For most of my life, I’ve been a religious agnostic looking to be convinced. My God is Awe. I look up at the sky, and there it is. An ant crawls by and there it is again. And so forth. Love and compassion round out the deal and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is speculation.
While I have a deep appreciation for the religious impulse, I have no use for spiritual certainty. We’ve seen where that goes and it’s almost never good.
I'm far from alone in this. Former nun Karen Armstrong, whose History of God documents the political history of monotheism, describes our current state of Godlessness as “a sorbet.” The last course is over, she says, and the next has yet to arrive, and in the meanwhile we’re all cleansing our palates with a nice lime sherbet.
Armstrong writes about the Axial Age, in which Buddhism, Confucianism, and the various shoots of the Tree of Abraham all came together. There was a time, apparently, when the old religious paradigms broke down in the face of a changing world, and the search for something new took religious thought to a higher level of understanding. A new axial age, says Armstrong, is upon us.
In between trips to Disney World, visits with grandparents, and other vacation-related Florida activities, I’ve been reading Leon Golden’s In Praise of Prometheus, a scholarly attempt at resolving the contradictions in Aeschylean thought that was published in 1962. The phenomenon of fifth century Athens occurs well within the parameters of Armstrong’s Axial Age.
I’m not enough of a classics geek to really know whether Golden succeeds or not, but his parsing out of the divergent notions of Zeus in Aeschylus’ work reminds me a bit of our own situation. The Zeus of Prometheus, he says, is a rigid, harsh, unforgiving god, who reflects some of the brutality and arbitrariness of primitive religion. The Zeus of The Suppliants, on the other hand, is an upholder of morality and justice who intervenes in the world on the behalf of strangers and those who need help. These can be reconciled, he says, by the idea that both can and do exist at once. That, culturally speaking, spiritual progress is tenuous.
Thucydides illustrates the contradiction as well by placing his hair-raising account of the plague that destroyed Athens, and the collapse of civilization that occurred in its wake, right after Pericles’ stirring funeral oration that celebrates the achievements of classical Greece. The paroxysms of violence that accompanied the Reign of the Thirty Tyrants shortly before Socrates was executed might be offered as another example. The veneer of civilization, Aeschylus seems to say, is paper thin, and a return to barbarism is always more near than we’d like to believe.
The God of Aeschylus was big enough to express the contradictions of the age. There was an emergence from the darkness of superstition, but there was also a nod to the fragility of the social contract. We struggle toward rationality and compassion, but our progress is never complete.
We have yet to forge a God whose identity is equal to the demands of our age.
The God of the televangelists and the mega-churches is an excuse for the consumerism backed by militarism that is the background of our lives. This is a God that is allied with a morally bankrupt State. Were we to slide once more into barbarism, this comfortable and cowardly God would be of little help.
Our God should lead us toward community and joy. Ours must be an authentically counter-cultural God that leads us into knowing who we are and what we must become. A God for our times should offer us more than the comforts of conformity and consumerism, and call us toward our highest selves.
Maybe our new God doesn’t look like “God” at all. Perhaps our spiritual needs are better met by a different sort of symbolism altogether.
The last Axial Age stretched on for more than 500 years. I’m not sure we have that kind of time. We need to get a move on.