Arbitrary and capricious gods, from ancient times to modern

Today at lunch, Don Quixote and I ended up talking about predestination and free will.  Along the way we touched upon whether prayers are necessary (if God is omniscient, doesn’t he already know what we want?) and funerals (definitely for the living, although one doesn’t want to disrespect the dead).  We also talked about the Christian concept of Grace, and the Puritan ethos of living a “holier than thou” lifestyle so as to make it clear to the neighbors that one had indeed embraced Christ and, presumably, been embraced right back.  (I know that’s a bit facetious and facile, but I’m assuming you all are reasonably familiar with the Puritan’s religious doctrine, religious practices, and lifestyles.)

We eventually ended up talking about the fact that God’s enormity makes him unknowable — yet so many are nevertheless certain that they can speak for God, predict his actions, and know his desires.  In that context, a little paradox flashed into my brain.  Pagan gods, rather consistently, are very human, and usually not in a very nice way.  If you cast your mind over the Greek and Roman panoply, you’ll see that the gods were greedy, lustful, vengeful, jealous, mischievous, vindictive, and impulsive.  And always, these characteristics showed themselves randomly.  The one consistent thing about the pagan gods was that they were unpredictable, arbitrary, and capricious.  For all that they mimicked human behaviors, they were impossible to understand.  One could only try to avoid and placate them.  For that reason, just like the children of abusive parents, pagan worshippers weren’t motivated by morality.  Rather, their goal, always, was to avoid abuse, no matter what it took.

The Jewish God was a different thing altogether.  Although abstract and invisible (no beautiful Aphrodite, thunderbolt-toting Zeus, or chariot-driving Apollo), the Jewish God did something unthinkable in the pagan world:  he entered into a fixed contract with his Chosen People.  He imposed an obligation upon himself to make these people his own and, in return, he imposed upon them a few specific, overarching moral rules (the commandments) and a raft of behavioral rules.  He never promised that his behavior would be comprehensible, but he make it clear that, if the Jews followed the rules, they would be his Chosen People and would not be at fault for the unknowable events that might affect their lives.

The irony, of course, is that humans, being human, haven’t been able to resist analyzing these practical and ethical obligations in an effort to reach into God’s mind and personality.  “If he tells us to do X, that must mean that he is (or wants) Y.”  The pagans didn’t bother to try to figure their gods out.  Doing so was like trying to herd cats or collect soap bubbles.  The Judeo-Christian God, though, by presenting humans with a rational template of behavior, gave the illusion that he is knowable.

As it happens, I don’t believe God can be knowable.  All we can do if we’re religious is follow the rules (whether Jewish or Christian), and take comfort from the fact that we’re holding up our side of the covenant.

Incidentally, because I can’t resist a bit of punditry myself, would it be too obvious if I suggested here that modern pagans, who rejoice in the “Progressive Environmentalist” label, engage in behaviors very similar to that practiced by the Greeks and Romans, in thrall to their own unpredictable earth goddess?  Because the earth they worship imposes no fixed moral standards or behavioral codes on them, they constantly take her temperature, trying to figure out if she’s running too hot or too cold.  And if the results of these investigations frighten them, they desperately try to placate her.

The human sacrifices the new pagans make aren’t as immediate as they once were — no people lobbed into swamps, buried in pits, tossed in volcanoes, or creatively eviscerated — but they’re just as real.  Thanks to the new pagans’ decision to abandon the petroleum products that have served us so long and so well, and their desperate move to turn crops into energy, rather than food, they’ve created starvation and unrest throughout the world.  (It’s been a while, but it’s worth remembering that Egypt was ripe for unrest because of skyrocketing food prices caused, in part, by the fact that food crops have been diverted to ethanol.)  If the immolation of large parts of the Middle East doesn’t count as a sizable human sacrifice to the unreliable, arbitrary and capricious Gaia, I don’t know what does.