An abstract God

Yesterday, my son’s third grade class presented charming (and very well done) sketch performances based on Greek mythology. They carefully hewed very closely to the original stories, and the hour-long performance was a great refresher course for me about the Greek myths, most of which I hadn’t thought about in years, if not decades.

As you know, the basic myths (as opposed to the legends) are aimed at explaining the origin of things. Echo and Narcissus tells how a flower and an auditory effect came into being; the story of Persephone tries to explain winter; and so on. In each case, the Greeks had before them an effect, and tried to work backwards to come up with a cause. And in each cause, the cause was the panoply of Gods.

The Greeks saw their Gods as very human, very, very human. These Gods were not bound by a moral code. They were pure id, embodiments of driving human passions pretty much untouched by any type of morality. They personified lust, jealously, anger, greed, suspicion, impatience, and any other negative quality you’d like to imagine. Their acts were often random, not because they operated on a plane we can’t understand, but because they operated on a plane with each every two year old is familiar: It’s all about me, me, me and the immediacy of my desires?

PersephoneThe Greek Gods’ all too human motivations means that their stories play out like the worst kind of soap operas. Things happen, and poor humans, nymphs, dryads and naiads are hideously battered about , solely because of the Gods’ whims. Persephone is wrenched from her mother and her peaceful life because Zeus decides that Hades needs a companion, and co-opts Psyche to force an otherwise supremely disinterested Hades to become mad with passion for the poor girl. When Zeus realizes that he’s made a major miscalculation, and plunged the world into endless winter, he tries to undo the mess he made. He, the head God, is then tricked by Hades’ decision to feed the unwitting Persephone four pomegranate seeds, which forces her to return to the underworld four months a year. Voila! Winter. Taking a step back from its iconographic mythological origins, It’s a profoundly silly story. It also makes a very interesting contrast to the Jewish God.

The Jewish God is, first and foremost, a God of rules and morality. In this, he is sharply distinct from the Greek Gods, who have no apparently morality beyond their desires. This means that his followers aren’t constrained in their conduct by his randomness and ego, but by the fact that their forefathers’ entered into a covenant with him, by which they follow his rules and he, well, he makes them “his people.”

There’s actually no direct benefit to being God’s chosen people (either in the Bible or in the centuries since the Bible). That is, he doesn’t reward his followers with showers of gold and eternal life and frolicking on some heavenly mount. There are direct downsides, though. If you don’t follow God’s explicitly stated rules, he will trounce you, big time.

Thinking about it, the benefit to the Jews (and Christians) of this special relationship is actually the byproduct of the relationship. In other words, what they lack in direct rewards from God, they gain indirect rewards flowing from their changed conduct. In lieu of cruel, Hobbesian world, they create a civil society, within which people know the rules that tie them to each other and to the societies around them. They have the consciousness of virtue in a random world. They can’t change the randomness, but they can change their own perception of themselves. They are not the Gods’ toys anymore. They are actors, who have adult obligations to this abstract, unknowable God.

God’s unknowability is also a distinct virtue specific to this new monotheistic religion. This unseen God is not cheapened by cavortings with nymphs and with his ungovernable passions. He may be a jealous God, but his is not the jealously of lust. It is a deep desire to keep his people pure, to assure that they pursue the virtuous path he devised, and that they don’t fall off that righteous pathinto the random emotions of the surrounding Pagan religions. For the people of faith, moral behavior is internalized because this unseen God expects them to be good, not because if they follow the wrong ritual, he might show up one day and turn them into a plant.

The Jews (and, following them, the Christians), don’t need to ascribe bizarre soap operas to God to explain the unexplainable on the earth around them. It is enough to know that God works in mysterious ways. He is not just a human with a lightening bolt and a magic wand. He is something different altogether. We do as he desires because it is good for us, not because he’ll fall into a screaming fit on some heavenly floor.

I love the Greek and Roman mythologies because they are wonderful stories — and because, in their overwhelming humanness, they do allow us to peer through the mists of time and feel a connection to the long dead Greeks and Romans who created these stories. But that’s what they are: stories. They have nothing spiritual about them, nothing that talks to a society’s super ego and that enables it to have aspirations that rise above base human emotions.

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  • Allen

    I read a most fascinating article on religions once. The main thesis was that Judaism, and thus Christianity, had a deity not fixed in some location like Mt Olympus. Their God was always with them no matter where they travelled.

    This had a profound effect on their thinking and actions. No matter what, they were always under the eye of their God , where in other religions one could go out of sight.

  • suek

    >>If you don’t follow God’s explicitly stated rules, he will trounce you, big time.>>

    Which has some interesting logical follow-ons…a) it is _one_ explanation for the bad things that happen to people (though not the bad things that happen to good people) and b) it has the unwarranted result of assigning moral blame to anyone who has bad things happen to them. Hence, we have the gospels in which Jesus is asked (about the deaf and dumb man) “what have his parents done that he should be so afflicted?” Even though, in the old testament, we have poor Job – who cries out to God “what have I done!!” and the response is that God is testing his faith….

    There is still a tendency to think that wealthy people are morally good _because_ they are wealthy, and that poor people are somehow immoral _because_ they are poor.
    Then when you couple that with the idea of Christianity that the possession of wealth is immoral – it should be given to the poor – and that it’s more difficult for a rich person to get to heaven than a poor person…among other concepts… you can end up with a _very_ confused outlook on life!!

  • Danny Lemieux


    “There is still a tendency to think that wealthy people are morally good _because_ they are wealthy, and that poor people are somehow immoral _because_ they are poor.”

    Where do people think like this? Most places that I have been it’s the other way around, as in…”if people are wealthy, they must have taken “it” from some more deserving people”.

    “Then when you couple that with the idea of Christianity that the possession of wealth is immoral” – Huh?

    “…it should be given to the poor – and that it’s more difficult for a rich person to get to heaven than a poor person”…well, this I can agree with: when people are rich, they often don’t feel that they need to be good. Evidence Table Exhibit #1 – the entertainment industry.

  • suek

    I can’t tell you where people consider wealthy people must be good…I think it’s in the “he was blessed with much wealth” or “he was very lucky”. It seems to me it’s Jewish in origin, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you where I’ve read/run across it.
    I agree that there is also the perception that wealth is always gained dishonestly – or at the expense of others. Much of the prejudice against Jews as “money changers” falls into this category. But your last statement “when people are rich, they often don’t feel that they need to be good.” falls into the category of people thinking they _are_ good – simply because they’re rich, and that goes back to statement #1!

    Like I said – conflicting ideas which cause much confusion even within our own individual outlook on life…

  • Danny Lemieux

    Suek, I agree that the concept of wealth is difficult. I see the bigger divide between the classic view held by the Liberal/Left that wealth is a fixed pie and the Adam Smith view that wealth is created.

    In the Liberal Left view, if you are rich, then it must be because you took that wealth from someone else, an ancient concept if there ever was (hardly “progressive”, in other words). It is amazing to me how Adam Smith’s ideas demand justification even today, given the huge amount of wealth that capitalism has created for everyone.

  • Thomas

    Hello Bookworm,

    For thousands of years prior to Judaism and even after it, there was a clear distinction between the Numinous (The Spirit behind this world, or The Almighty and Unknowable God) and the Moral Law. All cultures acknowledged that there is a Moral Law, a series of “rights” and “wrongs”, but it had nothing to do with the Numinous. The two were separate, that is, the existence of God and the gods did not compel one into moral actions.

    Even the ancient Romans had statues to this unknowable God.

    The revolution in human consciousness occurred with Moses when the Numinous was wedded to the Moral Law. Indeed, the Numinous was the AUTHOR of the Moral Law and he will make Mankind accountable to his actions.

    The was an “oh boy” moment for the ancients because the Numinous is the one commanding Men to do the Moral Law and this places certain obligations on him. Furthermore, because it is the Numinous that created the Moral Law, implicit in this is that God’s claim on humanity is total.

    Indeed, Bookworm, for the past few decades, it has been the endeavor of many to decouple the Numinous from the Moral Law. We see this disconnect everywhere we turn. One can be pious in proclaiming moral values and a return to the Christian roots of our country in the morning and get into drunken bacchanalia at night at the local bar. One can extol the virtues of caring for the environment and fly all over the country polluting to do it.

    In modern lingo, we call this double standards, or hypocrisy, but what it really boils down to it decoupling morality with God.

    If you don’t follow God’s explicitly stated rules, he will trounce you, big time.

    I believe this is one of the primary differences between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism tends to be inclined toward very stringent rules. For instance, the Sanhedrim which has been recently seated in Jerusalem, have to be absolutely pure and must have never set one foot on the ground.

    Christianity does not believe this. Christianity believes in the perfect law, which is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    The other primary difference is where the Hebrews believe that God is unknowable and they are still waiting for the Messiah.

    Christians believe that God is knowable through the Son, who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Christians believe that the Messiah has already come and will come again.

    We do as he desires because it is good for us, not because he’ll fall into a screaming fit on some heavenly floor.

    Christians do as he desires not only because it is good for us, but it is the only way of returning to our rightful home in Heaven with Him.

  • jj

    “I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion, and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said, ‘Imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.’ The man studied his Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance insituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping-sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and, after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him. Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way.”
    – Mark Twain

  • Ymarsakar

    “There is still a tendency to think that wealthy people are morally good _because_ they are wealthy, and that poor people are somehow immoral _because_ they are poor.”

    This a feature of Calvinism and other churches like Joel’s.

  • suek

    Pretty cynical, jj. There’s a big difference between “causing” and “allowing to happen”. There has always been a problem in considering the concept of evil.

    Your “man who got religion” had a mental defect, and assuming that when he was talking to the priest, he actually told the priest that he caused such afflictions, so had the priest. If he did _not_ tell the priest that he deliberately caused the afflictions, then he can add liar to the rest of his sins.

    The element in your story that allows MT to compare the evil done by “man who got religion” to God is the idea of predestination – the idea that God not only knows of each and every detail on earth, but _causes_ each and every detail on earth. I agree that sometimes it’s difficult to separate “allowing to happen” from “causing to happen”, but unless you belong to those who believe “insh’allah”, then you believe that you still have the power to influence what you do and to some extent, what happens to you.

    Besides – the idea of predestination is inconsistent with morality – if God determines each and every action that occurs in the world, then there is no free will. With no free will, there can be no sin. If there is no sin, then there is no immorality, and there can be no morality. Morality requires free will.

    The world is a place fraught with danger – we all prosper at the expense of something else. The lion kills the antelope – lion and his pride get a meal, antelope gets a death sentence. Is that evil? that assumes that death is evil. Is death evil? Is pain evil? we don’t like it, but is it evil? I’m not genius enough to solve the problem of evil in the world, but to me there’s “bad” and “evil”. “Bad” is a physical something that causes pain or death. “Evil” is a term for moral “bad”. The two should not be synonymous, but we usually use them that way.