The Literalization of Monotheism

by Dr. D. Latifa

Monotheism itself is not some simple objective entity which functions in an invariable manner. There is also a psychology of monotheism and its internalization in the life of a community: the manner in which this large Greek word denoting belief in one God (Theos) has become a complex of images, feelings, metaphors, expressing the beliefs and everyday feelings of billions of ordinary people.

Image from the Classic ‘The Ten Commandments’

In contrast to the reality of a ‘polytheistic’ psyche, psychological monotheism refers to a literal attitude towards psychological, that is, symbolic events, in which, through a self-reflexive moral reductionism, one vision overwhelms all others, swallowing them in an attempt to extend itself and create ‘unity’. The tendency towards literalization and moral reductionism is peculiar to Christianism in which, as the psychologist James Hillman says, “our monotheistic tradition literalizes history into facts … everything comes with a date”[1] Indeed, there have consistently been scientific attempts to (dis)prove the historicity of the Bible. This historicism bears directly on individual and collective consciousness which, in modern times, believes that historical facts determine us to the exclusion of everything else. It ranges from evolutionary psychology to genetics, to the ‘case history’ project of psychiatry/ psychotherapy’s reduction of the meaning(s) of life to biochemistry or what happened in childhood, to the creation of nation states based on historical claims and related ideas of individual/collective identity through the politics of nationalism, to rigid ethno-religious ideas about identity.

The emphasis on literal, concrete, historical facts as the determining factors in individual/collective life ensure that other, more meaningful perspectives are not considered important when it comes to ‘making sense’ of human existence.

Today it is evident that even beyond the Muslim world the literalist-historical view of religious and political identity dominates. Modern disciplines such as archaeology, inspired Hindu fundamentalists to destroy the Babri Mosque and there are similar psychodynamics in process regarding archaeological sites in Jerusalem. Hillman’s view of Christianism can just as well be applied to Islamism and other religious fundamentalisms:

I equate Christianism with moralistic fundamentalism … you have to face this level of Christianism because that is where its world conquering force lies. It’s not Christian love that’s conquered the world … not its sophisticated interpretations and theology. It’s successful because it mobilizes the will, and the will needs fundamentalism or it does not know what to do …[it is] utterly monotheistic … there is only one meaning, one reading of the text, for instance, the one meaning of Christ’s suffering.[2]

The insistence on psychological singularity is a kind of implicit ideology, supplying images and appropriate feelings about them, creating a fantasy of what it means to be ‘a people’. And this major archetype, of an essentially one dimensional ‘god’ brings with it its compatible and fellow archetypes. For instance, One Lord is accompanied by One faith (orthodoxy/modernism), One Law (shariah/WTO), One State (dar-ul-Islam/globalization), served by One body of the faithful (ummah/consumers). A beautiful evocation of the ideal totalitarian (and paranoid) society.

This idealized unity requires for its earthly realization, an ideal man, the Hero, who can receive the (divine) commands and overcome in his own person and at large, the obstacles that stand in the way. These obstacles must also have a mythic dimension. Whether the story is retold in an Islamic, Christian, Jewish or Hindu setting, some dragon of dangerous strength must have its head chopped off, traitors everywhere must be sought out and eliminated since, ‘you are either with us, or against us’. The Marxists, therefore, require(d) the Capitalists, the Western Powers their Communist threat and more recently, Muslims, who in turn, require the Great Satan and their own heretics. In sum, the heroic requires problems and, by implication, Final Solutions.

Similarly, psychological monotheism tends to regard difference and diversity as irreconcilable opposites and reduces all psychological life to moral issues. Particularly in the light of the impossible-to-resolve ‘Problem of Evil’ in Christianism, this kind of moral reductionism and its fusion with the heroic archetype, provides the justification for all types of action and violence against whatever seems ‘outside,’ a prescribed idea of ‘unity’. Thus, Jung’s view of the West’s ‘monotheism of consciousness’ is directly related to the internalizing of a particular type of Christianity. As both he and Hillman reiterate, it does not matter if one is a Christian or not, ‘believer’ or atheist. Rather, it is a particularly narrow psychological attitude towards self, others, religion, knowledge, in short, life itself.

The ‘monotheism’ of modern consciousness, being in this case Christian(ist) monotheism, makes most modern individuals today ‘behaving Christians’ who judge themselves and others, not necessarily according to the paradigmatic meaning of Christ’s message of love and peace, but according to the consequences flowing from what happens when his life and death is reduced to literal historical fact and a single meaning, all of which are further reinforced through Cartesianist ideals:

Hillman: ‘It will take us ten hours … just to go around the very outside of this huge issue of the effect of the Christian two thousand years on the individual case one meets in psychology. You and me, too, we can’t help but be Christian.
Interviewer: We are not practicing Christians…
Hillman: Yes, we are, because we are behaving Christians … we suffer in a Christian way, we judge in a Christian way, we regard ourselves in a Christian way. We have to see this or we remain unconscious and that means our unconsciousness is primarily Christianity. Psychotherapy can’t move anything, anybody anywhere, it sees this Christianist unconsciousness and that is why Freud had to attack religion and Jung had to try to move Christianity … we behave as Christians when we believe facts determine us…’[3]

In the West, a dominant literalist view of religion along with the ideals of will power and reason culminated in, ironically, a general skepticism about Christianity on the one hand, and which on the other, continues to live on, not only in Protestant Christian fundamentalism but more importantly in its ‘ethic’ of capitalism and heroic individualism. As the pinnacle of Cartesian-Christianism, the Weberian Protestant Ethic lived/lives on as the psychological driving force behind the projects of colonialism, modernity-progress, the rise of science/industry and global capitalism.[4] It produced missionaries and other single minded individuals prepared to go out and make the world safe for their particular colonial ‘raj,’ as similar recruits do now for their transnational corporations. Similarly, perhaps the steady post-war influx of European (German) intellectuals, only added to the already existing heroic ideals of the United States. It finds an embodiment not only in the current political dominance of right-wing Protestant Christianity, but also in its cult of the youthful, self-reflecting global ‘vision,’ a high degree of internal and external violence and its almost exclusive emphasis on a literal, outer (rather than also inner/spiritual) individualism.

The hero archetype and the urge toward monotheistic consciousness, both refine mental focus and mobilize inner resources to function strongly in the service of a singular vision. But like all religions, the ideal goals of monotheism have as much to do (if not more) with our inner, psychological and spiritual development as with the outer material world. It is important to remember that most of the Islamic world was colonized and even more importantly, that as a harbinger of modernity, colonialism was deeply linked to the missionary endeavour. Which is not to say that everything wrong in the Muslim world(s) has to do with colonial Christianism. Yet we should dare to identify certain psycho-religious dynamics within modernity as modes of thought and construction of the self coming from a distorted vision of Christianity which fuels all sorts of extremism, including the way we relate to self, society and any religion. Religious or ‘secular’, as participants in a global modernity, we all are influenced by “this extraordinary religion, the religion that we are all in no matter how hard we try to deny it or escape it…”[5] In short, you and I (i.e. the modern person) ‘can’t help but be Christian’. Muslim, Hindu, Jew and non-believer, we are all in the same boat.


[1] Hillman, James, Inter Views, Harper and Row. New York. 1983, pp.140–143.

[2] ibid. pp.81–82.

[3] ibid. pp.78–79.

[4] Weber, Max; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Parsons Talcott. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1930.

[5] Hillman, James; Inter Views. op. cit. p.92.


This text is an excerpt from Dr. D. Latifa’s new book Penetrations and (s)Permutations: A Psychological Exploration of Modernity, Islam & Fundamentalisms. It’s available both in paperback as well as ebook and can be found in most online stores such as Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Nobles, Kobo, etc.