Raffaele Pettazzoni – Monotheism as a Revolution from Within Polytheistic Frameworks

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Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959) was an Italian scholar, historian of religion, and president of the International Association for the History of Religions (1950-1959) notable for his study of divine omniscience.

Pettazzoni observed how there was the concept of a supreme being among historical societies and contended that singular deities were believed in by the earliest historical peoples. However, unlike the scholar by the name Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), Pettazzoni did not wish to argue for an original monotheism or, as Schmidt did, for a Primordial Monotheism. In fact, Pettazzoni charged Schmidt with committing the fallacy of equivocation by associating “primitive” peoples’ belief in a Supreme Being with that of contemporary monotheism (as embraced by religious people in the west) when they actually meant different things,

“The theory of primitive monotheism is founded on an equivocation and on an error. The equivocation consists of calling by the name of monotheism what is nothing of the kind, in mistaking for true monotheism the savage peoples’ idea of Supreme Being. The error consists in supposing that to be primitive, which is not so, in transferring to the most archaic religious culture the idea of God which properly belongs to our western civilization, that which found its way from the Old Testament into the New and then was elaborated by Christianity.”

Pettazzoni saw how Schmidt transferred a modern, Christianized, and developed concept of monotheism back onto the “primitives” of early history, and then claimed that the two concepts were identical. Pettazzoni:

“What we find in them [primitive religions] is the notion of a Supreme Being, is it allowable to identify such an idea with monotheism? If we do, are we not running the risk of importing among the uncivilized an idea peculiar to the sphere of great modern monotheistic faiths?… The idea of the Supreme Being is not the reflection of an abstract monotheistic idea of God made up of all the highest attribute theoretically inherent therein, one of which is omniscience. It is a concrete historical formation which takes different shapes, including at times diverse attributes, according to the cultural environment in which it appears.”

Pettazzoni offers several of his own ideas. For example, he was interested in tracing monotheism in instances where it was actually present, namely in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In these religions he observed that monotheism was the product of antagonisms resolved within a previous polytheistic religious framework, “Every one of them [the monotheistic religions] arises as a new religion out of a previously existing polytheistic environment.” As an example he referred to the religion of Islam and how the prophet Muhammad successfully pitted his monotheistic religion against “the polytheism of the Iranian peoples’ traditional religion.” Monotheism was the result of the development out of the resolution of stresses and strains within polytheistic frameworks,

“Monotheism therefore is later than polytheism. Only, it does not evolve from it, as the evolutionist theory supposed. Far from developing out of it by an evolutionary process, monotheism takes shape by means of a revolution. Far from rising out of speculative thought, the formation of monotheism springs from religious life, from a fullness of religious life, such as has but seldom come to pass in the course of human history, and only by an unusual coincidence of favorable circumstances.”

Monotheism is a result of “revolution, a radical religious upheaval, the work of some great religious personality…” He concluded that the earliest human beings, despite their worship of a Supreme Being, were certainly not monotheistic in the modern, western sense of the concept. But Pettazzoni still had the task of having to describe why the earliest human beings had an interest in a Supreme Being. He produced a 600 page book, The omniscience of God (1955), within which he looked at the question. His goal was to use the category of omniscience to demonstrate the differences between historical primitive religious structures and properly articulated versions of monotheism. He argued that omniscience is a divine attribute attached to no “particular religious environment, monotheistic, polytheistic, or other.”

Unlike Schmidt, Pettazzoni did not believe that omniscience need be deemed inherent to monotheism or a Supreme Being. In fact, he asserted that such an attribute was often associated with sky-gods and astral deities. But it was not common of all such deities and rather belonged to a particular class of deity. Further, omniscience, as seen by those within primitive religions, was not understood in the same way as it is when one, say, speaks of Islamic or Christian monotheism, namely, in that the deity knows all things. Rather, he noted how primitive omniscience denoted a deity’s awareness of more specific phenomena or something manifestly specific. Pettazzoni believed that the primitive notion of omniscience belonged to an anthropomorphic and mythic framework whereas the later more sophisticated concept owed itself to additional and subsequent intellectual and ideological contemplation. He further suggested that these concepts be placed within carefully defined cultural contexts, which explains why he ultimately defined religion in cultural-contextual terms. He saw that within a culture, religion was one of the key elements that comprised its structure. Within the religious beliefs of primitive cultures, the idea of a supreme being seemed pervasive, a judgement he made on his comparative treatment of omniscience.



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