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In the name of God

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, Jonathan Kirsch, Viking: 352 pp., $25.95

March 07, 2004|F.E. Peters | F.E. Peters is professor of Middle East studies, history and religion at New York University and is the author, most recently, of "The Monotheists: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Competition."

Islam, as it turns out, may be just one, perhaps the worst, of a bad lot. The worshipers of the One True God, collectively the monotheists and, more specifically, Jews, Christians and Muslims, have a long, though somewhat episodic, record of mayhem and murder in the name of their God. That God is variously called Yahweh, God the Father or Allah, and while it's Allah and the Muslims who are currently in the headlines' glare, Jews and Christians have also, at sundry times and various places, acted in much the same aggressive manner, and for mostly the same reason, to protect or sustain the rights of God.

That reason has no present currency in the societies where most Jews and Christians now live. The notion of a holy war, one fought in the name of religion, has been overtaken by that of a just war, force employed for a good and sufficient reason, which does not, in the arguments of its advocates, include the rights of any god whatever or of any people claiming to be God's chosen. Jews and Christians are now members of civil and secular societies that bid them to restrain themselves, and, though free to follow whatever religious path they might choose, they are not to impose either their beliefs or their practices on others. They had little choice but to obey, the Jews with some enthusiasm since it had been many centuries since they were capable of imposing their will on anyone, and, for almost as long, they had received rather severe theological chastisements at the hands of the Christians. Some Christians, with a long history of hegemony still fresh in their memories, were more reluctant, but in the end both Jews and Christians were persuaded that state-imposed tolerance was not only a prudent course but the morally preferable one as well.

Christians have not always thought so. For most of their history, they have waged fierce warfare against the enemies of Christ and the church, both within and without. Jonathan Kirsch's "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism" carries us back to those earlier days, when first Jews and then Christians turned easily and often unreflectively to violence. The wars waged by the Israelites/Jews against the goyim are rapidly and energetically described, their brutality and coercive tactics duly noted, as is the Jews' willingness to die for their faith in, for example, the Maccabean wars. But the Maccabean heroes were resurrected into eternal life for their pains, a point that Kirsch passes over, though it was a cause and an effect noted with great attention and great consequence by later generations of Christians.

The attractions of idol worship were replaced by something far more alluring in the 4th century BC. Alexander the Great and his successors carried Hellenism and all its intellectual and cultural baggage into the land of the Jews. The Hellenic lifestyle was immensely seductive to Jews, as Kirsch explains, but even more insidious was the Hellenic worldview, which offered a rational, flattering and attractive -- and still viable -- alternative to the Jewish revelation, and later to the Christian and Muslim ones as well.

This titanic, and ongoing, struggle between reason and revelation is not much featured in "God Against the Gods"; the Hellenes are treated more in terms of their myths (which were already turning "mythical" in late antiquity) than of their ideas. What Kirsch is really interested in, and it takes up a well-merited two-thirds of his book, is, to put it somewhat baldly, Emperor Constantine's heavy-handed conversion in 313 of Christian monotheistic intolerance into the policy of the Roman empire, antiquity's "first totalitarian state." It was a policy that led in the end to the death -- though Kirsch makes it sound more like murder -- of paganism, despite the strenuous though short-lived efforts of one of Constantine's relatives and imperial successors, Julian, to resuscitate it.

His Christian contemporaries glorified Constantine, whom they dubbed "the Great"; modern writers, who are not much taken by either autocrats or dogma, are considerably less kind, and the first Christian emperor is undoubtedly the villain of "God Against the Gods." Though he might have been a Christian, the bloody-minded emperor did not act like one, Kirsch points out, particularly where his family was concerned.

And behind Constantine there is perhaps an even darker evil. Like Islam's own zero tolerance of other gods, Christianity's Roman-armed persecution of paganism was simply a reflection of its Jewish exclusionist roots, or perhaps of the very essence of monotheism with its famously jealous God. But the old gods were already expiring, as even Julian, that incurably romantic classicist, must have understood. More damnably, however, Christianity turned its energies against its own brood by its deadly insistence that its own members get it, always and everywhere and by everyone, right.

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