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Confessions: The Sea of Human Ways

Oh, you woeful river of human ways! Who’s going to stand against you? How long will you flow without drying up? How long will you go on sweeping the sons of Eve into the vast and fearsome sea, barely to be crossed by those who have embarked on that piece of wood, the cross?

Didn’t I read, among your works, that Jupiter both caused the thunder and committed adultery? Certainly, he couldn’t do both, but the story set out was such that real-life adultery would have the sanction to imitate him, with fictional thunder playing the pimp.

Who among the professors in their hooded gowns gives a serious hearing even to someone in their same arena who’s loudly declaiming, “Homer made these things up and was giving human traits to the gods; I’d rather he’d given divine traits to us”? But it’s more true to say that, yes, Homer made these things up, but his method was to attribute divine traits to mortals behaving outrageously, so that outrages wouldn’t be considered outrages, and so that whoever committed them would seem to be imitating not abandoned human beings but the gods in heaven.— Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.25

Thus far, Augustine has been conversing with God and examining himself. Now, Augustine addresses someone (thing?) else in the room; he addresses human ways. I love the poetic metaphor of a castaway lost at sea that he uses. The evil of our human ways overflows and sweeps all of us into its vast and fearsome sea. So fierce, merciless, and cold are its currents, and tidal waves that we barely cross to the other side on a cross-shaped piece of driftwood.

Augustine’s examination of Homer is worth pondering. Did Homer describe the Gods in human ways? Or humans in divine ways? Are the gods of Olympus like us, or are we like the gods of Olympus? In Biblical studies, there are many who address the violence of YHWH in the Old Testament in the same way they addressed the violence of the gods in the Greek myths. The argument goes: the biblical authors made these things up, the divine violence is not a reflection of God, but of us. In other words, it was not God who wanted innocents slaughtered, but us.

Augustine argues that indeed Homer made up these myths, but he was not attributing human traits to the God’s, but rather, Homer attributed what he thought were divine traits to humans. Why should we be outraged at evil, war, selfishness, pride, greed, lust, gluttony, murder, lying, etc. if the gods do the same? Living sinfully then is not a human endeavor, but divine.

Although in the 21st century no one believes in the gods of Olympus anymore, sin continues to function under divine authority. Do you protest? Try asking someone to repent and watch their reaction.

Lord, guide me across the vast sea of human ways.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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