Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

God and Man: Two Western Themes

Posted by • Jul 1st, 2008

Many Western traditions teach that man is separate from what is often called “the divine,” the transcendent mystery of existence. The divine is frequently depicted in the West as a creator, mankind as its creation (Campbell 30). We find this separation of God and man expressed in a variety of Western myths, from ancient religious texts to contemporary fantasy literature. These myths typically reflect one of two contrary themes about the nature of God and about man’s proper response towards the divine:

  1. Man must submit to God as the absolute authority. God is good, and His actions are beyond human scrutiny.
  2. Man should judge whether God’s actions are good or wicked. If man determines that God is wicked, he should rebel against him.

For simplicity, I will refer to the first theme as “religious” theme and the second as “humanistic.” While these themes and particularly these labels are admittedly broad generalizations, I think they summarize well the range of insights concerning man’s relationship to the divine that have influenced Western mythology. With this disclaimer behind us, let’s now take a look at some Western myths expressing these two themes.

Religious Theme

We find the first theme in the religious texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Consider the story of Job, a pious man who experiences great suffering. He loses his property, his family, and his health. He believes God has treated him unfairly, and he wishes for a court in which he could bring God to trial. God appears to him and responds, but only with questions like the following:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” (Job 41:1).

Job’s response is repentance and humble submission:

Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. (Job 40:4) I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. […] I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:3, 6)

Job at first interprets his suffering as evidence that God is not just, but he repents after he experiences God’s presence. God does not even defend his actions to Job; God’s questioning convinces Job that such scrutiny of God is not proper for man.

A story from Qur’an 18:65-82 expresses this same theme. Moses encounters a servant of God, who allows Moses to accompany him on his journey — as long as Moses does not question his actions. This servant of God then proceeds to vandalize a ship in the harbor, to murder a boy who crosses their path, and to repair a wall in a city that shows them no hospitality. These acts shock Moses, who breaks his oath and questions the man:

Have you made a hole in [the ship] to drown its inmates? Certainly you have done a grievous thing. […] Have you slain an innocent person otherwise than for manslaughter? Certainly you have done an evil thing. […] If you had pleased, you might certainly have taken a recompense for [repairing the wall]. (Qur’an 18:71, 74, 77)

The servant of God explains how each of these three actions are expressions of God’s kindness and mercy, even though they appeared evil to Moses. (For example, the king was about to seize all seaworthy vessels for war; the vandalism of the ship saved it from being confiscated.) He rebukes Moses for questioning his actions and then continues on his journey alone. Moses’s scrutiny of God fails because he lacks the knowledge that God possesses. This story communicates the same message as the Job story: such questioning of God is not proper for man.

Humanistic Theme

We find the second, humanistic theme in a wide range of European cultural traditions, such as Greek and Norse mythology. The character of Prometheus has become paradigmatic of this theme, particularly in the version of his story told in the fifth-century BCE Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound (historically attributed to the playwright Aeschylus). Prometheus first aids Zeus in overthrowing Zeus’s father, Kronos. When Zeus later attempts to destroy mankind, Prometheus frustrates his plan. Against Zeus’s wish, Prometheus steals fire to benefit mankind. The play begins and ends with Prometheus, chained to the rocky crags, recounting his deeds and condemning Zeus:

Chorus Zeus governs with lawless customs. (144-151) Prometheus Does it not seem to you that the tyrant of the gods is violent in all his ways? (736-741) In one word, I hate all the gods that received good at my hand and with ill requite me wrongfully. (975-976)

Because Zeus’s plan to destroy mankind is violent and unjust, Prometheus claims the right and even the obligation to rebel against him.

This same theme of rebellion against a tyrannical God drives much of the plot of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, the final book of which was published in 2000. An army of angels and men has formed to rebel against God. Two members of this army describe God (“the Authority”) and explain their rebellion against him in these words:

[The Authority] was never the creator. He was an angel. […] He told those that came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. (Amber Spyglass 28) At some point the Authority took charge. […] The Kingdom of Heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. […] We intend to be free citizens of the Republic of Heaven. (Amber Spyglass 188)

God justifies his oppressive dictatorship with lies, and he keeps his subjects submissive through a reign of terror. The members of this rebellious army take upon themselves the responsibility to set up a new form of government, a republic instead of a monarchy, in which all citizens will be free from the illegitimate tyranny of the Authority.

The literary critic William Empson made the following statement that well summarizes this second, humanistic theme:

To worship a wicked God is morally bad for a man, so that he ought to be free to question whether his God is wicked. (Empson 440)

Myths expressing the religious theme might support the first part of Empson’s statement, but they do not support the second part: God is good, and when men think God is bad, as Job and Moses learned, the problem lies not with God’s goodness but with man’s limited understanding.

The myths I have presented in this article clearly express one of these themes or the other, but many other Western myths are less clear-cut. In the next few issues, I will look at some of these ambiguous myths and show how different interpreters read each of these contradictory themes into the same myth — starting with the rebellion of Satan in Paradise Lost.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

3 Responses »

  1. I hope that at some point you get to reviewing The Wheel of Time by the late Robert Jordan. That certainly falls very much in the middle and is fascinating in its coverage and inclusion of the world’s myths.

  2. What do you call “the West” in your article?

  3. @Vindaalf — By “the West”, I mean roughly the region from Iran to Ireland. While any such broad distinction (like the one between “East” and “West”) should be seen as a loose generalization and a probable over-simplification of complicated issues, all the stories I will consider in this series come from this region.