Just a couple of days ago, I finished my reading plan for 2010. Or almost. I have a few Dickens Christmas stories that I'm saving for December. But as the days get shorter and cooler, I'm already working on the schedule for next year's books, and I'm starting to go back through my notes to review what I read over the course of the last ten months.
Back before the long, hot days, back at the beginning of January, I reread The Iliad. This beautiful poem provides the centerpiece, of course, for one of the greatest epic tales ever told: tens of thousands of men sail across the sea to fight for ten years to win back the most beautiful woman in the world, only to find she wasn't worth fighting for. I love to think of Homer, whoever he was (or whoever they were), sitting by the fire with his harp enchanting his listeners with his woeful saga. If his Greek audience thought the story would establish their superiority over all other rivals, they were sorely disappointed. The leading Greek hero, Achilles, spends most of the poem angry about a girl, while all the listener's sympathy is drawn to the doomed Trojan hero, Hector. (As Chesterton points out somewhere, the superiority of the Trojan is seen in the comparative popularity of the two names over the last 2500 years.) As foreign and distant as some of scenes seem, Hector's poignant farewell to his wife and son is as familiar as the conversation you had yesterday.
It is so grim, though, this picture of cruel, senseless life, shaped fatefully by cruel, senseless gods, leaving men no choice but to worship them and then make good in spite of the gods. The best they can do is embrace the most grievous divine decree – war – and show courage and take honor in it. Every torn and bruised limb, every broken skull, matted and encrusted in dark red, declares to the residents of Olympus: "I did not stay in my tent sulking over a slave girl. I did not cower in fear. I looked your pitiless decree in the face and crushed it in the dust with the power of my last heartbeat. I was better than a god. I was a man."
For Homer's men are indeed more virtuous than his gods. It's easy to dismiss the Greeks' religion with its petty, vindictive, fickle gods. Socrates and Plato seem to have dismissed it, or at least to have held it at arm's length, and the heavens declared a much more reasonable God to Aristotle. The temptation for the Christian is especially strong: how could the Greeks not see, one might ask, that God is One and Good, that the problems of life stem from human weakness and sin, not divine bickering?
But at least two considerations should prevent the Christian from answering this question too quickly. On the one hand, the Greeks' religion wasn't all that impotent. The ancient Greeks tried to address all the great dilemmas of the world: fate and free will, chaos and order, beauty and death, goodness and evil. These conflicts keep the world from making total sense, and yet we can't help thinking that it must all mean something. The gods, they reasoned, must be crazy -- or at least flawed in familiar, human ways.
On the other hand, the Christian doesn't have clear, simple solutions to these problems, either. The book of Job, the book of Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms (number 90, for instance) all tell us that we just have to trust God while we watch evil and death happen. After teaching that time and chance happen to all and that sinners, saints, and animals all go to the same breathless death, Solomon cannot give us reasons. He can only say that God has made the world in such a way that man cannot find out what He does. The wise king concludes his book with simple advice to fear God, keep his commandments, and look in hope for his righteous judgment. And herein lies a great difference between the Christian religion and the ancient Greek religion: the Christian can trust in God's righteousness, even though he doesn't understand it. I'm grateful for both sides of that coin: if either the ruler of the universe were unrighteous or I could comprehend him, then I, like Hector or Ajax, could be greater than god. But I would rather be humbled by Jehovah than be better than Zeus.