Thursday, November 18, 2004


It seems that Slavoj Žižek is thinking of henotheism rather than simply polytheism when he asks, “is not so-called exclusionary monotheist violence secretly polytheist?” (See his The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, p. 26.) Henotheism is the concept used to define the tribal, politico-religious worldview which treats a local deity as superior to other existing, though inferior, deities. Hence, the “fanatical hatred of believers in a different god” indicates the “struggle of [the henotheist’s] god against ‘false gods’ who exist as gods.” This point, while not insignificant as a stage in the cognitive and religious development of ancient Israel, would be rather idle were it not for two reasons. First, Žižek situates this point within a larger context concerning the political nature of (aggressive) monotheism, and the conclusion of his a priori argument (whether sound or not, I do not know) is that monotheism is “the only logical theology of the Two” because “radical difference is the difference of the One with regard to itself, the noncoincidence of the One with itself, with its own place” (p. 24). Thus, monotheism is (metaphysically) henotheism, and this leads to the second point. Because monotheism is radically henotheistic, it retains the politico-religious character of henotheism.

Let me offer a bit of background from the Hebrew Bible to get this discussion into place. In 1 Kings 18, the prophet-crusader Elijah challenges the worshipers of Baal to a duel in order to establish whose god is superior. After his opponents are unable to summon Baal to light their sacrificial fire for them, Elijah mocks them saying, “surely [Baal] is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep.” The story continues with Elijah pouring water on his kindling and then successfully invoking the name of his god--the God of Israel--to ignite the burnt offering. The nature of henotheism is inherently political. Elijah concludes this episode by seizing the prophets of Baal, taking them down to the river, and killing them. The earliest definitive statement of monotheism in the Hebrew Bible (that I know of) is from Second Isaiah, a portion of Isaiah written during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century: “I am the first and the last; there is no god besides me” (Isaiah 44:6). Žižek’s claim is that the transition in Hebrew mentality indicated by this passage is not as decisive as it might seem. In fact, it is only a rationalization of a deeper “theology of the Two,” a theology that depends on the “imbalance between the One and its ‘primordially repressed.’”

All of this would be idle speculation were it not for the concrete politico-religious situation in which we find ourselves currently. Not long ago, Lt. General Jerry Boykin, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, revealed the henotheism lurking within monotheism when he remarked publicly that the Christian God is "bigger" than the false “idol” Allah and that the war on terrorism is a fight with Satan. According to the Telegraph, he has “repeatedly told Christian groups and prayer meetings that President George W. Bush was chosen by God to lead the global fight against Satan.” Such remarks were initially noted in the U.S. media with an appropriate recognition of their potential to have a deleterious effect on U.S. efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqis and of the Arab world in general. Before long, however, the AD/HD of the media organizations prevailed, and the story was effectively dropped. Meanwhile, Arab newspapers and television stations have continued to follow the words and deeds of Lt. Gen. Boykin, and it is decidedly not lost on them that his position at the Pentagon remains secure and unthreatened. His comments set the tone for the events of Abu Ghraib, and thus that scandal was altogether unsurprising to the Arab world.

Is monotheism intrinsically henotheistic and necessarily political?


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