Are You a Monotheist, or a Fetishistic Henotheist?

By: shenpa warrior
February 6, 2013

Psych of Religion #2: Poly/Heno/Monotheism examined as patterns of identity and faith.

Fowler’s Stages of Faith get a lot of attention (both positive and negative) in the bloggernaccle. The first part of the book, BEFORE he outlines the stages of faith, however, are fascinating. For example, Fowler uses the terms polytheist, henotheist, and monotheist to categorize more than religion, including general patterns of identity and faith:

1. Polytheism – These people lack any single center in their lives, or that center is not sufficiently transcendent to be a guide or ordering power. Fowler says that we are probably a lot more polytheistic than we’d like to think. There are two types of polytheists:

  • Protean – Avoid long-term identity or commitments. They may experience intense, short-term conversions or faith crises, but they do not last. Commitments move from one center to another.
  • Diffuse – Maintain a laid-back commitment without giving the relationship or value “their all.” Neoliberalism / Capitalism makes polytheism seem “normal” by teaching that we should buy everything we want, have sex with everyone we want, experience everything we want. Fowler suggests this is “consumer society’s dominant myth.”

2. Henotheism – These people claim to be loyal to only one god, the “deity of the individual family or tribe,” yet they do not deny that there may be other gods for other people. In this pattern, people significantly invest in their center of value and power. However, this center is not something of “ultimate concern.” In other words, it is an idol. This group elevates a “limited and finite good” to a life-defining value. There are three types of henotheism:

  • Causa Sui – Perhaps in response to death anxiety, we seek assurance of immortality. Our “causa sui projects” are used to validate ourselves as people, yet this results in us ultimately worshipping ourselves (or as Fowler puts it, “an altar on which sits the faintly smiling image of our own ego). Wealth, power, and success may also be sought in order for the self to feel good enough.
  • Noble – Noble henotheists belong to institutions and causes that elicit their selfless sacrifice and even total commitment. Some members of these institutions actually love the institution itself more than it is worth (think political parties, universities, or even churches), yet that is necessary to sustain the movement. Noble henotheists find their identity in losing themselves in the important—although finite—work.
  • Fetishistic – Fetishistic henotheists are very exclusive and have narrow centers of value and power. These groups may turn the avoidance of certain behaviors into virtues to a fetishistic extreme. Workaholics are also fetishistic henotheists, as are anyone in total pursuit of sex or money.

3. Radical Monotheism – These people focus their loyalty in a transcendent center of value and power. However, this center does not arise from their ego, and the center is not an institution or a mortal cause. The “principle of being” and the “source and center of all value and power” are seen as what one is loyal to. Fowler suggests that all major religious traditions have symbolized this transcendent center. To be a monotheist does not require rejecting centers of value and power that are less transcendent or universal, but it requires putting things in order. Although monotheists may have membership in smaller groups with particular “stories” and values, they also identify with a universal community. Their individual tribes are not “revered and served as though they have ultimate value.”

The Difficulty?

  • It is very challenging to find consistent and long-lasting monotheism facilitated by any group or religion. We usually end up confusing representations of the transcendent “with that reality itself.”
  • We will always feel pulled to poly- and henotheism. Fowler believes we must work to maintain a form of “radical monotheism” in order to keep our poly- and henotheistic faiths from becoming idolatrous.

On Mormonism and Poly/Heno/Monotheism

How might the church, Mormonism, and individual beliefs or practices within the institution be understood through these categories? What aspects of the church, or individual members, are polytheistic, fetishistically henotheistic, or radically monotheist?

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4 Responses to Are You a Monotheist, or a Fetishistic Henotheist?

  1. Hedgehog on February 8, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    This is really interesting, but takes several days to digest.
    I like the sound of radical monotheism. I hope that’s what we’re trying for. But there seems to be so much tension between that, and an expected loyalty to the church as an institution.
    I think members can sometimes look like fetishistic henotheists: those who are aggressive member missionaries who can’t see they are being too pushy for instance; overemphasis on particular rules, dress-codes and so forth would start to creep into this category I think; I knew one family who went so far as to price up Christmas and birthday gifts they had received and tithe on those, in addition to earnings.
    Noble henotheists are probably more the norm. Moreover, noble henotheism seems to be what is encouraged much of the time, by our leaders. Elder Holland’s last conference talk would be a particularly good example of this.

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  2. shenpa warrior on February 8, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Yeah, I think radical monotheism is something that most of us need to always be striving for, because so often we probably fall short and get stuck in our henotheistic ways, whether that’s fetishistic (e.g. dress codes, as you mentioned), or noble. Noble henotheism is probably a little more insidious or harder to root out…

    Personally, I have a tendency to fall back to polytheism, especially after some faith transitioning moved me out of henotheism. Striving for radical monotheism has been the one thing that has kept me grounded.

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  3. Andrew S on February 8, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    I for one am intrigued by this, since even though Fowler’s Stages of Faith gets thrown around a lot…no one has ever brought this up (and since I am functionally illiterate, the only stuff I get is what people talk about.)

    That being said, I don’t know why Fowler is turning the “theism” part into more about a generalized “center”? I mean, I get the whole idea of making religion more about what you do, what you are concerned with, than about loftier matters of theology in general…but it still seem jarring.

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  4. shenpa warrior on February 9, 2013 at 2:32 PM

    Yeah, Fowler has a lot of interesting stuff that often gets tossed out when someone doesn’t resonate with the stages of faith…

    Re: “theism” – He definitely IS using the term in a broader way that we traditionally would, in this case to describe anything that one is heavily oriented around/one’s “center of value and power” whether that center is “transcendent” or a “deity” or not.

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