God vs. the gods; Literary Relativism

Last Thursday I went to a debate between two professors, one of theology and one of English, about “God vs. the Homeric gods”. It was enjoyable, and I agreed with a lot of what they said, but…

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem with how both of the speakers approached Homer. What both failed to address, I think, was whether or not the Homeric portrayal is coherent. Some mention was made of how Homer’s portrayal is confusing. It was assumed, however, that Homer had some deeper vision behind the confusion, and thus our inability to make sense of religion in the Iliad is in some sense our fault. Homer was a poetic genius; if he indeed said what he meant, as we assume, he would have had arguments for what he said.

Now, Christians view polytheism as fundamentally flawed and illogical. We cannot but say, then, that Homer must have been in error in his poetic theology. This position seems forbidden; one cannot say that the Iliad is flawed, only that it is confusing. Because it is one of the founding works of Western civilization, it is assumed that its composer – who, I agree, was a genius – must have intended everything he composed. When we look at what he has said in light of Christianity, however, we find that it is not only confusing, it is contradictory.

For example, there is somehow both free will and fate in Homer’s world. In the Christian view, free will and fate can coexist because God is timeless, and so he can know our destiny already and yet allow us free will because it just doesn’t make sense to speak of “already” when talking about God. For the Homeric gods, however, this is not the case. This is a contradiction.

We could make excuses for Homer, saying it is just an additional complexity in the work, but this is disingenuous. It is better to simply explain why the contradiction arose. Homer recognized that men had free will, and that if there were gods – as he saw that there must be – they must be great, much greater than men, and also that there was this thing “fate”, though he did not completely understand it. He then wrote his epic poems with this understanding, and this is why his poems ring true in so many ways – they are true in many ways. Homer did not see, however, how much greater than men God must be, or that there must be only one of him, or that he must be outside of time, and so he did not put that into his poem. Because of this, his poem is not just confusing, but contradictory and at times wrong when it talks about those subjects.

It really frustrates me how nobody is willing to say this. It strikes me as a kind of literary relativism; every author is always correct in the argument they make in their work, and our job as an audience is just to absorb their message…

Except for the first and last paragraphs, this was written as an extra-credit assignment for THEO 1310:06 “Understanding the Bible”. Most likely I won’t get docked points for posting it here as well; if I do, well, it’s extra-credit anyways.


2 Responses to God vs. the gods; Literary Relativism

  1. […] Of course I don’t believe that the universe is like that, that God is really Azathoth, or that his messenger is Nyarlathotep. Nor should you. But I read H.P. Lovecraft because it seems like a good idea to examine other possible cosmologies in order to learn more about what I actually believe. In other words – yes, I think reading H.P. Lovecraft has made me a better Catholic. I’ve heard that it can be damaging to faith to read him, but I think no more than it can be damaging to read Homer or Virgil. The only danger is if you read uncritically – if you fail to consider the possibility (probability) that the author was wrong. […]

  2. miguel says:

    however, we cannot just say that Homer was ‘wrong’, because if we say this we consider also all the Greek mythology, which is the basis of his poems, wrong.
    This is the basis of Theological contradictions, the different approaches to what cultures say is out there.
    If i can give a personal remark, and perhaps start a debate: God is God, in all religions.

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