My wife and I recently found ourselves at a dinner/musical performance where a young female singer began her set with a question to the audience: “How many of you have ever met a goddess?” We were mildly alarmed when some forty percent of the audience raised their hands. Was it possible that paganism was making major inroads into the American heartland? Were Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera back at it? Well, her next question clarified things a bit: “How many of you have a goddess within you?” Our alarm turned to shock when nearly every member of the audience—save us, of course—raised their hands. Males and females, mind you. Nearly all claiming to have a goddess within them. We took this to mean not that they were admitting to possession by feminine demons, but rather that they were claiming divinity for themselves.
At any rate, we endured the song that followed, as the performer swayed to her lyrical mix of paganism and nature worship. Not content with the theological lessons she had imposed thus far, she posed another question before her next song: “How many of you have forgiven yourselves?” Once again, we looked up in alarm. Hands were raised all around us, as we locked eyes perplexed and worried. But not content to claim both divinity and divine authority, she then suggested that all those who forgave themselves should begin to dance between the tables. So, first the claim to divinity, then the claim to the authority to act as divinities, and then the dance before the gods. We politely asked for our check and beat a hasty retreat at the conclusion of that song.
What is going on in the United States that so many mid-Western Americans would confer divine status upon themselves? We shuddered as we drove home, noting that we had never met a goddess, and thank God, because we know who they are. What would have happened had Athena actually shown up at that restaurant? What did the old gods do to those who laid claim to their divine prerogative? The ancient myths are filled with stories of mortals who come too close to the gods, who foolishly grasp for divine fire, or flight, or Aphrodite’s beauty. Those goddesses were jealous, and the Greek and Roman pagans who worshipped them knew that, knew that they had to be placated in order to avoid their wrath. For the gods judged and punished the deeds of men, and only in the self-abasement of sacrifice and blood might their wrath be averted.
The God of the Jews is likewise repeatedly called a “jealous” God, unwilling to tolerate the people that he rescued from enslavement in Egypt falling down and worshipping the regional deities. God had redeemed his people by making war on the Egyptian gods and their god-king, and he accordingly had the right to expect his own people to worship him alone. But no sooner had he delivered his people and brought them to the holy mountain than they turned their backs on him and Moses. For while God relayed the Law to Moses high up on the mountain, the people made for themselves a golden calf and sang and danced before it, saying that this was the god who had delivered them from the Egyptians!
Puzzled by the din from below his mountain perch, Moses hurried down to find the Israelites in full-fledged, raucous idolatry. Furious, he cast the tablets of stone that God had engraved for him onto the rocks below and called upon the remaining faithful of Israel to join him. Only the Levite priests responded, and, joining Moses with swords drawn, they tore into the people during their pagan rant. The Lord God of Israel is jealous was the message, and his people had best live up to his holy calling.
Like their pagan counterparts, the Jewish people recognized the reality of sin and guilt, understood that something was owed to God Most High for the violation of the holiness that is his very essence. Forgiveness of sin required acknowledgment to their priests and the sacrifice of their livestock, while the High Priest himself could only approach the Ark of the Covenant one time per year and sprinkle it with the blood of a pure lamb in the hope that God would again show mercy to his people. These were people cognizant of their guilt, who understood that penance was required for redemption.
But here in 2022 Ohio, we had just met people who claimed to be goddesses and took upon themselves the authority to forgive their own sins. They neglected entirely the rights of the people against whom they had committed these sins, people who possess the right of justice against the perpetrators, people who were owed something for what had been done to them. They didn’t bother approaching them first, confessing their faults, and trying to make it right. They simply conferred upon themselves absolution. Naturally, my wife and I thought of the line from the Lord’s prayer, “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Only God can render ultimate forgiveness and justification, and there are conditions on the divine forgiveness that he confers, conditions that these would-be goddesses had neglected. We cannot be forgiven unless we forgive those who trespass against us. For forgiveness is the putting away of sin, and I cannot expect God to put away my sin against him, when I refuse to put away the sins of those who have harmed me. But for these dancing goddesses, forgiveness cost nothing, required no recompense to the injured party, mandated no moral progress in the forgiven, and demanded no humility before the incensed throne of the Most High.
For real forgiveness costs something dear. It always has. It always will. It is not cheap. It cost God the life of his own son. It costs us when we give it to those who ask for it, for we must set aside the right of justice, the right of payback, what we are owed for what was taken from us. It costs us, too, when we seek it from God in confession, for absolution requires penance and a turn of life back toward the way of virtue and love. But none of this was present as those neo-pagans sang and danced and praised themselves for the divine mercy they self-conferred. There was no cost. There was no sacrifice. There was no payback. And, accordingly there was, no justice. For the victim was ignored, as was the true divine Authority who can alone absolve sins.
What is curious, we further considered, is that these people nevertheless seemed to need forgiveness. Why else would they be so eager to absolve themselves? If sin and its attendant miseries are all psychological illusions, then how does one explain the guilt that clearly haunted them? They didn’t want to change their lives for the better, of course, and they certainly wished to avoid confrontation with the Most High God. But for all that, they still seemed aware that they needed absolution, that something had been broken. Unfortunately, they only added to their moral burden the hubris and arrogance of assuming for themselves the place of God.
The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson is said to have commented that the door to the Kingdom of Heaven is a low one, and the only ones who enter, crawl. Jesus made the same point with his beatitudes where he conveyed blessing on the poor in spirit, those broken by their sins, given to mourning, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. When asked what the three greatest virtues were, St. Bernard of Clairvaux famously answered, “Humility, humility, humility.” Why? Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, because man must recognize his place before God, and bow the knee in repentance to approach him.
My wife reminded me of something she had heard me say to a class once long ago, “If there is one thing you learn in this course, let it be this: you are not gods.”