Gods gone but not forgotten (updated)

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Note: This is an update and expansion of a New Year’s post two years ago.

Happy Janus Day 1, in the New Year of 2021 AD or CE as you prefer.

Janus

It was not until I moved to England at the turn of the century that I learned of their far superior method of keeping professional sports teams from getting too comfortable in their league status. Poorly performing “real football” (soccer) teams can be relegated to lower-tier leagues, replaced by up-and-comer teams. Relegation has a long human tradition, as it is the way we have handled most Deities over time.

The month of January is, of course, named after that obscure two-faced Roman demigod Janus, the ruler of beginnings and endings. Humans have a way of discarding old gods while still letting them direct our lives, and Janus is a good example of that. Much of what we call “tradition” is really “old god belief” that we have had to rename in order to keep practicing that religion outside the current Church, in this case with our New Year’s Eve celebrations. We typically “relegate” these former upper-case ‘G’ deities to a lower-case ‘g’ in our writing to avoid offending our current upper-case God. “Holy Days” become “holidays.”

Our recent observance of Christmas is an example of this process in transition, with many of our most defended traditions, for instance, the December 25th date and the Christmas tree, both having “pagan” roots, i.e., from long-gone, lower-case “g” gods. Many non-Christian cultures around the world now celebrate secular (i.e., “old-god”) Christmas “traditions” that supersede the religious ones. and that is probably true here in America as well.

The Anno Domini (“year of our Lord”) dating system did not come into existence until 525, and took some two hundred years after that to catch on. And “Year 1” was likely inaccurately calculated at that. Even that “God language” of “AD” and “BC” is gradually phasing out as the “Common Era” usage of “CE” and “BCE” becomes much more (ahem) common in academic and popular writing. The “God language” fades, but the dating system remains. [1]

Naming the months and days

The “theology” of old religious celebrations like the New Year is so deeply embedded in culture that it ceases to be recognized as theology. There is nothing cosmologically significant about the date because there is no “marker in the sky” that tells us this is exactly where we were last year at this time. The Sun is moving through space-time at about 43,000 miles per hour (70,000 km/hr) even while the Earth revolves in a vortex motion around it, and so we would have left that marker some 377 million miles back by my calculation. [2]

Other remaining month names also have their origins in Roman and Greek deities (March and May), or religious rituals (February is derived from a Roman purification rite). Two Roman rulers, Julius and Augustus Caesar, were elevated to divine status (July and August, stealing days from poor February), in an early model of the British football league “promotion” process. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto enshrine the Roman pantheon of gods in the night sky. As the exception, our own Earth has its name rooted in a Germanic goddess.

The majority of English names for the days of the week pay homage to Norse and Germanic gods (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) [3], while the even-earlier worship of the Sun and Moon identifies two more days. The Romans sneak in another demigod on Saturday. These deities all remain ubiquitous in our culture even as we claim no supernatural belief in them. Noted atheist Richard Dawkins points out that, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in.”

The dusty pages unread

The Christian doctrine of Trinity emerged gradually as a way to claim monotheism while still maintaining a “pantheon” of gods of a sort. It seems every theologian has a different way of explaining Trinity and few people in the pew get beyond a simple “three-in-one” explanation. In common expression, however, most Christians differentiate between “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” as separate entities. Add “demigods” with more limited supernatural powers, like Mary, or the named angels like Michael and Gabriel, numerous saints…or Satan, and you have a pretty robust pantheon of “god-ish” entities there.

Christianity has, over many centuries, largely relegated the harsh Old Testament Jehovah/Yahweh to secondary status in practice, if not officially. [4] Many Old Testament books have unofficially been “de-canonized” simply through disuse, their “God language” no longer relevant enough to modern times to preserve except through the cheap printing of unread Bible pages, or now lost as unread bytes online. This is mostly a good thing. Even the most fundamentalist Christian preachers typically only quote a tiny sliver of Leviticus from the pulpit to condemn homosexuality, tactfully ignoring all of the other “abominations” that are more likely to apply to the congregants in their pews. [5]

The expanded Mosaic Law detailed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus is mostly ignored by Christians, and it seems to be preserved in literal form mostly by the Hassidim minority in the Jewish faith. Some Christians insist on posting the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 in courthouses, yet few of them could likely recount all ten if pressed. [6]

Some of the prophetic books (e.g., Haggai and Obadiah) are so little read that only a handful of Christian scholars can quote from them. Handel’s oratorio Messiah preserves in popular culture only a small portion of the book of IsaiahThe Song of Solomon is very racy when read literally, and so it is one of the few Biblical books that Christian fundamentalists insist on reading as allegory. While most Christians would still place the Old Testament Yahweh/Jehovah as “top dog” in the Trinity “godhead,” they clearly spend less time talking about him unless somebody needs “smiting.”

Even from the New Testament, most Christians cannot even agree on a pronunciation for the book of Philemon, let alone quote from it. Most Christians haven’t figured out that the second person in the “Trinity godhead,” Jesus Christ, is presented quite differently among the four Gospels, very human in the earliest gospel, attributed to Mark, and almost completely divine in John’s gospel, which emerged several decades later. Many Christians commonly assert that the Bible is “divinely inspired and inerrant” in its entirety, despite mostly not knowing what is in it.

Some Christian ethic has installed itself deeply in culture. Traditional Lutheran values on how to treat other people, especially the poor, seem to still reign in Scandinavia despite some of the lowest percentages of formal religious practice in the developed world. But on the other hand, many American Christians ignore Matthew’s story of the Baby Jesus spending his early years as a refugee in a foreign land, fleeing a very severe “family separation policy.” Some religious tradition is so embedded in the individual psyche that it looks genetic, and indeed it may be. And yet sometimes the best parts just do not seem to “take” very well at all.

At any rate, at the New Year we celebrate the coming of the month of the god Janus. May you have a good “new beginning” whether you believe in Janus or not. It has to be an improvement over 2020, right?


By the way, here is a cool simulation of how the Sun moves through space-time, and how Earth and the planets then move around the Sun in a vortex motion. As a departed friend once told me, “If God is real, then the more you learn about reality, the more you learn about God.” Here is the reality – billions of galaxies consisting of many more billions of stars and even more billions of planets, all zooming through space-time over the past 13+ billion years:


Notes:

  1. The term “Common Era” as an alternative to Anno Domini, despite its more recent trend of acceptance, has roots going back to the 1600s. And computer scientists still bemoan the lack of a “Year Zero” since both systems go directly from 1 BC to AD 1.
  2. Fraknoi, Andrew. “How Fast Are You Moving When You Are Sitting Still?” Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2007.
  3. Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frigg, respectively.
  4. Although this “Harsh God” theology has had a comeback in the Coronavirus Era in many fundamentalist churches where all Covid-19 deaths are seen as “God’s Will.”
  5. There are, by my count, fourteen uses of the word “abomination” in the King James Version of the book of Leviticus alone, out of some 136 in the total Old Testament.
  6. Quick: Can you name them? See my take on “The Ten-ish Commandments.”

1 thought on “Gods gone but not forgotten (updated)

  1. Pingback: Number systems gone but not forgotten – When God Plays Dice

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