+quot;In the Beginning, God created.+quot; From the Archaic period of ancient Greek writin
"In the Beginning, God created..." From the Archaic period of
ancient Greek writings to the time of the Roman Empire, writers,
philosophers, and religious thinkers leaders powerfully impacted
the way in which their societies viewed that which some call "god"
or "the gods." For Plato, the opening statement from the Christian
Holy Bible certainly would have been controversial even though he
speaks of gods and a God in his own writings. Undoubtedly, the
Epicurean Lucretius would have a different version of the time's
beginning: "Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of
nothing." An important question to be raised, however, is how
there exist so many differing opinions as to the nature (or lack of
it) of "the gods" or "God" from a race of humans which are
essentially alike. Perhaps the diversity of these strongly held
opinions which have shaped our world of today aren't as different
as they may seem. If one cross references implications of the
Homeric, Christian, Platonic, and Epicurean thinkers, it can be
seen that they may have something in common after all.
First came the writings of a Greek named Homer. In his most
famous work, The Odyssey, Homer immediately presents the most
widely held view of deity among the Greeks of the Archaic period,
polytheism. Immediately following the invocation in The Odyssey,
the dialogue begins, "My word, how mortals take the gods to task!"
(1, 2) making a strong indication that the gods would be taken to
task individually. Furthermore, not only are Homer's gods
presented as separate entities, but also as willful individuals.
One fine example of this conflict in wills is when "the god of
earthquake", Poseidon, honored the request of Cyclops to curse
Odysseus while Athena, Odysseus' protectress, always sought his
protection. (1, 161) Another peculiar aspect of the polytheistic
belief is illustrated when the gods alter their physical forms to
meet necessity of a particular situation. For instance, it was
convenient for Athena to pose as Mentor when helping Telemakhos
sail out and look for his father, as she could not have sailed with
him otherwise. (1, 30) Despite this uncertainty and
unpredictability of the gods changing their forms, Penelope retains
her trust in the god Athena, unlike Hermes who decides that "...it
is not to be thought of - and no use - for any god to elude the
will of Zeus,". She pleaded to Athena, "Tireless child of Zeus,
graciously hear me!...Save my son!" (1: p 84, 75) If Homer's
representation of the Archaic Greek society was correct, then
Polytheism, a belief in more than one deity, dominated the religion
of the Greeks with much support.
Christianity, a belief which arose from Judaism hundred years
after the life of Homer, presents an interesting case to analyze as
well. According to modern Christian doctrine, Christians believe in
a monotheistic god. This belief is also consistent with another
religion which emerged five hundred years later, Islam. The early
"Homeric Greeks" probably would not have adhered to any of these
religious doctrines for apparent reasons: it would have completely
contradicted their views of polytheism. Ironically, there are
remarkable similarities in what seems to be a contradiction in
these Homeric and Christian beliefs. For example, Christianity
has always accepted the Holy Trinity concept of God, one divinity
existing in three separate forms. While the Holy Bible, the
foundation of Christian doctrine, has record of Jesus saying, "I
and my father are one", Jesus was also to have said, "...I came
down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him
(God) that sent me." (Holy Bible, John 10:30, 6:38) This leads
one to believe that Jesus and God the father had very distinct,
individual wills, hence implying a form of polytheism among the
Christian Trinity. Comparing this observation with the gods of
separate wills which Homer presented, it isn't difficult to see the
strong resemblance between Archaic Greek and Christian religions in
this respect. Again, searching for other similarities in the two
religions, we find in the Holy Bible that the Holy Spirit, it was
even said to have "descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him
(Jesus)". A strong parallelism can once again be drawn, as this
event is similar to Athena changing her form to protect Telemekhos.
So if these gods or "parts of a God", as you may refer to the
Trinity, can so easily alter their forms for humans, why then are
they portrayed by nearly every religion in history as having human
form? That, Plato implicitly argues, is a very tacit and ignorant
Plato, one of the most noteworthy thought reformists of
ancient Greece, appeared on the public scene at about 400 B.C. with
his own revolutionary ideas of the reality of god. In The
Republic, Plato spoke of developing a perfect education system.
Concerning what should be taught, Plato declared, "But if he must
introduce the gods, at any rate let him not dare so completely
misrepresent the greatest of gods.." and that "...truth should be
highly valued..." (2: 74-75) Taken on a literal level, this would
imply that he undoubtedly believes in the existence of a higher
power, namely a god. However, if Plato's arguments are carefully
followed throughout his other works, the real meaning of truth
which he attempts to convey can be seen more accurately. Through
a variety of arguments, he focuses on one specific point: reality
and ultimate truth is that which is absolute. For example, in his
famous cave allegory, Plato portrays men being chained to the inner
wall of a cave, never to see anything but the shadows of men cast
from behind them. He argues that if shadows are all they ever see,
that is their unfortunate their reality. (2: 205-206) Plato
implies that Shadows, love, and justice are but mental scaffoldings
which lead to a higher truth. He asks, "But what if a man had eyes
to see the true beauty- the divine beauty..." He quickly responds
that "...he would be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty,
but realities; for he has hold not of an image but of reality..."
(2: 354-355) It is this ultimate beauty divine, truth divine, and
justice divine which Plato believes leads to the ultimate singular
truth. Plato, if claiming a god at all, has consequently defined
"god" by that which is absolute. He claims no personification to
this ultimate truth. Rather, he sees these myths (love, justice,
etc...) of mental structuring as positive routes to attaining the
truth, provided they themselves are not held in absolute esteem.
So Plato's answer as to why there are so many differing opinions of
the nature of god might well be that people have ignorantly "missed
the mark" if they have personified a god with truthful attributes
rather than seeing the absolute truth itself as the ideal.
However, as one might freely choose to label this truth with the
name "god", another very interesting question arises: Is there a
distinct difference at all between a purely monotheistic god as in
Christianity and the absolute truth as Plato presents it?
Advancing forward even further into time to the rule of the
Roman Empire, there is Lucretius. Undoubtedly, the core of
Epicurean thought employed by Lucretius was reason, almost
identical to the reason used in modern science. He believes
strongly that "The existence of bodies is vouched for by the
agreement of the senses. If a belief resting directly on this
foundation is not valid, there will be no standard which we can
refer any doubt on obscure questions for rational conformation."
(3: 39-40) These obscure questions of which he speaks are of those
things which cannot be confirmed or proven in a physical sense--
a very materialistic view, indeed! Since procuring satisfactory
proof of a god or gods under Lucretius' standards has always
remained an elusive task, he rationalizes that "...it may happen
that men who have learnt the truth about the carefree existence of
the gods fall to wondering by what power the universe is kept
going...Then the poor creatures are plunged back into their old
superstitions and saddle themselves with cruel masters whom they
believe to be all-powerful. All this because they do not know what
can be and what cannot..." (3, 173) Like Plato, Lucretius faults
people for their ignorance. This time, however, they are ignorant
for not knowing that "...nothing exists that is distinct both from
body and from vacuity." (3, 40) It may be said therefore that his
final conclusion is, "that nature is free and uncontrolled by proud
masters and runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods".
(3, 92) However, leaving the universe to itself does not imply
that it is randomly controlled by any means. Lucretius noted
correctly that there is a definite relation between the
characteristics (behavior) of substances and their shape and form.
(3, 70) Essentially, he is saying that although the universe is
not controlled by gods, it is governed of itself according to
discreet laws by its distinct properties. These properties can be
detected and rationally determined as he requires. Therefore, this
nature of the very laws which govern the elemental properties, the
macroscopic ordering of microscopic random probability distribution
of energy and matter, from a modern scientific point of view, is
the ultimate regulator, controlling the "forces" of nature.
Although Lucretius may not have known that, he did recognize order.
Now, if god is defined as one being in ultimate control, then he
has therefore recognized a very unique "god", in the very
materialistic sense of nature, as does every modern scientist who
bows before the unyielding physical laws. Although Plato, Homer,
and virtually every world religion would probably reject this view
of "god" for themselves, it is important not to allow preconceived
notions and individual views of god to dominate every mode of
thinking. This is particularly important since each notion of
deity or deities, all somewhat similar, exclude the other, simply
on the basis of their own self-defined, beliefs.
So there seems to be a question which has yet to be answered.
Could all of these beliefs, each seemingly very different in
nature, actually be similar? Primarily, we see a potentially
strong relation between the obviously polytheistic Homeric gods and
the Christian God in trinity form. They reflect not only a
similarity in form, but also show occasional resemblances in
actions and nature. Christianity likewise possesses many
characteristics of Platonism as well. Probably the strongest
similarity is the sharing of the belief that God or absolute truth
(take your pick) is eternal and unchanging in nature, always just,
and always truthful. In fact, the two notions of God and absolute
truth are so similar, that their very definitions are recursive.
That is, "Plato's truth" can be given the name "god", while
Christianity simply says that god is true. Lucretius at first
seemed to have gone "out on a limb", so to speak, by declaring the
universe independent of divine intervention. Even he was found to
have acknowledged the presence of something beyond randomness which
governs the universe. Although the concept of the Epicurean "god"
is complex to comprehend, it is analogous, in some ways, to our
modern system of mathematics. Numbers are invaluable to our
society, but do not, within themselves, exist. Similarly,
the forces of nature are ultimately real, but simply not existing.
Remembering now that the truth as defined by Plato was reality, but
not in a personified or existing form, we see similarities in
Platonism and Epicurean thought, even though they disagree as to
the nature of the absolute, spiritual or physical.
There are many striking similarities among the numerous views
of deities from early Greek literature up to the religious beliefs
during the Roman period of conquest. In spite of the similarities,
it simply isn't possible to unite every single belief. Unifying
the various religious beliefs, however, isn't necessarily as
important as trying to lace the patterns of each doctrine or
persuasion into a general framework so that we can see what
characteristics of a "God" or "gods" are common within each belief.
Although the founders and supporters of Platonism, Christianity,
and Epicurean thought often show unyielding devotion or dogmatism
toward their respective beliefs, the significance of the
similarities between each of these religions should not be
neglected. Throughout history, unifying these beliefs has proven
to be an elusive task, as the opposition to any such consolidation
springs from the mutually exclusive doctrines of each religion, if
they may be called religions at all. Recognizing apparent
similarities in each religion, one may take the results of this
complex, networked comparison of these various religions and
attempt to define a new religion, a new "God" or "Group of gods"
which would represent a sociologically, culturally, and time
independent religion. However, we find that if this is done, such
beliefs may be viewed as too "liberal" among these "religions" and
perhaps, in itself, turn out to be nothing more than simply another
1. Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1963.
2. Homer. p. 161.
3. Homer. p. 30.
4. Homer. p. 84, 75.
5. Plato. The Republic and Other Works. New York: Anchor
Press/Doubleday, 1973, p. 74-75.
6. Plato. p. 205-206.
7. Plato. p. 354-355.
8. Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. London: Penguin
Group, 1988, pp. 39-40.
9. Lucretius. p. 173.
10. Lucretius. p. 40.
11. Lucretius. p. 92.
12 Lucretius. p. 70.
Oh God, Another Opinion
Consolidating Traits of the Greek, Roman,
and Christian Religions
Bart O. McCoy
P.O. Box 191
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Ky 40526
Phone: 258 - 5551
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank