YHWH special.
But don’t other gods love? Isn’t Yam like a father (Abijam), doesn’t Hadad have sons (Ben-Hadad), won’t Baal contend for us (Jerubbaal), isn’t Qos my shepherd and friend, and ‘El the one who really sees me. It appears that again YHWH is not alone. But if the relationship is the focus then perhaps we have access to a pivot point. In our Christian tradition, we sing that Jesus loves me, this I know. I don’t think however that Christianity is to be added to the list of religions that views their particular god alone as love. If Christians can affirm that God is Love, then they would be more inclined to see God at work even outside their own relationship. The Apostle Paul seems be in this frame of mind. In his viewing of the religious and devotional nature of the Athenians, he noticed a statue to an unknown god. Paul theologically maneuvers to claim that their unknown god was in fact the God he knew. Without denying, and without completely conflating, Paul seems to employ an act of interpretatio, without using names (technically he only uses titles). His ability to see in others what he believes to be true and lovely is what makes his God special not just to himself, but potentially for others as well. In naming Jesus, Christians do not argue another god, but affirm the one true God manifested in history. The relational aspect of Jesus underscores how the God of the universe longs to relate with all. The confession of Christians is that in Jesus we see and know the Father because they are one.
Perhaps later theologians found new applications of the Trinity by way of the relational Holy Spirit. Our Nicene Creed (the pre-filioque clause version) states that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father” and does not include the double procession of “and from the Son”. Though at some point contentious, it’s a relatively dispassionate subject, but still relevant. In this non-linear functional conception of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit operates beyond the walls of the church (i.e. the body of Christ). From an eastern perspective then, what makes the Triune God “special” is the ability to relate and commune with all people groups. And one way we can view this while being faithful is to affirm the source of the working of the Holy Spirit as deriving from the one, true God. In this way, maybe it is possible to be open and yet cling to the revelation of God through Jesus as further revealed via the Holy Spirit. This invites us into relationships with those with differing worldviews, to see how God might be active in their circles, and hopefully realize the circle of YHWH’s reach is far greater and special than we might think.