I’ve been wanting to write the present post since mid-August. While I should probably be doing other things now, nonetheless, here I am doing this…I’d like to get this one, and one other, out of the way before the Sacred Nights start on Thursday the 24th. So, here goes…
There’s a certain passage in the Gosepl of Mark that I’ve always found fascinating for a number of reasons–why is it even in there? What good does this do the Christian religion, or its theological claims about Jesus? And yet, perhaps, the latter set of questions is even more important to the religion as it is lived and practiced than anyone might have realized. The passage in question is Mark 6:4-6 (not long before the beheading of John the Baptist), which reads in the New International Version’s translation:
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
While I don’t have the facility to check the original Greek on this matter at present, I’ve seen slightly different phrasings of this passage, including the Catholic New Revised Standard Version’s, with which I’m much more familiar:
Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
As you see, thus, the terms “belief” and “faith” are being used interchangeably in English for what is a singular term in Greek. The Latin term involved is a derivative of credo (the word that gives “creed” and “creedal” in English, but it means “belief” as well as “trust”); and the Greek is a derivative of pistis, which can be translated loosely as “faith,” but which has a far more nuanced set of meanings in Greek.
While much could be said simply about the original Greek shades of understanding on this phrase, I’d like to jump to some of the theological considerations about the matter. In essence, Jesus is astonished by the “lack of faith/belief/assurance/trust” that the people have, and as a result, he can do no major miracles. A more modern re-telling of this anecdote via J. M. Barrie might have the narrator saying at this point, “If you believe in Jesus, clap your hands!” Theologically, this incident has the impact of saying, more or less, that Jesus’ ability to do wonderful things–despite the larger thrust of Christian theology suggesting that he is fully divine, and therefore just as all-powerful as their god–is limited by human capacities for belief or faith in him doing such things. While the other canonical gospels did not retain this incident from Mark (and several others which are suggestive more of magic than they are of divine power), that it makes it into the canonical gospels and therefore the “innerant and infallible” Word of God and Holy Scriptures of Christianity at all is somewhat astonishing…
And somewhat far-reaching in its implications, too. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card as far as explaining the intervention of divinities in one’s life as a Christian. “Well, your son died because you didn’t pray hard enough and you didn’t believe fully and truly in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” (Or, equivalent words for some other situation.) The very foundational necessity of “belief” (or “trust” or “faith” or however pistis should be translated in this context) in a Christian theological context is therefore bolstered by this incident. It’s intriguing to me that pistis can also have a sense akin to “confidence.” In the early Christian communities’ emergences, confidence in polytheism would have been rather high, whereas confidence in a singular deity, or in a salvific quasi-mystery cult emerging from the teachings of a radical rabbi from the rural backwaters of Judea would have been lacking at best. Therefore, this set of verses and this story is almost an encouragement to have greater confidence, because without it, Jesus and his army of
fairies miraculous deeds cannot enter into one’s life and be effective.
Of course, things are very different in polytheism, needless to say…
In discussing this matter, though, I’m reminded of somethng else, hearkening back a few months to the difficulties of the “pop culture paganism” debates (or debacles, as the case might more accurately be), and a matter that still comes up when I speak with some pagans and even people who identify as polytheists. This is the matter, as they put it, of “literal belief in the gods,” or anything which considers the deities to be anything more than metaphors rather than independent entities with volition, personalities, will, and power (however great or small, distinctive or generic, these might be in the case of any given deity notwithstanding). Even the hardest of hard polytheists, who absolutely uphold the literal existence of gods (and often do so without any shred of what these other pagans would term “belief,” because at that point, belief isn’t necessary, any more than it is necessary for someone to believe in the germ theory of disease in order for them to get the flu), may not have a literalist approach to the myths about the gods, and in fact most probably don’t. There is a huge difference between cultic reality and mythic reality: some deities who have significant roles in myth had little or no cultus, while some deities who had little (if any) myths surviving about them (particularly in some cultures) may have had a very significant cultus, or the characteristics of the deity in cultus might be quite different than they seem to be in certain myths.
Most polytheists are very comfortable with this being the case, and with a certain polyvalent approach to mythic characteristics. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many Christians, even despite the fact that their sacred narratives have many variations that are canonized, and yet few are willing to admit this or discuss it and its implications.
At this stage, I am reminded of something that my very good friend in Ireland once said, in the context of an interfaith discussion, in which someone (I suspect it was a pagan) asked him if literal belief in the Gospels is necessary, and if it is not instead sufficient to see Jesus and the stories about him as in some sense metaphorical. My friend–the same one who was at the first two Foundation Days and several other early rituals for Antinous in those years I lived in Ireland–who was a “cradle Catholic” but one of the most religiously liberal individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, responded very earnestly, “If all that is written about Jesus in the Gospels is metaphorical, then there’s no point in having a religion with him as its center.” And while I don’t necessarily agree with that viewpoint (either the initial positing of it nor the conclusion drawn from that postulate), I get it, and I see where he is coming from.
It makes me somewhat pity the position that many more liberal Christians have felt they must take in relation to Jesus: that all of the Gospel stories are metaphorical, and that therefore Jesus is in some sense metaphorical as well, and such notions as the “Cosmic Christ” then can emerge from that quasi-new age sensibility.
In a polytheist framework, our myths about our gods are expanded, poetic, and–yes, therefore–metaphorical explanations and explorations about our gods; and yet, our gods themselves are not at all metaphorical. And, I think that’s perfectly fine…the nature of our gods allows that to be so, and to have any myth about them be an exploration of their character and characteristics, without being a literal description or snapshot of them, so to speak.
But for Christians, for Jesus to say that he is the “way, the truth, and the life” cannot be a mere metaphor without diminishment of what Jesus was actually teaching. A polytheist can accept that Jesus exists as a deity, and that the various Gospels (canonical and otherwise) about him are like so many versions of the same myth or sets of myths, metaphorical in their implications, revelatory of the character of Jesus and the god he represented, but not definitive or historical or in the least bit literal.
Just as the metaphoricalization of our gods is rather offensive to polytheists, I can see how it is also offensive to many well-meaning and dedicated Christians. But, to metaphoralize anything does not mean it therefore becomes a metaphor (except, perhaps, metaphorically…!?!). Someone can say that I’m an ibex for swiftness or that I’m dishwater for its dullness (though, granted, if they said either, they’d be totally wrong, but anyway…!?!), but saying such does not turn me into an ibex, or dishwater, or render me into a figure of speech. I’m still just as alive, existent, and particular outside of ibex-akin-ness or dishwater-comparability as I was before, and am not diminished by being included in such comparisons.
I am reminded of some of the above in relation to Antinous as well. Origen, writing against Celsus, but somewhat in agreement with him as a critic of Antinous’ cultus, writes about “belief in Antinous” amongst the Egyptians of his time in the early third century CE, and the word he uses is pistis. While this may be a person of a creedal religion likewise understanding other religions as equally creedal in basis, it is also possible that some other–or even the same–notion of pistis was at work amongst Egyptian Antinoans of the early third century CE. What this might mean for us modern Antinoans is that, to some extent or other, “belief,” or at the very least some understanding of pistis, may not only be appropriate for our cultus, but it may even be highly suggested. I’m not entirely sure how to parse it yet, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now…
In any case, I’d be interested in knowing the thoughts of anyone who might have any comments on any of the above matters.