A strange question, to ask if gods abandoned us. After all, many people in Europe today stopped believing in God at all. To speak of gods is then even stranger. It seems to point to pagan religions gone from Europe for a millennium or more, if we do not count some odd cults, whose efforts to revive dead beliefs usually turn into a caricature. Others may even feel uncomfortable to speak of “divine matters;” as some recent events, whether in France or in the Middle East, could indicate that we are better off without god, be it in singular or plural.
But let’s just consider one possibility: that we don’t really know who or what gods are. A brief consideration will show that the God of Christianity or monotheistic religions starkly differs from gods worshipped by our ancestors in Ancient Greece. It is then possible that over the course of this examination, we will discover that what is divine can be actually quite familiar to us. Even to the extent that we could find out that life has a holy dimension that our civilisation is not sensitive to. If this were to be the case, the fact that gods are “missing” would receive a new meaning. We could then start asking how did this happen and whether we can thing beyond such circumstances.
To start with the three big monotheistic religions, their answer to what is God is well-known. God is one and all-powerful. “He” sits at the top of hierarchy of beings; uncreated, he is the creator of all. He rules, orders, commands, but is also deemed to merciful towards his creation. Obviously, for the increasingly atheistic Europe the problem is to believe in this God at all. How can God be kind and compassionate, when he allows so much individual and collective suffering? Unless one is deeply convinced of their faith, it is hard not to sympathise with Stephen Fry, who considers God “utterly, utterly evil“ and asks „[w]hy should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
There are also philosophical problems with this conception of God. Christians often say that our ethics nowadays lack transcendence. And by that they mean that our moral standards are hollow, because in a “Godless time”, they don’t have an origin in God’s command and providence. If all moral rules are based on human consent and opinion, there is no reason to prefer one to another, they say. Apparently, only the existence of a greater being that will tell apart good and evil provides us with such transcendence ground our behaviour and moral principles. Without going to argue against that conception, we will see that the Ancient Greeks had an entirely different view of transcendence. If we look more closely on transcendence, it will also give us hints about their understanding of gods.
For the Greeks there was something else around us than just “mere things”, which means to say this or that entity. What fundamentally “is” is that something is or is not. And that it is this way or that way. It is a sort of basic miracle of human existence that we are and we won’t be. But as long as we are, we recognise ourselves as existing, here along with other humans, animals, things, or the world. We are born into a certain time, into definite conditions, and deep down we know that our ultimate fate is to die and cease existing. This means to say that we understand being, in all its temporal and historical dimensions. To our knowledge, we differ in this aspect from every other being, be it a stone or an animal. For this reason, German thinker Martin Heidegger spoke of human beings as Dasein, which in German means “being-there”. Humans are of such kind, that we have the power to understand being of our time and place, precisely as we proceed towards death. For us, stone is not just a stone – it may be a familiar rock lying next to our homestead, where we played hide and seek as children and where we gave our first love kiss on her lips. We live in the world of meaning, that is in the realm of being, which is, existentially speaking, more fundamental than any facts that science may subsequently discover.
The Ancient Greeks, according to Heidegger’s reading of pre-Socratic philosophers and Homeric texts, tacitly understood all this. Being. How things are. What they are like. How we are. How the world is. That things are rather than are not. For them, being is the true transcendent. And this transcendent is reachable only because there is one being whose fundamental feature is understanding – of its own existence and of being as such with it. We could say that humans are a sort of a portal or “a clearing in the forest” (Heidegger’s expression), where everything gains its meaning. In the eternal play of birth and death, struggle and stillness, love and hate, all things shine with significance. No supreme being, not even Christian God as traditionally understood, can be transcendent enough in the light of such transcendence. He is “just another being”, even if highest in the rank, while the dimension that transcends beings – being itself – is omitted.
Our understanding of being changes. Under most circumstances, we go on about daily routine, without realising it is a routine in the first place. How often we stop and think why do we engage in this and that, what future does it have, where is it heading, why is it meaningful? In Being and Time, Heidegger calls this inauthentic behaviour, but that may be misleading: to a great extent it is unavoidable, it is how we are. We all know the humdrum of a regular working day. Waking up after the alarm clock can’t be ignored anymore. Sun inconspicuously shining through the windows of the bedroom. Outside the construction site wakes up into existence as machines rumble to finish everything off before the arrival of winter frosts. A long sip of coffee to fire up brain cells and then a tram that jolts along the rails and on which all carless employees rely to carry them to the office. Whether we spent the day diligently or incline more to procrastination, afternoon ends and if it is the right, perhaps we will finish the day with the right company over a drink. But do we realise all this? When do we notice if something or someone does not point it out to us? The state of normalcy seems to be that we don’t grasp this being of our daily regime. Yet there are more fundamental things that we forget. What also slips away from us as we go about day-to-day affairs is that we are mortal; beings who are born and who have to die. It is also the apprehension of our mortality that throws us back against the mystery of being: that “things” are, but they just as well might be not.
A conversation with a good friend, a thoughtful film in a cinema, loving relationship with someone who opens to us other important things in life, in all such crucial moments the real understanding of our situation can emerge. It erupts. It does justice to the saying that we sometimes use – that a realisation comes down on us as a “lighting out of a blue sky”. Truth comes, it appears, disappears again, and we have no control of it. Is it then any surprise that our Greek ancestors saw gods as messengers of being, messengers of truth? We are surrounded by the familiar. By this or that being in our daily routine that we go about as if we “know” it. Only at moments the ordinariness breaks and we can say to see the truth. We gave a small example of such occasions above, but how does it work?
A first kiss between lovers can be a message, perhaps. It is a sign. A sign of a relationship, but also that the world is now a different place, a more liveable place, one brighter and happier. Since happiness is fragile, the kiss just as well might not have happened. The lovers could have never met in the first place. Or, a mistaken word, a foolish action, could have never led them to build that relationship. The truth of being suddenly emerged – and it could just as suddenly disappear and hide into concealedness that is also part of truth. It is in human power to understand being, but not to control it. We can machinate and dominate beings, we can smash atoms and modify genomes, but we will never change what things and how things are. Happiness, sadness, inspiration to action, laziness, keenness of an eye for a scientific discovery, they rush down with force and change our sight. That is why a kiss can be divine. It “transcends” us as individual beings, it transforms us from the ordinary day-to-day experience that we don’t properly realise, into the realm of being, of meaning, of truth. It is extraordinary, tremendous, daemonic. Love is a fundamental truth, just as friendship, hate, or revenge for example. For that reason “behind” or “in” a woman that we kiss there may appear a goddess. There can’t be a “mere woman” when she carries the message of the transcendent, of being beyond the ordinary appearance of beings, even beyond two people standing there. Do we have to still wonder that the receptive souls of poets and artists could “divinise” women or “divinise” warriors? That they could identify that behind this man or this woman, there is a divine being? Was theirs really a naïve anthropocentric religion, or was it rather an essential part of their attunedness to being?
It may still seem peculiar that Greek gods appear in human form. Perhaps the Greeks were simply “poetising” and gave names to universal concepts? Or did they really think that the gods had a personality and we could come across them walking on the meadow, so to say? Such understanding would miss what the Greeks saw and were trying to express. The fact that gods appear, Heidegger notes, has a connection to our capacity to understand truth – to understand being. Understanding of being we carry in our behaviour, we adopt a look. That look is open to others, it awaits other beings, because in our existence we living in communication and sharing this world with other people. Human beings are distinguished precisely by a look, as only through such “looking” being appears and can express itself in truth. To put it bluntly, being can appear only in us and through us, just like in the example of two lovers that we gave above. We have a relationship to being that can’t be found in stones, plants, or animals. As Emilio Brito observed, it is “[p]recisely because the tremendous has to appear in the figure of something ordinary, that the Greek god appears in the human form, because human being is a being that has a special relationship to being, as a place where being itself is revealed” (Brito 1999, p. 156).
It means that in the Greek world, gods have a special connection to us the mortals. Human beings can see and be struck by the divine, because it is in human heart alone where being appears. Gods “look” out of human form, because it is only in speaking, struggling, fearing and believing in each other where we can grasp being, in lightning and flashes. And it is precisely gods who reach beyond the ordinary and point out the daemonic message of transcendence. Are we forsaken by gods because we are not attentive but to daily affairs, that we treat everything as faded, ordinary, just as “mere beings”? Can a world dominated by calculative thinking, logic of capital markets, or non-committed relations on social networks still find itself rediscovering the subtle message of what it means to be?
Brito, Emilio (1999) Heidegger et l’hymne du sacré. Leuven : University Press; Uitgeverij Peeters (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum theologicarum Lovaniensium).