Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Slowly Reading Spe Salvi

I've been slowly working through the pope's new encyclical, Spe Salvi. Slowly is the only way anything has been happening around here lately, outside of work and church commitments. One of the early sections particularly struck me, though I'm sure this is something I've written about here before:
Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): 1 so says an epitaph of that period. (Spe salvi, para 2)
The gentiles to whom Paul brought the Christian message were not irreligious. However, they were used to a dichotomy between religion and philosophical moral systems (such as Stoicism, neo-Platonism and Epicurianism). The gods of the ancients were not holy (though piety towards them was often seen as a virtue) and many of their actions could be seen as violating what was generally considered to be moral law. The gods could be powerful friends or very, very dangerous enemies. They embodied natural qualities and forces which dwarfed human concerns, and seemed to be permanent parts of the world's landscape. But they were generally not the most admirable creatures, and you were almost certainly better off if the gods never noticed you. (How many mythic heroes ended up by "living happily ever after"?) One of Plato's earliest and most accessible dialogues in Euthyphro, in which Socrates argues with a pius young man that The Good must be something higher than the gods.

In this sense, Christianity represented a rather radical departure from the other religious traditions of the time. When Paul told the Greeks that the had worshipped God all the time at the altar of the unknown god, one might play upon his words and point out that the kind of God he told them of had been unknown up until that time.

We've very much lost the sense of the enormity of this in our day and age. People are so certain that they know what The Good is these days that athiests criticize God for not being good enough. Most neo-pagans seem not to realize that the old gods were more often feared than loved. The Christian message, even when rejected, is implicitly used as the backdrop for its rejection and for alternatives to it in this day and age.


Anonymous said...

The Christian message, even when rejected, is implicitly used as the backdrop for its rejection and for alternatives to it in this day and age.

I find this endlessly amusing. So-called atheists and others will go to great lengths to insist how charitable they are (for instance), when charity is a virtue only to the religious. If there is no God, or if God doesn't care one way or the other, then there's no virtue whatsoever in being charitable. In fact, it might well be considered a vice.

LogEyed Roman said...

Good post. Let me tell you something I read on Chuck Colson’s website around Thanksgiving: There was an incident very early in time of the Pilgrims, when they were still uncertain about food, when a dry spell threatened their crops. They took an entire day off work for prayer and fasting. Interestingly, in the records, they concluded God was chastising him, and showed no sign whatever of resentment or rebellion. If God chose to chastise them, not only was He irresistible, but He was not to be questioned.

So. There had been not a cloud for weeks. Their day of fasting and prayer began as clear and bright as usual, but there was a full overcast before the sun set. Next day there was a fine rain, and abundant rain and bright sun alternated for the next two weeks. Their crops were exceptionally abundant.

The reason I bring this up is for the reported effects on the Indians. Just like the other pagans you mentioned, the Indians had a lot of piety, but to them the Spirits were not entirely to be trusted; even Gitchee Manitou, the Great Spirit. They believed He loved his people but he did not always take care of them.

They were of course impressed at the success (so it seemed ) of the Pilgrim’s appeal to their God. But, also, they were very moved at the relationship the Pilgrims had; a far more intimate and filial relationship than their usual “conjuring” approach to get what they wanted from the Spirits, no matter how distant and strict the Puritans’ God appeared at times.

This was a major factor in a great deal of successful evangelization of Indians, it was reported.

—LogEyed Roman