What is Polytheism?

Polytheism is belief in, or worship of, multiple gods or divinities. The word comes from the Greek words poly and theoi, literally "many gods." Most ancient religions were polytheistic, holding to pantheons of traditional deities, often accumulated over centuries of cultural interchange and experience. Present-day polytheistic religions include Hinduism, Mahayana, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism in the East, and also contemporary African tribal religions. Note that according to some Hindu literature, there are 330 million (including local and regional) deities or gods worshiped in Hinduism. It is interesting to note that even in polytheistic religions, one god usually reigns supreme over the other gods, e.g., Zeus in Greek/Roman mythology and Brahman in Hinduism.

For the polytheists, deities or gods are formed around a number of aspects of life. These include natural forces and objects such as fertility and atmospheric forces; vegetation such as trees, herbs, and vineyards; animal and human forms such as serpents, cattle, and animal - human hybrids; and assorted functions such as love, agriculture, healing, and war, etc. In short, polytheists adore and worship the created world as divine rather then the creator God himself.

However, there are some serious philosophical problems when thinking about the definition of God in relation to polytheistic beliefs. By the broadest definition in most dictionaries, God refers to the supreme being that is above everything else. By very definition, this requires that it be only One being. The reasoning is that if this being was just another one of many gods, He would not necessarily be the highest or supreme. A polytheist might reply that there is one highest God with multiple lesser gods (i.e. Henotheism). However, this is still in contrast to the definition because those lesser beings cannot be referred to as "God", simply because they are not the supreme being. The definition of a supreme God demands that He is One.

Self-Refuting Nature of Polytheism

Everyone can know with certainty that there is a supreme spiritual being, Who is the One True God and the Creator of the world and all that it contains. There is no one who cannot understand and believe that God exists, if he considers how the earth bears fruit and how the heavens give rain, how the trees bloom, how each and every animal exists in its own kind, how the stars serve man, and how troubles and sorrows come and often happen against the will of man. From all these things, man can see that he is mortal and that it is God who arranges and directs all these things. For if God did not exist, everything would be disorganized. Thus, all things are of God, and everything is rationally arranged for the use and knowledge of mankind. And there is not the least little thing that is created or exists in the world without reasonable cause. (cf. St. Bridget's Revelations, Book 1, chapter 15)

Everyone knows that God is not something that they have carved out of wood or jade or stone. They know that God is not the tree that they worship or the river they worship or the rock or the snake or the sacred tree frog or nature spirits. They know that these things aren't the Creator of the universe. Every such person knows that he is worshipping a creature rather than the Creator.

If a man cannot understand or comprehend God's virtues and powers as they are because of his weakness, he can still see them with faith and believe. But if people in the world do not want to use their reason to consider God's power, they can still use their hands to touch and sense the deeds that Jesus Christ and His saints have done. They are namely so obvious that no one can doubt them to be the deeds of God. Who raised the dead and gave sight to the blind if not God? Who cast out the evil devils from men if not God? What have God taught if not things beneficial for the prosperity of soul and body and easy to bear? (cf. St. Bridget's Revelations, Book 1, chapter 15)

God defined infallibly, based on Romans 1, that the one true God can be known with certitude by the things which have been made, and by the natural light of human reason.

Romans 1:18-20: "For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it to them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable."

They are, as St. Paul says in Romans 20, without excuse. If there were truly people of sincere and of good will amongst them who had not yet attained the faith, and if they cooperate with the natural law, then God would send a preacher (even miraculously, if necessary) to bring the Faith and baptism to him.

All the people who die in cultures which have never been penetrated by the Gospel go to Hell for sins against the natural law and the other grave sins which they commit – which bad will and failure to cooperate with God's grace is the reason He does not reveal the Gospel to them.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Sent. III, 25, Q. 2, A. 2, solute. 2: "If a man should have no one to instruct him, God will show him, unless he culpably wishes to remain where he is."

St. Thomas Aquinas, Sent. II, 28, Q. 1, A. 4, ad 4: "If a man born among barbarian nations, does what he can, God Himself will show him what is necessary for salvation, either by inspiration or sending a teacher to him."

St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, A. 11, ad 1: Objection: "It is possible that someone may be brought up in the forest, or among wolves; such a man cannot explicitly know anything about the faith. St. Thomas replies: It is the characteristic of Divine Providence to provide every man with what is necessary for salvation… provided on his part there is no hindrance. In the case of a man who seeks good and shuns evil, by the leading of natural reason, God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the faith to him…"

Satan has always wanted to be worshiped as God. Look at his arrogant words in Isaiah. 14:13: "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly [wanting all to worship him], on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain." This sounds like 2 Thessalonians 2:4 which says, "He opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God." And as Revelation 13:4 says, "Men worshiped the dragon [who is Satan—see Rev. 12:9]…"

Isaiah 14:14 continues recording Satan's words: "I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." The devil has always wanted to be like God and to be worshiped in place of God. He even tried to tempt Jesus by showing "Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship me'" (Matthew 4:8,9). Jesus replies in Matthew 4:10: "Get away, Satan! It is written: 'The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve'" (referencing Deuteronomy 10:20).

2 Corinthians 4:3: "And if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost, in whom the god of this world [Satan] hath blinded the minds of unbelievers, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not shine unto them."

St. Augustine explains this well in reference to persons who died ignorant of the Faith and without baptism.

St. Augustine (+428): "… God foreknew that if they had lived and the gospel had been preached to them, they would have heard it without belief."

"It is in accord with God's justice that entry into heaven must be gained through steadfast faith, rational hope, and fervent love. A person ponders more frequently and adores more lovingly that which the heart loves more and loves with greater fervor. So it is with the gods that are placed in temples - though they are not gods nor creators, since there is but one sole creator, I myself, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the owners of temples and people in general love the gods more than they love me, seeking to achieve worldly success rather than to live with me.

"If I were to destroy the things that people love more than me, and make the people adore me against their will, then I would certainly do them an injustice by taking away their free will and desire from them. Since they have no faith in me, and there is in their hearts something more delightful than me, I reasonably permit them to produce externally what they love and long for in their minds. Because they love creation more than me, the Creator, whom they can know by probable signs and deeds, if only they would make use of their reason, and because they are blind, accursed is their creation and accursed are their idols. They themselves shall stand in shame and be sentenced for their folly, because they refuse to understand how sweet I am, their God, who created and redeemed humankind out of fervent love." (St. Bridget's Revelations, Book 5 or The Book of Questions, Interrogation 8)

What is Pantheism?

The idea that the divine permeates all of creation -- the idea upon which Hinduism and its practices is geared -- is pantheism, reprobated by Vatican I and other councils and teachings of the Church:

"The holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church believes and confesses that there is one, true, living God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth... Who, although He is one, singular, altogether simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, must be proclaimed distinct in reality and essence from the world..." (Constitutio Dogmatica de Fide Catholic, Sess. III, Cap. I)

God is distinct in reality and essence from His creation. Pantheism teaches that God and the universe are one. Pantheism teaches that the grass, trees, rivers, lakes, oceans, etc., were all united with Christ by virtue of the Incarnation. Pantheism "divinizes" the material world and leads to the "Gaia" belief of the New Agers that the material world lives and has a soul, and to environmental radicalism, in which trees and whales have more rights that human babies.

Since Hinduism is based on the idea of union with the divine within oneself and within all of creation, it is an expression of belief in the condemned pantheistic heresy that God and His creation are a single thing. Hinduism, therefore, is a false religion that expresses belief in a false god.

Hinduism views mankind as divine. Because Brahman is everything, Hinduism asserts that everyone is divine. Atman, or self, is one with Brahman. All of reality outside of Brahman is considered mere illusion. The spiritual goal of a Hindu is to become one with Brahman, thus ceasing to exist in its illusory form of "individual self." This freedom is referred to as "moksha." Until moksha is achieved, a Hindu believes that he/she will be repeatedly reincarnated in order that he/she may work towards self-realization of the truth (the truth being that only Brahman exists, nothing else). How a person is reincarnated is determined by karma, which is a principle of cause and effect governed by nature's balance. What one did in the past affects and corresponds with what happens in the future, past and future lives included.

Self-Refuting Nature of Pantheism

Pantheism (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, et al.) is self-refuting, especially all forms that claim individuality is an illusion caused by my mind. For according to pantheism, individual minds are themselves aspects of the illusion and can therefore provide no basis for explaining it.

If the mind is part of the illusion, it cannot be the ground for explaining the illusion. Hence, if pantheism is true in asserting that my individuality is an illusion, then pantheism is false, since there is no basis for explaining the illusion.

Pantheism also fails to handle the problem of evil in a satisfactory manner. To pronounce evil an illusion or as less than real is not only frustrating and hollow to those experiencing evil, but it seems philosophically inadequate. If evil is not real, then what is the origin of the illusion? Why have people experienced it for so long, and why does it seem so real? Despite the pantheist's claim to the contrary, he or she also experiences pain, suffering, and eventually will die. Even pantheists double-over in pain when they get appendicitis. They jump out of the way of an on-coming truck so as not to get hurt.

If God is all, and all is God, as pantheists maintain, then evil is an illusion and ultimately there are no rights and wrongs. For there are four possibilities regarding good and evil in a Pantheistic belief structure (as opposed to the one true explanation of evil):

1) If God is all-good, then evil must exist apart from God. But this is impossible since God is all - nothing can exist apart from It.

2) But if God is all-evil, then good must exist apart from God. This is not possible either, since God is in all.

3) God is both all-good and all-evil. This cannot be, for it is self-contradictory to affirm that the same being is both all good and all evil at the same time. Further, most pantheists agree that God is beyond good and evil. Therefore God is neither good nor evil.

4) Good and evil are illusory. They are not real categories.

Option four is what most pantheists believe. But if evil is only an illusion, then ultimately there is no such thing as good and evil thoughts or actions. Hence, what difference would it make whether we praise or curse, counsel or rape, love or murder someone? If there is no final moral difference between those actions, absolute moral responsibilities do not exist. Cruelty and non-cruelty are ultimately the same. One critic made the point with this illustration:

"One day I was talking to a group of people in the digs of a young South African in Cambridge. Among others, there was present a young Indian who was of Sikh background but a Hindu by religion. He started to speak strongly against Christianity, but did not really understand the problems of his own beliefs. So I said, 'Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and non-cruelty are ultimately equal, that there is no intrinsic difference between them?' He agreed. The student in whose room we met, who had clearly understood the implications of what the young Sikh had admitted, picked up his kettle of boiling water with which he was about to make tea, and stood with it steaming over the Indian's head. The man looked up and asked him what he was doing and he said, with a cold yet gentle finality, 'There is no difference between cruelty and non-cruelty.' Thereupon the Hindu walked out into the night."

If pantheists are correct that reality is not moral, that good and evil, right and wrong, are inapplicable to what is, then to be right is as meaningless as to be wrong. The foundation for morality is destroyed. Pantheism does not take the problem of evil seriously. If you do not take the distinctions between good and bad seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that.

Pantheism's "god" is unknowable. The very claim, "God is unknowable in an intellectual way," seems either meaningless or self-defeating. For if the claim itself cannot be understood in an intellectual way, then it is self-defeating. For what is being affirmed is that nothing can be understood about God in an intellectual way. But the pantheist expects us to intellectually know this truth that God cannot be understood in an intellectual way. In other words, the pantheist appears to be making a statement about God to the effect that no such statements can be made about God. But how can one make a positive affirmation about God which claims that only negative affirmations can be made about God? Plotinus admitted that negative knowledge presupposes some positive awareness. Otherwise, one would not know what to negate.

Since all that God made is good, even those things which appear evil only appear that way because of a limited context or perspective. When viewed as a whole, that which appears to be evil ultimately contributes to the greater good.

For example, certain virtues couldn't exist without evil: courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, the giving of comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, long-suffering, submission and obedience, to name a few. These are not virtues in the abstract, but elements of character that can only be had by moral souls. Just as evil is a result of acts of will, so is virtue. Acts of moral choice accomplish both.

What good comes out of a drive-by killing, someone might ask, or the death of a teenager through overdose, or a daughter's rape, or child abuse? The answer is that a commensurate good doesn't always come perceptibly out of those individual situations, though God is certainly capable of redeeming any tragedy. Rather, the greater good results from having a world in which there is moral freedom, and moral freedom makes moral tragedies like these possible.

This observation reveals an interesting twist in this problem. If morality freely chosen can only happen in a world where evil is possible, then heaven will be a place where there will be no moral growth, where moral choices will not be possible because all the inhabitants of heaven will be immutably good. Growth of the soul is only possible and available to inhabitants of a fallen world.

Two Scriptural observations lend credibility to this view. First, in recounting the great heroes of faith, the writer of Hebrews mentions that some were rescued by faith, but others endured by faith "... in order that they might obtain a better resurrection." (Heb. 11:35) Second, St. Paul tells St. Timothy that "... godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Tim. 4:8)

Both of these verses indicate that conditions in this life affect conditions in the next. Bearing up under evil in this life improves our resurrection in the next. Godliness in this life brings profit in the next. These benefits are not available after this life or there would be little urgency to grow now; all eternity would be left in which to catch up.

A deeper, more profound good results when virtue is won by free, moral souls struggling with evil, rather than simply granted to them as an element of their constitution.

There's a sound reason why God has allowed man the freedom to choose evil. It doesn't conflict with His goodness. God is neither the author of evil, nor its helpless victim. Rather, precisely because of His goodness He chooses to co-exist with evil for a time, that His goodness may be all the more manifest in those who overcome it by freely choosing to do good and avoid evil.

Romans 8:28: "And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints."

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