Title

The Misconceptions of Monotheism: Reconciling the Theology and Narrative of John Milton

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Presentation

Abstract

Monotheism, as understood in western tradition, posits a single, immutable, ineffable Deity. Religious poets, theologians, and conversing laymen, however, have paradoxically made quite a habit of trying to describe a Being Whom they theoretically believe to be ineffable, and therefore beyond description. This indicates an understandable preference to focus on relational aspects of the Deity, in contrast to those which are by definition incomprehensible. This privileging of relationship over infinity is evident in the work of the 17th century Puritan poet and author John Milton. However, Milton’s understanding of the relational nature of the Christian God is complicated by the poet’s rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine seeks to solve a fundamental problem created by strict monotheism: how can an entity cast as singular perfection be in relationship with anything outside itself, and still maintain its perfection? In rejecting the Trinity, Milton rejects the only pattern that might allow him to reconcile the perfect, immutable Deity of theism with the relational God of biblical narrative. I explore the theological problems of the strict monotheism to which Milton subscribes, as evidenced in his posthumously published theological work and biblical explication On Christian Doctrine, and then note where this strict monotheism is subverted for the sake of narrative in Milton’s magnum opus, Paradise Lost. Engaging classic and contemporary critical texts, as well as uniquely contemporary theological texts, this paper affirms what those religious poets, theologians, and conversing laymen know when they break their own rules by describing in language a God they believe to be ineffable: in any description of God, narrative picks up where reason runs out—a point aptly (though perhaps not intentionally) demonstrated within the work of Milton himself.

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The Misconceptions of Monotheism: Reconciling the Theology and Narrative of John Milton

UC 332

Monotheism, as understood in western tradition, posits a single, immutable, ineffable Deity. Religious poets, theologians, and conversing laymen, however, have paradoxically made quite a habit of trying to describe a Being Whom they theoretically believe to be ineffable, and therefore beyond description. This indicates an understandable preference to focus on relational aspects of the Deity, in contrast to those which are by definition incomprehensible. This privileging of relationship over infinity is evident in the work of the 17th century Puritan poet and author John Milton. However, Milton’s understanding of the relational nature of the Christian God is complicated by the poet’s rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine seeks to solve a fundamental problem created by strict monotheism: how can an entity cast as singular perfection be in relationship with anything outside itself, and still maintain its perfection? In rejecting the Trinity, Milton rejects the only pattern that might allow him to reconcile the perfect, immutable Deity of theism with the relational God of biblical narrative. I explore the theological problems of the strict monotheism to which Milton subscribes, as evidenced in his posthumously published theological work and biblical explication On Christian Doctrine, and then note where this strict monotheism is subverted for the sake of narrative in Milton’s magnum opus, Paradise Lost. Engaging classic and contemporary critical texts, as well as uniquely contemporary theological texts, this paper affirms what those religious poets, theologians, and conversing laymen know when they break their own rules by describing in language a God they believe to be ineffable: in any description of God, narrative picks up where reason runs out—a point aptly (though perhaps not intentionally) demonstrated within the work of Milton himself.