Divine Encounters

Christians use the term “pagan” to describe the culture around us as it becomes ever more militantly secular. But I wonder if pagan is the right term. Our post-Christian culture is radically different from the pre-Christian world. This is especially true as regards the concept of divinity.

In the classical world, it was better not to be noticed by the gods. Those humans who were visited by the gods paid a high price. The gods were terrifying and unpredictable, and interaction between the human and divine was frequently marked by violence. The encounters nearly always ended in suffering for the human.

Our creeping secularism is not at all a return to a pre-Christian understanding of divinity. Rather, it tosses out most of Christianity but keeps the Christian idea that the gods are benevolent (whether that god is Mother Earth or some new version of Jesus). Indeed, secularism adopts many Christian values—tolerance, care for the poor, equality—but forgets that those values come from Christianity. Mothers may have stopped telling their sons to be God-fearing, but they still tell them to be gentle.

And gentleness is that most Christian of virtues. Jesus said, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” That is something the post-Christian world still believes, for the most part. Whatever their other notions of divinity, they believe it to be non-threatening, nice, accommodating, nonjudgmental.

Their non-Christian divinity is nothing like Zeus, who chose Leda to bear his child. That child was Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, the cause of the Trojan war. Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, but there was nothing gentle about his coming. In his poem “Leda and the Swan,” William Butler Yeats describes the horror of a god’s rape of a helpless young woman:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still 
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed 
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, 
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. 
How can those terrified vague fingers push 
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? 
And how can body, laid in that white rush, 
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? 
A shudder in the loins engenders there 
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 
And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, 
So mastered by the brute blood of the air . . .

The mythical gods of Olympus exploited their power and human weakness for pleasure, entertainment, revenge. In the midst of this pagan world, the Holy Spirit came to the Virgin Mary with a message. The child-god she conceived came as a helpless babe: He used his strength not for himself but for us. Indeed, the last drop of his strength. This encounter between humanity and divinity also ended in violence, but it was God who suffered.

Jesus is neither the embodiment of pitiless power, as the pagan gods were, nor the passive, powerless god of the New Age. He is all power and all gentleness, as Randall Colton explains on page 6.

By: Cherie Peacock


1 comment

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “ever more militantly secular.” Is that what you call it when logic and reason finally rise above superstition and magic? I guess religion has never been “militant” has it? LOL. Frankly I’m unaware of any “militant” activities by humanists or secularists… Most of the militancy I see today is religious in nature.
    The explosion of available information that was not widely disseminated in the past starting with the incorrect translations of words such as “hell,” “eternal,” “virgin,” etc., the lack of evidence for the Exodus, the undermining of original sin by evolution, the complete crock of baloney that is the creation myth, the total lack of any originals of any part of the bible… all these things were not well known just a couple decades ago, but they are becoming more and more widely known and that’s creating difficulties for all religions, but particularly Christianity given the higher level of education, and access to unfiltered information, in the western world. If the dissemination of information is “militant” then tough patooties. Deal with it. Ignorance really was blessed once upon a time, but those days are going away, I hope.
    The bible doesn’t give us the full details of Mary’s non-consensual impregnation. For all we know, it was as salacious as Leda’s encounter. She was not given an opportunity to turn it down. Gabriel told her what was coming, and did not request her permission. As was expected of subservient females, we must assume that she did her “duty.”
    Why do we even have this story about a virgin birth? The word ‘alma’ used in Isaiah meant “young woman” or “young maiden” in the original Hebrew, but was translated to “virgin” when the OT was translated to Greek. The author of Matthew probably didn’t know the original word didn’t mean virgin, but he had to write a story to account for the prophecy. (Neither Mark who wrote first, nor John who likely wrote last, had virgin births). In Matthew, it’s clear that Mary was given no choice. Luke writing perhaps a decade after Matthew, prettied up the story a bit, but still made it clear that Mary was not offered a choice, and merely accepted her fate. One can only hope she experienced the “ecstasy of St. Teresa” to make up for being used as a pawn.
    By the way, the lack of a virgin birth from the author of John probably indicates a strong disagreement with the concept, as the author of John surely had the prior gospels available to him – he disagreed on a couple other things you don’t notice unless you read the gospels in parallel. If you’re really interested in learning the NT, there are three ways to read it, and you’ve probably only done one of them:
    1. Read it serially, one after the other in the order they are presented. The order was specifically chosen to tell a particular story – first you get the gospels, then the spreading of the word from Paul and others, then wrap it up with The Revelation, creating a nice story. But the ordering was intentional, and there’s more to it.
    2. Read the NT books chronologically in the order in which they were most likely written – they are not in order. Paul, for example wrote a couple decades before the first gospel of Mark was penned. The Revelation which comes at the end of the NT, was written sometime in the middle. The story changes when read in chronological order, and you see some of the evolution of Jesus’ divinity. Although scholars still debate actual dates for the manuscripts, there is general agreement on most of them. Marcus Borg has a good chronological NT.
    3. Read the NT gospels in parallel. In other words start with a story – say the bloodline, and compare Matthew and Luke. Move on to the birth, and compare these two. Continue to move through the stories and look at the baptism stories from each author, then move through the rest of the life and activities and see how they vary from gospel to gospel, sometimes with significant theological implications. Look, particularly at John and how it compares with the other three. John seems to have a completely different Jesus from the others; one who is very talkative and anxious to show off his miracles, while being very reserved and telling disciples not to talk about his miracles in the earlier gospels… Lots of interesting stuff, the RCC isn’t going to teach you, but it’s there for the taking. Bart Ehrman is a good source to decode the NT.

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