Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day – an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He was described as “Varro, that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”. Back in the final years of BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular religious author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists from Constantinople to Carthage.
It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in Book 6 of City of God in order to refute the widely held belief that, the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps, he asks, we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?
It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life, from the growing of beards (Fortuna) to eternal life (Juventas) to everything in between. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the fabulous (from fable), natural and civil. The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro states that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theatre; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.
Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude. In frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.” Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.
Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people as superstitious, just as today’s atheists look at Christians as equally superstitious. We live in the age of secular humanism, where there are absolutely no gods behind the scenes, only the mechanistic mono-dimensional world where the only reality is the reality I see with my eyes. The so-called rational secular humanists claim the voice of reason as they heap scorn on our belief in things that the human eye cannot see. In chapter 6 of City of God the roles are reversed. It is society that sees hundreds if not thousands of gods everywhere, and it is Augustine who is claiming the voice of reason. In chapters 1-5 he has argued against those who believe that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of benefit in this life, in chapters 6-10 he takes on the belief that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of eternal life.
Mankind has always oscillated between pantheism and atheism, with a healthy dose of monotheism thrown into the mix. The world is such a wonderful, capricious and unsentimental place and our lives are so fragile that we struggle to reconcile the certainty we long for with the uncertainty we experience. Are the failed crops a sign of divine displeasure, a random act or ecological karma? The response of people in Augustine’s day was to humanise their gods and make each one accountable for a different aspect of life, even the growth of beards. Their gods were an integral part of everyday life – the topic of the theatre, the focus of ceremonies, the theme of the academics. They were awash with superstition and contradiction.
Augustine asks the key question, “can these gods give you eternal life?” Does following them bring reward in this life, or the next? Augustine sought to refute the idea that the gods had any real power to control events and uses the most well known philosopher of the day on the topic. Atheists say that Christians are right to argue there are not thousands of gods – but that they stop one God short of the correct answer. But this underestimates the magnitude of the binary difference between 1 and 0. For me it is like finding a spouse – for the boy desperate to find his perfect girl the difference between no one and someone is immense. It is the difference between happiness and sadness, joy and despair.
No matter what the prevailing fashion of society is, there will always be Christians who hold to the reality of the Someone. For they have met their true soulmate and have found lasting, deep joy. The contrasting religious background may be black or white, pantheism or atheism, but the red of the cross will always stand out. Let society say we are alone in the universe, or let them say there are hundreds of mini-gods under every stone, we cannot agree.