Fate/Faith

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The antique divine is plural and not transcendent. The Greek Olympus is but a mountain on earth. And the Roman gods haven’t even a proper mountain. They are citizens, be it of an immortal kind and for whom the mortals have built houses/temples where they are worshiped. 

Why do mortals worship gods? Because gods are immortal and, consequently, in touch with the domain beyond the line separating life from death. Since life is oriented towards death, it might have its origin there as well. Thus the basic supposition underlying any religion. Life is ‘given’, given for free and coming from a place as unreachable as death. 

  The Triumph of Death , or  The Three Fates , Flemish tapestry, ca. 1510-1520

The Triumph of Death, or The Three Fates, Flemish tapestry, ca. 1510-1520

The general name for how the multiple divine affects mortals is fate: fatum in Latin, moira in Greek. In the domain from where humans and their lives are given, there is no unity. This is why, praying for favors or presenting offerings, one never foresees the result. The figure crystalizing this aspect of the pagan divine is performed in the three Fates or Moirae: the goddesses spinning the thread of life of each of us. Klotho spins it, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it.        

In a way, antique Eros repeats that figure. It translates fate in the grammar of amorous loving. The blindness of the little god corresponds with the unreliable multitude of the divine. Yet, whereas Eros does not allow any religious practice (as can be read in Euripides), the gods explicitly do. But without any guarantee. This is fate. 

Of course, the religious people of Antiquity have faith in their gods and, consequently, in fate. But it is different from the faith the Christians have in their unique God. That faith supposes the annihilation of antique fate. Christian faith is not a way to deal with the uncertainty and unreliability of the divine. On the contrary, it relies on God as the one who loves us with a love beyond Eros, a love that overcomes sin, death and any other lack characterizing the human condition. Faith is what gives Christians hope and raises them up to life in the realm of love. As Paul concludes his hymn to agapè in the First Letter to the Corinthians (13:13): “But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love.”  

The Christian God is not the one of fate; He is too reliable for that. He is, so to say, reliability itself. But is that so? For if yes, should He then be a God at all? Is a god still a god when you can rely on him the way you rely on the air you breath? Certainly a monotheistic God is not like that. ‘Not whom we think, is God: only God is God’: thus the paradigm of that religion.  

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This is to say that, also in monotheism,  the line separating the realm of life and the one of death remains intact. Even in Christian ‘incarnational’ monotheism, God remains ‘beyond’. And even if  He promises humans a new life there, a life of love without sin and death, it is nothing but a promise. Christ himself has overcome sin and death and we are told to follow Him in this, but only after his ‘return from the Father’, after his Last Judgment

All this results in the Christian concept of Grace. It is the promise of an eternal life totally freed from sin and death: a ‘heaven’ that no Greek or Roman god was ever able to promise. Yet, the Christian God, too, remains a God: sovereign as He is, it is up to Him to give or give not eternal life to each of his creatures. And since, to be who He is, He has no need of humans (i.e. of their sacrifices, processions, prayers, …), He can decide in advance which of them He will bestow that life upon and which not.     

Here, we meet the Christian idea of predestination which, in fact, harshens the antique idea of fate. In a way, it monopolizes fate, since here, man’s fate is in the hands of one almighty God and not of a multitude of gods fighting one another. 

What is love, if its condition is dominated by Grace? 

One of its most extreme shapes can be found in the oeuvre of Fénelon, the 17th century author who states that, even if God’s predestination has condemned you to eternal sufferings in hell, you can still love Him. What is more, only then your love is pure, i.e. not mixed up with any selfish interest. According to Fénelon, that pur amour is the ultimate hallmark of Christian faith. 

Pur amour reveals Christian faith as Antique fate in its most extreme shape.