Dropping the moral criterion

How can it be a god if it’s not perfect? How can it be worshipped if it’s not good? These are questions that I’m occasionally confronted with and not just by Christians. They also come out of the mouth (or fingers) of atheists and, every now and then, even pagans and polytheists, in what is a good example of how the current religious speech, at least in the western world, is dominated by Abrahamic assumptions, even if you’re not a Jew, Christian, Muslim or religious at all.

1. One’s criteria…
At the root of those questions – and the astonishment that may accompany them – is the prevalence of a concept of divinity that’s based on a moral criterion, as, for instance, in the idea that “God is good”. Or just or merciful or perfect. If it has flaws, it’s not a god. If it has no sense of justice, if it lets bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, if it lacks compassion or possesses a moral imperfection, then it’s not a god. Thus, if the devil steals, lies, seduces, hurts or destroys, those are symptoms of its non-divinity. He’s the anti-god and therefore the opposite of perfection and justice. And if there was a god, “this” – insert whatever tragedy you can think of – would never happen.

It wasn’t always like this and one can find a more unpleasant notion of the divine in the Old Testament. For instance, the death of Uzzah after he touched the Ark of the Covenant, in Samuel II 6:6-7, is ruthless and takes into consideration no good intentions whatsoever. But the moral criterion isn’t new as well and you can see it in places like chapter 7 of the Correctione Rusticorum, where Saint Martin of Dume denies that Jupiter, Mars or Mercury are gods based not just on a belief in a divine monopoly, but also from their behaviour: adultery, lies, theft, magic, instigation of discord, all of that is unbecoming of a deity and signs that something isn’t a god.

The moral criterion came to prevail and is presently a recurring part of Christian thought. It’s in speeches, sermons, manuals, everyday conversations. And because the European continent has a thousand or more years of Abrahamic predominance, that conception is the default perspective based on which most people discuss religion, whatever it may be or regardless of whether or not you have one.

2. …are not the criteria of others
It wasn’t like that in ancient Europe, where the divine was commonly defined as being numinous, wondrous or extraordinary, as having the power to awe, inspire, terrify, create or destroy, no matter if it was beneficial or damaging, pleasant or unpleasant. Gods in everything, as Thales of Miletus is believed to have said and Virgil wrote later on, regardless if it’s good or bad things.

To put it in practical terms, consider the case of Aphrodite. It’s true that ancient Greece wasn’t all misogynist, if nothing else because it’s hard to speak of uniformity in a territory that was divided into multiple city-States, which had traditions and cultural nuances of their own, and even more so in a polytheistic context, which by recognizing multiple gods also accepts multiple patterns, even if in a limited fashion. But it was still a place and time where there was a strong cultural current that saw female sexuality with some discomfort, if not fear.

There’s a trace of that in Euripides’ Bacchae, lines 217-25, where Pentheus accuses the women who honour Dionysus of leaving their homes and wander through the mountains, submitting to lasciviousness in isolated places. He also accuses them of placing the cult of Aphrodite ahead of that of Bacchus, using the latter as a pretext for lust. And the foreigner who introduces the Dionysian practices, who’s the god Himself and Pentheus accuses of moral corruption, is described as having “in his wine-coloured eyes the charms of Aphrodite”.

It is thus unsurprising that the great warrior goddess of the Greeks is Athena. After all, She had no mother who gave birth to Her, as said in lines 735-6 of the Eumenides, and, because She came out of the head of Zeus, She lends Herself to interpretations like coming from the elevated place of male reason instead of the lowers parts of female sexuality. And as if that wasn’t enough, She is staunchly chaste, which makes Her safe to have among men, since there’s no lust in Her. Simply put, She’s a masculinized goddess and therefore accepted in the bellic world. Aphrodite, on the other hand, as stated in Book 5 of the Iliad, is clearly out of Her depth in actual physical combat, in as much as, after being injured by Diomedes, She’s told to stick to Her realm, which is not that of war.

Artemis offers another symptom of a similar aversion to female sexuality. As goddess of the hunt, an activity that requires one to run through woods and fields, you’d expect Her to be seen as having minimalistic clothing that allows for a greater freedom of movement. Running and jumping in a long skirt isn’t easy. But that same minimalism results in a greater exposure of the body, which is not very modest, and so it is convenient that Artemis, like Athena, is staunchly chaste. In as much as, in some versions of the myth of Actaeon, he’s killed just for seeing the goddess naked. Which makes Her yet another safe female deity, because She makes no use of Her sexuality and can therefore run and wander through the mountains without fears of, in Pentheus’ words, giving way to lasciviousness in isolated places.

This serves to show that there was a clear misogynist line in ancient Greek culture, even if it wasn’t unanimous or uniform. But despite that, despite that discomfort or distrust of female sexuality and the “evils” it could bring, the Greeks nonetheless recognized Aphrodite as a goddess. She could be “dangerous”, at the very least potentially immoral, but still a deity, either because lust exerts an overwhelming power over humans and thus has extraordinary or numinous qualities, or because female sexuality has a reproductive use, preferably within the bounds of marriage, which is where the Iliad places Aphrodite.

3. Not every cult is an invitation
This open manner of seeing the divine is odd to many of us. We’re not used to consider deities without making judgements, without wondering if it’s good, beneficial or just and therefore a god or not. The Judeo-Christian principles are the common reference and thus people tend to project them on any religion, past or present, as if they were natural, obvious or universal traits. They’re not. The moral reasoning would have made no sense for many in ancient Europe, so much so that not every cult aimed at divine presence or closeness. Sometimes, the purpose was to obtain a safe distance – with respect, yes, but a distance nonetheless – which is not surprising, if you think about it.

If an entity is acknowledged as a god or goddess even if it has a damaging, terrifying or destructive nature, then not every religious gesture will aim at having said deity among us. “Let God enter you life”, Christians would say. Which at least to some polytheists makes sense only up to a point, because there are gods you may want to keep as far away as respectfully possible, even if you worship them. Gods of the Underworld, for instance, are often synonymous with terror, disease and death, though that doesn’t make Them less divine. It just means that the cult that is owed and given to Them serves less to attract Them and more to keep Them satisfied, though at a safe distance in order to avoid the presence of that which They bring. It’s not by chance that the cult of the dead could be wrapped up in taboos.

This, too, is odd to many of us. After all, how many people use or hang amulets against evil-eyes, misfortune or demons, without ever considering at the same time the option of offering something to that which is seen as bad in other to keep it at bay? Or how many people reject that possibility because, according to the Judeo-Christian principles, only god deserves to be honoured and god is that which is good, just, pure or perfect?

4. The past and the present
Unsurprisingly, even among those who try to revive ancient European polytheisms there are people who make use of the moral criterion, even if they’re not entirely aware of it. The refusal to honour Loki is a good example, since it’s often based on the argument that He’s a traitor or a liar, as described in a mythology preserved in late sources where the Norse trickster is already shaped in the image of the Christian devil. It’s interesting to note that people often neglect the resemblances with the Greek Hermes or the African-American Eshu, who are acknowledged as deities despite their mercurial personalities. Or that a god doesn’t have to be good, morally perfect or just in order to be a god. Or that a cult can also serve to keep at bay – the deity or its effects – and not to invite it to be present. To say that His moral conduct disqualifies Loki from the divine category is something that may owe more to Christian theology and less to the religious ideas of pre-Christian Europe.

The same may perhaps be said of those who honour infernal gods in domestic shrines, side by side with celestial deities. There’s certainly in that an element of poor knowledge of ancient practices, but somewhere in the middle there may also be a product of the moral criterion. Because if a god is that which is just or good, as is commonly believed in the present religious discourse, then Dis Pater and Jupiter are on a similar level, since they’re both gods, and can therefore be worshipped side by side. There is a degree of comfort in a morally-based theology, because it can assume divine goodness and purity as certain and universal.

5. Amoral is different from irrational
At this point, I must emphasize two things, starting with the fact that polytheism is a diverse religious category, even more so if one takes into account that several of its religions have no orthodoxy and therefore no uniform beliefs. What I said has thus a relative reach and it’s important to note that. But besides that, by defending an amoral concept of deity, I’m not saying that the gods are irrational beings who act randomly or sadistically. I don’t hold the idea that they are out to get you, waiting to find flaws they can punish, but instead believe there is reason in them. There are purposes and goals… though not necessarily our own. And that is where another part of the problem resides.

As I see it, we’re not the centre of things and the world or universe do not exist for our benefit. We’re the cumulative product of multiple causes and the cosmos, like the Earth, has multiple gods, not all of them friendly towards civilization. Some are indifferent to it, others oppose it and some deities are not particularly preoccupied with us or our needs, individual or collective. Many, if not most, see things in a wider fashion than we do, for which reason some are willing to harm individuals for the sake of a greater good or long term. Think of gods like Volcanus, who presides over the subterranean heat and thus the tectonic dynamics that sustain life, but which work on a chronological horizon of thousands or millions of years, much more than any human generation, and can be destructive of individuals lives. The needs and worries of Volcanus are not ours – and keep in mind that I distinguish Him from Hephaestus, who to me comes across as a god of the fire of the forge, civilized and tempered, not that of the inner Earth, which is primordial and violent.

As such, speaking from my own view as a Roman polytheist, if a deity is harmful, if it presents itself as violent and immoral, it’s not because it’s irrational: it just means that it follows rules and an agenda different from ours. One may certainly try to negotiate, obtain a truce, time, benefits or limited help, but ultimately its goals may not be our own. A god of disease isn’t evil, it simply presides over something unpleasant or tragic, but which is a natural part of a world that does not exist for our benefit. A god of chaos too isn’t evil, but participates in a universe that’s in constant change and thus has a chaotic component. None of this disqualifies them as gods. It simply means that they’re different deities with which one must deal accordingly and without denying them the divine status.

I’m aware, of course, that these examples are based on a modern understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to the science of the ancient world, which saw things like the sun or the stars as being eternal or was unaware of the microscopic world behind diseases. But it’s one thing to let knowledge shape theology, offering fresh content to the general outline and religious practices of the past, which did see destructive and harmful powers as gods nonetheless. It’s quite another to distort that under the influence of ideas that are alien to a given religious system and are acquired or accepted as valid out of inertia.

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