Saturday, December 25, 2010

Gods With Flesh On: some areligious, if friendly, musings on Emmanuel

Once again as Winter Solstice rolls around, I find my mind turning to the magnetic appeal of the concept of “Emmanuel” -- God With Us. And I don’t mean just in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, but in general. Christianity was one of several religious (mostly mystery) cults that celebrated Immanent Gods. (A minor side note to prevent confusion: “cult” is an all-purpose anthropological term for religious practice. I don’t employ it here in a derogatory way.)

What do I mean by “immanent” gods? These are gods who apotheosized -- e.g., they transformed (or transfigured, if you prefer) from mortal to immortal. HOW varied. Sometimes they were portrayed as incarnated (enfleshed) aspects/avatars/faces of God come to bring teachings to mortals (Mithras, Seth, and various other Gnostic Messengers). Sometimes these avatars not only became mortal, but died (and resurrected): Jesus most famously in the West, but Krishna as well. Sometimes they were divinities who were murdered and resurrected by a wife/lover: Osiris-to-Horus, and Adonis-Tammuz. And sometimes they were born the mortal sons of gods, died, and became immortal: Dionysos, the Twice-Born.

Several of the big ones are connected to the Solstice: Dionysos (his death), Horus son of Osiris (his birth), Mithras (his “birth” from rock), and Jesus (his birth, although Jesus’s birthday celebration was moved there by Constantine; originally it was in the spring). Others are connected to summer solstice, such as Adonis/Tammuz/Attis. And for those thinking, “Wait! Solstice is the 21st, not the 25th!” … you’re right. But due to Fun With Calendar Corrections (e.g., Julian to Gregorian), the original solstice was the 25th.

What they all shared -- what I think made them popular and appealing -- is that these god-men were believed to have walked among and interacted with humans. They took a personal interest in us: cared for us in a way that the more capricious or distant deities of the swathe of land from India to the Mediterranean didn’t. Another thing some if not all shared was their symbolism as Light Bringers and/or Teachers, and sometimes they taught messages of brotherhood.

The versions of several cults that had crystallized by the early and middle Roman Empire were largely syncretic. That is, they blended different elements from different religious traditions. So, for instance, the Mithraism practiced by Roman legions bore little resemblance to the original Iranian God of Light born of rock. Instead, it borrowed from the Greek sun god Helios, the Avestian Mithra, some dashes of Indian thought, and various other influences from the eastern rim of the Mediterranean in the cosmopolitan stewpot that resulted from Alexander’s tromping around Persia as far as the Indus, then returning. Ideas were exchanged west to east, and east to west. Roman Mithraism was about as much like Avestian Mithra as modern pagan beliefs are like early Celtic -- which is to say, not much. But then, I’m not sure the practitioners then -- or now -- necessarily wanted them to be the same.

Religions are living things, and so evolve. If they remain too stubbornly rigid, they cease to have meaning or relevance, and die. Christianity as practiced today also bears little resemblance to the early pre-Nicean church … which is a good thing for it, or it wouldn’t still be around.

But back to musings on these Immanent Gods, and on two in particular, both of whom died violent deaths and were subsequently resurrected: Jesus and Dionysos. Even more than Mithraism, the Dionysic Mysteries were Christianity’s strongest, most persistent alternative. For one thing, they were older in the Med basin than either Christianity or Mithraism, with roots at least into the Greek archaic age, as much as 600-700 years before Christianity and maybe more. (Nailing down the origin of these cults can be tricky.) For another, they shared key similarities.

Both Jesus and Dionysos are sons of the chief god (Yahweh and Zeus, respectively). Both are born to mortal mothers (Mary and Semele*). Both get themselves into trouble by teaching something a little “off” from more traditional religious expression at the time (Jesus as one of the Galilean Hasidic Pharisees who claimed authority by miracles and healings rather than via traditional apprenticeship to a teacher, and Dionysos as the bringer of ecstatic, unrestrained worship as opposed to the more usual measured, sober, civic sacrifice). Both were betrayed (Jesus by Judas, Dionysos by the Titans), and killed brutally. Both were resurrected and became immortal. Further, initiation into the “mysteries” of either -- that is belief in the story of their resurrection -- was the guarantor of everlasting life after death. To believe in Jesus’s resurrection would allow admission into heaven, and likewise belief and initiation into the Dionysic Mysteries would allow admission into the Elysian Fields. In the services/initiations for both, there was “baptism” (a sacred bath) as well as a symbolic meal of bread and wine for the body and blood of the sacrificed god. (No, Christianity didn’t “steal” these symbols from the Dionysians. Bread and wine were a common symbol for flesh and blood all over the Med basin. *Also, in some versions of the Dionysos story, his mother was Persephone, and he was reborn to Semele, but I’ll ditch the convoluted complexities here.)

To be sure, I’ve emphasized the similarities above and downplayed the differences on purpose because it’s ONE difference in particular that I want to focus on. It is, I think, THE key to why Christianity eventually triumphed over all the other Immanent Gods, even Dionysos.

Now, when it comes to Christianity's success we could talk about the fortunes of who gained imperial power, and how Constantine’s choice of Christianity probably owed to the happy accident that Mama Helena happened to be a Christian rather than, say, a Maenad. We could point to the later systematic closing and/or outlawing of other religious expressions (especially by Theodosius I), which made it increasingly dangerous for the alternatives to survive. As soon as Christianity ceased being a religio illicta (illegal religion), it turned to legislating the suppression of other religious expressions. It’s not a pretty story, and fault is easy to find on all sides.

So there are many reasons for Christianity’s success. Christians would also add that it succeeded because it’s true. Of course that's a matter of faith, which is perfectly fine. Yet here, I’m looking at it from the angle of social history, not pietism, and I want to go beyond politics or the accidents of history. At the root of things -- imperial interests and decrees aside -- there was a tide of popular interest in Christianity that eventually overshadowed Dionysian cult, Mithraism, Manicheanism, the cult of Isis, the various flavors of Gnosticism (even Christian Gnosticism), and everything else, including philosophical schools.

Why? What's that "key" difference?

I think it’s because Jesus, unlike Dionysos (or most other Immanent gods), was portrayed as a willing sacrifice. Dionysos was tricked and murdered by the Titans at Hera’s request because she was angry at Zeus, so she took it out on the child Dionysos (who is sometimes shown as only a toddler). He was a victim. By contrast, Jesus was in his 30s, and an active agent. While he may have been betrayed by Judas, the persistent theme throughout early Christian teaching was that he chose to become a sacrifice. He was not, truly, a victim. Thus, not only did God become a human in order to live with other humans, not only did this God-man then die like a human, but it was voluntary.

Now, certain other Immanent Gods also made a voluntary choice to become human. The Hindu Krishna, or the Divine Child, is sometimes described as he who was immortal and became mortal in order to bring the world to salvation. Sound familiar? Krishna died too, but it wasn’t voluntary; he was accidentally shot and then translated into Heaven. Likewise, most Gnostic Mystery Cults centered around a divine messenger come to right the evil created by the Demiurge -- a “False” God who made this evil (physical, non-spiritual) world that has entrapped us. By teaching us of our true spiritual nature, we can be freed. It’s not that dissimilar from, and probably owes to, the Hindu teachings of Krishna, in fact, but Gnosticism views the world far more negatively than Hinduism. These Gnostic Mysteries came in a variety of flavors from that involving Seth (the 3rd son of Adam and Eve) to Christian Gnosticism where Jesus became that divine messenger. But the voluntary death of the messenger was not a part of Gnostic teaching, which generally distanced “true” divinity from any taint of blood, gore, and messy physicality (like death). Gnostic messengers ascend back to Heaven (or to the Chamber of Light) when their business on earth is finished, or the divine spark flees the mortal “shell” before it dies. That went for the Gnostic version of Jesus, too. He didn’t die on the cross; a stand-in did. After all, real gods can’t die.

But what I’m reminded of every Christmas is that we here in the West LIKE our suffering, dying (and rising) gods. Gnosticism (mostly) never had the widespread appeal of Christianity, or Dionysic Cult, because much of it centered on HEAD knowledge: gnosis -- enlightenment. Intellectualism. It lacked visceral connection. We want to FEEL our faith, not just think about it.

The story of Jesus combined a unique alchemy of elements already present in other stories of Immanent Gods (either prior to or after him). Some of these things could be found in Mithraism. Some in Dionysic Mysteries. Some in the Mysteries of Isis, or of Eleusis, the Mourning for Adonis, the Gnostic cults, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (teachings about Krishna), even the cult of Antinoos instituted by Hadrian. But the idea of a God who became mortal to teach and better understand mortals, then voluntarily died for them in order to show them the path to resurrection -- that combination was fairly unique.

And hugely appealing.

We want our God(s) to understand us, care about us, suffer with us. Transcendent Gods are hard to feel much for beyond awe, perhaps gratefulness, sometimes fear. But Immanent Gods -- we could sit down with them, have a beer or glass of wine and pour out our heart … and not only would they listen, they’d understand. Because they’ve been there too. In the end, maybe we want a sympathetic ear more than we want thunder and lightning and parted seas.

We prefer our gods with flesh on.


  1. Interesting post, Jeanne, and very informative!

    I guess I would only quibble with you about the root cause of Christianity's "triumph" over the alternatives. I wonder if we risk post hoc rationalization when we attribute some psychological advantage to the cult that eventually prevailed. We risk simply telling a "just so" story.

    Unlike the others, Christianity was "exclusivist" (for want of a better term). In the latter Roman Empire, one could certainly be a good devotee of the Great Mother and of the state gods at the same time...but to be Christian was necessarily to consign other deities to demonhood. For this reason, many non-Chrisians called Christians "atheists", which sounds strange to us. But what this refers to is the Christians refusal to accept the fundamental primacy of any deity but their own.

    This intolerance probably didn't appeal to most people at the time. But over a period of centuries, with even a relatively low conversion rate, and even with a certain number of people "back converting", the exclusivist nature of Christianity would eventually deprive most other cults of oxygen. Christianity's political successes also contributed.

    I got this impression from reading Ramsay MacMullen and Robert Wilkin. I also found Charles Freeman ('Closing of the Western Mind')informative on this. But I'm happy to be corrected!

  2. God, I never did answer this, did I? Anyway, I don't argue with your points. I was simplifying somewhat. But yes, there was a LOT of back-and-forth: conversion and retreat, etc. The exclusivism of Christianity is very important, and is one reason for the fact it proceeded to outlaw everything else, once coming into vogue. My point was mostly why it may have ultimately appealed, even over other mystery cults. OTOH, I think (as you allude to) the "triumph" of Christianity is over-stressed. Ironically, that's part of my lectures in my class on the Early church. But OTOH, I also can't escape, when I look at the sources themselves, a sense that, by the mid third century (around the time the Barracks Emperors were functioning) there is a real growth in Christian conversion. And the historian in my wants to know WHY (issues of piety totally aside). What about THIS cult seemed to appeal? It's curious. In part BECAUSE it's exclusive. Although I think its "exclusivity" is more at the "top" levels. If we can trust inscriptional evidence and tales from burials and tombs, many early Christians liked to hedge their bets and we find a MIX of iconography. *grin* Christian, Dionysic, etc. To me, that actually makes a lot of SENSE. A polytheistic society would naturally resist and exclusive religion. That, again, is why I find it so interesting that, in the end, it WAS the one to deliver the "knock-out punch," so the speak. If I'd been looking at Roman society c. 150, I sure wouldn't have bet on it.