Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Nature of the Gods

We Presbyterians are supposed to stay on top of religious literature. We're supposed to read constantly, and be informed about all the latest and greatest theobabble. Given the busyness of life, it's a bit a of a struggle. I recently read my way through a significant proportion of Cicero's The Nature of the Gods. I'm..um..a little behind. At this rate, I'll be getting to Tony Jones sometime in the year 3127. Sigh. He won't even be relevant then.

The Nature of the Gods is not the greatest work of philosophy. Cicero was a legendary speaker and master of rhetoric, but one thing he was not was an original thinker. What he did strikes me as analogous to most bloggery today: he summarized and editorialized based on the original thinking of others.

This book was his effort to...through a fictional conversation between three friends...present the array of different theological arguments of his day on 1) whether gods existed and 2) what they were like.

What was perhaps most striking was just how familiar the conversation was. Sure, it was coming out of a polytheistic context. But the arguments between the functionally atheistic Epicurian and the faithful traditionalist Academic were utterly familiar. The landscape of the argument about faith seemed basically the same.

There were literalist believers in the gods. There were those who founded their belief on a heady fusion of faith and Roman nationalism. There were folks who'd swear up and down the gods had appeared to them, or at least tell you this story about this friend whose uncle knew a guy who once ran into Dionysius at a party. There were even "liberal" interpreters of the Roman pantheon, who understood the gods as metaphors.

I'm not sure this is 1) a heartening reinforcement of the humanity we share with the ancients or 2) kind of depressing.