The Epiphany, and Misunderstanding, of Christianity

“The Adoration of the Magi,” by Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). J. Paul Getty Museum.

I used to participate regularly at a blog called Slacktivist, back when it was its own site. (Yes, I am that MadGastronomer. I still get asked this. It’s been years since I was a regular commenter.) Fred Clark, who writes it, is pretty terrific, and at various times its comment section has had an amazing community going. It got to be pretty toxic for me, eventually, and I had to quit it (several times, actually). Every once in a while, I go back to check out what Fred is up to. His writing always reminds me why I read it… and the comments always remind me of why I left.

Right now, he has up a lovely post entitled Epiphany: Jesus Wept, in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Feast of the Magi and Twelfth Night, which commemorates the visit of the Wise Men or Magi to the infant Jesus, and therefor the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. He talks about the incarnation of a transcendent and omniscient God in the mortal person of Jesus, and how that not only serves to tell Christians what they need to know about their God, but served to tell their God things he had not truly understood about mortals, because God told Job to simply trust him in the face of tragedy, but Jesus wept.

The incarnation of God as Jesus is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, of course. (The other being the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.) And within the context of Christianity, it is indeed an incredibly powerful mystery, the transcendent, the ineffable, voluntarily surrendering most of itself in order to become, for a brief span, human and mortal, in order to benefit both humanity and itself. But, like that great problem of Christianity, theodicy (the question of how an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity can permit the existence of evil), it makes a great deal less sense when you’re coming from a polytheistic perspective.

This is always going to be true for a lot of the mysteries of any particular religion from the point of view of another; some things just don’t mean the same thing when taken out of context.

My gods are not transcendent. They are right here with us, in this world. Some of them also live in places mortals cannot easily reach, like Olympos (or the bottom of the ocean), but all of them spend time in this world, too, and many of the “smaller” gods — the gods and goddesses of specific locations, the nymphs and daemons — live entirely with us, even when we cannot see them. They experience many of the same things we do: family, loss, pain, childbirth, love, friendship, even death (although their deaths are different from ours, they can still die). And they often watch us up close, and enter into relationships with us, and share our lives, if we let them. They are not distant from us, but are here beside us. And some of them were born mortal: Herakles, Ariadne, the Dioskouroi (Polydeukes and his twin Castor, with whom he shared his immortality), Dionysos himself. All of these knew mortal pains and mortal death, although they had the talents of the children of the gods in life, and were reborn to their divinity afterward. They know us because they are us. They are also more.

Similarly, since my gods are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent by the usual definitions, the problem of evil simply evaporates. It doesn’t apply, because the preconditions don’t exist. I’ve had this baffle more than one atheist who had simply never thought outside an Abrahamic definition of god before. Here they thought it was this devastating argument, and that I’d say, “Well, it’s the ineffable will of the gods,” so they could blow that off, and instead I went, “What makes you think that they can or would want to get rid of bad things happening?” And then they were left with their mouths hanging open, just because they had seriously never considered what polytheism meant.

“Why do bad things happen?” can still be a valid question, and there are myths that address that, but frankly, this is a point on which I am pretty naturalistic: Natural disasters are part of the world we live in. Death and illness are part of the world we live in. Some problems are caused by human beings being horrible to each other, and that’s also part of the world we live in. Pandora’s Box is a pretty Just So story, but really, most of these things need no explanation beyond “physics,” “chemistry,” “biology,” and “people.” Bad things do not have to be deserved to happen. Justice is something that gods and mortals create, not a natural process, and we will never be able to make the world perfectly just.

At my recent short-lived job, there was a guy I liked pretty well. Enthusiastic, bubbly old-school gamer dude (you should have heard him go on about Street Fighter). He’s married to a conservative Christian, and trying to get her to open up to a wider world of ideas. We’re still in touch, and talking about going shopping for a tarot deck for him.

He believes very firmly that every belief system and practice has good things in it. Which is great. But he also seems to think that anything he finds to be good from one religion must therefor also be good in all other religions. We had a whole conversation about the Christian meaning of “meek,” and that concept wasn’t a desirable thing in my religion, and why he thought it really was, if I’d just look at it the right way. Since I had explained that my gods do not want mortals to show hubris, but to respect the gods, he decided that that equalled “meek,” and so I should agree. But meek does not mean “appropriately humble and respectful,” it means things like “not wanting to fight or argue with other people,” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment,” “deficient in spirit and courage,” and “not violent or strong”. Sorry, but despite what the misogynist Athenians may have wanted women to be, my gods do not want me to be deficient in spirit and courage, and they do want me to be strong, and to fight for myself and for those and what I want to protect.

I do like the guy, and I mean to hang out with him sometime again even if we don’t go tarot shopping, but he genuinely seems unable to think outside his own context, to understand that there are other ways of understanding the gods and the world that simply do not consider as virtues some things that he likes. And that that’s ok.

I keep encountering this phenomenon, over and over again. People cannot understand that it is possible to have a viewpoint which is entirely incompatible with any form of Christianity, a context in which things that are incredibly important within Christianity simply lack meaning. (I’m sure this happens for any dominant religion, but I live in the US, and Christianity is overwhelming here. Believers in places where their religions are in the minority don’t tend to do this so much, because they cannot get away from the evidence of it.) Even people who are not Christian do it, because they have been so inculcated with it.

I can appreciate many things about Christianity within its own context, or at least understand them there, but they simply don’t mean the same things to a polytheist that they do to a Christian. Even the word “god” cannot possibly mean the same thing to a polytheist that it does to a monotheist. We differ on the essential definition and attributes. And ours is the older definition, by the way. Wikipedia deals with the vast gulf between the two meanings by having entirely separate pages for god in the monotheistic sense and deity in a more general and polytheistic sense. (On the latter page I found what I think is a good working description for getting across to others what I mean by “god,” if not a good theological definition: ‘C. Scott Littleton's Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology defined a deity as "a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.”’) Many traditional polytheists have taken to referring to their own gods by names for them that come the old languages of those gods, like Aesir and Theoi, partly because the common understanding of the word god is so far from meanings which apply to them.

I am reminded of this anecdote of Neil Gaiman’s, in which a woman on a plane could not grasp the phrase “American Gods”. Neil jokingly passes it off as a matter of accent, and certainly his is very different from that of anywhere in Texas, but I cannot help but think the problem was that the woman simply couldn’t conceive of there being multiple gods that might be called American, or possibly multiple gods at all.

I have no objection to other people coming at things from their own religious context, and certainly not things from their own religion. It’s entirely understandable that people have trouble understanding just what the context of another religion really is. But I do wish people would learn that there are other contexts, that they are real, that other people really believe them, and that they do not have anything to do with Christianity.

(Despite the fact that I started with Fred, I have no problem with the way he talks about things. He is addressing things about Christianity and the world from the context of Christianity. He doesn’t often interact with his readers directly, and doesn’t often touch on things that have no relation to Christianity, but he does appear to get that people who are not Christians really are not Christians and do not approach things from a Christian perspective, and to respect that. Fred is just a starting point. Actually, this entire post ended up somewhere very different than where it started. Also with more parentheses.ETA: And just to demonstrate what I said about Fred, the next day he posted a link to The Wild Hunt. He reads it regularly, specifically to get an outside perspective.)