Once upon a time, many years ago, it was assumed the gods would occasionally take time off from their ambrosia swilling to come down and mingle among the inhabitants of earth. It was not an unusual reaction then, when Paul and his partner Barnabas, having healed a crippled man one day in Iconium, for the crowd was to cry out, “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Granted, if your name happened to be Zeus, this ‘mingling’ often resulted in a string of collateral offspring – the point is that it was generally understood that the gods were not so transcendent as to be uninvolved in the affairs of mortals.
The second assumption was that these divine beings clothed in flesh could be expected to do extraordinary things – thus Mercury could ordain a never depleting wine pitcher and Thor once brought some goats back to life (there are, apparently, degrees to the miraculous.)
I can’t help but wonder how the modern mind would respond today to a perpetually abundant wine decanter – keeping in mind, of course, that the assumptions of ancient Greeks allowed for a supernatural hypothesis. These days we are allowed no such category. Thus we might be forced to conclude a mineral compound within the structure of the vessel, or a peculiar atmospheric condition must have accounted for what appears like endless wine. Or it must have been a practical joke. Or you must have drank to much and simply imagined it all during a merlot-induced stupor.
Yet here, where logical contortions often end up being more spectacular than the claim of supernaturality itself, is where many find themselves today.
Perhaps we could trace our squeamishness towards the supernatural back to the 17th century. During this time the chains of superstition were, for a time, thrown off, only to eventually be replaced with shiny new chains tied up in a neat bow by empiricists such as Hume, Locke, and the gang. Thus a period of history which could not conceive of the natural gave way to an age which could not conceive of the supernatural and which – though undoubtedly paving the way for advances in science, industry, and medicine – also bolted the window to the heavens.
To this day, there is general agreement that we are better off without the gods – at least, not the kind that come down. If there must be gods, they should be amiably impotent. Santa Clause can stay – his belly jiggles and he brings us sacks brimming with figgy pudding. The Easter Bunny is fine because bunnies are soft and yielding. The tooth fairy is small, squishable, and pays hard cash for calcified tissue.
Or perhaps we prefer our gods more close at hand – our own philosophies, goals, ambitions, pleasures – less intervention from above and more extension from within.
These gods we can safely wrap in brown paper and put away in the pantry with the marmalade preserves. There, sealed and protected, they wait until we need them. They will not unsettle our lives. They will not, “smite and hold us.”
That last line is from one of my favorite chapters in The Wind in the Willows. The chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” tells the story of two friends, Mole and Rat, who go out in their boat late one night looking for a lost otter pup. On and on they row until mysterious music compels them to land on a certain shore. Having beached their little craft however, they soon become aware of a Presence:
“Suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror — indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy — but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.”
Kenneth Graham was somewhat of a mystic – hence in this case, transcendence appears garbed in a curly beard and goat legs. Still, there is an expectation that the divine will be ‘other’ than us; whose power and exposing light generates both terror and awe. This kind of encounter is rather inconvenient since, in it’s wake, we are inevitably reminded us of our own comparative vulnerability. And yet, assuming the encounter is amicable, we see it also carries the potential for both peace and happiness.
Generally though, it is less jarring if our gods are kept at arms reach. Diaper-clad angel babies, frankincense scented anointing oil, Amazing Grace sung at the funeral of someone we barely know, or Handel’s messiah played at low volume minus the baritone section. These are our splenda-gods, our gods-lite – gods with that suspicious kind-of flavor but ultimately bankrupt of substance.
But what happens when portable gods meet with crippling events; sickness, tragedy, disaster, injustice, tyranny, and death? We discover that, while convenient for fair-weather forays, they soon disintegrate like a cheap boat as wave after wave comes crashing down on the hull.
We are then forced to a difficult question: Which would we rather have?
Someone you invented? Or someone that is. Someone you sculpt and scissor? Or someone that demands. Someone you contribute to? Or Someone that rescues and redeems. The father that coddles, capitulates, and compromises? Or the Father that unsheathes his sword and charges into the darkness ahead?
A god from among? Or a God from above.