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. Ideally, our relationships with the Gods is analogous 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. The divine Julian tells us of his intimate relationship with the divine (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 93):
“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.”
Understanding Personal Relationships with Gods
The Gods are vertical manifestations of the Good, and as such They are beyond everything, as They already have everything. While personal relationships between people occur within 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. They are Beings (Ónta/Όντα), not Persons (Prosopon/Πρόσωπα).
Our experiences and interactions with the Gods can be defined as contact (epafí/επαφή). The Gods can reveal Themselves to us, and while the interactions and experience are personal, as no one else shares those experiences, having a personal relationship with the Gods is not personal on both sides, but rather is a one-way experience– our experience. We can make an analogy to the sun in relation to the Gods. We may feel the sun’s light on ourselves, and it will warm us the longer we stay outside in its light. We can 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, though it does not form a relationship as we often think of it. And so experiences 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. Like our relationship with the sun, the relationship we have with the Gods 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. This is a personal relationship that anyone can attain. Back to the sun analogy, the sun shines on everyone, what you did was simply choose to focus on it.
It is important to bear in mind that someone does not have any particular “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, one only accomplish two feeble things. Firstly, they privatize what is meant to be shared, the Gods, for the greater whole. One could call this “Divine Collectivism,” where 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 they 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 is a proper relationship 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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