What Is Christianity?: Monotheism and Tolerance

After addressing the relation between monotheism and intolerance for the first time in an essentially superficial way, Eckhard Nordhofen dealt with the question at length in his extensive monograph Corpora. Die anarchische Kraft des Monotheismus. Nevertheless, I had the impression that the purely historical aspect can be studied in greater depth. That was the origin of this essay, in which I seek to give a glimpse of the complexity of what happened. I think that the points where the distant past reflects on the present, too, emerge automatically and hence do not have to be discussed analytically. This is true especially about the last paragraph, in which, viewed superficially, the great power of Hellenist culture and religion—understood as a modern force of tolerance—runs across the marginal and irreducibly intolerant phenomenon of a group that is hostile to an enlightened view, i.e., Judaism, and for that reason becomes in its turn intolerant. From today’s perspective, however, another evaluation of the situation at that time is possible: we Christians, who decisively regard the essential form of our faith as something that sprang from Judaism, find ourselves victims precisely of a growing intolerance that is practiced in the very name of tolerance. In this essay of mine, I have deliberately refrained from speaking about the current relevance of the past; I leave this task to the reader’s reflection.

The complexity of the process, however, begins very quickly. The famous episode of the golden calf (Ex 32), for example, is not simply about the profession of God’s oneness, but about Israel’s relation of fidelity to its God, which failed because the people had reduced God to a statue. The purpose of this passage is not to defend the oneness of God but, rather, to condemn the infidelity of Israel, which through the covenant had entered into a particular type of relation of fidelity with this God.

An examination of the understanding of “monotheism” in the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, respectively, would lead us too far afield. Therefore I would like to analyze briefly only the text of Joshua 24:15–28, because there we find a presentation of Israel’s relation with its God that is decisive for all that follows. Israel freely accepts the exclusive covenant with God when the opportunity is given explicitly to it to reject it and thus to be released from the obligations toward him that are inherent in the covenant. This exclusive bond with Yahweh, and the resulting exclusion of all the other gods, as well as the struggle against them, is not presented as a consequence of an abstract monotheism, but rather results solely from the concrete covenant relationship with the God who for Israel is the one God and who effectively can claim exclusively for himself a land that seemed to belong to other gods.

It must be added, on the other hand, that, at another stage of sacred history, intolerance toward the peoples who previously had inhabited the Promised Land appears with a different motivation. There it says that those peoples had defiled the territories so much with the abominations desired by their deities—particularly with human sacrifices—that they no longer had any right to that land; and it says that Yahweh had given that land to Israel so that its people could live there according to his Law, thus restoring the land to its dignity. In fact, considerable parts of the preceding population had remained on that land, and as a result Israel did not live fully according to God’s will, teaching the other peoples also to live uprightly. Instead, the opposite happened: Israel strayed from the way of life that had been given to it and conformed to the life-style of those peoples. In this case, too, on the other hand, what defines their “intolerance” toward the other peoples is not quite an abstract monotheism, but rather a bond between morality and faith, which silently calls reason as well to testify to the justice of God’s action.

Essential perspectives concerning the question of the relation between monotheism and tolerance can be found also in the story of Solomon and the women for love of whom he had shrines built in honor of their deities. Solomon appears, on the one hand, as the ideal sovereign, as the master of wisdom who by means of the wisdom books continues to speak to his people and more generally to humanity. But, on the other hand, success had seduced him, leading him to an unbridled life-style—part of which was a large harem—which also included building shrines of the pagan world. Following modern criteria, one might say that Solomon was an enlightened monarch who granted space to the various religions, thus allowing for their reciprocal tolerance. The official historiography of Israel takes a conflicting position with regard to him. In one respect, Solomon is presented as the great and wise king to whom a forty-year reign was granted. But at the same time, right during his reign, the subsequent division between Israel and Judah begins, and his religious tolerance is deplored as an abandonment of wisdom and as a fall into the utter folly of idolatrous worship. The story of Saint Stephen, in the New Testament, shows how the ostentatious temple, which Solomon erected in place of the sacred tent, spiritually symbolizes a transition to a false piety, because the true God does not dwell in buildings of stone but remains the itinerant God.

Matters stand quite differently during the reign of Ahab. For love of his pagan wife, Jezebel, he grants to her divinities all the space she wants; for this very reason, he appears as the prototype of the bad sovereign, even though from the events narrated it is clear that, within the limits of what was then possible to do and could be expected, he was a good sovereign for his people: when he was mortally wounded in the war against Syria, all Israel mourned his death. The dramatic clash between monotheism (faith in the one God) and the falsehood of idolatry took place in the conflict between Elijah and Jezebel. As a result of Jezebel’s policy, Elijah remained the only prophet of the one God, the God of Sinai, and was opposed by the 450 prophets of Baal. God’s judgment, which was acknowledged by both parties, was executed by Elijah with the slaughter of all the prophets of Baal. The victory thus won in fact by monotheism seemed to put Elijah on the side of right, but the actual balance of power threatened Elijah, soul and body, and compelled him to flee. He traveled back on the road toward the mountain of God, Sinai, to receive new instructions there. According to an interpretation that remains controversial, the encounter with God that was granted to him should be understood as a condemnation of the violence employed in the struggle against the deities. God is not in the fire and not in the storm; his presence is perceived in the whispering of a light breeze.

Around three hundred years later, at the beginning of the activity of Deutero-Isaiah, we encounter again the mysterious voice that announces the end of the Exile, the liberation of Israel. A half millennium later we hear it once more, and now it has become the voice of a man, John the Baptist, in whom is fulfilled also the passage from the Old to the New Testament. As the meaning of the voice becomes progressively concrete, it becomes clear what the revelation to Elijah on Sinai means in the final analysis: God conquers, not in the violence that Elijah had practiced, but in the suffering Servant of God in whom God himself intervenes in history. Even though it remains an open question, what original meaning should be assigned to the theophany granted to Elijah, its re-presentation in Isaiah and in John the Baptist allows us, however, to affirm that it announces a new and mysterious way of framing the question about God’s power and powerlessness in the world.

Even though Elisha did not continue that policy of violence, he himself does not seem to have understood this answer. Instead, the policy of violence was continued in the reign of Jehu, with an extremely bloody regime that led to the massacre of the entire house of Ahab. Jehu stated, on the other hand, that in this way he was following Elisha’s direction. Sacred Scripture does not say whether Elisha knew about that violent regime and, if so, whether he expressed an opinion about it. In any case, it is clear that the bloody rule of Jehu, notwithstanding the fact that Elisha called him to that task, had nothing more to do with monotheism—the alternative between God and the many Baals—but rather exclusively concerned a power struggle in Israel.

Let us attempt, however, a better analysis of the individual passages of the narration. The terrifying massacre by Elijah should be understood as an answer to the question about the living God. The slaughter is perpetrated by Elijah in the silence of the Baals and in the mighty response of his God. Therefore, it should not be interpreted as a victory of monotheism over polytheism. In the given situation, it instead takes the form of the concrete response to the threat menacing the faith that Israel received from its ancestors. The faith of the fathers is defended against the arrogance of Queen Jezebel, who would like to allow room only for her gods. Jezebel, the other protagonist of the drama of Carmel, has brought her gods with her and sees them as the embodiment of her power. She is rebuked above all for treating Israel’s faith, represented by Naboth, with the cynicism of power. Naboth sees the vineyard that he inherited from his ancestors as the gift of the earth that the God of Israel promised to his people and that for him is represented concretely by that vineyard. The vineyard is for him his participation in the promise, the gift of the land received from his ancestors and inherited by him. Ahab’s generous offer to give him in exchange a vineyard of equal or greater value does not matter to him: what matters for him is the heritage of his fathers. Jezebel opposes this faith with the arrogance of power, which considers even defamation as an obvious means to an end.

The Old Testament author sees in this the essence of the religion of Baal and sees expressed here the fundamental contrast with faith in the God of the fathers. The cults of Baal are fertility cults, in which the boundary between God and man dissolves: the divine is dragged down, and its dignity is distorted in an incomparable dissipation. In this sense, the cults of Baal prove to be the genuine reason for the moral destruction of the peoples, from which the land must be liberated.

On this basis, it is then possible to understand the meaning of the first commandment of the Decalogue, which is considered quite clearly the authentic, essential fundamental requirement of the divine law, which the following commandments merely explain in concrete terms: the one God is above all human realities. In the pure transcendence that is his own, he is at the same time the guarantor of human dignity. The struggle in favor of the living God against Baal is a struggle for human justice, which is expressed concretely by the fourth to the tenth commandments. Here the question about tolerance or intolerance of religions still remains open. In this sense, it seems to me that no decisive conclusion can be drawn from Elijah’s action on Mount Carmel with regard to the question of the tolerance or intolerance of monotheism. The journey to Mount Sinai, indeed, already unlocks a new concept, which, however, will be developed and affirmed only later on.

Let us try now to determine more precisely the relation between Israel’s faith in God and the religion of Baal. The characteristic that is decisive for Israel’s faith is the fact that only one God stands in front of the people of Israel and all the other peoples on earth. His relation to the world as a whole can be described as transcendence. For the fertility religions with their Baals, on the contrary, the important thing is that there is no insurmountable boundary between the world of the divine and the world of man. Thus, the essence of religion does not consist in the obedience of man to the transcendent God (as it does for Israel), but rather precisely in the intermingling of human things with those that are divine. At the core of religion is the great mystery of fertility, which in [primitive] religions is relished and experienced in its magnificence as well as in its destructive force. Since by virtue of the God of Israel the rites that intermingle the divine and the human are considered to be arrogance and, in the final analysis, the destruction of the world and of mankind, Israel must reject all that.

Somewhat schematically, we can therefore say that the fertility cults are an identity religion, while we can describe the adoration of the transcendent God as a religion of obedience. The content of this obedience consists, as we saw, in the Decalogue—which in a certain sense can be considered the authentic representation of God. By putting it into practice, man becomes the image of God and like him.

A look at the Book of Amos provides a further clarification. The important thing, it seems to me, is above all the way in which Amos presents himself to the king. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, the central sanctuary of the northern kingdom, says to Amos: “Go, flee away to the land of Judah . . . ; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12–13). Equally important is Amos’ reply: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). This signifies the independence of God’s message from politics and signifies the prophet’s freedom with regard to political power. In this specific case it signifies even more. Indeed, one peculiarity of the concrete situation of Israel at that time is the opposition between rural population and urban economic development, with the growing wealth of the cities and the power of their social structures, which almost inevitably leads the population of the countryside to impoverishment. So, in this specific case, Amos became a champion of social equality and of justice. Just as God’s message does not depend on any human authority, so too it signifies a commitment to justice with regard to all. When we analyze the Pentateuch and the historical books of Israel, a third element then emerges: solicitude for the widows, for the orphans, and for the strangers. They are particularly loved and protected by God.

Furthermore, yet another aspect should be considered. The Book of Amos begins with a series of threats of chastisement against the nations: calamities are dramatically foretold to them for the misdeeds that they have perpetrated. Threats of chastisements against other nations are common outside of Israel, too. The prophet turns the usual scheme completely upside down here with the novelty that God’s judgment culminates in the judgment against his own people. In the final analysis, the purpose of God’s action is the salvation of all nations: the universality that is foretold here can be considered a fundamental motive of God’s action in the Old Testament.

It is clear, in any case, that it is not accurate to consider monotheism a label that can be applied to different historical situations and that can be associated with contemporary concepts such as tolerance or intolerance.

Let us take a look finally at the time of the Exile and at the Maccabees. Only during the time of the Exile did monotheism develop completely in Israel. Until then it was certainly clear that Israel had one God and that all the other gods were idols. But whether they existed and how they were to be classified ontologically were questions that remained outside the scope of Israel’s interests. Now, though, Israel had been robbed of its land, and this normally put an end to the divinity of a country or of a nation. A god who was not capable of defending his people and his land could not be a god. In Israel, on the contrary, the opposite train of thought was followed. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sinai, ruled all the earth. He could send his people to Egypt for centuries, could snatch them from the power of Pharaoh, and could lead them through the desert to the Promised Land; and even there he could cause them to be defeated and exiled to Babylon. He was neither the God of a specific land nor merely the God of that specific people. During the time of the Exile, the concept of creation becomes central. God is the Creator of heaven and of earth. He alone created the world from nothing. He alone is truly God.

Israel’s faith confronts us with this paradox: the one and only God above all the gods chose Israel for himself, drawing it to himself with his love, without being bound to it in any way. He needs no sanctuary because all the earth belongs to him. It is magnificent, as the psalmist says, that all the earth is only a little thing that he holds in his hands. God can use the mighty of the earth for his purposes and choose as his servant Cyrus, who sends Israel back to its land. It is clear that in this situation Israel could not think of claiming this God for itself with political intolerance. In the situation of the Exile, Israel can only place itself confidently in God’s hands. He alone has power over all reality.

This also means, however, that in its dispute with the nations, now Israel appeals also to common reason: it speaks about the God who is comprehensible not only in the faith of Israel. Obviously, the polytheistic cults do not think of themselves as having a rational foundation, while the one God in whom Israel believes and whom it adores wishes to be ascertained and understood in a rational view of the world, too. The ridicule of the gods that have ears and do not hear, that have eyes and do not see, may be considered rude in a certain respect; and yet it expresses precisely this new step that has been taken toward full monotheism. This prepared for the encounter with Greek thought, for which the Septuagint offered itself as an instrument, and which is then explicitly taken up again in the late wisdom literature. It was a preparation also for the encounter (made definitively in Christianity) between philosophical thought and the faith of Israel.

The thought of Socrates, who was pious and critical at the same time, had in its own way the effect of unveiling the illusory character of the gods. Today we face the opposite movement of the human mind. Modern thought no longer wants to acknowledge the truth of being, but wants to acquire power over being. It wants to reshape the world according to its own needs and desires. With this orientation—not to the truth but to power—we no doubt touch on the true problem of the present time, to which we will have to return at the conclusion.

Let us take another look at the Maccabees. From the victories of Alexander the Great had sprung a large Hellenic space that during the reigns of the Diadochi kings took on a cultural and political form. Traditional ways of life that stood in the way of the unity that was being established had to be abolished in favor of that monolithic culture that held everything together. It was clear, therefore, that among others, the Jewish ways of life prescribed by the Pentateuch (circumcision, dietary precepts, etc.) had to disappear, too, because they were not compatible with the modern monolithic state; just as Israel’s faith, life-style, and language were not compatible with the new uniform cultural model.

A non-negligible sector of the Israelites obviously welcomed with joy their fusion with the modern life-style enlightened by Hellenism; others shunned it, for lack of alternatives. But both the faith of Israel and its ways of life, which included also its language, inevitably had to react sooner or later. The First Book of the Maccabees describes effectively how Mattathias, an authoritative and highly esteemed man, rebelled against those claims, rejected the promises of the new society, and opposed the king’s ambassador. He resisted the grand promises of wealth that were made to him, as well as the request to offer sacrifices to the idols, saying: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, . . . departing each one from the religion of his fathers. . . , yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. . . . We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left” (1 Mac 2:19–22).

After these words were spoken, when a Jew was about to sacrifice on the pagan altar according to the king’s request, Mattathias, seeing this, “burned with zeal . . . . He ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer” (1 Mac 2:24–25). The Book of the Maccabees justifies this deed as a recovery of the “zeal” about which the Book of Numbers had spoken in relating the act of Phinehas. The “zeal” now rises to the level of a fundamental principle in the revolt against the monolithic Hellenistic civilization: Mattathias fled to the mountains, and many followed him. Once it had arisen in this way, the Maccabean movement was able to oppose the military power of the state and to establish a new state of Israel founded on faith, in which the Temple of Jerusalem was reestablished, also.

The Maccabean movement is founded on Israel’s decisive fidelity to its own identity. This fidelity is not understood at all as a rigid attachment to ancient but now outmoded traditions. Since the God of Israel is the true God who can be known rationally also, fidelity to his laws is fidelity to the truth. Certainly the spirit of this movement is not captured by slapping the label of monotheistic intolerance on it. Rather, this is a confrontation between the intolerance of the modern state (together with the only life-style that it considers valid) and fidelity to the faith of the fathers (together with the way of life that is proper to it).

A look at the contemporary scene is called for here. The modern state in the Western world, in fact, on the one hand, considers itself a great force of tolerance that breaks with the foolish, prerational traditions of all religions.

Moreover, with its radical manipulation of man and distortion of the sexes through gender ideology, it opposes Christianity in a particular way. This dictatorial claim always to be right, due to an apparent rationality, requires the abandonment of Christian anthropology and of the way of life that follows from it, which is deemed prerational. The intolerance of this apparent modernity with respect to the Christian faith has not yet turned into open persecution and yet manifests itself in an increasingly authoritarian way and legislates accordingly, aiming to achieve the extinction of what is essentially Christian. The attitude of Mattathias—“We will not obey the king’s words” (modern legislation)—is that of Christians. The “zeal” of Mattathias, however, is not the form in which Christian zeal is expressed. Authentic “zeal” takes its essential form from the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Finally, let us try to draw some sort of conclusion from this rapid review of several stages of the history of the Old Testament faith in the one God.

First of all, we can state without further ado that historically monotheism appears in many different modes. Therefore it cannot be defined unambiguously according to the same modern criteria as a monolithic phenomenon. One arrives at monotheism, in the strict sense of the term according to its modern usage, only when it is associated with the question of the truth. In Israel, this passage occurs fundamentally starting with the Exile, even though not in the true and proper sense of philosophical reflection. The revolutionary event, from the perspective of the history of religions, occurs with the Christian acceptance of faith in the one God, which had been prepared throughout the Mediterranean basin by the group of “God-fearing men.”

The definitive affirmation of the universal claim of the one God was, on the other hand, still hindered by the fact that this one God had bound himself to Israel and that therefore he was fully accessible only in Israel; the pagans could adore him together with Israel, but could not belong to him completely. Only the Christian faith, with its universality that Paul had secured definitively, now allowed that the one God could be adored concretely also in the God of Israel who revealed himself. The encounter brought about by the Christian mission between the “God of the philosophers” and the concrete God of the Hebrew religion is the event that revolutionizes universal history.

In the final analysis, the success of this mission is based precisely on that encounter. Thus the Christian faith was able to present itself in history as the religio vera, the true religion. Christianity’s claim to universality is based on the opening of religion to philosophy. This is how to explain why, in the mission that developed in Christian antiquity, Christianity did not conceive of itself as a religion but, rather, in the first place as a continuation of philosophical thought, in other words, of man’s search for truth. This, unfortunately, has been increasingly forgotten in the modern era. The Christian religion is now considered a continuation of the world religions and is itself considered one religion among or above the others. Thus the “seeds of the Logos,” about which Clement of Alexandria speaks as the tendency of pre-Christian history toward Christ, are generally identified with the religions, whereas Clement of Alexandria himself considered them part of the process of philosophical thought in which human thought advances by trial and error toward Christ.

Let us return to the question of tolerance. The preceding discussion means that Christianity understands itself essentially as truth and bases on this its claim to universality. But precisely at this point the contemporary critique of Christianity intervenes, which considers the claim to truth intolerant in itself. Truth and tolerance seem to be in contradiction. The intolerance of Christianity would then be closely connected with its claim to truth. Underlying this concept is the suspicion that the truth is dangerous in itself. For this reason, the basic tendency of modernity moves ever more clearly toward a form of culture that is independent of the truth. Postmodern culture—which makes man his own creator and disputes the original gift of creation—manifests a will to recreate the world contrary to its truth. We have already seen previously how this very attitude necessarily leads to intolerance.

But as for the relation between truth and tolerance, tolerance is anchored to the very nature of truth. While referring to the revolt of the Maccabees, we saw how a society that sets itself against the truth is totalitarian and, therefore, profoundly intolerant. As far as the truth is concerned, I would simply like to defer to Origen. “Christ wins no victory over someone who is unwilling. He conquers only by persuasion. Not for nothing is he the Word of God.” But at the end, as an authentic counterbalance to all forms of intolerance, stands Jesus Christ crucified. The victory of faith can always be achieved only in communion with Jesus Crucified. The theology of the Cross is the Christian response to the question about freedom and violence; and in fact, even historically, Christianity won its victories only thanks to the persecuted and never when it sided with the persecutors.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted here from Benedict XVI's What is Christianity? The Last Writings thanks to the generous permission of Ignatius Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Kloster Wettingen Ost 31 Detail Kain und Abel, photo by Badener; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual leaders of our time. As Pope he authored the best-selling Jesus of Nazareth; and prior to his pontificate, he wrote many influential books that continue to remain important for the contemporary Church, such as Introduction to Christianity and The Spirit of the Liturgy.

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