I've recently been laid up at home with a broken toe, comforting myself by rewatching some of the recent Marvel Comics movies on Netflix, and got to thinking about the popularity of the Chariots of the Gods hypothesis. You know, where the ancient pagan gods were actually aliens. Marvel used it as the premise for the Thor franchise, and it's also turned up in Star Trek, Prometheus, and a the most recent Indiana Jones movie, just to name a few off the top of my head.
I think it's so popular because modern Westerners, whether Christian or materialist, don't believe those gods really exist, but it seems rather strange and unsatisfying to say that they were just plain made up. They were so universally believed in, and while each pantheon was different they were similar enough that pagans seemed to readily identify their own gods with those of others. The idea that they were aliens, despite its total lack of scientific or historical support, provides an appealing way to honor the old stories without swallowing them whole.
But after reading Charles Taylor's description of paganism in A Secular Age, I'm even less inclined to think it's true. The image of gods as aliens fits with the modern view of gods, gods as 'extras,' beings who intrude upon a mechanically functioning universe with extraordinary, miraculous events. Paganism, though, was more about the day-to-day realities. Even if some ancient version of Marvel's Thor did show up and summon a little thunder and lightning for the frightened mortals, I don't think they would have assumed him responsible for all thunder and lightning unless they had some notion of a thunder-god already.
I'm no expert, but I can't help thinking that our image of ancient paganism has been distorted by the fact that the main thing that we know about it is the wild stories. So we all know about how Zeus impregnated Leda disguised as a swan, but only the specialists know anything about how Zeus was habitually worshipped. However, I suspect that the ancient priorities were different, and one clue to this is how they identified each other's gods. Take Odin the king of the Norse gods, for instance. Sounds like Jupiter, right? But actually, Jupiter was identified with Thor, while Odin was identified with Mercury the god of commerce. It doesn't really make sense unless you consider their points of interface with humanity. Jupiter and Thor were both creators of storms, while Odin and Mercury were both psychopomps, who escorted the souls of the dying to the next world. Their mythical personalities and relationships seem to have been less important than those tangible roles in human life.
I suspect that the Chariots of the Gods theory is also based on the modern idea that the heart of religion is believing that certain things happened for which you have no proof. That is obviously influenced by Christianity, in that belief in the events described in the New Testament forms the basis of the whole religion (especially for Protestants, since they are so Bible-focused). But here, too, the point of interface between God and humanity is the key; it's just unusual in that it's so focused on one point of interface, one that grows more distant from us as time goes on. Describing the revolt against sacraments in the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Taylor injects a bit of editorializing when he suggests that maybe, even if God isn't "magic," he might distribute his power through sacraments and rituals to allow for the fact that we are embodied beings and not just creatures of pure, ethereal faith in things not seen. Maybe so.
Living a godly life in this world is something very different from living in the order Aristotelian Cosmos of Aquinas, or the hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order, in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively in order to bring about God’s purposes, because it is through these purposes, not through signs, that God reveals himself to the world. These are not just two different stances, but two incompatible ones.It’s here that we get the beginning of a view of society that we modern Westerners probably take totally for granted: that it’s something to be constantly reformed and re-engineered toward a never-achieved ideal of justice and order. In my first post in this series I wrote about how strange it was to try and mentally inhabit a world where communities don’t really need to have a purpose to exist, but that appeared to be the attitude of most of the ancients. They lived primarily in families, after all, and families are what you live in when you don’t consciously leave and do something else (especially if you live in a society without institutions like schools and corporations that suck you away from the nest). But once Protestants — especially Calvinists — gained positions of power, they started to act on the idea that society could be reworked to be made more godly.
Some of the changes they brought are the classic anti-fun ones we tend to associate with Calvinists: no dancing, no prostitution, no Carnivals or feasts of misrule. But some other changes are still with us, and indeed taken completely for granted.
One of the most interesting changes, to me, was in the attitude towards poverty. According to Taylor, in the Middle Ages the rich looked down on the poor just like always, but this was counterbalanced by a sense of Christian sanctity about poverty. It was voluntarily taken on by the holiest members of society, and even the involuntary poor were seen as occasions for sanctification, as the wealthier folks took to the biblical maxim that giving to them was giving to Christ.
But the Protestants, both in the interests of social reform and in the rejection of separate classes of vowed religious, came to see poverty the way pretty much everyone does now: as a social problem in need of a solution. This brought with it the famous ‘Protestant work ethic,’ which in Taylor’s view was a double-edged sword for the poor themselves. On the one hand, it made improvement in their condition thinkable. On the other hand, it put pressure on the poor to go along with whatever agenda for their improvement their leaders had come up with, thus creating the inevitable division between the ‘good’ poor and the ‘bad’ poor. Voluntary poverty, far from leading to holiness, could get you shipped to the workhouse. (Taylor notes in passing that madness underwent a very similar change in social position, leading eventually to the horrors of Bedlam.)
Another hugely significant shift that endures is the lowered tolerance for interpersonal violence. The medieval noblemen comprised a warrior class who were regularly embroiled in brawls, vendettas, and feuds, so they didn’t hugely care if their subjects did the same, so long as it didn’t get in their way. But toward the end of the Middle Ages, Taylor suggests, violence started to reach critical levels, partly due to the religious disputes themselves, and also because of various social and economic dislocations of the time. Couple that with the Calvinist ‘rage for order’ and the rise of the merchants and bureaucrats at the expense of warrior-nobles, and the idea begins to take shape that the government’s primary job is to keep domestic peace.
Although Protestant governments adopted this most strongly, Taylor says many traditional Catholic monarchs such as the kings of France also adopted these reforms when they realized how useful they were. The Protestant work ethic was helping to make whole countries richer, which meant more money for the treasury as well as more disciplined armed forces. Only Spain, in reactionary Catholic mode at that point, resisted the new order.
But government policy alone can’t make order from chaos. The view of the individual self was also changing in parallel with the changing view of the natural world: no longer the helpless ‘porous’ self, the haunt of spirits and magic, but the self that rules its own animal nature like the Calvinist God rules the universe. Taylor writes that this was influenced not only by Christian movements but by a revived version of Stoicism, the old Greco-Roman philosophy that put a premium on overcoming the passions.
There’s an interesting little paradox in here that I noticed. Taylor describes how, on the one hand, the rejection of traditional Catholic asceticism and religious stratification brought a more positive view of the physical world, so that it became a form of devotion to examine and admire nature as such, instead of just looking to it for religious symbolism as the mystics tended to do. On the other hand, the ‘rage for order’ meant seeing nature as something barbaric and gross that must be suppressed by civilization. There is thus a sharp divergence of nature and morality that — again — everybody nowadays just seems to take for granted. I remember in some of my many past discussions about natural evil on this blog and elsewhere, some Christians were just baffled by the idea that nature should have moral meaning at all; ethics are only for sentient creatures who can choose between good and evil, and therefore there’s something inherently unnatural about them.
This is, I think, why that whole medieval concept of universals I tried to describe in Part 2 seems so strange. The universals are both real things and normative things, and the human will is less an agent of superior morality than a disruptive force, threatening to carry you away on your doomed individual path. Granted, I might be reading a bit of Bhagavad Gita into this, but that’s how I see it. However, if nature is no longer an imperfect instantiation of universal forms, but simply what is, then we have a problem that would eventually lead to arguments with God himself. The nature documentarian David Attenborough once explained his agnosticism this way:
“…when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy’.”And yet Attenborough — like so many who take that view — also loves nature, so much that he’s spent his life studying it, camping out in it and telling the world about it. This is not a Manichean rejection of the material world as evil; it is, I think, an expression of the persistent division within the Western soul, wondering at the natural world even in its violence (maybe especially in its violence, going by the popularity of Shark Week), while at the same time finding it ethically appalling.
And yet I would still say that our conceptions of the natural world and the social world continue to mirror each other. That, however, is a subject for a later post.