Every fourth of July I end up thinking about this topic, knowing full well that lots of Evangelical churches across America are reveling in “Old Glory” and hosting “God and Country” Saturday night revivals, even as Liberal churches in the same towns cringe and argue about whether it is appropriate to have an American flag in the building. As a LiberalEvangelical I come down on these issues in some unexpected ways thanks in large part to the impact of a single book that influenced me more than almost any other in seminary: H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.
I write book reviews from time to time, but this is more of a recommendation than a review. Niebuhr’s text isn’t as well know as some of the texts that his brother wrote, nor is it as internally coherent. It is, after all, a collection of essays, not a sustained argument. But it does introduce a very important distinction that has stuck with me for almost 20 years. Monotheism and Polytheism, we are all familiar with, but Niebuhr introduces the concept of Henotheism, a kind of degenerate monotheism that “believes” in one God but is in fact “that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as of loyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as churches” (11). With this formulation Niebuhr construes religious life as less a matter of confession and more a matter of loyalty, the true monotheist being loyal to all-beings-that-are and all-being-that-is part of creation. Rational assent to a statement of belief or creed is meaningless in the face of divided loyalty and any act that partitions off part of creation and elevates it above another is a kind of henotheistic idolatry.
I remember feeling that I had been slapped upside the head when I first read this text. It is brutal and uncompromising, but true to the work of the both the Niebuhrs (H. Richard and Reinhold) the text is also rich in pastoral instruction. Niebuhr wasn’t trying to break any skulls, he was instead calling on his readers to re-appreciate the radical claim of monotheism that not only is God one, but God is truly the creator and sustainer of all being, so no subset thereof is to be elevated above another or despised. It is a radical restatement of universal love i.e. an ideal, an unlivable task, an impossibly egalitarian love.