Monday, September 06, 2010

All the Old Gods

All the old gods haven't gone away - they've just changed their names a bit.

There's a line which I hear quite a bit when we talk about idolatry - something like this. "In the old days, idolatry was much more obvious because you'd worship Thor or Jupiter or someone. But now it's harder because it's much more subtle."

I've been thinking about that a bit over the last few days, and I disagree.

In Roman times, for example, you'd worship Bacchus, god of wine in two ways. One was going to the temple of Bacchus, and the other was partying and eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine and getting drunk. Except often what you did when you visited the temple of Bacchus was parting and drinking.

Or you'd worship Venus, goddess of sex, in two ways. One was going to the temple of Venus. And the other was ritualised pursuit of sex for its own sake. And sure enough, at the temple of Venus there were loads of ritual prostitutes who "helped" people seek sex.

I think we do exactly the same today, except without naming the gods. We still worship Bacchus, and Venus, and others.

Plato's Academy, in many ways the prototype for the university, was built around a temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom (known to the Romans as Minerva). And in the same way, a lot of people at universities today still worship her.

We worship the old gods whenever we pursue sex, drunkenness, wisdom, knowledge, sporting prowess, fitness, anything, for its own sake or for its own enjoyment rather than for God's sake. As St. Augustine wrote:

He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.

And one of the great things about Roman religion was that it wasn't fussy or exclusivist. It was perfectly happy with people worshipping Bacchus one evening and Venus another, then taking a trip to the temple of Athena. They weren't fussy about what the gods were called, and were happy to identify them with foreign equivalents. They were fine with people worshipping whatever and whoever they wanted, as long as they let them get on with their own business and devotion to their own gods.

And where other cultures were happy to go along with that, Rome just tended to assimilate them because of its greater cultural output and power.

Where the problems came for Christians was that God claimed exclusive allegiance. Christians could not just go to the temple of Venus for a quick fix of casual sex and then go home as normal. They couldn't burn incense to the emperor when they started claiming their place in the pantheon. And they said that other people should abandon their worship of all the old gods, which was seen as far too exclusive.

Sound familiar?

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