Post-monotheism is a concept to which my name has been attached among my circle of friends, colleagues, and readers; it’s even got its own Wikipedia entry. It has come to mean two things for me — a very personal moment of spiritual and intellectual clarity during a deep twilight, and a possibly useful way of understanding the historical and theological visions of the Baha’i Faith.
On the one hand, it was originally an historiographical-spiritual sensibility which I developed during my first Master’s degree program, which was in history. I laid out the principles in a July 2008 essay entitled, The Historian’s Theodicy. By the way, if you’re not feeling up to the task of reading the essay, there’s a brief summary at the bottom of this page that was originally written at the same time as the essay.
For me, The Historian’s Theodicy was and remains an imperfect masterpiece. It’s bold, if not hyperbolic, and also very forthright. Yet, although it was never intended for publication in an academic journal, it too often rings of a manifesto, which was not precisely my intention. Yes, like any scholar I want to be agreed with, but post-monotheism was not an ideology or program.
More importantly, though, the essay represents a moment in my life in which an intellectual and spiritual struggle crystallized. I was writing my first Master’s thesis at the time, about the Apostasy Wars of early Islamic history. My long, difficult romance with Islam, had left me thoroughly burned out, and many tenets of Muslim faith had become tattered.
When I look back at the essay, I see it as my “Ecclesiastes moment” before I discovered (or, more accurately, re-discovered) the Baha’i Faith — the searching, groping darkness before the dawn. Indeed, the axioms I developed therein laid the groundwork for the dawnbreak.
The axioms also established an articulate foundation and philosophical scope for the development of my spiritual-intellectual framework. Not only this, but the analogy to Hamlet and the idea of God as an author, although it was an idea I had been developing long before the essay, also gained formal clarity and set the tone for later meditations.
Thus, the essay left a living legacy that continues within my being to this day. For all its flaws, I’m proud of it. Indeed, I’m glad that I wrote it, for it set the tone for the kind of the thinker I wanted to become and still strive to achieve.
On the other hand, the term “post-monotheism” remains potentially useful to describe my religion, the Baha’i faith. However, it needs some significant reconstruction and disentanglement from The Historian’s Theodicy.
To begin with, if by “monotheism” we understand the traditional monotheistic religions that existed before the nineteenth century, then the Baha’i faith, which has very much a revisionist historiography concerning its predecessors, would indeed be “post“-monotheistic. I should note that I’m using these terms in very specific technical and material senses:
- Regarding “revisionism”, the Bab and Baha’u'llah not only expanded the nature and scope of sacral history into an all-embracing vision, but in their writings, especially The Hidden Words, they deconstructed the traditions of the past, digging down to the traditions’ essences so as to re-unleash the underlying oasis of spiritual and civilizational resurrection whence all the great religions flowed.
- Regarding “predecessors”, we Baha’is believe that the phenomenon of religion is both extratemporal and greater than the individual religions that claim the title, including our own. In a sense, the Baha’i faith is Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Nevertheless, in strict material terms, we are also chronologically later than them, the next step in evolution, so to speak.
Secondly, our vision of God as a Being so transcendent that She is beyond both transcendence and immanence and all other duality and description would be, in a very literal sense, post-monotheistic – the One True God is beyond the One True God, and hence, beyond monotheism. Perhaps for some readers feel I’m just playing with words, but I’m deadly serious when I say that God is greater than God.
The post-monotheistic thrust of the Baha’i theological vision does two things. First, it is an evolution of the logic of the monotheisms which preceded it, and perhaps also hints at the logical-conceptual space in which the doctrines of the next Manifestation of God will be formulated nigh a millennium from now according to Baha’i prophecies. I quote Shoghi Effendi, who writes,
[We are now in a] Dispensation which, as the Author of the Faith has Himself categorically asserted, must extend over a period of no less than one thousand years, and which will constitute the first stage in a series of Dispensations, to be established by future Manifestations, all deriving their inspiration from the Author of the Baha’i Revelation, and destined to last, in their aggregate, no less than five thousand centuries…
Secondly, the Baha’i vision of divine post-monotheism may be one way of framing why our faith’s teachings emphasize the personage of the Manifestation of God. To conclude these remarks and to lead you onto the summary of The Historian’s Theodicy, I quote Baha’u'llah, who writes,
The door of the knowledge of the Ancient Being [God] hath ever been, and will continue to be, closed in the face of men. No man’s understanding shall ever gain access unto His holy court. As a token of His mercy, however, and as a proof of His loving-kindness, He hath manifested unto men the Day Stars of His divine guidance, the Symbols of His divine unity, and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self.
The Historian’s Theodicy (original summary from 2008)
Like post-modernism, “post-monotheism” isn’t so much an interpretive framework or a movement as a sensibility. It’s a spiritual return to the Stoic perspective that is upgraded with a persisting belief in whatever the term “God” once signified, but seeking a more ameliorate understanding of the divine.
Post-modern Mankind should no longer be jaded, as the existentialists and deicidists believed was the case for modern Man. Nor should we tremble and bow before the idol of contemporary technology’s God-like power as the Cold War generations did. We should instead be historical in our mindset and take to heart the Koranic creed, “Man is destined to march from state to state.”
The central analogy of post-monotheism is the storywriter, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet the symbol. I’ve read this play frequently and often sensed that somehow, though Hamlet was “nothing more” than a creation of Shakespeare, he was actually alive, propelling the story forward with the fuel of his own personality. To me the most critical line of the whole play is not his famous, “To be or not to be — that is the question,” but instead his dying words:
“O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
absent thee from felicity awhile,
and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
to tell my story.”
I’ve long thought there are two avenues to interpret the ramifications of this line: (a) Horatio was Shakespeare’s stand-in within the story, and so the play was the retelling; and (b) Hamlet was Shakespeare’s reflection or inner man, and the fictional Denmark the interior world of the playwright. According to the first intrepretation, Shakespeare was his own character’s best friend and compatriot; according to the second, the ghost of the king was Shakespeare himself, appearing as a deity-penman, urging and guiding the young prince toward the climatic moment of judgment. These two interpretations complement each other, for essentially they describe the mirroring and partnering of creator and creation.
Every author leaves his imprint upon his creations, but by writing’s end, in the experience of penning whole personalities and societies into being, the creations themselves leave their imprint upon the author. They are thus bonded in an intimacy, longing, and affection that bridges emotion, intellect, and soul, and together they work toward the establishment of a masterpiece.
We may use the analogy of God-as-storywriter to approach once more the vicissitudes of historical experience: tragedy and cataclysm are the spilled blood-ink of ever-creation. It is as much in our pain and loss as in our joy and gain that the greatest drama has been, will be, and is this very moment is being written. To paraphrase Hamlet, our tears are pregnant with possibilities not yet dreamt of in our philosophies.