Beyond Monotheism — 5. “I am because we are”: The roots of multiplicity in Africa.

Chapter 5 continues the historical survey set out in the preceding chapters. What differentiates it from the others is its goal of highlighting an alternative conception of divinity than the one found in the logic of the One, but first Schneider continues with the narrative history concerning monotheism. Schneider spent time showing us that the Christian logic of the One developed through the relationship between Christianity and its rootedness in the history of Israel and the interactions with Greek philosophy. In this chapter she begins by focusing on the Roman Empire’s Hellenic culture and the Christian apologetic attempt to present the revelation of Christ within the framework of that culture, before turning to the alternative conception of divinity found in the distinctly Creole theology of the Latin-speaking African Tertullian.

The historical birth of Christianity occurred in the midst of an increasingly Hellenized Jewish culture. Combining the theo-political monotheism of the patriarchal and convenantal history of Israel with the Greek philosophical ideals of cosmic oneness. Schneider points, by way of example, to the figure of Philo of Alexandria. Philo, from the position of a member of the Jewish upper-class closely aligned to the Roman occupiers, carried out an act of philosophical translation between Jewish and Greek monarchical ideas. Explaining the oneness of God through the philosophical terms of the Greeks. While himself not a Christian, being 20 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth, his writings had a major impact on Hellenic Christian theologians (Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen are named by Schneider).

What Philo offered Christian thinkers was a theological and philosophical framework familiar to the wider culture that could be used to explain away the ambiguity of the New Testament writings on divinity. In short, Philo offered an apologetic tool to explain away the marked strangeness of the early Christian communities claims about Jesus’ divinity in the context of a Hellenic-Jewish culture. To the Jews the claims to divinity seemed unfounded as Rome still ruled and Jesus was unable to save even himself. To the Greeks the claims of a human being to any kind of divine sonship seemed akin to the early Greek pantheon of gods that, in the collapse of their empire, failed them. While the synoptic authors didn’t appear to see any need to explain the divinity of Jesus, Schneider goes so far as to write, “The meanings of the fatherhood of God and the sonship of Jesus were apparently self-evident enough to the members of those communities that their writers felt no pressure to explain what Jesus meant when he called God Father, or they did not see Jesus as divine in any way that required explanation (56-7).” This, however, is differentiated from the Gospel of John who spends some time making explicit that when dealing with Jesus one is explicitly dealing with God, showing that the coherence of Jewish and Greek monotheism in Christian worship had began to erode. Finally, in the midst of major Hellenic conversions of intellectuals schooled in Hellenic thought, called the Apologists, the revelation of incarnation was largely collapsed and incorporated into the logic of monotheism.

However, one can see cracks in the monolithic presentation of monotheism as other thinkers in the early history of Christianity attempted to articulate claims about divinity outside of the strict logic of the One. Schneider introduces the reader to an understanding of the Latin-speaking African theologian Tertullian as a “Creole” theologian. She credits Tertullian as creating “an opening in Christian theology (an opening, of course, that already existed) for multiplicity (61)” within the overriding culture of monotheism. While arguing for a unified concept of God he never ceased to argue, at the same time, that there is an essential plurality in God as well. He attacks head on the political analogies from which monotheism gains so much of its strength, going so far as to mock those who think that plurality in rule means diminished power.

Schneider credits Tertullian’s African heritage for his ability to conceive of the inherent relationality present in the divine. Born in Carthage he was, against those racist ideologies that would remove Northern Africa from the African context granting it some kind of honorary European identity, at the crossroads of Hellenic culture and the African culture. Within the African political and intellectual context there was an emphasis on the “general idea of communality”, as A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya has argued, that lead directly to the mature doctrine of the Trinity through thinkers like Tertullian and, in a more individualistic tone (according to Schneider), Augustine (another Hellenized African thinker).

However, despite the genius of Tertullian and the import of this general idea of communality, “the idea of trinity proved to be a stumbling block for Christians throughout Christian history because the underlying monotheism was never actually challenged (67).” This was because, in part, Tertullian argued for a closed plurality that allowed for appropriation by the Roman political elites. “The opening toward multiplicity in the divine that the idea of the trinity represents in Christian theology was almost immediately narrowed by ecclesial and political pressures” to give a religious system that would not challenge the political aspirations of Constantine nor the new found place of privilege the Christian church found itself in (69).

Schneider sums up this chapter nicely writing,

As a doctrine of God, therefore, the Christian Trinity feel into incoherence in the context of imperial demands for a theology of absolute rule and a Hellenistic cultural presupposition of the perfection of stasis. “Trinity” does make best sense in the light of common African cultural presuppositions that understand organic communality to be ontologically prior to individuality. To be alone, the Akan claim, is to be cursed – why would any religion curse its own God with monotheism?

And yet, throughout the numerous schisms and reformations that haunt the history of Christianity, that is exactly what it has continued to do.

Reflections/questions: I was impressed with this chapter and learned something about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity that I had not really come across before in her discussion of scholarship locating the elements of ancient African culture in the doctrine. The questions that this brings up for me are focused on the failure of multiplicity to unroot the logic of the One and the way it was subordinated to it. Why is multiplicity the minority position in Christianity and, if it bears witness more faithfully to the incarnation of Jesus and his divinity, what remains distinctly Christian about Christianity?

3 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 5. “I am because we are”: The roots of multiplicity in Africa.

  1. This was an excellent chapter. Having been laughed at for proposing this kind of reading of Augustine and the desert fathers in the past, I’m glad to see it getting serious treatment. I have two gripes with the periphery though:

    I’m a bit worried about the portrayal of Hellenism as “a world that more and more cynically worshipped a pantheon of deities out of civic habit but believed in the Pythagorean dream of a cosmic spherical perfect One.” (p58, emphasis original) Surely the practice of polytheism (together with sanctions against those who did not participate in the polytheism cult and the exile of atheists)indicates that it is precisely polytheism that is the political influence here rather than monologic (and I noted before how I think it’s complicit with imperialism). Plus she owes us a definition of belief that is independent of worship and religious practice.

    Secondly, I hope someone can clear up for me what’s so monological about Augustine’s thought when he indicates that we need to think about God through thinking about and acting on our multiplicit self. As Alex has already pointed out, Scheider owes us an account of the multiplicity of the incarnation, and now she’s ruled out the rather neat Augustinian account of the multiplicity of being human, what does she want? It seems to me that the only thing Tertullian has that Augustine doesn’t is a society of monads. And that’s not a theology of multiplicity as such, but a theology of being together.

    And why on earth does she not consider Chalcedon? Seems kinda central…

  2. I think it is fair to say that Schneider here is talking about the Roman ruling class in large part, rather than the common people, though it seems plausible to make the claim that the common people no longer treated the pantheon as a lens with which to view the world. The polytheism existed under the reign of a Pythagorean dream of a cosmic spherical perfect One without, rather than polytheism dictating how one viewed the universe. I found this pretty explicit.

    Your second question is certainly more difficult to deal with. I think, in Schneider’s defense, she is working in a tradition of feminist criticism of Augustine flowing out of Mary McClintock Fulkerson (I think). I certainly, upon my first reading Augustine, had sympathy for this criticism, but have been told over and over by other people that there is more going on. I can’t really fault Schneider with not devoting more time to Augustine, as it doesn’t seem to be the point to argue that we shouldn’t read him anymore, but it would have cut off fair criticisms like this.

    I wouldn’t overstate the valorization of Tertullian though. She clearly sees in African culture the roots of multiplicity in its general idea of communality (or what you call a theology of being together, which isn’t quite a soceity of monads, but is a society of fractured, never discrete, individuals), but I don’t think she is playing the rather cheap card of simply returning to Tertullian or saying Europe has it all wrong but Africa has it all right. She is finding resources there, resources that were passed over in favor of Hellenic ones, for considering the task that remains to be done – thinking multiplicity.

  3. Yes, I’ll agree that she is being explicit about this, but I think she’s wrong on emphasising the political implications of the Pythagorean dream rather than the polytheism. People were punished for the transgressing the latter rather than the former in antiquity. Religious practice was largely based on a pantheon. So what is the political and religious status of the dream of unity? If she’s going to claim that it’s a kind of behind the scenes concept, then she’s going to have to demonstrate that this has political and religious significance. Alternatively, she can say it’s purely a scientific thing. Once again, I think the book needs more down to earth analysis in order to make it’s point.

    Similarly with Tertullian: what stops his view of the trinity from just stating that there are three individualistic gods? Nothing: whereas Augustine claims that you will never even know where to look unless you are already functioning as a plurality. So I still don’t understand what it is she gets from Tertullian, nor why she is so hostile to Augustine.

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