In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.
This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.
In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.
The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.
Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.
Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”
© Elizabeth Keck 2011