Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Greek "Religion"

The very beginning of Balu's The Heathen in His Blindness has this:

Sir Moses Finley would quite sympathise with Gill’s difficulty.  {Sam Gill's difficulty in finding religion among native Americans}  He too confronts a similar problem regarding the Ancient Greek religion, which appears “fundamentally alien to our eyes”. How fundamentally alien it is, says Sir Finley (1985: xiv-xvi), can easily be shown by a simple listing: 
(1) Greek religion had no sacred books...no revelation, no creed. It also lacked any central ecclesiastical organization or the support of central political organization...
(2) Although large numbers of men and women were involved in the administration of religion, in the case of temples and altars or sacred sites, in the conduct of festivals and sacrifices, and so forth, and though we call them ‘priests’ in the modern languages, a priesthood as that vocation is understood in many post-ancient religions simply did not exist.The great majority of the so-called priests were simply public officials whose duties in whole or in part, usually the latter, included some responsibility for some portions of the religious activity of the community. More often than not, they were selected by lot and they held office for only a year or even six months...There was no special training, no sense of vocation.
Greek ‘priests’, in sum, were customarily not holy men; they were also not particularly expert or qualified in matters pertaining to their duties in office...
(3) It follows as a matter of simple logic that places of worship were also radically different from anything known in later ages – despite the fact that the temple was the most extensive and imposing building of the Greek city...the temple was hardly ever ‘a place for congregational worship.’

In other words, Greek religion does not look as though it were a religion; nonetheless, it requires to be made sense of, says Sir Finley. Need one add, as a religion?

John Gould (1985: 7-8) attempts to do precisely that and he does so by suggesting, of all things, that it is easier to understand Greek religion if we look at the Dinka religion – the religion of a tribal people in southern Sudan – but not at the ‘better-known’ religions.Why?
Greek religion is not ‘revealed’ as Christianity is; there is no text claiming the status of the ‘word of God,’ not even of His prophets; no Ten Commandments, no creed, no doctrinal councils, no heresies, no wars of religion in which the ‘true believers’ confront the ‘infidel’ or heretic. Central terms of our religious experience such as ‘grace,’ ‘sin’ and `faith’ cannot be rendered into the ancient Greek of the classical period: the central Greek term, theous nomizein, means not ‘believe in the gods,’ but ‘acknowledge’ them, that is, pray to them, sacrifice to them, build them temples, make them object of cult and ritual.There is never an assumption of divine omnipotence, nor of a divine creation of the universe, except in philosophical  ‘theology,’ nor any consistent belief in divine omnipresence. There is no church, no organized body persisting through time comprising those with dogmatic authority, able to define divinity and rule on what is correct and incorrect in religious belief...Greek religion is not theologically fixed and stable, and it has no tradition of exclusion or finality: it is an open, not a closed system. There are no true gods and false, merely powers known and acknowledged since time immemorial, and new powers, newly experienced as active among men and newly acknowledged in worship (italics in the original).
Even if one does not take exception to this description of the Greek religion, our problem is not solved. The Dinka religion, according to Rinehardt who studied it and upon whose material Gould bases his analogy, does not look like religion either. 

For a more succinct summary of our problems regarding the Ancient Greek religion (for longer discussions, see Guthrie 1955; Burkert 1977), one need go no further than Adkins (1969: 377). Discussing the nature of Greek religion in the multi-volume Historia Religionum, he writes
Greek religion was a phenomenon far different from the religions called to mind (by the categories that reflect the questions which the modern reader naturally asks)...The data of Greek religion do not fit into any given category (italics mine).
Even though the data of the Greek ‘religion’ do not fit into any given category, we are to assume that this phenomenon fits into the category of religion. However, this category of ‘religion’ contains, as Adkins tells us, such subcategories as the existence of a creed, the existence of God and such like. Even when some practice (or a set of practices) does not fit any of the subcategories of religion (and thus, one would have thought, the category ‘religion’ itself), Adkins tells us that this should not “prevent the exposition of the nature of Greek Religion”. He goes on to do precisely that in the rest of the article. Again, we are left with puzzles regarding the identity of the subject matter.What phenomenon is being described here? Is it one phenomenon (the ‘Greek religion’) or sets of phenomena unrelated to each other? If the former, what is the difficulty in saying what Greek religion is? If the latter, how can we understand religion better by studying what does not look like religion? Perhaps, the Greeks had no religion at all...

Understanding why we are in this difficulty requires a good bit more of reading of the book.