Varieties of Polytheistic Experience

Once upon a time, perhaps toward the end of the eighteenth century, at any rate when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Athens was suffering from a long drought. The Turks went to their mosques and prayed to Allah, to no avail. The Greeks gathered in their churches and sought help from the Prophet Elijah, yet the Attic skies stayed blue for months on end. Last and—in the eyes of the others—very much least, the “Arabs” or “Ethiopians,” the Turks’ black slaves, gathered at their open-air mosque amid the pillars of the old temple of Olympian Zeus, near the base of the Acropolis. With their women and children all together, they prostrated themselves on the ground. Then three times they cried out to God, beating their breasts and pinching their children till they howled. After the first cry, a few small clouds peeped out from behind Mount Hymettus. After the second, the sky became thoroughly overcast. During the third, sheets of rain swept across the little town’s houses, its mosques, and its churches.

In the multicultural Ottoman Empire, as in the multicultural US nowadays, religious and ethnic identities often reinforced each other. Sometimes ethnic differences might be even stronger than the bonds of shared faith—hence the need of the Athenian “Arabs” for a place of worship of their own, apart from the Turks. The basic exclusivist model was provided by the most ancient of the monotheisms, Judaism. The continuing history of the Jews has provided a permanent example of the close link between religion and ethnicity.

And yet there are elements of the Torah—the Decalogue, for example—that by no means stand in the way of a more open, inclusive, and universalist understanding of religion. In the Hellenistic period, Jews such as Philo wrote about their faith for the benefit of Greeks, and formerly polytheist converts were to be found in many synagogues. The earliest Christians did not immediately or easily disentangle themselves from the synagogue; but the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus send out his apostles to baptize all peoples, while the Apostle Paul made a decisive opening toward the gentile world. As for God’s third great revelation to mankind, the scripture in which it was set down calls itself repeatedly an “Arabic Koran,” and was addressed in the first instance to Arabs. Yet it did not take long for others to decipher it, as they had the Hebrew of the Torah and the Greek of the Gospels.

It was in a speech delivered on the Areopagus hill, just at the opposite end of the Acropolis from the temple of Olympian Zeus, that Paul first revealed to the Athenians God’s new dispensation, while at the same time manifesting a certain respect for their ancient and prestigious culture, at least for the reverence they accorded the “Unknown God.” He even quoted from the poet Aratus. Three hundred years later, not long after Constantine became the first Roman …

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