I had purchased a book from my library’s sale some months ago entitled The Greek Way to Western Civilization by Edith Hamilton. I picked it up as I’ve always been a lover of history, especially ancient history, and lately had been becoming more interested in the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greco-Romans. I must admit, though I am familiar with some of the mythology of the Greeks & Romans I am ignorant regarding many of the specifics pertaining to their religious beliefs and philosophies. I finally made myself get around to reading some of that book this past weekend and immediately flipped straight to the chapter entitled “The Religion of the Greeks”. Reading the following delivered a real “WOW” moment for me, mentally & spiritually.
“Greek religion was developed not by priests nor by prophets nor by saints nor by any set of men who were held to be removed from the ordinary run of life because of a superior degree of holiness; it was developed by poets and artists and philosophers, all of them people who instinctively leave thought and imagination free, and all of them, in Greece, men of practical affairs. The Greeks had no authoritative Sacred Book, no creed, no ten commandments, no dogmas. The very idea of orthodoxy was unknown to them. They had no theologians draw up sacrosanct definitions of the eternal and the infinite. They never tried to define it; only to express or suggest it. St. Paul was speaking as a Greek when he said the invisible must be understood by the visible. That is the basis of all great art, and in Greece great artists strove to make the visible express the invisible. They, not theologians, defined it for the Greeks.”
It was a moment of elation, an “A-HA” moment, one where I felt an upswell of connectedness to the words written before me and I felt like I could really and truly say that THIS spoke to me. Here was my own current perspective on spirituality and the Divine communicated to me across centuries and in ways so much more eloquent than my own. That the Greeks both at once embraced a sense of freedom and imagination when it came to their explorations of Divinity, and yet still remained guided by some sense of logic & practicality in their pursuits is precisely how I try to navigate my own journey. I am creative and though I tend to shy away from the title “Artist” as it sounds like I’m far more talented than I actually am, I suppose that is in fact a large part of who I am and how I approach many things in my life. I’m very open-minded and do not like restrictions to be imposed upon me, especially creatively, intellectually or spiritually. I don’t like dogma precisely for this reason as the very nature of dogma is to dictate what you can and cannot believe without any room for grey areas. This is why even though I’m in church every Sunday and heavily involved in its activities I still do not identify as “religious” because the term implies a dogmatic belief in one thing or another.
Restrictions applied to the invisible and infinite I find both ridiculous and stifling. How can any of us possibly attempt to definitively say what God is or isn’t? All we have are our beliefs which could hardly be asserted as being concrete proof of anything. Beliefs are utterly meaningless to anything tangible in this world except to the person who holds them. (However, those beliefs are capable of motivating people to take certain actions which can often create disastrously harmful consequences, and those beliefs are capable then of taking on a very dark reality for many in that instance).
“Phidias’ statue of Zeus at Olympia was his definition of Zeus, the greatest ever achieved in terms of beauty. Phidias said, so Dion Chrysostom reports, that pure thought and spirit cannot be portrayed, but the artist has in the human body a true vessel of thought and spirit. So he made his statue of God, the sight of which drew the beholder away from himself to the contemplation of the divine… Words that define God clamp down walls before the mind… but words like these* can open out vistas. The door swings wide for a moment…”
Art plays such a key role in our human understanding. Words can often “clamp down walls”, yet also possess the power to express the limitless and awaken ideas and feelings previously shrouded inside of a person. Visual art, whether through photography, sculpture, painting or any other medium communicates where words leave off. I’ve had some of my most intense feelings of connectedness to spirit through the arts (and through nature) so this holds a great deal of truth for me.
A thought which also occurred to me while reading this section is that the statue of Zeus mentioned here was used as a facilitator for the onlooker, by thinking about the nature of God, to attempt to get closer to the Divine. This is no different than ancient and modern Christians using images and statues of Christ and the Saints in their own practice, yet one is considered idolatry and the other not. I think the hostility towards “idolatry” instigated by the ancient Hebrews on their ancient pagan neighbors, and the same hostility ancient Christians exhibited towards those same pagans later in time (like the Greeks & Romans) was fabricated in order to increase their “otherness” and make it easier to distance themselves from these other faiths/people and subsequently label them as evil and heretical. The ancients weren’t worshipping the statue itself as if it were their God any more than a Christian would worship an image of Christ as if it actually were Christ. But, if their statues are “ungodly” compared to your statues, well then let’s just go out and commit genocide and tell everyone God sanctioned it. Numbers anyone? I fail to see the difference between a statue of Zeus and a massive crucifix hanging in a sanctuary. I suppose that’s because there is none. A minor digression perhaps, but nonetheless a valid point.
“Socrates’ way was the same. Nothing to him was important except finding the truth, the reality in all that is, which in another aspect is God. He spent his life in the search for it, but he never tried to put what he had seen into hard and fast statements. “To find the Father and Maker of all is hard,” he said, “and having found him it is impossible to utter him.”
And this I think is what we’re all doing really, looking for God, looking for the “truth”. I know I am. My spiritual quest is to find the truth, to the best of my abilities, about what is real and what is not about the Divine. I believe I’m on the right path and every so often when I feel empty, hopeless, and so distant from God I begin to doubt the existence of anything spiritual, I’ll get a little nudge and some small sign to encourage me to keep going. My journey is far from over and I don’t have all the answers. We’re all just travelers walking through the wilderness. All of us are taking different paths that occasionally cross with one another, many of us thinking the one we’re on right now is the correct one and that other poor fool is lost, but we’re all just in the trees trying to find our way.
“The way of Greek religion could not but be different from the ways of religions dependent not upon each man’s seeking the truth for himself, as an artist or a poet must seek it, but upon an absolute authority to which each man must submit himself. In Greece there was no dominating church or creed, but there was a dominating ideal which everyone would want to pursue if he caught sight of it. Different men saw it differently. It was one thing to the artist, another to the warrior.”
My path isn’t yours and is identical to no one else’s and that is how it should be. Your journey toward the Divine is uniquely your own. God may be “one”, but at the same time many things to many people. None are right and none are wrong and such is the nature of the infinite, the invisible and the unknown.
* ”words like these” refers to a poem featured on pg. 209
* All quotations excerpted from The Greek Way to Western Civilization, by Edith Hamilton, p. 208-209.