Friday, March 25, 2016

Oracles, worship, and the ease of idolatry: reflections at the Oracle of Delphi

To trust your most important, soul-wrenching, urgent questions to a woman who is chewing on laurel leaves and breathing vapors from a fissure in the earth sounds unquestionably bizarre, if not risky. Yet, several thousand years ago, the ancients were willing to trust their fates to this unusual cultural rite. Military generals needing to know which areas to strike, lovers wondering whether to marry each other, farmers uncertain certain which crops to grow, and anyone else who had an ostensibly difficult question would make a pilgrimage  to a town three hours north of Athens to visit the Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi was housed.

The process was simple enough. Those coming to Delphi would bring an offering to the temple that was as expensive as their socio-economic status would allow. After presenting their offering, the seeker would give their question to the priest at the entrance. The priest would then give the question to the oracle on duty, a "blameless" middle-aged woman usually from the peasant class, for the answer. Due to the vapors coming from the fissure and the chewing of laurel leaves, the woman would fall into a trance, and begin muttering inexplicable sentences, which were left for the priest to translate for the seeker. The ambiguity of most answers was attributed to the difficulty of understanding Apollo's message through this oracle, and the oracle was nonetheless given solemn respect throughout the ancient world.

Although the oracle would seem anachronistic in today's world, I was struck by how many, including myself, often treat God like this ancient device. Until we have an urgent, burning question, God can be largely dormant in our lives. And while we have power to communicate with God directly, it  can be easier to rely on whom we consider to be a wise intermediary to help us understand what God is attempting to communicate to us. Moreover, the oracle was a staggering reminder of the fatalistic mentality that entrenched the ancients: they were simply pawns in the hands of the gods who were largely indifferent to their situation, unless coerced by prayers and offerings.

In light of visiting the oracle, Mars Hill in Athens took on a new significance for me. It was on this hill that Paul seeks to disabuse these ideas in his Acts 17 speech, namely, that we are the "offspring of God," and God is not "gold or silver...graven by art and man's device." While this is a cherished and sacred doctrine in Mormon theology, I find it interesting that this idea was not received well in Athens. Why would the Greeks mock and even shun this idea? What would be the implications of knowing that one is the "offspring" of a God?

Perhaps we should consider the difference between worshipping a God like Apollo who is largely indifferent to mortals to the Judeo-Christian God who, in Paul's language, "giveth to all life and all breath, and all things." Certainly, worshipping the latter kind of God seems more attractive. However, in introducing this new "unknown" God to the Greeks, Paul was introducing a new kind of worship that, though more meaningful for them, would probably require more action on their part.

Consider the implications of knowing that they were God's offspring. No longer could they completely attribute their significant life decisions, misfortunes, and even fortuitous events to the whims of the gods. Rather, as God's children, they could have the potential to be agents for themselves. More could possibly be expected of them. And if there was a God who actually cared about them, it would be much harder to understand why misfortune and calamity occurred, rather than easily attributing these mishaps to the Greek gods who simply didn't care either way.

Far easier to worship an idol that one has created and has set the parameters for, rather than a living God with expectations for us as His children.