In Praise of Ancient Faith

Asked if I “believe in God,” I rarely know what to reply. The question, “Do you believe in God?” is not quite so straightforward as it sounds. I’m perfectly comfortable being called an atheist, although that is not quite right. I’m quite amenable to, say, the monism of Parmenides, and so if one wants to call “the One” God, well, fair enough. Indeed, if someone were to define God as “everything,” then certainly, I believe in God insofar as I perceive something(s) to exist, and nothingness to be impossible. But already we’ve run up against the limits of our clumsy language, where logic bends and poetry begins. A beautiful hadith has always spoken to me:  “I was a hidden treasure; I longed to be known.” Intuitively, I feel that to be true of the One—for better or for worse.

The smallest souls belong to those who have not felt their own smallness. I would very much like to belong to something larger, whether to feel connected to God through the love of Jesus Christ, or merely to have a church to attend on Sunday. But that is not, at least at present, the nature of my spirituality. I prefer to approach God in a more particularized fashion. I have the sense that parts more easily become wholes than wholes break into parts. The polytheism of the ancient Greeks, here described by W.K.C. Guthrie, speaks more closely to me than any religion of today:*

The Greeks did not, as Christians or Jews do, first assert the existence of God and then proceed to enumerate his attributes, saying ‘God is good’, ‘God is love’ and so forth. Rather they were so impressed or awed by the things in life or nature remarkable either for joy or fear that they said ‘this is a god’ or ‘that is a god.’ As another writer [G.M.A. Grube in Plato’s Thought, 1935] has explained it: ‘By saying that love, or victory, is god, or to be more accurate, a god was meant first and foremost that it is more than human, not subject to death, everlasting… Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we are gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were.’

That approach, if one is seeking the One, strikes me as paradoxically more holistic than some of the cruder (mis)understandings of monotheism that modernity has birthed. It is, at any rate, an easier reconciliation of the finite to the infinite in the absence of a wild, Kierkegaardian faith.

*Save, perhaps, Theravada Buddhism, if indeed it can be called a religion.