“Sinners receive pardon by the intercession of Mary alone.”
– St. John Chrysostom
At the summit of Montmartre in Paris stands the basilica of Sacre Coeur; a late 19th, early 20th Century political and religious prodigious Catholic Church dedicated to Jesus, and the decades following the French Revolution. Crowds flock to look out across the beautiful city from the highest point at the foot of the basilica. At night, the brightly lit Church illuminates the skyline of Paris quite wonderfully.
Last week, I sat in on mass being spoken at Sacre Coeur. It’s my second Catholic Mass in Paris. Previously I’ve sat in on mass at Notre Dame. As an outspoken Atheist, one would assume I would be quite averse to all things ritual with regard religion; and yet, I find it strangely alluring. To me, it reveals something about the human condition and its desire for guidance from ‘outside’. A sort of, lack of belief in ourselves. In much the same way as the air fills with the sound of the Islamic call to prayer from the stunning Blue Mosque of Istanbul multiple times every day, Catholic rituals intrigue me. If we start from the position, as I do, that there is no God, that Jesus was not divine and may not have actually existed at all; then the rituals I see at Catholic mass seem fatuous, almost child-like, and very alien. And yet, here we are, surrounded by throngs of people, beautifully crafted stone monuments, brightly coloured windows, inspired art of the geniuses, nuns, cardinals, priests, people kneeling before the altar, so passionately enthralled in prayer that somehow the pointlessness of the ritual becomes irrelevant and the human aspect of a desire for hope, a feeling of belonging, and outside interference becomes prevalent.
It is true that those who follow the line of the three main Abrahamic traditions insist that their one God is the key to salvation, and that believing so, makes their Monotheistic faith altogether different from the Polytheistic faiths that have inspired generations before them. But it would appear to me, that the idea of ‘one God’, is not enough for those who deeply require ‘outside’ guidance and the hope for a grand plan. Polytheism seemed to have all bases covered. The single God of Monotheism, regardless of the ‘omni’ attributes applied to it, still struggles to fulfil the very basic desires that religion is supposed to inspire. And so the religious work on ways to get round that problem, walking a careful line between Monotheism and Polytheism.
Catholicism is quite spectacular at subtly blurring the lines between Monotheism and Polytheism, whilst insisting on the faith being entirely Monotheistic. This blurring of the lines between the two ‘theism’s is not new for Christianity. Let us not forget that Satan holds great power over mankind, the only key difference between Satan and God appears to be the attributed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ concepts. Other than that, they are essentially two Gods, in much the same way that Hades of Greek Mythology, and king of the Gods of the underworld, was as much of a God as Zeus. Satan occupies an important and rather central place in the Pantheon of Christian icons. It is through a single conversation between Satan and Eve, that the entire ‘plan’ of God was forced to take a dramatic, and time consuming turn. The Christian defined plan of God, is one great attempt to undo the apparent ‘harm’ created by Satan in Eden. Satan is a rather powerful being, able to circumnavigate the apparent omnipresence of God. Christianity, in its entirety, exists through the actions of Satan, and the long, drawn out reactions of God. Perhaps we could call Satan a minor deity, but a deity nonetheless.
We must also note the veneration of Saints in Catholic tradition. They may not be ‘Gods’ in a very strict sense, but they play a key role once reserved for Polytheistic Gods of old. The Saints give us a human face to a faceless religion. They surround the square of St Peters in Rome. They appear in Catholic Churches and Cathedrals across Christendom. Saints days are celebrated, and intercession of Saints is a key doctrine in many Churches. They provide an example of how one ‘should’ live according to the faith. The Saints replace the minor Gods in the old Roman Pantheons, in charge of, and able to intercede within the realm of certain human causes, that a single God seems to lack sufficient time to commit to each. Saint Peter is the Saint of long life. Christina the Astonishing (able to perform miracles) is the Saint of Mental Illness. Florian is the Saint against Fire. Gerard Majella is the Saint of expectant Mothers. The Saints play an important, supernatural role in the running of the World; a human, Earthly role that we find easier to relate to, than a faceless, mysterious ‘one God’ entity.
Crucially, according to Catholic doctrine, the Saints also hear our prayers. They hear the silent prayers, of millions of believers, in many different languages, all at the same time, from all over the World.
The importance placed on the ability of the Saints in heaven, to be able to intercede on behalf of Christians on Earth, naturally elevates the Saints to a status beyond that of human, but just below that of ‘God’.
“All those who seek Mary’s protection will be saved for all eternity.”
– Pope Benedict XV
Popes throughout the ages have placed great emphasis on salvation through Mary. She exists on a platform as close to a ‘God’ as one could possibly get. The blurred lines are evident. Popes demand her worship, without actually using the term worship:
“What will it cost you, oh Mary, to hear our prayer? What will it cost you to save us? Has not Jesus placed in your hands all the treasures of His grace and mercy? You sit crowned Queen at the right hand of your son: your dominion reaches as far as the heavens and to you are subject the earth and all creatures dwelling thereon. Your dominion reaches even down into the abyss of hell, and you alone, oh Mary, save us from the hands of Satan.”
– Pope Pius XI
If Catholicism, with its God of the ‘omnis’ were truly Monotheistic, it would not require the intercession of Saints on behalf of humans. It would not require Patron Saints suddenly able to hear millions of prayers, in different languages, in different places, all at the same time. It would not require Mary having any dominion. They would need no control, nor need to intercede within a certain realm. The Ave Maria, the rosary, would be meaningless, and yet it holds a meaningful and rather curious centrality within the Catholic faith. This represents the careful line, mentioned above, between Polytheism and Monotheism, and an interesting way to reconcile the problems presented by Monotheism, with some of the comforts offered by the Polytheistic past.
Similarly, we see Muslims often living by and focusing on the sayings and life of the Prophet Muhammad as opposed to just the Qur’an, despite the great emphasis placed on the worship of just one God, in the Qur’an. Islam does not accept the ‘worship’ of any other God, but Allah (an old Pagan God). They seem however, to play rather fast and loose with the term ‘worship’ when it comes to the Prophet Muhammad. The entire concept of death for apostasy, comes from the Hadith, and not the Qur’an. Muhammad’s life and sayings occupy a key space in the faith of Islam. There is no need to live by the words and life of the Prophet, if the faith is Monotheistic. He is simply a man. He makes mistakes. He is fallible. The Hadiths are pointless, if the Qur’an is the true word of the one God. If the only requirement of Islam, is to live by the words of the Qur’an, then the faith can be considered far more Monotheistic, than it is the moment we introduce Hadiths into the equation. Muslims undoubtedly hold the life of sayings (even outside of revelation) of the Prophet, in high regard. To question the actions of the Prophet, is to insult Islam. To negatively depict the Prophet, is to insult Islam. They may not call it ‘worship’, but it is as close as devotion gets to worship. Mehdi Hasan of New Statesman fame once told a crowd during a debate that he loved the Prophet, more than his own children. That is devotion, closer to worship than any other form. It places infallibility on a person, but simultaneously claiming not to. Again, it blurs the lines of Polytheism and Monotheism. The Islamic faith, like Catholicism, goes ‘beyond’ the simplistic ‘one God’ notion. Not quite enough to make it outright Polytheistic but certainly enough to render the concept of Monotheism in Islam suspect.
I don’t think it is possible to apply the succinct terms ‘Polytheism’ or ‘Monotheism’ so flippantly to the Abrahamic faiths. There are recognisable problems with Monotheism for the devoutly religious. It lacks a human aspect that can only be fulfilled by human actors; human actors who slowly become ‘worshipped’, relied upon for the continuation of the faith and as close to Gods as one can be without acquiring the name. Their lives and words are just as central to the faith, as the ‘revelation’ of their God. They are deemed untouchable. Polytheism did not die with the growth of the ‘Monotheistic’ religions. It simply shifted focus, blurred the lines, and the product of that blurring, can be seen when we sit in the dimly lit Basilica of Sacre Coeur and witness the unwavering and passionate devotion of the believers.