This article serves as an expanded explanation of a post written by an acquaintance. This topic will not diverge, but rather to expand upon the topic; and that is on the topic of our relations with the Gods. It’s very common to hear from people who label their interactions with the Gods as “relationships.” Some may describe how a particular God called to them, or how they work with a Gods in their own practice. Whatever it may be, the interactions one has with their deity is often viewed as part of a “personal relationship.” They may view these “relationships” to Gods analogously to that of a parent with their children: like a parent who wants to have a relationship with their children, a God may desire to have a relationship with us, their children.
A problem with claiming to have personal relationships with the Gods is that it implies that the Gods gain something from us that they do not already have. Relationships can only occur between people, with limitations, rules, etiquette, and expectations. These are uniquely human, and cannot be expected from the Gods, as they are limitless, beyond all rules and above us. A relationship can’t be had because of this, as how can we have a relationship with something that already has everything? Rather what we have can best be defined as personal relations, which are a one-way experience: our experience.
We don’t have relationships with the Gods
One might think that we do have relationships with the Gods by only looking at mythology, where the Gods and mankind have done things such as interacting, having adventures together, and even getting intimate; such as in many fables involving Zeus giving into his passions. Here we begin to fall into the trap of taking the myths literally as an atheistic monotheist might; making the stories the literal history that lies in our time. Myths are truths in riddles, needing hermeneutics to find their whole truths, and must further be understood to exist in Mythic time; which is a generalized time that never happens, but always is. For example, in myths, Zeus may turn into an animal to have his way with a human. To a Platonist, this would never happen; at least not literally. In the Republic, Plato defines that Gods are perfect beings, with full control over their appetites. Thus, they do not give into their passions, having complete control over themselves, and as such are incapable of doing anything unwillingly. Thus, Zeus would not give into any lustful desire.
The Gods are vertical manifestations of the Good, and as such they are beyond everything, as they already have everything. They are Beings (Ónta/Όντα), not Persons (Prosopon/Πρόσωπα). We have interactions with them, but that is defined as contact (epafí/επαφή). Relationships only occur between people with the expected limitations, rules, etiquette, and expectations. These sorts of things cannot be expected from a God, who are limitless, beyond all rules and thus aren’t subject to human etiquette. Thus, a relationship cannot be had.
Personal experiences with the Gods are relations, not relationships
Julian the Philosopher is quoted as saying “I feel awe of the Gods; I love, I revere, I venerate them, and in short have precisely the same feelings towards them as one would have towards kind masters, teachers, fathers, guardians or any beings of that sort.” At first glance, this quote may look like it’s contradictory to what was just said about the Gods. However, what Julian describes is contact, his own personal experience, or personal relation he’s had, with the divine, not a relationship with them.
Discarding the concept of “personal relationship” with Gods isn’t an attempt to discard or deny contact – our experiences – with the Gods. Contact with the Gods is very real, and they can reveal themselves to us. Experiences can still obviously be had. I myself have had personal experiences with the Gods, having been called to by my patron deity, Serapis, when I was younger; but that doesn’t mean there’s any special relationship with the divine. While the interactions and experience are personal, as no one else shares those experiences, it is still not a relationship. It doesn’t constitute a relationship as we often frame the interactions. What there is, however, is a personal relation.
As established, the Gods are beyond any limits and are not Persons (Prosopon/Πρόσωπα), rather they are Beings (Ónta/Όντα). While we do have interactions with the Gods, but that is defined as contact (epafí/επαφή). Contact with the Gods isn’t having a relationship with the Gods, which are personal on both sides, rather they are our personal relations with the divine, which is a one-way experience, our experience. There is a difference: the former is social/interpersonal, while the latter is reflecting interactions, not having to be between people.
For this we can make an analogy to the sun in relation to the Gods:
- While you don’t have a unique relationship with the sun, you do have a relation to it. We may feel the sun’s light on ourselves, and it will warm us the longer we stay outside in its light. This is a relation, not relationship.
- However, we can still have experiences and interactions that are personal. We are able to take the light of sun and do things with it. One can capture the light and save it in a battery, or magnify the light with a lens and start a fire with it. Like the sun, we can feel the power of the Gods move through our lives, but it just doesn’t form a relationship.
This is why we can’t have a relationship with the Gods. In a relationship, both parties have experiences which are special or unique for both parties. Experiences, in contrast, aren’t a sign of uniqueness or elevated status. If you don’t have an experience with a certain God it doesn’t mean they dislike you, but simultaneously having an experience doesn’t mean that they do like you more than others. They are omnibenevolent, loving of all. Though sacred and important, experiences can happen to anyone. This is exactly why we cannot call an experience with the sun a relationship, it can happen to everyone.
An example of this is explored in the Latin concept of “do ut des”, also known as “I give, so that you may give.” The theory is that we give the Gods something of worth, and in exchange, we receive from them something of value, which results in us giving more worth to the Gods, which results in receiving something else of value, and so forth. Instead of being a mere business transaction, it is the establishment of a fundamental cycle of gift exchanging. It is a concept that is wholly in harmony and inseparable from the concept of hospitality (xenía/ξενία). Do ut des proper seeks to establish a personal relation with the God, and has the ultimate goal of achieving henosis (unity with the divine). To understand this, we must understand that what the human gives to the God in offerings ultimately has no value to them. As we’ve established, the divine are beyond us. However, it is a universal cultural assumption that when one is given a gift that an obligation is created. This gives rise to gift customs as a means of negotiating these obligations in the form of an answering gift being given back. The offering is a pretext for the God to offer us what the Gods already offers: a pathway to henosis. We are brought closer to the divine with this cycle, not because the Gods are changing or we’re giving them they don’t already have, because as said, they have everything. Rather, we are brought closer to the divine because we worked together with the Gods to raise our souls upwards towards union, and for this we are able to see their light more clearly. Through sacrifice and offerings, we only benefit ourselves by being closer to the Gods who love us all, as the Gods are beyond everything and thus need nothing. No special relationship has been established, merely a relation. Back to the sun analogy, the sun shines on everyone; what you did was simply choose to see it.
Issues arise when trying to think of one’s interaction with a God as a relationship, as it causes improper relations, thinking you have an “in” with a God, special access to them, or somehow have something that a person who does not have the “relationship” with the God doesn’t have. Through this, you only accomplish two feeble things.
- Firstly, you privatize what is meant to be shared, the Gods, for the greater whole. One could call this “Divine Collectivism”; we work towards a collective Good rather than personal gain. According to Plato’s Euthyphro, our objective is to work with the Gods to better society along with ourselves, as opposed to merely ourselves. We may further bring back the analogy of the sun: the sun shines on everyone. Some may not turn their heads upwards to see it, but it is there. Just because you actually did look up to see the sun doesn’t mean that those who didn’t don’t know the sun or are disconnected. You simply put more attention onto the sun than others.
- Secondly, this privatization means you are no longer working with a God, but rather you are trying to make a God. Claiming to have a unique relationship with a God that no one else could have reshapes the deity into a strikingly familiar image: the image of yourself. This is hubris.
How we serve the divine if they need nothing
For Plato, there are proper relations between the Gods and mankind. In Euthyphro when Socrates confronts the Euthyphro and has him define what piety is, Euthyphro defines piety as proper service to the Gods. There is problem with this answer; how do you provide service to a God if they need nothing? Service is found in a relationship between an individual who requires something and another person who provides the service in fulfillment of that need. In the case of Euthyphro, this service is defined between a servant and master, with the servants fulfilling the master’s needs. But Gods, being perfect, have no needs, so there is no service to provide them.
So how does someone serve the Gods if they don’t need anything? Socrates’ view is that we can serve the Gods by assisting them or being helpful. We help to fulfill tasks which benefit humankind. Our relation with the Gods is how we work with them to bring greater peace into both the world and our own lives. We are here to promote virtue – such as Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage – amongst our fellow man– not merely towards the goal of divinization of a single human, but rather the finer and “godlike” goal of achieving the divinization of mankind.
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