I grew up in a mountain Greek village without thinking much about god or gods. My parents and siblings were Orthodox Christians not because of choice but because, like the overwhelming majority of Greeks, they inherited the Orthodox tradition.
I learned a few things about Christianity in school and, of course, in my church attendance. I paid close attention to the priest because I loved the Greek he used, something like an intermediary to classical Greek and the Greek I spoke. So listening to the priest I learned about the Jewish Bible and the god of the Christians, the Pantokrator – the ruler of everything. I learned about Jesus, the Jewish zealot who claimed to be walking on water, healing madmen, and, the most preposterous bragging of all, that he was the son of Yahweh, the Hebrew god the Orthodox Christians made into Pantokrator. The Jewish religious elite of Israel and the Romans ruling Israel could not stomach such nonsense so they crucified him.
In addition, as a curious teenager, I kept asking questions about this strange Jewish-Christian religion painted on the walls and icons of the village church. Why would Greeks worship a non-Greek god? And what about the several gods that made up Greek religion in antiquity? What happened to them? My mythology books said those guys were immortal.
Greeks worshipped the gods for millennia. Greek religion had no dogmas or priesthood. Homer described the gods so beautifully they were living beings in my mind.
But my questions remained unanswered in Greece.
My university studies in America threw some light on this perplexing problem. I studied Greek and Roman history and the answer was hidden in the fourth century.
The Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and ordered the destruction of all other religions. That bloody policy wrecked Greece and its many-gods religion. That’s why icons in my village church glorified Constantine as a saint. That’s why Greeks have been Christians for more than a millennium. They had no choice. It was that or death.
These memories and history have shaped my views of the divine. Greek gods make up my theology. There’s no way I can prove these gods exist. But I have formidable allies who say they do. These include some of the greatest Greek thinkers of all time: Orpheus, Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and Plutarch.
The second century writer Arrian of Nicomedia (in Syria) captured the Greek sentiment about the gods when he said nothing turns out well for humans without the gods. Even science benefited from these gods being the natural world and the cosmos.
The great second century astronomer Ptolemy admitted investigating the stars brought him to the gods, drinking their nectar, and not knowing whether his feet stood on Earth or the heavens.
Now the prevailing one-god religions are primarily business, promising “life after death.” They tell their followers they have the truth, branding non-believers enemies. Like the Christians and Moslems of the dark ages, the Christians and Moslems of the 21st century are fighting crusades for the conquest of the infidels.
This religious chaos provoked Reza Aslan to write his powerful book, “GOD: A Human History” (Random House, 2017).
Aslan, professor of creative writing at the University of California-Riverside, is much more than a teacher of writing. He is a religious zealot who knows the history of theology. He started searching for god as a child, thinking god must look like his father, only more powerful.
Aslan wanted a personal god and he found that god in Jesus, after he abandoned Islam. Then he rejected Christianity “in favor of the purer monotheism of Islam.” He became a Sufi and decided he had to “obliterate any distinction between Creator and creation” in order to accept “a singular, eternal, and indivisible God.”
The rapid metamorphosis of Aslan the Muslin to Aslan the Christian and, back again, to Aslan the Muslim has probably given his book its breathtaking demand that Christian, Jewish, and Moslem monotheists stop making god after their own image.
Aslan’s demand it tempered by scholarship. He connects the human invention of the divine to the human hunting and foraging for food and its eventual abandonment for agriculture. He cites geological and archaeological evidence showing the advantages of hunting and foraging and the disadvantages of farming. During both eras, humans created divine beings on their measures, making gods like men and, in the age of farming, men like gods ruling Earth.
In other works, Aslan blames clerics and organized religion for ending hunting and foraging and bringing about the agricultural revolution. He also shows that monotheism is about 3,000 years old, compared to the millennial survival of polytheism.
Polytheism continued in some form in both Judaism and Christianity. Aslan assures us there were two gods in the Old Testament, Yahweh and El. Eventually, Jewish clerics merged those two gods into one. And the Christians down to the fourth century believed in two gods: the evil god Yahweh and the good god Jesus.
Alsan also rejects Old Testament claims of Israelis having being slaves in Egypt. And to show his balance, he finds anthropomorphism in the Muslims’ holy book, the Quran.
So Aslan wants the monotheists to abandon their homemade anthropomorphic god for the worship or a new dehumanized god. Or, at least, he urges them to end foisting their “human compulsions upon the divine, and to develop a more pantheistic view of God.” “God is All” and “All is God,” he writes.
But pantheism is many gods. One god could not possibly be all. Nature and the cosmos are too immense and complex to be encompassed by one substance or divinity.
Nevertheless, even the limited pantheism of Aslan is a step in the right direction, leading humans back to the sacredness of the universe and the natural world: the pantheism of Greek religion. Perhaps the responsibilities and piety of that religion might guide this new pantheism.
Read Alsan’s book. It is timely, riveting, enlightening and necessary.