Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Beyond the gods

   (Equip class 4/14/13)
     St. Augustine begins his book, City of God, by addressing the argument that the city of Rome had been attacked in 410 by the Goths because the society had been dissuaded from worshiping their traditional gods due to the influence of Christianity. The Christians were being accused of contributing to the downfall of Rome, even though they had provided shelter and sustenance to both pagans and Christians during the attack. St. Augustine begins by encouraging his readers to take a closer look at the pagan gods -- were they really powerful enough to prevent an enemy invasion?
     He states (in his very forthright and blunt way) that the pagan gods were a sorry lot: "Just think of the kind of gods to whose protection the Romans were content to entrust their city! No more pathetic illusion could be imagined." (p. 42) He goes on to point out that it was not just the Christians who were critical of the gods; even the great poets had expressed their doubts as to the true power of the deities. The pantheon of gods had degenerated into petty, infighting, fictional characters, devoid of real virtue and strength. It seems that the ancient Romans worshiped their gods as a matter of habit or rote without taking them very seriously. But when bad things happened and the gods were expected to come to their rescue, they fully expected a mighty show of power. As Rome fell, and no answer came from the pagan gods, they began to blame the "atheists," the Christians who revered the one true God, believed to possess all power.
     This story reminded me of the question G.K. Chesterton poses in his book, The Everlasting Man. Did polytheism, the worship of many gods, arise prior to monotheism, the worship of one God? Or is it the other way around? Now, bear in mind that Chesterton did not consider himself to be an expert in these matters. He was, however, an incredible observer of human nature, and his observations were not limited to his own time and place. He was able to sit back and analyse history from the vantage point of timeless, orthodox Christianity.
     Chesterton contends that, behind the pagan mythologies, there stands a knowledge of the one true God, which mankind held for such a short time before the Fall into sin. But this knowledge was very "big," and it was remembered more by its absence than its remembrance. The knowledge of God was lost, abandoned, turned away from. Down through the ages, it has manifested itself in a great and profound "silence." (p.92) God had been among men, but when Heaven and Earth were torn apart by the Fall, a vast emptiness opened up and all the remembrance of God poured into it. God had planted "eternity into the hearts of men (Ecc. 3:11), but their recollection of it became a shadowy sort of de ja vue.
     Chesterton goes on to argue that mankind had to somehow fill up or block this abyss into which they fell, so they covered it with talk; contrived tales destined to divert our attention away from the silence of Heaven. These stories, found in every nation of the world, are known as folklore or mythology. The powerful, authoritative main characters in the stories emerged as the pagan gods. Personally, as a children's librarian, I find many of these stories delightful. My favorites are the tales of the Native Americans. Yet, beyond the gods of all mythology, there stands an unanswered and unutterable question -- who is the greatest God and why do we not remember him?
     Today we live in a world (or a city) very much like the one where St. Augustine lived and worked. Paganism, mystery religions and Christianity interact in a swirling, confusing melee. We are daily confronted by stories that try to gloss over the empty hole in the world. We try to use words to bridge the infinite barrier between heaven and earth while heaven bears down on us with all those great and troublesome questions that have plagued mankind for so long. And, now, with technology as our tool, we are creating a monstrous, unceasing buzz of words aimed at silencing the silence forever.
     Yet, there is and always has been a Word spoken into the void. It is the Word of revelation; the declaration of nature, Christ the Word incarnate, the Word of prophecy recorded and preserved. God speaks and tells us not a story, but the truth, a Word so powerful that it mends what was broken and brings Heaven and Earth back together again. This Word is Gospel -- "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried , that he was raised on the third day..." (1Cor. 15:3,4) This is the message that gives us power in an impotent world, the knowledge that imparts hope, and invites us into fellowship with the Lord of All.

St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, et.al. New York, Doubleday, 1958.
Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2008.    

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