Greek Gods and the Modern Quest for Immortality
My son has given me a copy of the Iliad as an early birthday present. He'd like me to read three hundred pages before we discuss it. It’s been a very long time since I read even excerpts from Homer’s work, and quite a while since I’ve read Greek mythology.
I notice Homer didn't care much for political correctness. Even for Nestor the diplomat is not particularly careful about whom he offends. As it turns out, Achilles has anger issues. No pajama boy, he rails at his rival: "Drunkard, with the face of a dog and the heart of a fawn, you never dare to go out with the army to fight. You shun fighting as you do death.”
Nestor gives a speech, ending with pragmatic advice to Achilles: Well, yes, your mom is a goddess, but Agammenon has a bigger army. You probably should take that into account.
But in spite of his goddess mother’s and Nestor’s advice to quell his anger, Achilles nurses it and pines for battle. Peace did not ensue and the Trojan war came to be. Otherwise, the saga would not have been written.
It’s fascinating stuff. Human and divine natures are on display.
The Greeks conceived themselves as being in constant intimacy with the gods, consulting with them over everything. The gods, only slightly more elevated but more powerful than the humans with whom they consorted and slept, take pleasure in the songs of mankind; they enjoy the feasts at the temples; they accept the drink offerings. Jove is even portrayed as staying awake while he ponders how to do honor to Achilles. Mere men and their daily affairs were always on the minds of the gods--discussed endlessly and in detail. Everything mattered to the gods.
The belief that there was more to the struggle over Troy than mere men discerned; that there were superior spirits involved in the heat of battle and in its outcome; that the raw impulses of one’s heart must be tempered and mitigated by consultation with the gods; that Olympus and earth were connected in titanic struggles involving forces both good and bad meant the Greeks truly discerned the admixture of the tragic and the glorious inherent in the human condition.
There is something to be learned in the relationships of gods and men as portrayed in Homer’s Iliad and in the mythology that gave meaning to Greek culture; particularly in a day and age which has sought to excise the supernatural from every aspect of life: It is better to at least believe in gods than to believe we are mere beasts with no particular purpose but to eventually die to no end. It is better to believe in a superior being than to believe there is no God at all.
Or to believe you yourself are a god.
And that is where too many are today: Mere humans pretending to be gods who permit themselves everything. For without reference to anything or anyone other than self, any action can be and will be permitted.
Taking the burden of being gods upon ourselves is too great a burden for mere human beings. The consequence of our trying to make ourselves gods is that the gods go crazy. The gods believe anything and everything is not only possible and permitted, but that every other human being must recognize and worship the ever expanding pantheon of gods and goddesses among us. Crazy gods demand we worship them and allow them every expression of self will without quibbling.
Gods demand innocent life should be sacrificed. They demand they are sovereign over humans’ territories, even down to the use of privies. They disregard what mere humans regard as the sacred writings and sacred places. Nothing is sacred except themselves.
This is very dangerous stuff. In and of ourselves, in and by self will, we are not and cannot be gods. Denial of the limits of human beings always leads to oppression. Failure to recognize and to believe the human being is at once capable of being divine or demonic; that a human being is a creature who either answers to better angels of being or to the darkest forces of the universe leads to delusion and inevitably to oppression of those the gods consider mere mortals.
But as C.S. Lewis points out, the Christian view of mankind promises a redemption that augers a greater destiny than the flawed and fallible gods or goddesses some would make themselves out to be. He writes:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
“It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
“There are no ordinary people.
“You have never talked to a mere mortal.
“Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
“But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Immortality is a very different thing than making one’s self a god by an act of will. Immortality is a given. But it winds up in two differing places: Immortally pure evil or immortally pure good. We are destined for one or the other, and the path we take in this life is an indicator of our ultimate destiny.
Therein lies the difference in the Greeks’ concepts of gods and goddesses, which were an admixture of good and bad, little different than mere humans and often far more arbitrary. Therein lies the difference in the modern day concept that human beings can with infallible perception discern within themselves a deity, a god or goddess who does not have to bow to any other or to any law, a divine being whose dictates must be obeyed without question.
There are only human beings on this planet--no gods and no goddesses. As mere mortals with an immortal future, it behooves us all to see in each human being a creature of immense worth, a being we are either helping or hindering in the walk to eternity.
The measure, then, of our humanity and our destiny is how we love God and how we love our fellow human being. "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
That commandment is the best antidote for any god complex.
Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her its prize for excellence in systematic theology. She is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, including National Review, CNS, Fox News, Russia Insider and RealClearReligion. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org