Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What Makes a God Start Fires?

Nature's revenge continues, as the chaparral ignites in the high pressure Santa Ana winds, and the subdivisions that tear away at the hills become threatened, if not consumed, by the brushfires that used to rage and renew the earth every few years with little lasting damage-- before twenty million of us decided to move here the past century. Our tracts interfere with Mother Nature. We think that we have a right to be here. But, we forget the powers that air-conditioning, cul-de-sacs, and patio decks cannot defeat. The L.A. Times quotes one resident of Irvine, I mean Foothill Ranch (too arrogant to be identified with the rest of that "planned community"). Beige and stucco sprawl-- about as ugly as you or at least people with decorum could imagine. And that was before the tinder slopes blackened.

One exurbanite of that red-tiled testament to our hubris told the paper: "'We've been through this before,' Karen Royer said. 'I believe in God, and I know everything will be good.' Minutes later, a dark plume of smoke lifted over a ridgeline. 'Can I revise that?' she said. 'Now I'm scared.'"

Speaking of hubris, and acknowledging my own ecological culpability grousing here (but our house was first, in 1944!) as more homes sprout from the dust all around me-- soon there could be nine where three once stood on our street-- here's (in that same paper today) excerpts from a noted classicist's take on our trust in the Deity, the One, and how perhaps it'd be better if we hedged our bets and didn't rely on a single, and apparently as Royer can attest to, capricious Almighty who insists in that First Commandment that she, we, and He can place no other gods before what is truly a jealous G-d.

Bring back the Greek gods
Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.
By Mary Lefkowitz

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion "poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.
[. . . .}

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people's gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people's gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles' father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job's family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God's power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn't seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy -- that characteristically Greek invention -- had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

[Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of "Greek Gods, Human Lives" and the forthcoming "History Lesson.] Blog title today a nod to the Minutemen's disc (could not find a decent image of the Raymond Pettibon cover art, however) "What Makes a Man Start Fires?"

Image: Dolores St. Baptist Church fire, 1993, San Francisco. Unfortunately, arson attack by a member of the "Arian Brotherhood," according to www.baptistchurchsf.org. Only in California would a church be attacked in what used to be at least a downtrodden neighborhood for "not caring about the poor" by a self-proclaimed adherent of a heresy 1700 or so years old. It looks like a welcoming place to me.

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